Sunday, January 20, 2019

Touring the Childress Vineyard in Lexington, NC

It was a chilly January afternoon and the car pulled into the nearest parking space available.

"It's packed," I said looking around the facility. There were a lot of cars here and it didn't take a genius to figure out that the Childress Vineyards in Lexington, NC was a very popular destination.

While still in the vehicle, I looked through the windshield at a large stone building sitting atop a hill that overlooked rows of dry grape vines. The lawn was a vibrant green color and looked to be well tended. When viewed against the deep blue sky and contrasting Earth tones found on the building, the imagery caused one to gaze warmly on the scenery.

As I waited for my girlfriend, La'Toya, to collect her things, there was a growing feeling of excitement brewing in my stomach. It was only a few moments ago that our intended destination was actually revealed to me. This was her payback for all the times that I took her out and failed to disclose our plans.

When I asked her how it felt to watch me squirm in anticipation, she responded with a huge smile that she was enjoying it very much. I'll admit that I did too.

In celebration of my 44th birthday, all she told me prior to our Saturday morning departure was that I should dress comfortably and be ready to leave by 10 am.

The two of us got out of the car, stretched our legs for a moment, and then slowly made our way toward the entrance of the building.

At first glance, I noticed a couple of people standing outside engaged in a quiet conversation. Each of them holding a glass of white wine in their hands while looking intently at one another.

The closer we got to the large wooden doors, the more I realized that there was a lot going on inside.

The foyer, just beyond the doors, was a large room with high ceilings and marble-colored tile floors. In the middle, directly in front of us, stood a circular fountain with four levels of pooling. There was a light trickle sound of water as it overflowed slowly from one level into the other. The larger bottom pool held a variety of stones and different denominations of coins. As we walked in, I saw an older black woman toss something shiny into the water and it resulted in a kerplunk sound with a small splash to follow.

The sound of voices filled the halls of this building and it was accompanied by dozens of moving bodies. As I scanned the faces of its guests, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the attendees did not consist wholly of one demographic. There were all age groups with different hues of skin tones. Some individuals were dressed in khaki's and a button-up shirt while others wore casual sporting attire.

Not having the pleasure of visiting many vineyards in my day, I incorrectly assumed that I would have seen only the bougie wine enthusiasts in attendance, of which I aspire to be a card holding member one day.

"Ahem! Please pass the Grey Poupon and a glass of your finest Malbec."

No, this adventure revealed to me that people from all walks of life can and do enjoy a good glass of wine, not just the richest elite.

According to La'Toya, we were scheduled for the 2 o'clock tour of the Childress Vineyards. She mentioned moments after we arrived that if we wanted to look around or get something to eat, we could always catch the 3 pm tour instead.

"No," I replied. "While it may be my birthday, I'm following your lead today. You're the Boss and I'll do whatever it is that you want me to do."

"Ummm!" She said with a smile. "Why does everything you say always sound so nasty?"

"It's because you have a dirty mind." I playfully shot back. I laughed quietly to myself knowing that I indeed meant that line as a flirtatious double entendre.

Looking around the room, I didn't see an official front desk. Instead, I saw a bar with frozen drinks directly behind the fountain, an empty conference room to the right of us through the tall rounded doors, and a shop to the left through another set of archways.

While we got our bearings straightened out, and I took a few pictures of the lobby, the two of us moved out of the main walkway toward the front left corner of the room where there hung a medium-sized mirror on the wall. I took the opportunity to double check my face and clothes for proper presentation while in public.

After our two-hour commute, I had to reassure myself that things were still put together and not too wrinkled or decorated with crumbs from our quick stop at Bojangles'. In case you were wondering, I had a spicy chicken sandwich with a nice golden crust. While I tried to be careful eating over napkins, it's still possible that I caught food somewhere.

Once I determined that things were good, I gently pulled Toya closer and said, "Hey, let's take a quick picture."

[Camera Click]

She's a natural!

After our photo shoot, La'Toya walked over to the wooden podium near the second entrance of the Tasting Room and wrote our names on the tour list.

For the next few minutes, the two of us stood near the bar area and took in the surroundings.

Further back, beyond the bar was the Bistro. If you listen to the employees, this place has the best food in the area. While we had 2:30 reservations, we didn't get the chance to try anything.

The highlight of this place appears to be the tasting room. A quick glance and you'll notice large groups of people huddled around the bar. A second group of people consisted of those waiting for the tour.

Around this time, a young man wearing a black dress shirt, black jeans, and black Keds walked over to the list of names on the podium and announced that the 2 o'clock tour would be leaving in just a moment. He led the small party to the front of the lobby and proceeded to small talk with us.

We learned that his name was Devin and the Vineyard was the brainchild of NASCAR racer and team owner, Richard Childress.

After the initial welcome, our tour guide, Devin, instructed us to walk through the front doors and hang a right down the wood covered walkway.

Along the cemented path were white pillars perched upon piles of stone. In between the pillars were tall dividing walls made of the same stone used for the pillars. In between the walls were black iron tables with cushioned chairs that overlooked the multiple rows of harvested grape vines. Honestly, with a tall glass of wine and some good company, these seats would be a perfect place to get lost.

Once we passed the chairs, the path opened up to give us an even better view of the vineyard. With each step that I took, I could feel the heavy burdens of the day simply melt away.

Continuing down the cemented walkway, we reached the far end of the building and its wooden covering.

Turning right, the path continued around the winery until it reached a fork in the road. Down the left path, there was a long building that was later described as a reception hall. Down the right path, there was a red-roofed gazebo standing tall near a small man-made pond.

While we waited for Devin to reach the front of the line, we took a few minutes to enjoy the view.

On the right side of the walkway lay a carpet of lush green grass. On top of the grass, there were a few more opportunities to sit down and relax.

One of my favorite seats included a tabletop firepit with cream colored chairs. Further down, I noticed a couple of black iron tables with matching seats.

Taking the whole scene into perspective, I was in love with the vivid contrast in colors. Definitely another great spot to wine down.

Continuing our tour, Devin led us down a flight of stairs and then stopped. He pointed his finger toward the pond and explained that it was created in the rare case of a draught. Due to the amount of rain Lexington receives each year, the pond hasn't been used for anything more than a photo backdrop and the casual sightseeing.

Moving right, our tour guide explained that this open area, which included the gazebo, tables, and chairs is often the location for many wedding celebrations. At night, the hanging lights turn on to create another romantic scene.

Turning our heads another quarter turn, we began to see the secret sauce behind a quality wine. Standing under a large covered area, we found ourselves looking at this enormous stainless steel drum. According to Devin, this is where the grapes are brought first. At this stage, all of the grapes go through a de-stemming process followed by a juicer. If one is making white wine, only the juice is used. If one is making a red wine, the entire grape is used. It is the skin that helps give the wine its red color.

Once the juicing is complete, it is then transported through a small pipe into the next room for fermentation.

Walking into the fermentation room, which was separated from the outside by a single door, we stood in awe at these large stainless steel containers that were organized in rows of ten.

As we made our way into the tall room, I could see some kind of party off in the distance. At first glance, I would say that it was a birthday party or maybe even an anniversary celebration. I just recall seeing a large gold balloon shaped in the form of numbers.

While they partied on the second floor, the group of people in our tour continued to file in through the door.

For the next few minutes, Devin spoke about the fermentation process. He explained how the juice was directed into these short-term storage devices and then magically transformed into wine. I think It's fascinating.

Walking through the fermentation room, we entered into another room with extremely high ceilings. Lining the walls were racks of wooden wine barrels.

It is during this step that the wine continues to age and develop its unique flavor. On one end of the barrel, the winemakers record the date.

Around the belly of the barrel rests a plastic plug called a "bung." This airtight object allows for easy access to the wine for a variety of reasons. Each barrel is designed with this opening and is aptly named a "bunghole." [Pause for a reaction]

I giggled like a schoolboy when I first heard this and looked around the room to see if anyone else got the joke. Clearly, I was the only one.

"Bunghole" is what Beevis and Butthead used to say. "I am Cornholio and I need TP for my Bunghole." [Still laughing]

Moving on.

Leaving the room full of barrels, we walked through a metal fire door into a much smaller space. To the left of us were two enormous wine barrels made from cedar. According to our tour guide, they are currently being used for show.

On the right side of the room was a large painting that hung on the wall adorned with a rich mahogany colored frame. The picture depicted a vineyard in the Fall where the leaves have started to turn yellow. If you look close enough, one can still see bunches of purple grapes ready for harvest.

For some reason, this picture seemed to both capture and hold my attention. Maybe it's the time of year. Autumn signals the end of summer when it's no longer hot. I felt at peace in this place.

Just beyond this area was a longer and wider hallway of sorts. On the right side were multiple panes of glass. On the left was a wall showcasing both pictures of wine barrels separated by stone carved statues of women holding wine pitchers. The contrasting colors of dark wood that decorated the bottom half of the wall and around the statues looked good against the lighter colored wall that sat above the wood panel. Definitely something I could see in a future iteration of my home.

Where the left wall felt natural, warm, and elegant, the opposing wall with the glass felt like an industrial manufacturing plant that was cold and sterile. The room on the other side of the glass contained stainless steel machines used in the bottling process.

In this room, we learned about the different types of corks and the length of time one can store wine in a bottle before it goes bad. Very interesting facts that I'll try to use at my next dinner party.

On to one of my favorite rooms in the winery.

Just off the hallway is an entrance into "The Cave." I don't think it's actually called "The Cave," but it's how it felt looking in.

From the outside, there are two spiraling green bushes guarding the wooden doorway. It is made of the same colored wood that runs across the left wall of the exterior hallway.

The cave runs deep and is made up of the same stones that decorate the winery's face.

The brick colored walkway breaks into two separate isles running alongside the three rows of fresh cedar barrels. The barrels rest securely atop a cement structure with gravel. The purpose of the gravel is to help the wine cellar breath.

At the far end of the cellar, one can see the large R.C. emblazed in black marble. R.C. stands for Richard Childress.

White lights hang from one of the three chandeliers, which helps to give a festive feel to the room. Beneath the lights is a large sturdy wooden table that is perfect for a family feast or an intimate wedding celebration.

According to Devin, this room also comes equipped with a waterfall fountain. It wasn't running at the time, but I could see myself spending a great deal of time in this place. It's secluded, quiet, and a perfect spot to enjoy a good conversation over wine.

At the heart of the cave was a locked wooden door with a large pane of glass. Inside the door were hundreds of bottles of wine resting individually within its own slot. In the middle of the room was another wooden table with six chairs followed by a few extra chairs aligned against the walls.

I don't know about you, but I can easily imagine a movie scene where the heads of an Italian mafia family would sit around this table, smoking cigars, and sipping on their finest wines while plotting their next move for total domination.

In fact, that is exactly what this cave holds within its belly. This particular cellar protects the finest and most expensive wines in the vineyard, which they call "Reserve" or "Cellar Reserve." These wines are aged in new barrels over those barrels that may have been used a few times before.

At this point, the tour around the winery was officially over.

One by one, members of our small party left the cellar to explore other areas of the facility. For La'Toya and I, we tarried a little longer.

Our steps were slower, smaller, and maybe even begrudgingly heavy as we didn't want to leave this peaceful place.

With everyone else gone, we sat down in the two empty chairs and just enjoyed each other's company. While a bit chilly at times, it gave us a perfect opportunity to nuzzle and embrace the perfection of this moment.

After enjoying our alone time in "The Cave," La'Toya and I decided to head back upstairs and partake of the various wines that we've learned so much about.

Routed through a back stairwell, our tour guide helped us once again find the Tasting Room on the main floor.

For $15 dollars per person, we decided to enjoy the "Barrel Select Tasting." This package features dry and full-bodied wines with a souvenir glass. The following wines were tasted:

* Andante Chardonnay ($24.99)
* Viognier ($24.99)
* Sangiovese ($18.99)
* Pinnacle ($14.99)
* Merlot ($18.99)
* Cabernet Sauvignon ($18.99)
* Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($29.99)
* Starbound ($19.99)

Each tasting included eight 1/2 ounce pours, which didn't seem like much for a couple that enjoys a full glass per serving.

Nevertheless, we definitely had a great time laughing, sipping, and taking notes for our future reference.

Our favorite was the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon followed by the Cabernet Sauvignon. Both were really good, but the reserve was a bit more smooth.

One wine that I was really looking forward to trying was their Devil's Tribute. It's a red wine blend aged in whiskey barrels. While not a terrible wine, my favorite wine is still Robert Mondavi's Cabernet Sauvignon aged in bourbon barrels ($13.99).

For those interested in a wine club, Childress Vineyards offers two packages: 1) Sweet Club ($199) and 2) Dry Club ($250) where they send three packages of three bottles throughout the year (April, September, and December) along with other discounts.

At the conclusion of our wine tasting experience, we decided to grab dinner at Bad Daddy's Burger Bar in Winston-Salem.

On our way out, I took a few more pictures of the vineyard.

Overall, I had a marvelous time and look forward to exploring other vineyards in the area (and around the world).

Who knows, maybe we'll start sharing more of our explorations and experiences.

To Devin (our tour guide) and Childress Vineyards, I say "Thank You for hosting us!"

To La'Toya, I want to express a HUGE thank you for pulling me away from home and making my birthday a special one.

Until next time...


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Damond L. Nollan, M.B.A.

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