MOUNT AIRY, N.C. - Fans of the old Andy Griffith Show will surely remember the lovable town tippler named Otis who would lock himself in jail when he went on a bender. With North Carolina being moonshine country, most people just assumed Otis was getting tipsy on the potent product that’s secretly served out of car trunks in mason jars.
But after visiting this sleepy little town - the real-life inspiration for the fictional Mayberry where Andy Griffith, who was actually born in Mount Airy, upheld the law with his slapstick sidekick Barney Fife (Don Knotts) - my golfing partner and I discovered moonshine may not have been Otis’s favourite drink.
Much to our surprise, we discovered the area around Mount Airy is actually wine country. In fact, there’s lots of wineries in North Carolina. And some very good ones, to boot.
And no, wise guys, the wine doesn’t come in mason jars. Believe it or not, North Carolina was a wine state long before California - almost from the time Sir Walter Raleigh, for whom the state capital is named, first arrived here in the mid 1500s.
It was in North Carolina where the first grapevine was introduced and cultivated in the New World and at the dawn of the 20th century, the “Old North State” as it was known back then, was the leading wine-producing region in the U.S.
But then came 1919 and Prohibition. Thanks to that act of Congress, the wine industry here quickly dried up and drinkers were forced into the North Carolina wilderness where they set up illegal stills to make their “white lightening.”
A by-product of those early moonshine days was stock car racing - the first “NASCAR races” were held on the back roads of North Carolina with the moonshiners trying to outrun the “G-Men” (federal law enforcement).
Ironically, one of the people who was very active in the North Carolina wine industry until his passing in 2007 was former NASCAR legend Benny Parsons, who no doubt honed his skills trying to outrun the law and whose Rendezvous Ridge Vineyard is still producing some of the state’s best vintages today.
Left: Andy Griffith Playhouse is a tribute to the late actor. Right: The vineyards of North Carolina rival those of Tuscany.
Both NASCAR and North Carolina’s wine industry have come a long way in the past few decades. The state now boasts 67 wineries - a number that has tripled since 2001.
Many of the vineyards - 20 at last count - are grouped together in the fertile Appellation Yadkin Valley, not far from Mount Airy, where the rich soil and cooler climate combine to create the state’s famous Muscadine and Vinifera grapes.
The state’s Scuppernong variety is the first grape cultivated in the United States and is the official fruit of North Carolina. A 400-year-old Scuppernong vine located in North Carolina is the oldest known grapevine in the U.S.
Although it lost it’s No. 1 producing status when Prohibition came along in 1919, North Carolina still produces lots of wine and now ranks 10th in production in the nation, contributing about $800 million annually to the state economy and is responsible for creating over 1,500 jobs.
There’s not as many vineyards in North Carolina as golf courses but the two pleasures do come together after rounds. In fact, many golfers who play in the morning are visiting wine estates in the afternoon for tastings, something that is becoming very popular with all tourists who visit the state.
Since all roads lead to golf courses in North Carolina, and many routes, especially in the Appellation region, cross into wine country, the two are a perfect mix.
In fact, Asheville, home to a great Donald Ross golf course at the Grove Park Inn, is also where iconic Biltmore Estate and its world-class winery are located.
North Carolina vineyards stretch from one end of the state to the other and some even border South Carolina. Even in golf-rich Wilmington, where you’ll find such great courses as Arnold Palmer’s River’s Edge, there’s also a vineyard - Lumina Winery.
And North Carolinians like to celebrate their wine heritage with 24 wine festivals scheduled throughout the year. Two of the top wineries in the state is the Brushy Mountain Winery in Ronda and the nearby Raffaldini Vineyards in North Wilkesboro, where rows of sangiovese vines flourish in the clay-mica soil.
Raffaldini prides itself in producing a range of Italian varieties - everything from vermentino, which is native to Sardinia and grown only by two other American vintners, both in California, to barbera.
Another top quality producer is Childress Vineyards in Lexington where visitors are greeted at a 35,000-sq.-foot facility that rivals anything you’ll find in Tuscany.
If you’re looking to find a lot of North Carolina wines under one roof, may we suggest you pay a visit to the Angus Barn Steakhouse in Raleigh - not far from the heart of wine country - where they offer over 30,000 bottles of wine and 1,100 selections in one of the most opulent cellars you’ll ever see. Oh, and the steak is pretty good, too.