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Rick Donley, winemaster at the newly open Linville Falls Winery, inspects a batch of grapes in the five-acre vineyard, which yields six different varieties of grapes.

Originally published: 2012-10-17 15:57:56
Last modified: 2012-10-17 15:57:56

From grapes to glass

Matthew Hundley / (

While the oldest grape vines at the new Linville Falls Winery are only five years old, Jack Wiseman’s vision for a top-tier vineyard, winery and tasting room in Linville Falls has been germinating for decades. That dream came to fruition only a few day ago, when the doors to Linville Falls Winery opened to public, with an array of new wines produced with grapes grown right in Linville Falls.
According to Wiseman, he began discussing the possibility of growing grapes in Avery County 25 years ago with world traveler and wine expert, Mark Rossi. Over the course of those conversations, Wiseman began scouting for a vineyard location in Avery County, eventually finding the ideal combination of elevation, slope, warm days, cool nights and sun exposure on a piece of farmland in Linville Falls. Wiseman promptly sent off soil samples and was pleased to find that even the soil would likely be agreeable to grapes.
At the time, there were no other wineries in Avery County, and Wiseman was not interested in being the first to board an untested ship, so the idea took a back seat as he pursued his extensive Fraser fir farming operation in various locations around the area.
Wiseman’s patience eventually paid off when Dick Wolfe took the leap and established Banner Elk Winery and Villa in 2006, finding success not only as winemakers, but also as a venue and destination.
With the confirmation that grapes could be grown and coaxed into fine wine right here in Avery County, Wiseman knew the time had come, and began laying the foundation for the now complete and operational Linville Falls Winery, located on Highway 221 less than a mile from the Blue Ridge Parkway. Though the tasting room at Linville Falls Winery has only been open less than a month, winemaker Rick Donley, who oversees wine production at the new facility, has been hard at work, with seven different wines bottled and ready for tasting.
Donley, who oversees every aspect of the wine production, from managing the vineyard to bottling, has a winemaking resume that can be tough to find, with a degree in enology and viticulture, a graduate degree in food chemistry and close to 30 years experience in winemaking, including serving as the director of ASU’s enology and viticulture department.
“I have been a winemaker in many regions, including Sonoma Valley, Calif., Northern Virginia and Tennessee,” said Donley, emphasizing the value of a comprehensive approach to winemaking. “You are looking at everything done the professional way.”
The investment in hiring a seasoned veteran of the wine industry was worth the results, according to Wiseman, who discussed the value of being able to complete the entire winemaking process on site in Linville Falls.
“We are not just another winery and another vineyard. We went to a proven winemaker with all that experience,” said Wiseman. “It is crucial to hire someone of that proven caliber, experience and training.”
That wealth of experience means that the same grapes that grow next to the new tasting room are taken to the processing facility just to the other side to go through the many processes needed to entice wine from grapes before coming just a few feet back to the winery, all without ever leaving the winery grounds.
Five acres of vineyard at the new winery include a variety of grapes, including two staple grapes for winemaking, riesling and cabernet sauvignon. Also thriving on the farm are seyval blanc, foch, noiret and marquette grapes, which are processed and blended with other select varieties to create the new winery’s products, two white wines called trillium and cascade, merlot, chardonnay, rosé, a blueberry wine made with local blueberries, and Wiseman’s personal favorite, a cherry bounce, a drink that Wiseman said is tied into the history of the country as it was a favorite of George Washington, who would never leave home without a couple of bottles in his saddlebags.
Grapes are not the only things growing on the winery grounds. An apple orchard and plots of other local fruits also grow around the vineyard. While the idea will still be years in the making as the plants mature, Wiseman hopes that one day that the orchard and other fruits can serve as a source of fresh fruit for the community. As it has for years, the site will still be a source of both delicious and decorative pumpkins.
Along with the additional fruits, the future of Linville Falls Winery also likely hold additional features to make the location an ideal venue for many events. While the tasting room and relaxing patio could already host a small wedding reception, Wiseman hopes to expand the facility’s capabilities to provide access for larger events.
Adding a venue for events to the Linville Falls community has the potential to be a boon for the economy in the southern end of Avery County, said Wiseman. With easy access to the nation’s most traveled National Park, Blue Ridge Parkway, natural wonders, food, lodging and art, Linville Falls is the ideal location to expand Avery County’s burgeoning wine industry.
“The quality of the product says it all,” said Wiseman, noting that travelers are always on the lookout for fine food and wine. “We are going to bring a lot of people into the county.”
That said, Wiseman is under no delusions that Avery County will be a wine destination next year. Recalling his visit to Napa Valley in the 1950s, when the wine industry was just beginning to appear, Wiseman noted that the process of developing an industry with a reputation for a high standard of wine takes time.
“It is not a money crop, it is a futures crop,” said Wiseman.
Along with other wise experts, connoisseurs and growers beginning to take interest in the area, Wiseman views his new winery as another footer in the foundation of an industry with the potential to bring unprecedented prosperity to Avery County and the High Country.