Its difficult spending three days in the Yadkin Valley without visiting a winery and that's usually the case during Merlefest. However, on Sunday morning I ventured only a half dozen miles from my hotel room to visit one of the most popular in the region: RagApple Lassie Vineyards. I first heard of the winery several years back when I read that their 2003 was awarded the Governor's Cup at the 2004 NC State Fair. I purchased a couple bottles of that wine as well as their Viognier and as I recall we enjoyed both wines. I'm also familiar with the winery through MyJoog.com since they host live music almost every weekend. I felt fortunate that Booneville was so close to Elkin.
RagApple Lassie is owned and operated by Lenna and Frank Hobson, who is the third generation of Hobsons to till the land - tobacco, corn, wheat, and soybeans. However, with the declining value in tobacco (the allotment for each farm has been reduced by 53 percent) he always feared that the land would lose its profitability and be sold and converted into a housing development. To avoid this scenario he planted a vineyard in 2000 - which lead the family to construct the winery two years later. They choose RagApple Lassie in honor of his pet Holstein, a calf that he received as a child and together they would later win the Grand Championship Trophy at the 1957 NC State Fair. I'm sure it never occurred to the family that 46 years later he would receive a wine award at the State Fair. Since the Hopsons were professional farmers and not winemakers, they prudently hired Linda King - already an award winning winemaker and internationally certified wine judge - who was seeking to relocate to the area. A nice coincidence. Thus a team evolved where Frank Hobson meticulously worked the vineyards, Linda King meticulously vinified these grapes, and Lenna Hobson used her marketing experience to sell the wine.
The most interesting aspect when visiting the winery is that you enter the winery on a catwalk overlooking the fermenting tanks. And to reach the tasting room, you must traverse the tank room - regardless what tasks are underway. They may be pumping wine or juice, crushing, pushing the fruit down, cleaning - yet that's where you travel to taste the wines. You basically start with a tour. Then to the wines. RagApple Lassie crafts a dozen different wines, all made from estate grown grapes. In fact they grow 15 varieties, many you wouldn't expect from a North Carolina grower: Marsanne, Semillion, and Zinfandel. But why not, when you have plenty of land and know how to grow anything. As expected their portfolio range from dry to sweet, but even the sweet wines were not syrupy and gritty - they were actually quite drinkable particularly the Rockford Red. This concoction is a blend of classic Bordeaux grapes plus Zinfandel sugar coated to 4% r.s. . Yet it has a nice acidity that works with blue cheese. Supposedly many dry wine drinkers add a bottle of Rockford Red during checkout, claiming to buy this for a friend.
Sticking to the sweeter wines, the "First Blush" is a popular wine in that market and has a very interesting makeup - Traminette, Marsanne, Semillon, and Malbec - who thought of that blend. The Boonville Blanc is 100% semi-dry Viognier that was basically a sweeter version of their dry version. But the one sweeter wine that I enjoyed was the off-dry Kaleidoscope Gold. The composition of this wine was a result of the Easter Freeze that left the winery short on several varieties. Thus they blended them together - Chardonnay, Traminette, Pinot Gris, Marsanne, Semillon, and Viognier. The danger of blending many varietals is that it could produce a big tank of nothing - flavors and aromas that counteract each other. But this blend works - and I came home with a bottle.
Staying with whites, I really enjoyed the Chardonnay and Viognier. Ms. King has really perfected this wine, barrel fermented sur lie - it is not over powering but has a nice mid-palette that slides into a soft tail. And for $16, this is a great value. The Viognier is not as big as the Virginia Viognier I'm used to, but this one has all the characteristics in aroma and flavor, plus a hint of spice at the finish. As the price of Virginia Viognier continue to skyrocket, this is a nice everyday alternative.
Moving to reds, the winery offers three 100% varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and a Zinfandel) and one reserve blend, The Hobson's Choice. The varietals were all nice, smooth and very drinkable - but were easily overshadowed after tasting the reserve blend and hearing its story. In 2005 Mr. Hobson watched over a lot in the vineyard which was producing excellent fruit. He hectored Ms. King to allow him to pick the fruit because he felt they would produce an exceptional wine. The winemaker initially refused but Hobson's persistence eventually wore her down. The Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Gris grapes were harvested together, mixed into the same bins, pressed together, fermented together and aged together. They have no idea the ratios. After aging one year in barrel, Ms. King tasted and claimed that the wine would have to be dumped. After the second year, she said the wine was changing and after the third year she exclaimed it was special. Hobson's Choice - there really was no choice. The wine is special; its big, but silky smooth. Some cherry flavors, some chocolate and nicely balanced between fruit and oak. Just thinking about it made me realize I should have purchased another bottle. Particularly since this wine will never come again.
At some point I need to return to the Yadkin Valley during a non-Merlefest weekend. When that happens RagApple Lassie will be on the itinerary - this time in the evening to enjoy good music and good wine.