Getting to know the man behind JOLO Winery

JW Ray Jolo Winery & Vineyards.jpg
My best memories with my family, or my wife and friends, is always with a vineyard vacation – all the best meals and best wines we’d have.
— JW Ray

Over a Glass is a new series where we sit down with local and regional wineries and discuss how they got their start, the state of and insights into the future of the wine industry and anything that may come up over a glass of wine. For our first installment, we caught up with JW Ray, owner and winemaker of JOLO Vineyards located in Pilot Mountain, North Carolina.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of visiting JOLO or meeting JW yourself, you are truly missing out. Aside from how good the wine may be, one aspect of visiting wineries that we enjoy is the hospitality and personality each winery or winery owner brings to the table. JW is the type that not only makes an entrance, but will work the room shaking hands with his guests making everyone feel welcomed. On several occasions, we’ve also witnessed him working in the kitchen alongside his staff, ensuring his guests are served their meals in a timely manner. Not only will you see JW, but his entire family, helping out around the winery.

We caught up with JW the day after the unveiling of the second-year release of RaRa Sisboombah, the collaboration wine made with Jay Raffaldini of Raffaldini Vineyards in Ronda. We wanted to learn more about how this winery, in its short time in the state, has soared in popularity and continues to win awards and bring home the bling. As the staff prepares for Sunday brunch, we sat down to ask JW a few questions.

Below are excerpts from Triangle Around Town’s interview with JW Ray.

IN THE BEGINNING …

I’ve always been in the food and beverage industry and the catering business. The whole family grew up washing dishes, cleaning bathrooms, working with cured meats. So it was kind of in my blood since I was a young lad. What’s interesting is, since I was 18 years old, all my family and friends were drinking Mad Dog 20/20 and Haffenreffer and all the junk. I just wanted a nice wine. So it’s been in my blood for as long as I can remember. My best memories with my family, or my wife and friends, is always with a vineyard vacation – all the best meals and best wines we'd have. That's what I remember most. I love opening up a beautiful bottle of wine, and be like, 'Oh my God!,' this was made over 50 years ago, and the guy who made the wine ... his grandfather planted the vines we're drinking today.

Related Story: New N.C. Winery in Pilot Mountain impresses with wine, food and scenic views

NORTH CAROLINA OR BUST …

My wife and I are both from Massachusetts, so we narrowed our search down to North Carolina and Virginia. We kind of figured if Virginia was going to be the new Napa East, it would have done so already. So we thought it would be better to get in on a place at the ground floor and be part of shaping an area. We wanted to be in the Yadkin Valley, and didn’t want to be too far away from a big city. So we thought the proximity to Winston-Salem was important. But it really came down to the school system, because Joey and Logan were going into the 5th and 6th grade, and it was very important to get them into a good school system.

THE PROPERTY …

Once we settled on this area, we bought the property next door (to the tasting room). In 2010 we planted our first vines. We came here full-time in June of 2011 and planted more vines. We then bought this property in 2012, so our property is a big “U” shape. This property (the tasting room) sat in the middle, so we also own half of the lake. The guy who owned this place lived in Durham and was renting it out. The tasting room used to be a two-story house with a family of six living here. The metal rods you see above used to be the floor of the second level. We had to put in those metal rods so the A-frame wouldn’t collapse. The dining room used to be the garage, and you used to pull into the garage by coming behind the building near the crush pad. Believe it or not, you weren’t even able to see Pilot Mountain from the tasting room due to all the trees. You could barely get through the parking lot with a mule!

Jolo Winery & Vineyards Pilot Mountain NC Wine.jpg

ON CHAMBOURCIN …

Everything here on the winery side is Vidal Blanc, except for the top of the driveway is Chambourcin. It’s such a beautiful wine with such a gorgeous color. We make great wine out of it. It’s part of our Crimson Creek and the RaRa. The main block of Chambourcin is at our house. We had planting parties, where all the rows are planted by family members. We gave them 40 or 50 vines and their names are on the rows on stainless steel plates. We also have another block of Chambourcin across the lake … just a total of around 4 acres of the grape. Total we have just under 13 acres (total).

JW KNOWS BEST …

We like growing grapes that thrive. They grow like weeds. Other folks are struggling to grow Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Manseng or Sauvignon Blanc here … things that should not be here. That’s why they’re not winning awards in California. We decided to grow the grapes and varietals that thrive in this area. 

ON HIS MENTOR …

Sean McRitchie, my mentor (of McRitchie Winery & Ciderworks), he let me shadow him while my grapes were growing, and I’m forever indebted to that guy. He shared so much knowledge with me when he didn’t have to. He gave me really good advice really early on. He said, “I don’t care how good of a wine maker you’ve become. I don’t care if your vines are 100 years old in North Carolina. No one is ever going to confuse your Cabernet Sauvignon with something from Stag’s Leap or Opus One.” It’s just never going to happen. I didn’t want to do all this and get 5s and 6s on a scale of 1 to 10 with my wine. I wanted to make 9s and 10s.

Related Story: Awards: JOLO Winery wins award for wine in California competition

GROWING THE WINE CLUB …

In 2013 we only had 4 wines. My first harvest was September or October of 2013. Then we probably had around 40-50 members by 2014. Then it went to 150 between 2016 and 2017. Last year we added 670 wine club members. We’re currently under 900 members. Last year exploded, probably due to the quality of our wines and all the awards we won in California. We had seven wine club parties this last quarter, each one with 120 guests.

Jay Raffaldini + JW Ray - Raffaldini Vineyards + Jolo Winery.jpg

ON WINES OF VIRGINIA …

Virginia wines are OK. 

Some are really good like Barbersville, King’s Family Vineyards and Chrysalis Vineyards. There are a few others, but other than that, it’s just OK. But if you open up Wine Enthusiast magazine, they have features on Oregon, California, Washington state. Or it’s New York or Virginia. Maybe the latest write up on NC wines in Wine Enthusiast will start helping us get rated in there.

Related Story: Made in Heaven? N.C. winemakers blend award winning wines in collaboration

ON DISTRIBUTION …

We use to self distributed, but we don't anymore. If you look at all the big wines, they distribute to restaurants. And places like Shelton, Biltmore and Duplin are on the bottom shelves (at wine shops and grocery stores). If they want to do that, that’s fine. I’d never do that. We probably have one of the highest priced bottles in the stores for North Carolina wine. In North Carolina we sell our wines at Angus Barn. We’re a feature there as well. Henk Schiutemaker told me that he’s never sold so much of a featured wine in his 32 years of being there. They sell about two cases a week at Angus Barn. We've actually have some restaurants in Durham calling us to get our wine.