Biltmore Winery: A Model of Quality and Hospitality

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The stunning sparkling wines of Biltmore. Photo Credit: The Biltmore Company.

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.

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The wine tasting space at Biltmore

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.

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The estate vineyards at Biltmore. Photo Credit: The Biltmore Company.

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.

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Touring with retired winemaker, Bernard Delille

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.

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Bottling day at Biltmore

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.

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Tasting with Bernard Delille

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.

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Tasting with Director of Business Development, Jeff Plack

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.

Key Links
Visit Biltmore
Biltmore Annual Pass
Visit and Taste at the Winery
Wine Club
Purchase Wines

 

Biltmore Estate Winery

Biltmore Estate in the Fall (biltmore.com)
Biltmore Estate in the Fall (The Biltmore Company, biltmore.com)

Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, is truly a marvel. The center of attraction, the house, was built by architect Richard Morris Hunt for the George Vanderbilt family. The house was modeled on three 16th century French châteaux. It is comprised of four acres of floor space, 250 rooms, 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces, including a swimming pool, a gymnasium and changing rooms, a bowling alley, servants’ quarters, and kitchens in the basement alone. It took six years to complete, opening in 1895. The house is surrounded by gardens and landscaping created by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed New York City’s Central Park. The original property was 125,000 acres, and from that arose the birthplace of forestry management in Western North Carolina. Edith Vanderbilt sold approximately 86,700 acres of the estate’s land on May 21, 1914 to the federal government, which became Pisgah National Forest. In 1968, The Cradle of Forestry was born from 6500 acres of this land.

Biltmore Wine Shop
Biltmore Wine Shop

Today Biltmore is still an 8000-acre, family-owned working estate and National Historic Landmark. It does not receive any funding from the government, but rather, remains privately funded. The estate now includes the Inn on Biltmore Estate, the Cottage on Biltmore Estate, six dining options (all participants in Biltmore’s Field to Table Program, which focuses on growing and procuring the best foods), 13 shopping venues, a farm in Antler Village, the Outdoor Adventure Center (Segway tours, driving lessons in a Land Rover, fly-fishing, sporting clays, bike rentals, horseback riding, carriage rides, and river float trips on French Broad River), and a winery.

Biltmore Dairy Farm, Now Winery
Biltmore Dairy Farms, Now Biltmore Estate Winery

When I was growing up in Asheville, Biltmore was a household name, not just because of the estate, but because of Biltmore Dairy Farms. All of our dairy products came from Biltmore. Today Biltmore Estate’s winery is housed in this converted dairy barn. William A.V. Cecil, the grandson of George Vanderbilt, decided that a winery would be the natural outcome of ongoing research and a logical extension of his grandfather’s intention that the estate be self-supporting. The first vines were planted in 1971 in a valley near the French Broad River on the west side of the estate. The winery opened to the public in 1985.

Racked sparkling wines
Racked sparkling wines

Biltmore now has two winemakers, Bernard Delille and Sharon Fenchak, who have very different backgrounds. Delille is a French native, studied at the Faculty of Science in Lyon, France, and worked as a winemaker in the Pyrenées Atlantiques region. Fenchak is originally from Pennsylvania, holds degrees from Penn State University and the University of Georgia, and formerly made wines for two Georgia wineries. The winery currently grows Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Riesling, and Viognier in the 90-acre estate vineyard, as well as grows grapes in California, Georgia, Oregon, and Washington. Biltmore also produces wines in an undisclosed West Coast facility. The estate grapes are handpicked and harvest averages 250 tons of grapes per year. The grapes are then fermented in 75 tanks and aged in oak barrels or stainless steel tanks. The winery has a portfolio of 15 grape varieties and produces more than 45 wines. It also offers a tour and tasting, which is included as part of one’s admission to the estate, as well as specialty wine tours at a nominal fee. Those include Vine to Wine, Red Wine & Chocolate Seminar, and the Biltmore Bubbles Tour.

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Fermentation Tanks at Biltmore

I have been a Biltmore Estate Passholder for a number of years, but had not been to the winery in a very long time. When I visited the winery on September 22, 2013, I was surprised how production had grown. There were 37 wines offered during my visit, but I only tasted 19 as I never saw any dump buckets or spittoons. Poor me. I arrived when the winery opened at noon, tasted some white wines, then embarked on the tour and tasting included in admission. Although the winery has grown, the tour was very similar to the one I took during my last visit, except for a focus on the sparkling wine production area. Upon concluding the tour, we tasted a barrel-fermented estate Chardonnay. We were told by our guide that Biltmore uses a combination of French and American oak and purchases new barrels every three years once they become neutral. Based on that information, I determined that the barrel-fermented wines would have more of an oak influence, which I first noticed with the Chardonnay we tasted. I returned to the large tasting area and tried the rosé and red wines. I was correct in my assumption about more prevalent oak aromas and flavors in the red wines. I also learned from the tasting hosts indirectly that Biltmore is very aware of their audience and consumer market. Customer favorites are also indicated on the tasting list provided to guests. Most of the wines produced appear to be targeted towards customer preferences, such as preferred grape varieties, use of oak, and sweetness/dryness. Interestingly, all of the still rosé wines I tasted were off-dry to sweet, which was my one disappointment. However, I would not be surprised if Biltmore doesn’t plan to offer dry rosé in the future, if they are keeping their eye on consumer palates and trends like I think they are.

Biltmore Sparkling Wines Flight
Biltmore Sparkling Wines Flight

I wanted to taste some of the premium offerings, especially the sparkling wines, so I made my way to the premium tasting area and wine bar within the wine shop. I elected to try three of the sparkling wines: Biltmore Estate® Château Reserve Blanc de Blancs – 2010 North Carolina (Chardonnay), Biltmore Estate® Brut (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier), and Biltmore Estate® Blanc de Noir (Pinot Noir). The first is North Carolina estate-grown and produced, while the other two are grown and produced by Biltmore with grapes from different American vineyards. All are produced in the traditional method, or méthode champenoise. My personal favorites of these three were the Reserve Blanc de Blancs, with its aromas and flavors of citrus, tree fruits, tropical fruits, and toast, and the Estate Blanc de Noir, with aromas and flavors of juicy cherries and strawberries. My host concluded my visit by offering me a taste of the Biltmore Estate® Reserve Riesling – 2012 North Carolina, which was a bit reminiscent of a Finger Lakes Riesling, off-dry, but balanced by some mouthwatering acidity.

My Biltmore Purchases
My Biltmore Purchases

I decided to purchase three of Biltmore’s wines, one white, one red, and one sparkling, for further tasting: the Biltmore® Pinot Grigio 2012 ($11.99, almost sold out), the Biltmore® Sangiovese 2012 ($18.99)and the Biltmore Estate® Blanc de Noir ($24.99), at 10% off for three bottles.

For those wishing to visit Biltmore, the winery is part of the estate admission, so the basic tour and tastings are complimentary. Their award-winning wines are for sale in the estate wine shop in Antler Village, at retailers, and online to states as allowable by state law. There are wine collections at all price points, something for everyone, including the Biltmore Collection ($9-$20), Century Collection ($15-$20), Biltmore Reserve Collection ($14-$30), Antler Hill Collection ($35-$50), and Biltmore Estate Sparkling Collection ($18-$30). The winery also has a wine club.

Santé!
Beth