ASHEVILLE, N.C. — In the early 1900s, the Vanderbilt family were rich enough to do just about anything they wanted to do. Build their own chateau-style mansion? Sure. Raise their own beef and dairy cattle? Done. Exotic Italian statuary and water garden? Check. Install a home bowling alley and full-sized indoor swimming pool? Check and check.
But it wasn’t until 1971 that the Vanderbilts started making wine, and it took another decade or so before they made good wine. In fact, the first bottle produced at the Biltmore Estate was described by W. Cecil Vanderbilt as making “for a pretty good-looking bottle of wine, just don’t drink it.”
Over the years, the Biltmore Winery’s reputation has improved a good bit. Located in the Antler Hill section of the Biltmore property about a five-mile drive from the main estate, it’s the most visited winery in the country, hosting more than 1 million people each year.
A guided tour of the facility, complimentary with admission to Biltmore Estate, takes visitors down a long stone cellar tunnel that originally was used to dispose of manure droppings from the milk cows kept just above. The building was originally a dairy barn, designed by Biltmore House architect Richard Morris Hunt.
But that distinctive bovine aroma no longer wafts through the cellar, which now houses a few displays, including the wine “library” with bottles of everything they’ve made.
Then comes the winery itself, where visitors see the huge stainless steel fermenters and the oak barrels used to age the wines. Finally comes the best part, as people end up in the large tasting room next to the winery gift shop. They can sit at the long bar and choose complimentary samples from 20-plus Biltmore wines.
Those who want to try Biltmore’s more expensive wines can do a Premium Tasting for $3 per taste or three tastes for $8. Invariably, wine lovers find something they like and end up leaving with a bottle or two in their arms.
Some wine lovers dismiss the Biltmore label, assuming it’s not as good as something from Napa Valley or anywhere on the West Coast. And it still generally takes a back seat to the best of the West. But Biltmore’s reputation is improving. Over the last few years the winery has won a slew of gold medals, and even very particular wine drinkers are starting to take notice. Among the honors in 2011:
• Five Biltmore wines scored 90 or higher at the recent Consumer Wine Awards in Lodi, Calif.
• Biltmore Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon earned a gold medal at the San Diego International Wine Competition.
• The Biltmore Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon — Alexander Valley was rated 92 points by the Beverage Tasting Institute.
• Biltmore Reserve Pinot Noir — Russian River Valley won a gold in the Dallas Morning News Wine Competition, the largest commercial wine competition outside of California. It was open to wines from all regions of the world.
• Biltmore earned a Best of Class in three categories out of more than 5,000 wines at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, the largest competition of American wines. Honored were Biltmore Estate Sparkling Blanc de Blancs, Biltmore Sauvignon Blanc and Biltmore Century Red, while Biltmore Reserve Chardonnay-North Carolina earned a gold medal.
At the wine website snooth.comâ€‰ , eight Biltmore wines rated at 4 out of 5 or better, and 19 scored at 3.5 or better. “They seem to be turning out some very good wines. They’re worth taking a look at,” said Rick Jelovsek, a Johnson City wine educator and consultant. “They’re really up-and-coming, but it didn’t used to be that way. I’d say probably the last five years they’ve picked up.” The winery has won more than 300 medals, and much of the credit goes to Biltmore winemaster Bernard Delille and winemaker Sharon Fenchak, who bring very different backgrounds to the job.
Delille is from France, came to Biltmore in 1986 and become winemaker in 1991.
He has experience as a winemaker in the Pyreneese Atlantiques region of France, has a masters degree in biochemistry and loves sparkling wines made in the traditional methode champenoise, with a second fermentation taking place in the bottle.
Fenchak is originally from Pennsylvania, holds degrees from Georgia and Penn State, and came to Biltmore in 1999. She became a winemaker in 2003 and is especially involved in research and development for new grape-growing methods.
The first grapes were planted here in 1971, while Biltmore Winery officially opened in 1985 and celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. There are 94 acres of vineyard along the French Broad River, producing more than 250 tons of grapes annually, all hand-harvested.
Many people assume all Biltmore wines are made from grapes grown on the estate, but growing some types of grapes in the mountain climate is difficult. So about 80 percent of the grapes in Biltmore wines actually come from Washington State and from Napa Valley and Alexander Valley in California. Biltmore has them trucked to Asheville and produces all the wines here.
Delille and Fenchak have found the grapes that work — Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chardonnay, Viognier and Riesling — and the ones that won’t grow here — Zinfandel, Syrah and Pinot Noir, in particular.
“That can be challenging trying to grow French varietals here,” Jelovsek said. “They not only have the challenge of growing French grapes on the East Coast, but they also do it at a higher elevation, so with the cooler climate they’re at more risk in bad winters.”
In fact, the winter of 1995 included a three-day span so brutally cold that Biltmore lost 100 acres of their grapes. It was a major setback, but the winery forged ahead, and now is among the leaders of a burgeoning North Carolina wine scene, with more than 100 wineries in the state.
The search for grapes and hybrids that will grow here is an ongoing process, so Biltmore maintains a small experimental vineyard on the hillside next to the winery. (The main vineyards are in a different part of the estate.)
Cost for visiting: While the winery is free, Biltmore Estate admission ranges from $54 to $64, depending on the date. There are discounted dates and specials, so researching online is worth the effort. Buying online at least seven days in advance saves $10. For more information, visit www.biltâ€‰ more.comâ€‰ .