It takes at least three generations for any winery to “come into its own.” The first generation learns what types of grapes will grow and thrive in the vineyard.
The second generation learns which wines they can craft most effectively, and the third generation discovers who enjoys drinking the fine wine they produce.
As we celebrate the success of Biltmore’s Winery—and its second generation of family leadership—let’s take a step back to discover how it got here.
In the beginning
George Vanderbilt was known as a thoughtful collector of wines and he made it part of the fabric of the Biltmore experience. Biltmore’s archives offer notes and receipts listing some of the excellent vintages he selected for special gatherings and events. Vanderbilt’s legacy for gracious living extended to locally grown food as well. He created an extensive agricultural program on his estate and instilled in Biltmore a culture of self-sustainability.
While Mr. Vanderbilt introduced the pleasures of wine to Biltmore, it was not produced on the property until his grandson, William A.V. Cecil, had the vision and determination to take Biltmore’s agricultural tradition and re-imagine it as vineyards and a winery at Biltmore.
In the early 1970s, Mr. Cecil established Biltmore’s first vineyard near Biltmore House. At the time, growing wine grapes in North Carolina was almost unheard of given the area’s climate. Despite this, Mr. Cecil was determined to make Biltmore Winery a reality.
The first generation of winemaking at Biltmore was a decade of viticultural experimentation to determine how to grow grapes in our unique Western North Carolina climate and also which grapes would grow best in the unique Biltmore terroir. Along the way, Mr. Cecil sought out some of the best academic minds in viticulture, first in California and later in France. Together with winemaker Philippe Jourdain, Mr. Cecil pioneered the planting of vitis vinifera and moved the vineyards to the west side of the estate. The Biltmore Estate Wine Company was firmly established.
Bill at Winery ConstructionIn 1983, renovation began on the estate’s original dairy barn to convert it into a state-of-the-art winery, complete with production facilities, a tasting room, and wine shop. Bill Cecil, son of William Cecil and great-grandson of George Vanderbilt, assumed a leadership role in overseeing the project. “It wasn’t easy to turn an old barn into a new winery,” said Bill, “but we knew it was important to keep the integrity of the original structure, and that helped us make each decision along the way.”
The following year, the first bottling took place in the newly-completed production facility with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon crafted from estate grapes. The first wines were branded Chateau Biltmore, with labels featuring a sketch of Biltmore House and a rampant lion drawn from the Cecil family crest, but the name was changed to Biltmore Estate before it became available to the public.
When the Biltmore Winery opened in 1985, William A.V. Cecil proclaimed that this was the property’s “most historic event since my grandfather had opened his estate to his family 90 years earlier!”
Biltmore attributes much of its success to the talented winemakers who have taken Biltmore from young vines to mature wines, beginning with Philippe Jourdain and continuing with Bernard Delille and Sharon Fenchak.
Bernard came to Biltmore in 1986 and rose to his current position heading up the estate’s winemaking program in 1995.
“When I first arrived, I thought Biltmore was breathtaking,” said Bernard, “and I was very excited in the sense that there was no real history of growing and making wine with vinifera grapes in North Carolina—no rigid and dated rules like in France—plus the opportunity to experiment and to play with grapes from different origins.”
In 1999, Sharon Fenchak joined the winery team. Together, she and Bernard are committed to handcrafting of Biltmore Wines with the philosophy of keeping each wine true to varietal character, food-friendly, and consistent from vintage to vintage.
“Tastes change over time,” said Sharon. “Our wines are crafted in a classic style, but we keep our production facility up-to-date and we take advantage of technology and trends that help us improve our skills. It’s very important that we constantly learn more about what our guests enjoy so we can continue to produce wines they seek out here at the estate or in their own homes.”
Fast-forward more than 30 years: Biltmore now produces about 150,000 cases of wine annually, distributes its wines at the estate, online, and in retailers and restaurants across the southeast, and has become the most-visited winery in the nation. You can find also become a member of the Vanderbilt Wine Club and enjoy having their wines shipped to your door.
Visit www.biltmore.com/wine to learn more.
(Prepared by Jean Sexton of The Biltmore.)
(Image credit: The Biltmore.)