Brothers Charlie and Ed Shelton have been in business together their entire lives. After deciding that college was not for him, Charlie, five years the senior, built a house and sold it, thus kicking off a house-building business. When Ed graduated high school, he joined Charlie. Next up was a real estate business involving warehouses, followed by a construction company that the men ran until they retired, at which time they sold it to their employees.
In 1994, they purchased an old dairy farm in Surry County, a few miles from where they had grown up. They had no firm plans for the property, but the brothers shared an interest in wine. After retiring, they saw a half-time special about the viticulture program at Virginia Tech; since their land was in the Yadkin Valley, with its mild winters and moderate summers, the brothers thought of planting a vineyard. What began as a personal hobby quickly became a business. "We saw the impact this vineyard, and others in the area, could have 20 to 30 years down the road," said Charlie Shelton. "With tobacco farming on the decline, we saw it as a great way to diversify the farming industry and open doors to new possibilities in the area, such as agri-tourism. People love to tour vineyards, taste the wine, and hear the story of winemaking."
The winery’s groundbreaking ceremony was in June, 1999, with the planting of the first vines. It was the second winery in the area, but is now one of many, in addition to more farms that are growing grapes for wine. Shelton donated millions of dollars to start a viticulture and oenology program at Surry Community College, a program which many other schools have emulated. Both brothers live on the winery land and remain “hands-on” in spite of their expanding staff, which includes Ed’s son-in-law, Michael, and Charlie’s daughter, Mandy.
As tobacco farming wanes, the Yadkin Valley wineries work together to promote their region as a tourist destination. Shelton opened the first airport store for local wine, a trend which spread across the country as wineries sought to advertise their existence to travelers. Many wineries have a harvest festival, as well as participating in the Yadkin Valley Wine Fest. Shelton has a summer concert series. Part of the new success of North Carolina wine involved changing the perception that North Carolina only produced sweet, muscadine wine; that idea is so ingrained that the wineries started putting “Yadkin Valley” on their labels instead of “North Carolina.”
Shelton Vineyards now includes the spectacular 33,000 square-foot winery and tasting building designed by North Carolina architect, Ray Troxell, as well as the rolling, manicured grounds designed by local Landscape Architect Heath Carrier. The Harvest Grill uses local produce and meats. Just off the interstate (two miles from the winery) is the winery’s hotel, the only Hampton Inn and Suites that has a wine bar, which can also host weddings. Across the street is the Village Market that sells wine as well as local crafts.
Shelton Vineyards grows all the grapes for its wines, altogether ten grape varieties. Rose bushes, which are sensitive plants and prone to disease and insect attack, grow at the end of each row to help staff detect such pests before they reach the vines. Wind machines are used for frost protection, circulating the air around the vines when there is a frost warning to stop the frost from forming on the vines. When the winemaker deems the grapes ready, the vineyard staff harvests them by hand; all pruning is also done by hand. Pomace, the grape stems, skins, and pips, is returned to the vineyards as fertilizer. The winery also has a system in place to reuse water. “Our belief is that fine wine begins in the vineyard. Shelton Vineyards' commitment to sustainable farming practices and hands-on attention enables our vineyard to produce the highest possible quality of grapes.”
Once in the winery, the wines are aged with quality in mind. For example, the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon contains grapes harvested in the fall of 2009, which were fermented with their skins for a week and then pressed and aged for 15 months in oak barrels. Aging in barrels means the winemaker must tend to the barrels (in a huge rack from floor to ceiling) each week to keep oxygen from entering. Michael describes it as a labor of love; the cheaper alternative is to age in steel tanks and throw in some oak chips for flavor, which seems a bit like adding vinegar to bread to try for the flavor of sourdough. The barrels are used for three and a half years and then retired; you can “Adopt-a-barrel” and Shelton Winery will attach a placque with your name; you recceive cases of wine from your barrel and can pick it up when it is retired!
Our staff has twice chosen Shelton wines for our “Spotlight on Local Wine” pick. The Cabernet Sauvignon was featured in November, 2012, picked over 34 other local wines in a blind taste test. The January pick is Shelton’s Madison Lee Red, named for the Sheltons’ two grandfathers whose middle names were Madison and Lee. The goal was to craft a wine that was enjoyable as a sipping red yet hearty enough to hold up to everyday foods. A wonderful uncomplicated red wine that is terrific with pizza, burgers, ribs, wings, or Bar B Q, Madison Lee Red is medium-bodied and very approachable with ripe berry fruit and a hint of vanilla and spice. It has won numerous medals at wine competitions.It is $7.99 in January!