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Tobacco, Wine, and Appassimento

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Tobacco, Wine, and Appassimento
Photos by Hayley Phillips

AN ITALIAN VILLA IN NORTH CAROLINA

Tucked amongst the rolling countryside of Ronda, North Carolina is a little stretch of Tuscany.

“Where are you? Looks like an Italian Villa!” my mom texts back to the picture of Raffaldini Vineyards I have sent her. My mother is right. It does, in fact, look like Italy. And with the Italian winemaking techniques of Jay Raffaldini and Kiley Evans, head winemaker at Raffaldini Vineyards, it is beginning to taste a bit like Italy as well.

Photo by Hayley Phillips DSC_0422
Photo by Hayley Phillips

“Before prohibition, North Carolina made more wine than California,” Jay says, giving us a quick history lesson. “That was allbefore prohibition laws were passed, which enticed many vintners to switch to tobacco. It was the only other crop that paid as much,” he explains. Decades later, an EPA tobacco settlement changed North Carolina’s agricultural landscape once again, and in states like Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia, tobacco farms began shifting back to winemaking.

The shift back from tobacco to wine gave Jay an idea. He recalled an Italian winemaking process called appassimento, in which grapes are dehydrated, (raisinated, if you will) before being fermented into wine. While this reduces the total bulk of the product drastically, it also creates a deeper, richer, and more alcoholic wine.

In order to dehydrate the grapes, the grapes are laid out in bunches in a single layer on homemade drying racks. But laying them out alone is not enough. The grapes must also be placed in a enclosed area and heated with hot, dry air… the kind which, Jay reasoned, the driers used for tobacco leaves might produce. Recycling the old equipment and even using old abandoned tobacco-drying barns for appassimento seemed like the next logical step for North Carolina. Jay believes the technique is key, and that it will transform the future of the winemaking industry in the Yadkin Valley.

“The Yadkin Valley region really just reminds me of the mid-to-South-central region of Italy,” says the native New Yorker and 1st generation Italian. “The altitude of the Blue Ridge Mountains mitigates the southern heat while the mountain breeze helps the soil stay dry.”

Leaning over a pillared balcony to acres and acres of grapes below, my eyes wander across a stretch of patio, fountains, and gardens more typical of a European hamlet than the hills of North Carolina. And yet, something about it perfectly suits the scene. I linger a moment before picking up a bottle of “La Dolce Vita” in the gift shop for mom, and then, upon second thought, pick up another… it’s sweeter than my usual preference, but I want to be certain one makes the journey back.