Since the 1990’s, the Dennis family has been building Dennis Vineyards and Winery in Albemarle, east of Charlotte, North Carolina. The winery began in the basement, where Pritchard Dennis and his son, Sandon, made wine as a hobby, seeing who could make the best wine. When their church needed a new supplier of homemade wine for communion, the Dennises stepped up to provide it. Soon, church-members were accosting them in the parking lot, asking to buy bottles of the wine. “Bootlegging in the church parking lot’s not a smart thing to do,” Sandon jokes as he remembers. They decided to open a real winery.
They planted vines on the land around their houses in spring of 1996, harvesting enough muscadine grapes in 1997 to make 500 gallons of wine. The 2500 bottles they produced in 1998 sold out in a few months, so they planted more vines. Around 2000 they began making berry wines, prompted by an excess of blueberries; the five gallons of blueberry wine in their first bottling sold out in a week. People suggested other fruit wines they’d like. “Anything,” Sandon says. “You name it, we’ll make a wine out of it.”
Like many small wine-makers, Sandon originally worked a full-time job while managing the vineyards and winery with his father. His experience in manufacturing at a brick business and then as a computer tech prepared him for his career as a wine-maker, although he didn’t know it at the time. He retired from his computer job after the Y2K conversion, happily leaving behind his pager. He began attending shows and festivals, and the exposure resulted in increased demand for Dennis wines, enabling the vineyard to expand.
Dennis Winery started making a Merlot, followed by other vinifera wines, to please visitors who don’t enjoy muscadine wines. Sandon is most familiar with growing muscadine grapes, so he buys the more finicky vinifera grapes from other North Caroina vineyards. He also buys fruit from North Carolina farms unless a freeze or lack of supply makes it unavailable. “North Carolina is an agricultural state,” Sandon says. “Let’s keep it that way... it’s always great to have North Carolina wines.” The muscadine varieties he grows include some developed by NC State to be good for wine-making, as well as several varieties he is testing out. He likes a challenge: he’s made successful wine with grapes that were described as “good for fresh fruit” or “not aging well in the bottle.”
Dennis Vineyards and Winery now has ten acres of vines and produces about 43,000 gallons of wine a year. “It’s been a neat journey,” Sandon says of the expanding business. He enjoys all aspects of the process, from being outside with the vines to tasting the new wines, and excels at keeping production efficient and finding ways to improve the manufacturing aspects of it, such as altering the grape harvester to be more gentle with the grapes. His parents have retired, but his wife, Amy, joined the team when they built their tasting room in 2001, and his recently-graduated daughter now uses her graphic design degree as the marketing staff. His youngest daughter is still in school but helps on the weekends. The winery helper recently married Sandon’s cousin, and while the sales manager is not technically family, he was married at the winery. To maintain the quality of Dennis Winery’s wine, Sandon plans to stay at the current size, at least until more of his children want to join the team.
Our Spotlight on Local Wine pick for September is Dennis Vineyards' Midnight Merlot. This wine was picked by our Specialty Department staff in a blind taste test of over thirty wines!
Visit Dennis Vineyards and Winery online at www.dennisvineyards.com .
See a slideshow of our visit on Flickr. Watch a Youtube video of our visit , or learn about other local producers on our Youtube channel.