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Flavor 9: N.C. Wine with a View

September 2, 2014

On a trip to Barcelona in 2000, surrounded by good food, company, and wine, Jeff and Dianne Frisbee mused, "Wouldn't it be interesting to build a vineyard back home?"

The more the couple thought about it, the more the idea appealed to them. Starting a vineyard would be a way to preserve the family farm while also living near family and earning an income.

Nine years later, after convincing Jeff's teetotaler parents to become partners and moving back home from Atlanta, the Frisbees put their first vines in the ground.

Addison Farms Vineyard is located at 2300 feet, in Leicester, North Carolina. Its name comes from Addison Farmer, Jeff's maternal grandfather. Purchased in 1937, the farm was once home to cattle and tobacco. When Jeff was growing up, the vineyard was summer hayfield and winter pasture.

Jeff's background is in technology sales. To learn the skills of his new trade, he took winemaking classes at Surry Community College in Dobson. His wife, Dianne, is an art director for a motion graphics business — a skill set that comes in very handy for designing the vineyard's sleek wine labels and website.

The Frisbees cultivate vinifera, European grape varieties. Jeff says their choices of which grapes to grow were based a mix of guesswork, concerns of commercial viability, and climate considerations: the area's high humidity meant they needed grapes with relatively thick skins and loose clusters to permit air flow and ward off fungal disease.

Of their 700-1000 cases produced annually, about 70% are red and 30% white and rosé. They currently grow Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Petit Verdot, and Petit Manseng on seven acres — five acres in their vineyard, plus two additional acres they manage 10 miles away.

The Frisbees also contract with other North Carolina growers for their fruit. As Jeff explains, "It ends up being a way for us to help support some other farmers in the community, and at the same time save us some labor on ourselves." They source their Chambourcin from Mary and David Simmons at Spring Branch Vineyards near Mt. Airy, N.C., and their Tempranillo from Wendy and Kelvin Wooten at Moon Lake Vineyards in Olin, N.C.

Addison Farms Vineyard is now mostly through véraison, the onset of ripening and change of color in the grape berries, and just a couple of weeks away from harvest. Sam, the family dog, roams freely, his scent warding off local bears, and the nearly 360-degree Blue Ridge Mountain views arrest the eye and calm the mind.

Jeff plucks off a couple of berries, Sangiovese and Petit Manseng, and we chew. Jeff points out that the seeds are still green and soft. Part of the art of gauging ripeness, he says, is looking at the seeds — the grapes are generally ready for harvest when their seeds are brown and crunchy.

The Frisbees also rely on science to decide when the grapes are ready. In addition to using their taste buds to note when acids are starting to drop out, they measure the grapes' primary chemistries: sugar, titratable acidity, and pH. Jeff's personal preference is to keep acid at a higher level by not letting the grapes get too sweet. "Adjusting sugar is easy," he explains. "Adjusting acid is not."

We head to the winery, where I see the tanks, barrels, and a large crusher-destemmer machine. Addison Farms Vineyard white wines are aged 3-6 months in tank, whereas their reds are aged 12-24 months in barrel, and a little more time in bottle.

Barrel and yeast choices, Jeff explains, very much affect wine flavor. He and his family use four different barrel styles, including 100% American oak, Eastern European oak, and hybrids with French oak heads. For most of their red wines, the Frisbees choose a yeast that gives richer mouth feel, adds texture, and preserves some of fruity characters of the grapes.

The Frisbee family has been very pleased with the grapes and wine they have been able to produce thus far. "I think we have our own opportunities to be world-class winemakers in this area," Jeff says.

Their 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon was especially well received, perhaps in part because of customer recognition of that variety. "I would question whether knowing the name drives the interest in that wine more than it does some of the others," Jeff says.

"How is your wine different from wine produced elsewhere in the world?" I ask.

"Wine is especially sensitive to where it's from," Jeff explains. Cabernet Sauvignon from Addison Farms Vineyard is not going to be the same as a California cabernet, and that is not going to be the same as a Bordeaux. For one thing, climate and growing conditions are radically different: while Bordeaux is fairly cold, with adequate rain, California is warm with inadequate rain. Addison Farms Vineyard, in contrast, is warm and gets plenty of rain. As a result, says Jeff, "Each one is going to express the same type of fruit differently."

There's a term for this. The French word terroir literally means regional land or soil, but is more loosely translated to mean specificity of place. It is applied not only to wine, but to coffee, tea, chocolate, hops, tomatoes, and other agricultural products.

It's easy to accept that place creates difference. But articulating those differences is another matter.

Jeff admits he is still working on finding the right words to describe how his wines differ from others produced from the same grape varieties elsewhere in the world. He thinks it's something that is often up to each individual palette.

We head to the tasting room, where I sample several Addison Farms Vineyard wines, including Smokehouse Red, a smoky Chambourcin and Sangiovese blend named for the smokehouse behind Jeff's grandparents' place, a stellar 2012 Red Dress Montepulciano, and a dessert wine with hints of mocha and raspberry called Gratitude, which makes a nice dessert on its own but really shines when paired with dark chocolate.

Apart from the high quality of the wines, Jeff believes a big selling point for his vineyard is the element of locality. He thinks buying and consuming what's produced locally is an important part of Western North Carolina culture. "We're fiercely and historically an independent lot..." he says. "I think that's one of the reasons the locavore movement has been so successful in this area."

Conditions forced Jeff and Dianne to use non-local fruit for their wines once, but they don't want to do it again. "Our intent," Jeff says, " to show what North Carolina fruit is."

Find Addison Farms Vineyard wines at Katuah Market in Asheville, Sunburst Market in Waynesville, Maggie B's in Weaverville, and Vaso de Vino in Arden.