Over a Glass: Biltmore Winery's Sharon Fenchak
Why does it seem that even while on vacation, we’re always hard at work? Such was the case when we celebrated our 10-year anniversary last November at one of our favorite places to visit here in the state – Asheville.
Located near the Blue Ridge Parkway inside the confides of a quaint Airbnb with its own goat farm, we did what most do when visiting Asheville, and that’s hit up the local breweries and visit Biltmore Estates. Knowing the trip was right around the corner, we decided to reach out to Biltmore’s Public Relations Manager, Marissa Jamison, to see if it was possible to talk to winemaker Sharon Fenchak. A quick email back asking for times, and a fast response back, and we had our time and date set. An interview with Fenchak was set, and our first Over a Glass for the new year was in the kitty.
At Biltmore, we got a private tour of the estate’s winery from Spencer Knight, before sitting down with Fenchak inside the wineries wine club member’s lounge. As we talked we were introduced to several samples of wine to try. And it’s always great to have the winemaker there to interject on her creations.
Below are excepts from our interview with Fenchak.
First off, how did you get your start in the wine industry? I grew up in Pennsylvania and did my undergrad at Penn State. There I studied food science, then went to grad school at the University of Georgia. I did my research in wine there. Before that, I was actually in the military and lived in Italy for a while. I really got engulfed in wine at a very young age. I kind of fell in love with the idea of it, not knowing how much actual hard work it would be. There’s a lot of science in it. There’s a lot of hard work.
So how did you wind up here in North Carolina? I applied for my job. I started in 1999 as an assistant winemaker here at Biltmore. I had worked in two other wineries in Georgia. But started here in 1999 and got promoted to winemaker three years later. I was just promoted to VP in August (2018). Bernard Delille, the other winemaker and vice president retired, so I was the director of wine making for years then moved into his position when he retired.
Roughly 19 years here at Biltmore Estates working with wine. It must be great to be at a place where millions of people a year come visit and drink your wine. I think it’s one of the best places I could possibly work on the East Coast, or even the United States, because you get grapes from everywhere. You get to play with all these different types of unique varietals that you could never find if you just had grapes from your own vineyard. No region grows all the best grapes.
What is grown on site and on how many acres of land? We’re growing Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot on about 50 acres of land. We are in the process of replanting some new vines. The vines were about 25-30 years old, so its time to pull them up and start over again. With vines in this area and the harsh winters, they kind of need to be replanted. If not, they’ll just stop producing the fruit that they would normally produce. We were about 80 acres at one time, put pulled some of those vines. We’re replanting some new Chardonnay clones that are very promising for us.
You also get grapes from other places here in North Carolina as well as California and the West Coast. How do you go about getting all these grapes? We have two different wine consultants we work with in California. And some of these places we’ve worked with for over 20 years. We get grapes from 5 different wineries in California. Over the years you just develop good relationships with people. But whenever we’re looking for a new grape or varietal, we’ll go to a winery and try it, and if we like it, we’ll ask them, ‘hey do you have any grapes to sell?’
And how do the grapes come back to Biltmore? Do they get flown in as clusters or just the juice? All the above. They’re shipped as grapes. They’re shipped as juice. It’s just depending on the different varietal. Some grapes ship better than others – like you really wouldn’t want to ship Pinot Noir because it’s so thin-skinned it wouldn’t survive the trip. But others like Cabernet can ship as clusters.
One of the wines we really like from Biltmore is its Tempranillo. It's such a great wine. Now are those grapes brought in from California? Yes. That’s a hard varietal to find. But I was wanting to do a Tempranillo, and just started looking for grapes. It’s like grape shopping, but you want to find the right fit and the right price and the right area.
You work with so many different grape varietals here at Biltmore. What is your favorite grape to work with? It depends on the area and region. In North Carolina it’s Chardonnay – it does really well. Others are Pinot Noir from Russian River – that’s just a given. If you have good grapes you’ll make a good wine. If you have bad grapes, you can make a mediocre wine, but you can never make a great wine. It’s just like in food … if you have a high-quality steak. It’s good, but you can screw it up. You can cook it too long, and it’s the same with wine.
North Carolina continues to have the stigma of producing nothing but sweet wines. We have so many award-winning vinifera wines in this state, do you ever think this stigma will change? I think that it is changing because we’re getting more and more wineries and more research in knowing which grapes to grow in the area. But we are in the South, and a lot of people like sweet wines, and have a sweeter palate. But there’s nothing wrong with that. You can still have a sweet wine that’s a good wine.