Photos Courtesy of Raylen Vineyards
Rich red and golden hues glisten across the horizon as branches shed their summer skin. The warm, comforting aroma of home-cooked meals permeates the crisp autumn air and the laughter of friends and family fills the rooms of countless residences – a seasonal feast for the senses.
As the recipes are recovered from cluttered kitchen drawers and vintage cookie canisters and the tables are set, no matter the style of celebratory spread, there are a few things that are usually for certain around this time – the gathering of favorite folks, obscene amounts of gravy and a consistent flow of fine seasonal spirits. Though the preference may vary from person to person, few can deny the added elegance of the right glass of wine, which, according to some, is simply whatever you fancy most.
Rome native and owner of RayLen Vine- yards and Winery Joyce Neely says out with the wine snob and in with the best contender for your own personal palate. Bordered to the West by the Blue Ridge Mountains and a quick drive from downtown Charlotte, nestled in the Piedmont of North Carolina, the rolling green hills of the Yadkin Valley be- came home to RayLen in 1999, when Joyce and her husband Joe bought the property. From the wooden rockers on the front porch to the green panorama of trolling vines, the European-style vineyard maintains a warm, relaxing atmosphere that embraces each guest as family.RayLen’s name reflects that family foundation, derived from the names of the Neely’s daughters, Rachel (Ra) and Helen (Len).
Avid travelers, the Neely’s gathered bits of inspiration for RayLen from trips to Italy, France and Spain; however, Joyce says, “The direct inspiration for the winery was really through friends. It was kind of happening all around us.”
With friendships that spanned the length of the United States, from California to the Carolinas, Napa to Yadkin, the Neely’s were led by abundant example and encouragement to begin their journey in North Carolina wine country. Retirement for Joe and the growth of the wine industry fell right in time. “The whole state was developing an interest in wine and grapes,” Joyce says, “and we were part of that.”
By 2001, there were four other wineries in Yadkin Valley; today there are more than 35 in the river valley appellation (wine growing region with officially recognized boundaries).
“When we went into business,” Joe explains, “there were very few operating wineries in North Carolina and there were no appellations. RayLen was really on the cutting edge of wineries [in this area], and in 15 years, it’s amazing what has developed here.”
Yadkin Valley has since become AVA (American Viticultural Area) approved and the state, as a whole, is now home to over 130 wineries and more than 400 vineyards. “The distinctive thing about North Car- olina wine,” Joyce says, “is that we like a fruit forward wine.” Fruit forward, not to be confused with sweet. RayLen does, of course, make a sweet wine, a nod to their tasters that grew up on sweet ice tea. How- ever, the majority of RayLen wines are dry European varietals.
The fellow behind the fermentation, Vintner Steve Shepard, has been growing, harvesting, crushing and fermenting with RayLen since its conception. From a com- bined 2,500 cases of five different varieties produced in 2000, to an average of more than 9,000 cases of 16 varieties currently, RayLen has grown right along with the North Carolina wine industry. Functioning as a boutique winery, Joyce expresses that they choose to remain that way. While a winery may, at times, be defined as “boutique” according to cases produced per year, the word really emphasizes the personal relationships made and the amount of passion and pride put into each tasting, each event, each vine and, in turn, each glass.
The artisanry of RayLen manifests itself into 16 different award-winning varieties of wine – award-winning wines that are now being distributed here in our community via Rome-based wine distributors Stellar Wines.
For white wine drinkers, RayLen’s Italian-style Pinot Grigio splashes the palate with citrus flavors, offering notes of lime zest and a touch of grapefruit.
There are three varieties of Chardonnay. “We do one with absolutely no Oak, which gives you the crisp taste of just the Chardonnay grape,” explains Joyce. “We have one [South Mountain’s Vineyard Chardonnay] that is lightly oaked, which means it’s been put in French Oak barrels for a period of time, and it gives it a bit of that buttery taste.” But the Viognier this year, she says, is smooth and bright with fruit.
In the red section of RayLen’s wine list, there are seven red wine varieties. Carolinius, a light-bodied blend, offers flavors of raspberry and currant, while the reds get a little more rich and robust with the Cabernet Franc, made from the Bordeaux grape varietal – lavishly referred to as “liquid velvet in a bottle.”
Named after the most powerful hurricane, RayLen’s Category 5 hits the palate with swirling layers of cassis and fig in a full-bodied blend that leaves notes of caramelized vanilla in its wake.
“The Category 5 is made from five different grapes,” Joyce explains. “It was featured on ‘The Today Show’ a while back  as one of the five top wines to watch outside of California.”
Choosing a favorite poses itself as a difficult question for Joyce and for Erin Doby, RayLen’s director of marketing and events.
Winery-hosted functions are abundant on the rolling green grounds of RayLen; that’s something the Neelys have learned in their journey. “To be in the wine business is to be in the entertainment business,” Joyce laughs.
The intimate, French country style of RayLen makes for a down-to-earth atmosphere, and Doby says that the Neelys’ eclectic taste falls right in line with the entertainment. Host to five annual festivals, it’s no secret that RayLen knows how to throw a party with class. Through these events, RayLen makes sure to support local business and community partnerships.
“I think it’s definitely ingrained in me to think locally, and so I do like to take a grass-roots approach to the events that I create,” Doby says, adding that she uses local talent and restaurants to structure festivals like their summer music series, Friday Night Live, complete with local food trucks and live music under the setting summer sun.
Since Doby considers music and wine a natural pair, she is partial to their Full Moon Festival. “It’s very music centric and it’s an all-day affair,” she explains. “This is when we feature our largest act, a seven-piece band; it’s such a good time.”
Whether the vineyard enjoys a serenade by classical guitar, showcases carolers at Christmas time, or plays host to a wedding party, their events are reasonably low key and very community oriented.
In fact, RayLen’s neighborly air is what its owners and employees like most. The tasting room is constantly visited by familiar faces, neighbors sipping wine with neighbors, and Doby says there is a core group that makes it to every festival.
“We are a mom and pop operation,” Joyce says. “We’re not in the least bit fancy.”
As the holiday season approaches, Joyce takes a moment to consider what wine pairing may best suit the traditional celebratory meal; with a noon meal, she recommends the light, fresh Pinot Grigio. If you fancy something a little more savory and full flavored, she suggests that you can’t go wrong with one of the blends, the Carolinius or the Category 5.
“Honestly, the thing that is so wonderful now is that it’s perfectly acceptable in any circle to drink whatever you like with whatever you like it with,” she says. “The wine snob is no longer stylish, and I think that’s great.”
No snob, no illusions. RayLen, much like its owners and employees, maintains an earthy, unpretentious aura, and Joyce extends an invitation to take a drive through the rolling green hills of the Yadkin Valley, taste their award-winning wines, relax in a rocker on the front porch with locally sourced cheese and crackers, and just let go. Come as a guest, leave a friend, return as family.
For more information visit, www.raylen-vineyards.com. To find participating retailers visit, www.stellarwines.org