HendersonvilleNews StoriesPete Zamplas

Oates-owned vineyards are award-winning, offer wine tasting

By Pete Zamplas –

Lemuel and Sandra Oates have thought outside the box in business endeavors, and their newest venture is sparkling with award-winning Burntshirt Vineyards and its wine bar.

Burntshirt Vineyards Tasting Room opened a month ago at 2695 Sugarloaf Road. It offers wine sippers picnicking in back, and from its patio a relaxing view of where the Oates’ grapes grow on 19 acres across the road. The site is merely 2.4 miles from the end of Four Seasons Boulevard.

The sister vineyards is on six steeper, rockier acres up Burntshirt Mountain in Gerton-Bat Cave. There, excess rainfall drains downhill which helped in this rainy summer.

“It’s been a challenging growing season,” said vineyard manager Eric Case, who grew vegetables for 20 years “Wine grapes like sandy, well-drained soil. They don’t like wet feet.” Excess water can “dilute flavor. So we pick before it rains, or the week after a hard rain.” Harvest just ended earlier this week.

Lemuel Oates explained that “we’re from Bat Cave,” and wanted to put land the family has owned for 150 years to commercial use. “We pay taxes on it, and it wasn’t producing anything. We didn’t want to sell it. A friend grew grapes. So we decided to try it.” He had Mike Jackson select grapes.

Jackson is growing grapes on 10 acres at Point Lookout in Edneyville at 3,000-foot altitude along with Alan Ward. Ward grows five acres of grape vines at 2,300 feet, in his Saint Paul Mountain Vineyards at 214 Chestnut Gap Road in Edneyville. It opened its tasting room in August, with Oates’ operation now publicly open as well.

The Oates’ own diverse enterprises. Since 1974 they have overseen 80-year-old The Manual Woodworkers & Woodweavers Inc., founded by Lemuel’s father Tom Oates. It produces woven goods and home decor products, and sells them across the globe. Their prime local outlet, for 22 years, has been their A Day in the Country craft and gift store. It is at 130 Sugarloaf Road, near U.S. 64 East and I-26. The store is securing licenses for a wine bar within its cafe for next year, store manager Paula Flowers said. Meanwhile, it coordinates with the wine bar for a combo of a meal and wine tour-tasting.

Sandra Oates checked 30 vineyards in advance of operations, to gain insight. Fields were planted with grapes in 2009. It took the third year, 2011, to yield the first harvest that filled 2,000 cases. It had 19 varieties, two award-winning.

Kathleen Watson is Burntshirt Vineyards’ marketing director and wine consultant. She helped famed NASCAR team owner Richard Childress start a huge 100-acre vineyard, promoting it for five years.

Lemuel Oates wants to help make Burntshirt Vineyards sites “a destination. The one in Bat Cave is drop-dead gorgeous.” It overlooks tourist landmark Chimney Rock by 1,200 feet and has panoramic views. Altitude 3400 is the appropriate name of Burntshirt’s “proprietary red table wine blend” of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Chambourcin with tannis. That is Flowers’ favorite, for its unique blend.

The mountain and now wine company are named Burntshirt after a legendary ritual of farmers burning their shirts along with their fields before planting. Reasons included to rid demons for good luck, burn insects and for ashes to fertilize fields. Case burned his shirt to help mark the winery’s recent opening.

North Carolina is among leading wine states with 114 wineries, most in the Piedmont’s Yadkin Valley rather than mountains. Burntshirt stands out. Its 25 total acres makes it one of the larger vineyards in the state. Its elevation is among highest of vineyards in N.C. and the entire East.

Very importantly, this high altitude forges a blend of sunny and warm yet not overly humid days with cool nights. This boosts growth of sugary, acidic grapes uncommon in this country, and more suitable to portions of Europe with similar weather, topography and/or soil. For instance, the Grüner Veltliner grape is mostly grown in Austria near the Alps.

Burntshirt compares so favorably with other winemakers that it has recently won two prestigious awards as lone N.C. winery with medals in multiple categories. The International Women’s Wine Competition gave the two honors, partly as the wine best appealing to female wine consumers.

Burntshirt’s 2011 Grüner Veltliner white wine won Best of Class in White Varietal beating wines from France, Greece and California. It was among 27 wines earning the top double gold honor, out of 860 total entries. Burntshirt won bronze for its Merlot, competing against filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola and others of California’s Napa Valley and Sonoma County wine havens. Burntshirt is competing at the N.C. State Fair in Raleigh Oct. 11-21, then for Grand Harvest Awards Nov. 6-7 in Sonoma, Calif.

Watson said judging factors include a wine’s “flavor, body, color and blending.” The “finish” or after-taste is crucial, varies and for Merlot can be “chocolate or plum and dark cherry.”

Lemuel Oates likes the Merlot as “full body, not too sweet.” Grüner Veltliner is Watson’s favorite, as “food-friendly” for enhancing fish and other lighter-flavored meals and not overpowering them. Case likes tropical-fruity Riesling for its “touch of sweetness.”

Burntshirt Vineyards also offers pear and peach-flavored Vidal Blanc, Chardonnay with hints of apple and pear, Cabernet Franc with black currants, and Rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon with a strawberry and raspberry taste. There are 10 varieties when including limited tastings of cherry-infused holiday red table wine and Harvest Moon Chardonnay mixing pineapple, citrus and apple.

Andy Carrein of Dutch Belgium and Michelle Handy host wine tastings. Tours are at 2 p.m., or by appointment. The winery is open Wednesday to Sunday afternoons. For more information call Burntshirt Vineyards Tasting Room at 685-2402.

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