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September 2006
Savoring the Taste of Success
By Casey Jacobus

Shelton Vineyard’s Charlie and Ed Shelton borrowed $2,000 from their father to go into the homebuilding business in 1962 and they’ve been working together ever since then. Operating out of Winston-Salem, they built their original business, Fortis Homes, into a very successful residential company. When the boom in business development took place in the late ‘70s, the Shelton brothers started Shelco, a commercial development and construction company. They moved the corporate headquarters to Charlotte in 1991, in response to local growth, and opened additional offices in Greenville, Raleigh and Hilton Head, S.C.

Shelco’s business increased five fold after the move to Charlotte. In 2003, the brothers sold the company to their management group. Now under the leadership of President and CEO Edwin Rose, Shelco is one of the largest locally owned construction companies in the Carolinas, earning $302 million in revenues in 2005. Company-wide employment totals 300 people.

The Shelton brothers were not about to retire after selling Shelco, however. They were already deeply involved in their next project: creating a state-of-the art winery committed to the production of world-class wines.

“I doubt either of us will ever retire,” says Ed, now 66. “We like new challenges.”

 

No Sour Grapes

The Shelton brothers grew up in Mount Airy, N.C., across the street from the school they both attended from first grade through high school. Their father was a barber and their mother’s farming family spent summers working on their grandfather’s tobacco farm.

Charlie, five years older than Ed, enrolled in North Carolina State University but never attended. He got his college deposit back and put it into building his first house when he was 18. Ed spent a year at Lees-McRae College, but soon joined his brother in the homebuilding business. They made a good team.

“We do everything fifty-fifty,” says Charlie. “We settle our disputes as they come up. Our board meetings are very short.”

In 1994 Charlie bought an old dairy farm in Surry County at an auction sale. The brothers had no immediate plans for the property, but they gradually added some additional land until they had a total of 384 acres.

The idea of a winery came to Charlie in 1998 when he was flipping channels on television and saw a promo on the horticultural program at the University of California-Davis. After doing a little research, the brothers decided to try growing grapes on their dairy farm.

“At that time West Bend Winery was the only one in the area,” says Ed, “but we had both toured a lot of wineries over the years and developed a lot of ideas. We thought we could make it fit with this area.”

The brothers started with 50 acres under cultivation, but quickly discovered that both the soil and the climate of the Yadkin Valley were excellent for growing a wide variety of vinifera grapes, including Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Petit Verdot, Pinot Blanc, White Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Sangiovese Syrah, and Viognier.

Today, just seven years after breaking ground on a 33,000 square-foot state-of-the-art facility, Shelton Vineyards is the largest estate winery in North Carolina and one of the largest estate wineries on the East Coast. Two hundred acres are in cultivation and the facility is capable of producing 50,000 cases of wine annually. Its wines have won numerous national and international awards.

 

Uncorking the Bottle

The Shelton brothers faced several challenges in starting a winery amid the rolling hills and valleys of Surry County. The first challenge was to put together a team to help them bring the project to fruition. They brought in Miguel Sanchez and his family from Oregon to run the vineyard. Sanchez spent 10 years working with Benton Lane Vineyards in Monroe, Ore. He and his staff are responsible for the planting, maintenance and upkeep of Shelton Vineyards and the winery grounds.

Murphy Moore, another Oregon transplant, was chosen as the winemaker for Shelton Vineyards. Murphy has worked in the wine industry since 1997 and served as the winemaker for Cloninger Cellars in Salinas, Calif. until it closed in 2003. After working briefly at Dunham Cellars in Walla, Walla, Wash., Murphy brought her winemaking skills to North Carolina.

George Denka, a native of Beaufort, S.C., joined Shelton Vineyards in 2001 as president of the company. Denka has worked on the distribution side of the wine business for over 30 years, holding positions with Fortune 500 companies as a distributor and importer sales executive.

Denka is a past member of the organizing committees for two of the Southeast’s most prestigious wine events, The Atlanta Wine Festival (now the Atlanta Wine Summit), and the Hilton Head Wine Festival. He originated the wine appreciation course at the University of South Carolina and currently teaches a similar course at Surry Community College. He now works closely with Murphy determining which wines to sell and is involved in all aspects of the business. He even helped design the new Shelton Vineyards label.

Once the team was in place, the next challenge was to convince distributors to carry the Shelton Vineyard brand.

“In the beginning it was difficult to convince regional distributors in the Southeast, particularly Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, to take on a North Carolina wine,” says Ed Shelton. “We were able to overcome that and now have distributors in nine states and the District of Columbia.”

The final challenge was to persuade people to try their wine. The Shelton brothers pay as much attention to marketing their wine as they do to producing it. The spacious visitor center with its gift shop and wine tasting bar is open every day of the week, encouraging tourists to visit for a tour and tasting. The grounds are beautifully landscaped and picnicking is encouraged. During the summer months, there is a concert series on an outdoor stage.

Last year, the brothers added a restaurant to the on-site attractions. In June, 2006, Chef Paul S. Lange, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America with over 10 years of experience in the food industry, joined The Harvest Grill. Lange worked at Beekman Arms 1766 Tavern in upstate New York, the Oceanic at Wrightsville Beach and Ryan’s Steaks, Chops and Seafood in Winston-Salem. 

Shelton Vineyards offers a wine club, which provides exclusive discounts and privileges to members. It also offers a five-year Adopt-a-Barrel program in which the participant receives a free case of wine for the first four years, with a plaque including his name and city on display on one of the vineyard barrels during those four years. On the fifth year, the participant receives the barrel itself.

 

Cultivating Success

Shelton Vineyards is located just a few miles from the Sheltons’ grandparents’ home. Having grown up in this community, Charlie and Ed wanted to do something that would make a difference in the area’s future economy.

“This area needed a little boost,” says Ed Shelton. “We wanted to do something to help the economy that would be fun to do and would create a few jobs.”

Surry County’s economy once depended upon family-owned tobacco farms, textile mills, and furniture manufacturing. The Sheltons have their own vision for the area, which includes more tourism and more diversified farming focused on producing products for the growing number of restaurants in the area.

“Eleven and a half million people live within a 150-mile radius of here—that’s a big market,” says Ed Shelton. “In the global economy of today, you have to figure out what you can do and grow from within.”

There are currently 14 wineries in the Yadkin Valley and, while they are creating jobs and attracting tourist dollars, Ed believes there is an opportunity for farm diversification beyond grapes. He suggests the area could provide free-range veal for area restaurants as well as chickens and turkeys. He believes berries, particularly strawberries, would also be an excellent crop for the clay loam soil and temperate climate of the valley.  

The Shelton brothers are also working to encourage tourism in the area. Up to 50,000 people visit the vineyards each year. The Sheltons are also developing an 80-acre commercial development at Exit 93 on Interstate 77, just two and a half miles from the winery. A 102-room Hampton Inn will open there in the spring of 2007, along with a couple more restaurants and a retail complex.

“The winery is a positive thing for an area going through transition,” says Charlie Shelton. “Visitors buy wine, stay in hotels, and eat in local restaurants. Plus, we provide some employment that wouldn’t be here without the vineyards.”

 

Pleasing Palates

Charlie and Ed’s ultimate goal is for Shelton Vineyards to become one of the premier vineyards in the country, but they know that takes time. They hope the team they have put together will stay around long enough help the winery grow in stature and respect. But they also hope to see the other vineyards in North Carolina receive recognition on the national scene.

The Shelton brothers have been in the forefront of the effort to modernize North Carolina’s laws to make it a more wine-friendly state. North Carolina currently ranks 12th for wine production and 10th for grape production among the states, according to the North Carolina Grape Council. The council also estimates that the economic impact of vineyards and wineries in the North Carolina is $79 million with 855 jobs created.

Shelton Vineyards led a two-year effort to get the Yadkin Valley declared an America Viticutural Area in 2003. This designation recognizes the area as a distinct grape-growing region and allows growers and winemakers to establish Yadkin Valley branding for their products, giving them an important marketing tool. The Yadkin Valley is the first America Viticutural Area in North Carolina.

The area also has the only viticulture technology program in the Southeast. Surry Community College, about five miles from Shelton Vineyards, offers a two-year Associate in Science degree. Gill Giese, who teaches the college program, also works with the vineyard staff to ensure the integrity and quality of grape production.

Charlie, who helped organize the Yadkin Valley Wine Growers Association and served as its first president, helped get a $250,000 federal grant to open a wine store on Concourse E of Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Passengers can taste local wines and buy a bottle or two or have the wine shipped home. The store proved profitable in its first year of operation.

Someday Charlie and Ed hope to see younger members of the family take over Shelton Vineyards in the tradition of many great estate wineries, but neither is thinking about retirement anytime soon. One or the other is there every weekend, talking to people as they come in, loading wine in customer’s cars, or cleaning up after tour groups. They are hands-on supervisors with each new project, and while they don’t do any serious farming, they both enjoy getting their hands dirty.

“We’re not ready to turn it over to the kids,” says Ed. “We’re still having too much fun.”

Casey Jacobus is a Lake Norman-based freelance writer.
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