Shepard said that he had a feeling that he would be receiving an award that evening. “Everyone kept asking, ‘Are you going to be there? Are you going to be there?’” He said the real surprise came when they presented the second, Member of Distinction Award for sharing so much knowledge and experience with fellow vintners. “Coming in 15-20 years ago, I didn’t have the goal to be the godfather of Carolina wine,” Shepard said. His goal was to simply come and learn how to make good wine here.
Shepard started his winemaking career in Pennsylvania and moved to North Carolina in 1989 to take a position at Westbend Vineyards, a North Carolina pioneer in growing the European vinifera grapes.
There were only a handful of vineyards at that time. Shepard stayed with Westbend for 10 years, doubling the 25 acres they started with.
It was in 2000 that Joe and Joyce Neely asked Shepard to help start their new Raylen Vineyards. “It was new and exciting,” recalled Shepard. “There wasn’t much there, and I would have input from the ground up.” Shepard saw a good potential for collaboration between the Neelys and himself. “I was happy to blend my talents with their’s,” Shepard said.
He chose which vines they would plant, the winery and tasting room construction, and what type of wines they would make at Raylen. He pulled on his own experience in North Carolina winemaking, which he had shared, freely with many around him. “We knew what we wanted to plant,” Shepard said. “Syrah, petite verdot, cabernet franc and viognier were new varietals to this area but were being planted more and more. It was the clones and rootstock we were unsure about.”
To counter this uncertainty, Shepard planted several clones of each to test their vigor. They would turn out to be successful choices. Raylen started making wine that year, buying grapes from North Carolina vineyards until their own fruit was ready. Shepard’s obstacles, as he saw them, were outside the vineyard.
“Establishing a good reputation is very important. We are competing not amongst each other but with the rest of the world. You can buy a cheaper bottle of wine anywhere,” Shepard explained.
“It just costs us more to grow here. It costs us more to produce here. And on average that means we have to sell our Carolina wines anywhere from $10 to $15,” Shepard said. “But I do feel that the price does merit the quality.”
Raylen makes fifteen wines now, many of which are varietal wines—made up of at least 75 percent of one grape and displaying that particular grape’s characteristics in the wine. Shepard considers this type of winemaking to be his biggest challenge.
“My goal here is to take each variety and let them have their own character. To have a good varietal wine, you really have to work in the vineyard at finding a suitable production level (tons harvested per acre). And then you have to focus on the varietal during production.
You have to keep them separated and most important, you need to taste them.” It can be a very expensive process to find a production level that suits a grape. Each acre at Raylen costs about $2,000 to grow. If they drop fruit for better quality, that investment is going toward a much smaller yield. “It’s a fine line.”
Shepard gages Raylen’s audience and winemaking style by which wines they sell the most of. Currently there are three out of 15 wines on the list that are sweet wines. Those three make up about 15 percent of their sales. The rest fall under a sort of fruit forward, clean, fresh style of winemaking with minimal oak influence.
“They are all fun to make,” Shepard said. “Varietals are the most challenging, while blends might be the most fun to make. You’ve got to exhibit the true characteristic of one and a mishmash of the other. All the while, you try and develop a flavor profile that is consistent with the years before.”
Shepard plans to continue sharing his discoveries in North Carolina winemaking with new vineyards and wine drinkers alike. “I never saw a reason not to share my mistakes, hardships or successes with anyone,” Shepard said. “By doing that the industry grew and will keep growing.”