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A Trip to North Carolina's Wine Country

North Carolina has 55 wineries, and the number increases every year. Small farmers who once depended on tobacco are switching to grapes and returning wine to its former position in Carolina's economy. In the early 1900s, North Carolina had 25 thriving wineries, more than any other state, and led the nation in wine production until 1909, when its citizens voted to go dry.

Wine tourists to the Yadkin Valley often base in Winston-Salem, a city rich in historic and cultural attractions. In this region, where bootleggers outrunning federal agents have been replaced by race car drivers, visitors can find corporate-style modern winemaking facilities, mom-and-pop operations, fruit wines galore, wineries specializing in native American grapes and even one winery with direct links to NASCAR.

Racing team owner Richard Childress poured a trackful of his NASCAR earnings into Childress Vineyards, creating an Italian wine estate in the Piedmont, which is what North Carolinians call their robust central region. His winery near Lexington is a destination for NASCAR fans, as visitors can view memorabilia of Childress's years in racing. The winery is also the unofficial gateway to the Yadkin Valley.

From Childress Vineyards, it's a short hop to RayLen Vineyards on Route 158 near Mocksville, set atop rolling hills and marked by its distinctive crow's nest rooftop. It's a down-home spot where visitors relax on rocking chairs and pack the lawn for the Spring Oyster Roast and the Summer Full Moon Band Jam.

Westbend VIneyards, a little farther north on 158, is the region's oldest winery. A showcase wine estate, it's particularly large in contrast to the Valley's smallest winery, Hanover Park, which is a few miles west off Route 61 and is run by former teacher-artist Amy Helton and her husband, Mike, who both fell in love with wine on a trip to France. Hanover Park, which makes fewer than 2,400 cases annually, produces highly regarded Chardonnay and Viognier and Michael's Blend, a Meritage-type wine.

There are many other wineries along the way, but a fitting final stop is The Wolf's Lair Restaurant at Black Wolf Vineyards in Dobson in the northern extreme of the Valley. Travelers often cap their day with a final tasting and dinner at Wolf's Lair, which has been featured in many national publications.

Biltmore Estate, near Asheville, is an attraction that should be reserved for another day. A magnificent showplace with great gardens and historic houses, its winery is visited more frequently than any other winery in the nation, attracting more than a million wine fans annually. However, it is located in the westernmost part of the state and therefore merits a visit when your travels take you out that way.

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