Over a Glass: NC Fine Wines Society
North Carolina has a huge misconception and it’s been a hard one to shed. It’s been that one red wine stain on the white carpet that you see over and over again. That repetitive jab that has the power to knock out some of the World’s greatest boxers. That stigma that all North Carolina wines are sweet.
That walloping blast carries shockwaves across the U.S. From as far away as California to within our own backyard. But there is one not-so-secret society here in our state that is trying to prove those people wrong. A group of winemakers whose sole purpose is to create an organization with two goals in mind: to promote the quality of vinifera and hybrid grapes grown in the state and to fund a scholarship program to help the future of our wine industry. We’re not talking about the Skull and Bones Society or even the Illuminati, but the North Carolina Fine Wines Society.
The saplings of what has become the NC Fine Wines Society started back in 2015 when founder and president Jay Raffaldini wanted an outlet to showcase the radiant wine that him and other winemakers were producing in the state. An entity where the wines could be judged by professionals and proper feedback could be provided in hopes to only improve what they’ve already mastered.
Enter Dan and Cathy McLaughlin. After years of working in the corporate world the two were tired of working roughly 60 to 70 hours a week and decided to do something fun – something they enjoyed – which was drinking wine. Dan and Cathy created Our Wine Flights, a marketing and events management company based around wine, craft beer and spirits.
Shortly after the creation of their marketing business, Cathy was contacted by Raffaldini via LinkedIn. “A lot of times I get a request, I accept it and move on,” says Cathy. But this one was different. “This time I reached back out and was intrigued that Jay reached out to me.” Raffaldini was on a trip in Europe, but when he arrived back in the states, the three of them got together over pasta and drinks in Winston-Salem.
The early concepts of the NC Fine Wines Society was formed. The McLaughlin’s started the early stages of planning with Chuck Jones of Jones von Drehle Vineyards, who currently resides as the society’s vice president, back on December 31, 2015. “We decided on being a nonprofit with the two goals in mind – to promote the wines and set up the scholarship program,” says Dan. “We spent about two months to put all the plans together.”
The awards started in 2017, with the first of the North Carolina Fine Wines Cases (the top 12 wines) and all the contributing participants. A total of 70 awards were given out to a total of 29 North Carolina wineries.
The competition was also judged by a team of advanced sommeliers – which is a big difference between the random brood that judges some events such as the annual awards given out by the NC State Fairgrounds. The following year, the society gave out a total of 72 awards to 23 wineries. Roughly a quarter less than the previous year. Was there already some grumblings against the society?
“When a wine says North Carolina on the label, it only has to have 75 percent NC grapes it in. That’s why we got some kick back, because for the NC Fine Wines competition, it has to be 100 percent,” says Cathy. “Our competition is one of the toughest in the country that we know, because we have advance sommeliers tasting everything.” And these sommeliers don’t come in at the end to taste the final wines – they taste everything. And in another first, the society has the judges taste blind and mute. But just what is ‘mute’ judging? “We don’t let the judges talk to one another until they’ve scored and written down the results,” Dan says.
Another advantage winemakers receive when entering the contest is they receive feedback from the sommeliers who tasted the wines. But not all the winemakers like the constructive assessments. “What we’ve seen is that the younger winemakers seem to embrace the notes from the sommeliers,” claims Dan. “They’re just much more open about thinking, ‘What can I learn from this.’ But across the board we had a lot of really good feedback.”
The feedback must have resonated across the state, because in 2019 the society had the most number of entries and awards given than in previous years. In 2019 the Fine Wines Society gave out a total of 103 awards to a grand total of 31 wineries.
Using the Wine Spectator 100-point scale, wines in the competition are judged. Two score ranges are given for possible gold medals: 95 to 100 is considered a ‘classic,’ while 90-94 is an ‘outstanding’ wine. Silver medals go towards wines that range between 85-89; and the bronze goes to wines that range between 80-84 points. But in a shocking conclusion, out of the 103 medals, no gold was awarded to any wines this year.
The 2019 case featured a total of 14 wines, a first in the competition, due to a four-way tie. Wineries included Herrera Vineyards, Sanctuary Vineyards, Jolo Vineyards, Surry Cellars, Jones von Drehle Vineyards, Raffaldini Vineyards, Cellar 4201 and Mountain Brook Vineyards. One that would be a lovely case to bring home with you on your next outing to NC wine country – but that's not the case (no pun intended).
“We would absolutely love to sell the case to people, but there are ABC laws. We could ask a restaurant to sell it, but we’d have to ask each of the vineyards to sell them a case, so they can put it together. We’re a nonprofit, so we don’t have a liquor license,” he says. And the wineries can’t oblige because according to ABC rules, a winery can’t sell wines from other wineries.
But with so many great wineries in our state to visit, one is bound to find a great wine if you know what’s out there. “I really like what we’re doing with Petit Verdot,” says Dan. “It’s a big, bold red. There are places here that grow it and it’s fantastic. I think that can be our equivalent to the Pinot Noir grown on the West Coast,” he says. This year produced award winning Petit Verdot from Surry Cellars, Point Look Out, Jones von Drehle and Mountain Brook Vineyards.
But there are many others grape varietals that are performing well here in North Carolina. Cabernet Franc, Chambourcin and Petit Manseng have been enlightening tastebuds in the wine industry for the past couple years, as well as Traminette. “Another one that has done well from a white standpoint is Riesling,” says Cathy. “Our top white wine the past two years has been a Riesling.” In 2017 Herrera Vineyards’ 2015 Dry Riesling won in the best white vinifera category and in 2018 that award when to Point Lookout Vineyards 2016 Riesling.
The state is starting to gain attention with programs such as the NC Fine Wines Society and wineries winning awards outside of the state, such as the annual San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. “We want to have the best of what North Carolina has to offer,” says Dan. “We’re trying to move that needle – not just a little bit – but a lot!