Local vineyard wins prestigious state award
Ever since Ken Craven decided to spend his retirement years operating a vineyard, there have been plenty of days he wondered whether he’d made the right decision.
Feb. 1 was not one of those days.
That’s the day the N.C. Winegrowers Association awarded its annual Wine Grower of Excellence Award to Craven’s small vineyard in the Wallburg community, which he calls Chart’s Hill Vineyard.
“It means that evidently I have done something right since I got started,” Craven says. “Childress (Vineyards) has won it, and Morgan Ridge (Vineyards). It puts me in the same category with a group of fairly prestigious vineyards and wineries in the state, so I’m honored and humbled by this award.”
Chart’s Hill was selected from more than 400 independent vineyards across the state, according to Mark Friszolowski, treasurer and past president of the N.C. Winegrowers Association, who is also the winemaker at Childress Vineyards.
“This award is given to somebody who really just shows excellence in their ability to grow wine grapes in North Carolina,” Friszolowski says.
“Ken attends all the seminars and has been very active in the industry. He’s come from being just a novice grower with very little experience to now having some of the most sought-after grapes in the state. Ten years ago, when there were only 30 to 40 vineyards, that wouldn’t be as big a deal, but now with over 400 growers, that’s pretty darned good.”
Winning a prestigious award certainly wasn’t what Craven had in mind in 2006, when he first planted Merlot grapes on his five-acre plot of land on Friendship Ledford Road.
“I was just looking for something to do after retirement,” recalls Craven, 65, who worked in the airline industry.
“My youngest daughter’s husband proposed to her at a winery and vineyard, and I started thinking that might be a good thing for me to get involved in. With the lay of my land — it’s very hilly — I wouldn’t have to till the land. So I took a couple of courses in viticulture at Surry Community College, and here I am.”
Craven says he made the transition fairly smoothly, “but it’s a lot more work than I had anticipated,” he says. “I actually started harvesting before I officially retired, and I found out real quick I had taken on too much.”
Craven and his wife, Marty, live on the property where the vineyards are located.
“We both grew up in the Wallburg area on tobacco farms,” Craven says. “We love the outdoors and we wanted to keep our hands in the ground in some form or fashion, and this seemed like a good idea. We love it — I was out there this morning for two or three hours.”
What would the owner of a vineyard be doing out there now, in the dead of winter?
Pruning — lots and lots of pruning.
“You have to handle every single vine individually — that’s close to probably 2,500 or 3,000 grapevines, cutting every one of them back,” Craven says. “And that’s not just a single vine — it’s all the different shoots coming out of it, too. It’s very labor-intensive.”
Thankfully, Craven has a friend and fellow retiree, Frank Cathey, who gives him a lot of help.
“If it weren’t for Frank,” Craven says, “I don’t know whether I’d be able to make it or not.”
The vineyard takes its name from the hilly land, which is known locally as Chart’s Hill.
“Chart was a descendant of a slave of the Yokeley family of the late 1700s, and he lived on this hillside,” Craven explains. “Everybody in this area knows this hill as Chart’s Hill.”
While Chart’s Hill remains a small vineyard, Craven has expanded a little bit from those first Merlot grapes he planted more than seven years ago. In 2010, he added four more varieties — Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Golden Muscat and Muscadine.
Chart’s Hill does not include a winery; instead, Craven has carved a niche by selling his grapes to other North Carolina wineries, such as Childress Vineyards, Westbend Vineyards, Weathervane Winery and SilkHope Winery.
The vineyard harvested about four tons of grapes last year, but it was a bit of a down year for Chart’s Hill. Seven to eight tons annually is more typical, according to Craven.
The Wine Grower of Excellence Award is awarded to an association member that’s been in existence for at least five years, produces consistently high-quality wine grapes, and shows an ongoing commitment to the betterment of the North Carolina wine and grape industry.
The award, which is voted on by viticulture experts at N.C. State University, was presented during the annual conference of the N.C. Winegrowers Association, held earlier this month in Winston-Salem. Judges look at such criteria as canopy management, quality of fruit and overall condition.
“What’s unusual is that you’ve got a group of professional growers in the state ... and then there’s Ken with his little vineyard, and he gets this award,” Friszolowski says. “It just shows what you can do if you persevere and if you have a green thumb.”
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