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Biltmore's Bi-Coastal Wines

One of the most-interesting wineries in the United States is located in the Great Smoky Mountains near Asheville, North Carolina.  You have probably heard about it but may not have tasted its wines unless you happened to have visited the property, which tens of thousands of people do annually.

It’s called Biltmore Estate, an amazing mansion and property constructed by the Vanderbilts, beginning in 1895 and still owned by the family.  It’s spread over 800 acres – the mansion itself, formal and informal gardens, restaurants and a hotel, loads of outdoor activities and indoor events, all apparently well-managed and imaginatively updated from time to time.

It also makes and sells almost two million bottles (150,000 cases) of wine annually at the estate, which is sold there, by retailers and online. Biltmore has been making wine since 1985, now in a winery converted from a dairy barn.  They started by growing their own grapes and still farm dozens of acres of vineyards, including 25 acres of Sauvignon Blanc plus plots of old-vine Cabernets and Chardonnay plantings used largely in their very good sparkling wine program.  Some grapes are also purchased from local growers, but the vast majority – about 85 percent according to winemaker Bernard Delille – comes from freshly picked grapes or juice grown in California and Washington state and shipped refrigerated cross-country.  All labels have the Biltmore name, but they are, of course, also identified by where the grapes are grown.   (For example, I recently had a very good 2010 Biltmore Estate Russian River Pinot Noir – grown on one coast and made into wine on the other.)  I don’t think that such a large, successful, bi-coastal wine operation exists elsewhere.

I visited the vineyards and winery at Biltmore not long ago, and my bottom line is simple: The most-important thing in judging a wine is always how it tastes.  Assuming it’s also made responsibly and labeled correctly, the main criteria are covered. Biltmore comes out positively on all three. 

That doesn’t mean that Biltmore sourcing isn’t worthy of discussion and perhaps even some debate.  Traditionally, we have given our strongest approval to wines that are made on the same property where the grapes are grown – the popular image of winemaking.  But it’s quite common in all major wine-growing countries for both small and large winemakers to buy some of their grapes from someone else.  Sometimes it’s a mile down the road, sometimes 10 miles, at times hundreds of miles, especially in Australia.  Yeah, I really like the idea of small winemakers who know every vine they have planted, but the real judgment should always be how good/fresh are the grapes or juice when they reach the winery?

Second, we have worshipped at the altar of terroir where the first commandment is that wine is made in the vineyard.  While I don’t totally buy either idea, the Biltmore winemakers are certainly looking for the best terroirs – whether they are in their North Carolina vineyards, the Columbia River Valley or Sonoma County.

Third, we don’t like to think that local independent grape growers are being dissed by such practices, especially on the East Coast where prized grapes are difficult and costly to grow.  A recent ruling in Pennsylvania freed winemakers to buy grapes from anywhere in the world.  If they want, they can make and sell a Malbec wine whose grapes are grown in Argentina.  That doesn’t seem very neighborly to someone who grows grapes near that winery.  I could be wrong about this – please drop me a message if I am – but I think demand for locally made wines on the East Coast is such that most farmers who grow good grapes have a market for them.

But let’s get back to the bottom line – the way the wines taste.  Not every wine I tasted at Biltmore is world class, but the vast majority of them are well-made and generally sensibly priced.

And the Biltmore solution of estate/local/national sourcing is an interesting one because it is almost culinary in nature.  After all, don’t chefs search the world – locally, of course, but also far, far away – for the best raw ingredients they can lay their hands on and then work their individual magic to produce the best finished dishes they can whip up – every night in thousands of fine restaurants worldwide?

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