Wednesday, December 12, 2007

From Ripple to RagApple: The Cow Jumps over the Moon

This is part 5 of the From Ripple to RagApple series.  If you are just joining me, you may want to start from the beginning of this series.

After 5 years at Chalet Debonne’, I received a phone call one night while we were making dinner.  This lovely, lilting Southern voice spent 45 minutes telling me all about her and her husband’s vineyards and all the varieties of grapes they were growing and on and on.  I was frantically taking notes, expecting for her, at some point, to ask me a question about grapes or wine or such.  It was a common occurrence for people to seek information from me, which I am always willing to give.  But that question never came.  Instead, when Lenna Hobson was all done giving me all that information, she took a breath and said “So what will it take for you to come to North Carolina and be my winemaker?”  I wanted to say “who is this, really?”  It was the last thing I expected.   I was truly taken aback, but she was serious.

As it so happened, a few weeks before this call, my old friend, Steve Shepard, had been trying to get me to come to North Carolina to see what was going on there and had finally convinced us to come to the North Carolina Winegrowers Conference which was to take place the first weekend of February, two weeks away.  I told Lenna this and she said she would also be there with her husband and co-owner, Frank Hobson, Jr.  So we made arrangements to get together.  Tom and I went to the site where they would build their winery, stayed at their house overnight and experienced their wonderful Southern hospitality.  When all was said and done, they drove us to the airport and said “Think about it.  Let us know what you need to move here and be our winemaker.” 

And so, we flew home and talked about it at great length.  This was an opportunity of a lifetime.  I would have complete control of the winemaking process.  We could live in a warmer climate (Madison, Ohio is near Lake Erie and averages over 100 inches of “Lake Effect” snow a year).  But the clincher was, when I asked Tom how he felt about making such a big move this late in our lives, his answer was, “You know, I always wanted to retire to North Carolina, but I never knew how we would get there”.  So that did it.

When I gave my notice, my boss laughed at me and said “A winery in North Carolina? Don’t bother to buy a house!”  Since, though, he has actually been here to visit me and is as surprised as anyone by the industry.  When I came to North Carolina in 2002, there were only about 18 wineries in the entire state.  There are now 70 with more on the way and North Carolina is currently the fastest growing wine region in the United States.

So, in 2002, we moved to a little town called Boonville, in the heart of the Yadkin Valley, and I became the winemaker of RagApple Lassie Vineyards…the most unique name I had ever heard.  But there is a great story behind the name.  Frank Hobson, Jr. is a third generation farmer of this property.  At one time it was a dairy farm.  When he was a young man in Four H, in the late 50’s, his father gave him a day old calf to raise as a pet.  She was a registered Holstein calf and her name was, you guessed it, RagApple Lassie.  Her name comes from the combination of the sire and dam (like race horses) and that is why it is so unusual.  He raised her as a pet and entered her in the state competition where she won Grand Champion for him.  Because she was his pet, she was not auctioned off.  Instead, she lived the rest of her life on the farm, where she is buried today.  The line is still around to this day, but owned by someone else.  A somewhat whimsical rendition of RagApple Lassie sitting on the moon, sipping a glass of wine adorns our wine bottles, some of the most memorable and best recognized among all North Carolina wines.

When I started, the winery had not actually been built yet.  As I have always described it, there was basically just a hole in the ground.  I oversaw the building of the winery, purchase of equipment, and general setting up of the whole operation.  It was an exciting time.  I have commented that making wine is a little like cooking with all of the different things you can do to change the character of your final product.  The owner, Frank, often tells people that, by being involved in the process of overseeing the building and equipping of the winery, I got to set up my “kitchen” the way I wanted it.  It is a good comparison.

It’s been an exciting time to be involved in the North Carolina wine industry.  The year after I arrived, the Yadkin Valley Appellation was approved, the very first named appellation in North Carolina (an appellation is a federally designated wine region where proof has been submitted to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), showing that the geology, weather, history and other aspects contribute properties that make the wine unique).  This is a very involved process that sometimes takes many years but Yadkin was approved in only two years.  North Carolina wineries have won an amazing number of international wine awards, especially considering the youth of the vines.  I am proud to say RagApple has her share as well as do all of the wineries for which I have made wine.  To date, in addition to RagApple Lassie, I have made the first wines for 10 of these wineries. This is a common, allowable practice for new vineyards in North Carolina that do not yet have their own winemaker or equipment.  Most now have their own buildings and, while I still consult for some, the rest are doing well on their own and are on their way to great things.  It is pretty incredible to know that I am going to be a part of history.

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