I traveled to my hometown of Asheville a few weeks ago. I had a red-eye flight inbound and a super early-morning flight out, so I decided to stay at the Holiday Inn & Suites Arden-Asheville Airport. What a delightful, lovely property with a full-service restaurant, an airport shuttle, and tons of thoughtful amenities. I was so impressed that G Social Media and I teamed up to make this quick video tour of one of my rooms.
This young family just moved to the area from New York City, they just had a baby who is only a week old, and they just opened their dream wine shop on Friday, December 21, in downtown Asheville. G Social Media and I were so fortunate to stumble upon Crocodile Wine the day after the shop opened. Here is our exclusive, inaugural interview with owner John Hale, who brings an amazing selection of natural wines to Asheville, North Carolina.
Last week I returned to Asheville, North Carolina, where I had the pleasure of speaking with Sommelier-Chef-Restaurateur Vijay Shastri of The Continental Lounge and taste some of his fantastic wine selections. What a delight to share with you this exclusive video interview curated and produced by G Social Media.
Have you ever been on a wine tour in Asheville, North Carolina? When I was there last month, I visited three incredible wine and food venues in the area with creator, producer, and maker of video magic, Gary of G Social Media. The first stop was wine and dinner at Rezaz – Pan Mediterranean Cuisine. Next, we walked up the hill to sample a few wines at the tasting bar at Appalachian Vintner. Last, but not least, we took Uber to plēb urban winery to celebrate their Beaujolais Day release of the inaugural 2018 wine, a lovely rosé of Maréchal Foch from North Carolina. What an amazing time I had. I cannot wait for my next visit and tour.
Biltmore has been synonymous with quality and hospitality since the estate’s inception in 1895, with its French Renaissance-style château designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt and landscaping by Frederick Law Olmsted of New York’s Central Park fame. Today, Biltmore continues as a family-owned, self-sustaining 8000-acre estate and world-class destination, with hotels, restaurants, shopping, a plethora of events and activities, and a winery, which replaced the beloved Biltmore Dairy Farms and opened to the public in 1985.
A visit to America’s Largest Home® includes a complimentary tasting at the winery, the most visited in the United States with around 600,000 visitors annually. Biltmore produces over 150,000 cases of wine to meet growing demand and universal appeal. The winery’s wine club has doubled annually the past three years and currently has around 6700 members at the time of this visit. Making around 50 wines for diverse palates and price points might seem like a daunting task, but not at Biltmore. After 32 years of winemaking – first as assistant winemaker, then winemaster – Bernard Delille, who retired in July 2018, along with Sharon Fenchak, who has been at Biltmore 19 years, have honed their craft, creating award-winning wines for everyone. The wines range from sweet to dry and include whites, reds, rosés, and sparkling wines. In addition to the complimentary tasting, Biltmore offers in-depth experiences such as the Premium Wine Tasting, Red Wine & Chocolate Tasting, Behind-the-Scenes Winery Tour & Tasting, Wine & Cheese Hour, and the seasonal Candlelight Winery Tour for an extra fee. With distinct wine collection categories and a Virtual Sommelier, the winery’s website assists online guests with finding wines and food pairing suggestions at all price points. Wines are widely available in the wholesale and direct-to-consumer markets. Biltmore ranks in the top 1% of wine businesses in the United States.
When the idea of a vineyard and winery first came to fruition in the early 1970s, George Vanderbilt’s grandson, William A.V Cecil, realized the challenge of growing wine grapes in North Carolina and led the charge for statewide research. Like other non-traditional, grape-growing regions, Biltmore and other state producers have had to prove themselves time and time again that Vitis vinifera grapes grown in North Carolina can produce high-quality wines. The reality is that not every grape variety is suited to North Carolina’s growing conditions and some consumers prefer the riper, fruit-forward styles produced in winegrowing areas like California. Thus, Biltmore produces wines from its 94 acres of estate vineyards; key winegrowers in Polk County (NC), Arroyo Seco Vineyards (Monterey, CA), Pietra Santa Winery (Ciegega Valley, CA), Tenbrink Vineyards (Solano County, CA); and California AVA wines from Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Napa Valley, Russian River Valley, and Sonoma County. Biltmore makes and finishes AVA-designed wines in those AVAs, per TTB law.
During a recent visit and tasting with Delille and Director of Business Development, Jeff Plack, Delille revealed that the honor of making such a large portfolio of wines from different vineyard locations is what makes winemaking at Biltmore exciting and why he has spent nearly his entire career here. Both he and Fenchak travel extensively to partner vineyard and winemaking facilities to ensure that all aspects of wine production, from vineyard to bottle, live up to Biltmore standards. Plack, a 12-year member of the wine business team, echoed Biltmore’s pledge to wine excellence across styles and price points, as well as took it a step further to emphasize that it is the winery’s renowned model of hospitality which first leads visitors to the winery, where they are treated to tasting experiences led by brand ambassadors empowered to deliver personalized experiences to wine novices and aficionados alike.
A tour of Biltmore’s production facility confirmed a real, working winery, complete with fermentation tanks, caves, and wines ready to be transported to the winery’s own fulfillment warehouse, not outsourced to a third-party company. It was also bottling day for one of Biltmore’s wines. The crew members were delighted to show off the winery’s bottling line, as they engaged in a friendly competition of most bottles produced in a day.
An opportunity to taste three of Biltmore’s estate wines, a Sonoma County wine, and an American AVA designated wine, demonstrated the exemplary breadth and depth of Delille’s and Fenchak’s winemaking talents. The tasting began with their grande dame sparkling wine, the 2015 Biltmore Estate® Château Reserve Blanc de Blancs, North Carolina ($50), which recently earned gold in the 2018 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. A favorite of the tasting, this wine showcases a lovely balance of zingy acidity, mouthwatering citrus, and a yeasty, creamy mousse. The second wine, the 2017 Biltmore Estate® Reserve Chardonnay, North Carolina ($24), is an outstanding value. Barrel fermentation, six to eight months of French and American oak aging, and malolactic fermentation gently cradle the wine’s zesty tree fruit flavors. The third wine, the 2016 Biltmore Estate® Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, North Carolina ($25), is proof that Biltmore can grow and make cabernet sauvignon in North Carolina and do it well. Its softer style and lower alcohol (13%) speak to those who think they do not enjoy red wines. In stark contrast stylistically to the first three wines, the 2015 Biltmore Estate® The Hunt, Sonoma County ($40 for the 2016 vintage), inspired by the estate’s former game hunts, is a robust, luscious, Bordeaux-style blend of 40% cabernet sauvignon, 35% cabernet franc, and 25% merlot, calling for rich meat dishes. At lunch in The Bistro, I enjoyed a glass of the NV Biltmore Estate® Blanc de Noir, American ($25), whose effervescence and vibrant red berry flavors paired exquisitely with the salmon dish of the day.
Biltmore’s reputation as a premium destination and lifestyle brand is unrivaled in the hospitality industry, so much so that they offer their own “immersion into luxurious world-class service” program through the International Association for Continuing Education and Training (IACET) accredited Biltmore Center for Professional Development. This pursuit of excellence translates into every aspect of Biltmore, including the winery, which, after 33 years, continues to be a pioneer and a leader in American, East Coast, and North Carolina wine production.
In September, I visited El Dorado County for the second time, my first time returning since fall 2016 when I met and tasted with Greg Boeger of Boeger Winery. This trip, I was graciously hosted by Visit El Dorado and ventured beyond the wine to whitewater rafting. My first whitewater rafting experience was many years ago during a Spanish summer abroad program in Costa Rica and I loved it. Therefore, I was thrilled to return to the rapids of the South Fork of the American River with Raft California and guide and operations manager, Anna Weber. I wish I could think of a more polite word, but Anna is badass in every way. She inspired me so much that I decided to interview her. Below are my questions and her answers.
What kind of experiences does Raft California offer?
Raft California offers whitewater rafting trips for ages four and up, from mild Class II to wild Class V. With over 40 years of experience, Raft California provides both day and multi-day trips on over 12 rivers in the state of California. The beautiful rivers for which we offer commercial rafting trips range from the gateway of Sequoia National Park all the way to the Oregon border. Some of our river offerings are nationally preserved wild and scenic stretches! The raft guides are also the chefs and cater delicious riverside meals to accompany the trips. Over the years, we have branched out to include hot springs, wine tours, and fishing whitewater trips – all fun ways to spice up a rafting outing!
What makes Raft California different from other rafting companies in El Dorado County?
Our staff and our river offerings are what set Raft California aside from other companies in El Dorado County. Our campground is over 60 acres of private grounds and includes beautiful riverside camping with canvas tents and riverside dining. The staff is extremely experienced – many with over a decade or two of guiding experience. Select guides on our staff head to the southern hemisphere in our off season to pursue the same line of work because of their passion for whitewater rafting. Our claim to fame is the long list of permitted rivers that we offer. If someone rafts with us in El Dorado County and wants to explore more rivers in our state, Raft California can offer that.
What drew you to become the operations manager and raft guide for Raft California?
I began as a raft guide for the company. I was often appointed head guide and trip lead for many of our trips. Our general manager knew that I had prior managerial experience in a similar industry which led him to ask if I would like to manage the South Fork American day trips that we offered. This quickly morphed into a river manager position, and this season, grew into an operations manager role. I enjoy the challenge of managing and decided it would be best to continue this line of work in the summer. This enabled me to free up time in the winter to travel and play in the snow.
How long have you been with Raft California?
I have been full time with Raft California officially since 2015 but helping part time since 2012.
What qualifications are required to be a raft guide? What does a raft company operations manager do?
The qualifications required to be a raft guide are different all over the world. In the United States, it varies by state. To be a raft guide in California, many people attend a guide school. These are offered by many commercial companies including Raft California. After completing guide school, raft guide candidates train on each river section until they are deemed capable of guiding commercial guests by a senior guide staff member. In Maine where I learned how to raft guide, each raft guide must additionally acquire a Maine Whitewater Guide’s License through the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
The duties of an operations manager at Raft California consist of overseeing the operations! I manage a staff of coordinators appointed to run the grounds and facilities, river trips, meals, transportation, and satellite operations, like our base for the Truckee River located in Truckee, California. Anything Raft California related that happens outside is the operations manager’s domain. This also includes raft guide housing and handling the guide, scheduling, and reporting aspects of our computer system.
Please share one or two memorable rafting trips and why they are unforgettable.
Oh man, I love this question. There are so many memorable rafting trips and I could write about this all day because every trip is different. Sometimes the trip is so memorable because of the chemistry between the guests. Other times it is because of the weather that day or the wildlife we were lucky enough to see. For me, sometimes rafting trips are memorable because it is not a commercial trip and I am in an exotic place with my friends or family experiencing a new river.
I took a couple rafting in the spring. Only a husband and wife in their mid-60s who had never been rafting before had signed up for a day trip on the Chili Bar section of the South Fork American River. When our shuttle driver had left us, they, especially the wife, seemed extremely nervous. There was no one else except for the three of us. They could not imagine we would get down the river safely with the power of only three people. After navigating the first Class III rapid with no problem, they eased up a little bit. About an hour into the trip a bald eagle flew up the river at eye level and landed on a tree branch hanging over the water. As we floated by it watched us and we watched it. After we passed by it would leap frog us and land on another branch on the opposite side of the river downstream looking at us until we floated by. No one said anything. This leapfrogging with the bald eagle and our raft lasted for almost a mile until it flew off. The look of amazement in their eyes was indescribable as the husband blurted out “Did you see that ******* bald eagle?! It was ******* AWESOME!” Everything – from the silence on the river that day (we did not see another boat), to the eagle experience to this man’s ridiculous exclamation – made this one of my favorite commercial trips.
My most memorable non-commercial rafting trip was the first time I was lucky enough to float down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. This was for many reasons, but particularly the weather. Our group of seven had landed a permit to float this section during monsoon season. We were taking a day off from rafting to enjoy our campsite, “Matkat Hotel,” for two nights and a whole day. Our timing of choosing to lay over on this day was impeccably coordinated with the weather. The first night we were camping here, a thunderstorm rolled in. This was not just any thunderstorm. It was the granddaddy of monsoon thunderstorms. All night it poured rain and the thunder boomed through the canyon amplified by the canyon walls. At sunrise, we were greeted by what seemed like hundreds of gigantic waterfalls pouring in from every inch of the canyon walls. Depending on the drainage, each waterfall generated caused the water to be a different color. The juxtaposition of each waterfall’s color was unreal as they each cascaded into the opaque brown of the Colorado River. The Colorado was carrying massive amounts of tree trunks and debris from flash flooding tributaries upstream. The amount of sediment in the water would conceal these huge hazards from sight until the turbulent current would swirl them around until we would see a giant tree trunk shoot randomly shoot out into the air. Needless to say, this day I was glad to be a spectator from the bank of the river in the right place at the right time.
When is rafting season in El Dorado County?
Commercial rafting season in El Dorado Country is from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend. Raft California typically takes guests down our rivers from March through October. If a group wants to go winter rafting, and the river levels are navigable, we will take them!
What kind of work do you do in the off season?
I snowboard as much as possible during the winter season. Teaching, training, and managing at ski and snowboard schools has made it possible for me to do this during the winters since 2002. There was a short stint I worked at a Heli Ski Lodge in Alaska. I also travel during the winter months. The past few years, I traveled to Japan, Alaska, and France for snowboarding endeavors.
When you are not rafting, what else do you enjoy doing?
If I am not playing on the river or on the snow, you will often find me sleeping, seeing live music, or cooking. In recent years, I have learned mountain biking, which has provided me with a new challenge!
During my experience with you, I discovered that whitewater rafting is a great metaphor for life. Do you agree? If so, how?
Absolutely, whitewater rafting IS a great metaphor for life. You must go with the flow. You cannot fight against the current. Sometimes you need to eddy out. I decided this year that I am rigged to flip for life!
Wine tasting as a standalone activity is something I have never really enjoyed. Wine should be enjoyed with friends and food, so when my Seattle family invited me for a long weekend, I brought with me two recently received wine samples, the 2016 Château de Poncié Le Pré Roi Fleurie ($22), and 2016 Augusta Winery Vignoles, Augusta AVA, Missouri ($15), for a summer wine dinner party. A public relations representative pitched the Fleurie to me as a “Beaujolais, The Rosé for Fall” and a Thanksgiving wine, to which I countered, “I think Gamay is a perfect summer red, too, slightly chilled.” I decided to go with my angle. Missouri Wines sent me the Vignoles without a pitch or advanced notification. I learned it was in route thanks to an automatic tracking alert from UPS My Choice, then a follow-up email from Missouri Wines after the wine shipped.
Often wine consumers know Beaujolais because of the annual Beaujolais Nouveau release, but are unfamiliar with Cru Beaujolais. This was confirmed in Seattle by the dinner guests when I presented the Fleurie. Furthermore, none of the guests had heard of Vignoles, and my co-host, Gary, did not reveal that this wine was from Missouri until the next day. I will also confess that while not my first Missouri wine, this was my first Vignoles. If you have not had Vignoles, either, it is white grape that can be made as a dry, semi-sweet, or dessert-style wine. This sample was semi-sweet.
Gary had already planned the menu for the evening: grilled chicken and asparagus, always respectful of my healthy lifestyle. The other dinner guests brought brats for appetizers, green salad to accompany the meal, and fruit salad for dessert. When informed about the menu, I decided to serve the Fleurie with dinner and the Vignoles as the closer because of its sweetness. Gary seemed surprised that I chose a red wine with poultry, but I explained that this should be a good pairing with the chilled, lighter red. We had also selected a sparkling rosé for the evening, too, but as the evening progressed, we realized these two wines were enough.
Once everyone arrived, a discussion ensued about the preparation of the meal. Gary decided to cook the brats by simmering in a can of Rainier Brewing Company beer, then grilling them on a 600-degree infrared grill. He marinated the chicken breasts in Italian salad dressing for 36 hours, then grilled them at 450 degrees for 25-30 minutes, turning them over near the end. He tossed the asparagus in avocado oil with a dash of salt and pepper, then grilled them on low for 10 minutes.
We took the Fleurie out of the refrigerator about 20 minutes before we served it with the main course of chicken, asparagus, and salad. The commentary from the group was interesting to hear as everyone’s palate is different. The Fleurie expressed a much darker fruit profile than I expected, such as blackberry and plum. In fact, I think this wine would have paired wonderfully with the brats we had before dinner, which were nothing short of amazing, because of the fattiness of the meat and the acidity of the wine. This is also why this wine would work for a traditional Thanksgiving’s hearty, higher-fat, poultry-based menu. Gary, who is accustomed to drinking bolder reds, immediately noticed the much higher acidity and softer tannins, noting that this is a food wine, not a sipping wine. And, Kelly remarked that the wine had a lot more going on in the middle and back of the palate than upon first sip. This Fleurie is young and would be even more lovely a few more years in the bottle.
When we tasted the Vignoles, I thought, “This is the perfect pairing for this fruit salad”. Another confession: I am not usually a fan of wines with any sweetness. However, the Vignoles smelled and tasted like summer: a bowl of fresh apples, peaches, pineapples, and tangerines. The dinner guests took it a step further by adding the fruit to their glass, creating a delightful, adult summer cocktail. This was the shock and awe wine of the evening, and when Gary texted the group the next day telling them it was from Missouri, the surprise reactions continued.
Gary and I have talked about this dinner party over the course of the past week and have decided to plan future wine dinners together. He will be the chef and I will provide the wine. If you would like a wine to be featured at one of our dinner parties, please contact me in advance and send suggested healthy and flavorful food pairings, too. Oh, and stay tuned for the video that didn’t happen at this party!