Sowing grape expectations

Vineyard: After making his mark in NASCAR racing, Richard Childress tries to transform North Carolina's Yadkin Valley from tobacco to wine country.

July 14, 2005|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

LEXINGTON, N.C. - For generations, farmers in the Yadkin Valley have grown tobacco. But the demand for that plant has dropped, so many are turning to another green, leafy crop - grapes. As in the wine-making kind.

And if the image of Tobacco Road morphing into Winery Way sets North Carolina stereotypes on their ear, consider this: The valley's biggest wine producer, a man who lives in a Tuscan-inspired estate, packs impeccable good ol' boy credentials.

Richard Childress, 59, once made early-morning moonshine runs, raced stock cars and owned NASCAR's most famous car, the No. 3 of the late seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt.

Childress still owns one of NASCAR's best teams, but he also runs Childress Vineyards, producing 13,000 cases of wine this year - five premium varietals, three signature reserves and three house wines from his own vines - while helping support his Yadkin Valley neighbors by buying their grapes.

"I worked in tobacco as a kid," Childress said. "I know what's going on in that industry. I thought this vineyard and winery could make a difference as an alternative to tobacco and help our farmers. I'm hoping we can make a difference."

According to the most recent agricultural census taken by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, tobacco production in North Carolina dropped significantly from 1997 to 2002. Tobacco farms decreased from 12,095 to 7,850, a decline of 35.1 percent, while acreage dropped from 320,900 to 167,700, thus causing production to fall 49.8 percent.

"What we have seen is farmers looking for alternative crops," said Amy-Lynn Albertson, a Davidson County Agricultural extension agent. "They're looking at blueberries and strawberries for direct market sales, at cut flowers and, in our area, where property values continue to increase, a lot of tobacco farmers are deciding to sell their land."

But for those who want to remain in farming, the arrival of Childress Vineyards has offered another alternative. Grapes. Though expensive to get started - Albertson says the cost of planting an acre is almost $10,000 - three farms in Davidson County have begun planting small acreages and several farmers in other, nearby counties have planted their first vines.

"It is an option," Albertson said. "We're having a lot of inquires, and the farmers are watching what happens."

Childress Vineyards is encouraging the transition; it is eager and willing to contract with the planters to buy their grapes. Last year, Childress winemaker and general manager Mark Friszolowski said, Childress bought grapes from 17 farms. This year the number is expected to increase, though they don't know by how much until the grapes ripen and Friszolowski can inspect the quality of the produce being offered.

"We just planted for the first time last month," said Brandon Cheek, the 20-year-old son of a longtime tobacco farmer. "We haven't contracted with Childress Vineyards, but we hope to one day."

Cheek and his brother Jason, 22, have returned to the farm to work with their father. The family has 55 acres of its 250-acre farm planted in tobacco. They are also growing wheat and hay and raising chickens.

"Tobacco farming has always been our family business," Cheek said. "But ... with tobacco declining, we have to find other ways to make the farm more profitable."

Cheek said his father, David, is "pretty open to change" and the Cheeks planted three acres of merlot grapes and two acres of Chardonnay last April. They anticipate their first crop in three years.

Cheek has talked to Friszolowski several times about what grapes to plant and the finances involved. The winemaker, a consistent award-winner at Pindar Vineyards in Long Island, N.Y., and now president of the North Carolina Wine Growers Association, has also shown him how to build the high-trellis system that Friszolowski invented to keep the vines off the ground to prevent disease and rot.

"One reason I want to grow the grapes is because of the Childress name," said Cheek, whose farm is near Ashboro, about 40 miles from Childress Vineyards. "His name will sell better than any old vineyard."

The vision

Childress' appreciation of wine began when he was an underfinanced race driver in the 1970s. He'd ride cross-country with his team in the tractor-trailer that carried his race car. He'd share a hotel room with five or six of his crewmen when he got to the racetrack. It wasn't that appealing.

But on trips to Riverside, Calif., there was always the bonus of a ride up north to Napa Valley to tour the wineries.

"Napa wasn't very big then," Childress recalled. "They'd have free tastings, and you'd drink about as much as you wanted to. ... I thought, `How cool!' And then it became a passion."

Today, Childress' European-style home sits atop a hill in the middle of his 250-acre farm. He looks out on nine varieties of European grapes covering 30 acres. Seven miles from his home, down winding Carolina roads and just inside the Lexington town limits, is Childress Vineyards.

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