Life in our Foothills November 2022 – Parker-Binns Vineyard Builds On Tryon’s Grape Legacy
Published 11:55 am Wednesday, November 16, 2022
When you turn your gaze to Tryon Peak and the surrounding mountains that provide the first glimpse of what makes this part of Western North Carolina special, it’s easy to forget these mountains are geologically among the oldest in the world. In fact, Tryon Peak, White Oak, Warrior, Melrose and Hogback all once towered more than 10,000 feet high before erosion skimmed their tops and left deposits of mineral-rich soil that created the rolling hills and valleys that define the region.
On 40 acres carved out of these rolling hills east of Mill Spring, Bob Binns surveys row after row of freshly harvested grapevines with his grandson and vineyard manager Cory Lillberg. Joining them on the veranda is Cory’s eight-year-old son Hunter who is already well-versed in the various varieties of grapes found in the vineyards and work that produces some of the best wines in the Carolinas. Also joining them is the “queen of the vineyard” Lulu, the beloved vineyard mutt whose presence graces three special varieties of wine popular with patrons at Parker-Binns Vineyard.
To understand how Parker-Binns Vineyard has become a favorite destination for those in the area, you first must step back to 2007, when Ft. Lauderdale tropical tree farmer Bob and his wife and partner, Karen Binns, hatched an idea to spend cooler summers in the mountains of North Carolina. They made an initial purchase of 10 acres, built a work barn with an apartment on top, devised a plan to grow some vegetables, and heard the Biltmore Estate would purchase grapes for their wines from local growers. To them, it sounded like the perfect scenario.
At a time in their lives when they could start thinking about what retirement might look like in a couple of years, Bob and Karen instead cultivated the hillside, set poles and wiring, and planted row by row of grapevines by hand. They shared their excitement about the supply of grapes they were set to deliver to the famous winery in Asheville.
With Bob and Karen’s vines maturing, the 2008 recession hit, and the Biltmore Winery decided to forego local grapes and instead rely on their own vineyards for production. Bob and Karen made the decision to do something not in their original plan, but one that made sense given they had a vineyard full of plump, juicy grapes readying for harvest – they’d make their own wine.
“The first batches quickly revealed Karen was the better winemaker between the two of us, so she focused on developing the wines and I set about cultivating the vineyards, growing different varieties, and working on getting more land ready for planting more grapes,” says Bob reminiscing about their foray into viticulture. “We launched Parker-Binns Vineyard in 2010 using a portion of the barn as a tasting room with seating for 12 people. We built the smoker and a brick oven (pointing to the two structures on the patio) and served pizzas on Sundays. It’s a tradition that still continues today.”
On Memorial Day 2019, Parker-Binns opened their current tasting room, up the hill from the old barn which now serves as a wedding venue. The new and much larger tasting room oversees the entire vineyard, including an awe-inspiring view of the mountains which serve as a perfect backdrop. The venue hosts approximately 150-200 people per day on weekends, with folks enjoying the 11 varieties of wines grown and produced at the vineyards, live music, and of course pizzas on Sunday.
Giving back is at the heart of the multi-generational, family-owned winery. Each April, they host an annual pig picking that draws more than 700 people to celebrate the blooming of the vines. They host a slew of other events including one for Lennie’s Kids in Columbus that helps sick and injured animals in Polk County. Last month, they held their 6th annual Empty Bowls Fundraiser for the Thermal Belt Outreach Food Pantry which provides compassionate assistance for families in the area in need.
One event that hits close to home for Parker-Binns Vineyard is Trotting for TaTas 5K to benefit The Foundation for St. Luke’s Hospital 3D Mammography project. The event is inspired by Karen, who overcame breast cancer and hosts the annual 5K run and walk event between the vines of the vineyard.
The sweet smell of freshly harvested grapes lingers in the air and throughout the processing warehouse at the vineyard. Large metal vats that ferment the whites line the walls, while stacks of wooden casks hold the reds. The delicate process and hand-crafted balance that produces the award-winning wines of Parker-Binns falls on the shoulders of vintner Justin Taylor, who’s been a commercial winemaker for the past 10 years.
“You only get one chance a year to get it right, so there’s no pressure at all,” says the laughing winemaker as he finishes testing levels in the lab before heading into the warehouse to hand mix a fresh batch of grapes that will eventually yield a full-bodied merlot. “The magic moment is when the fermentation process really takes off. When the ferment is tracking, it gets hot and you start to get the good smells and aromas, that’s the point where you’re kinda okay, I can ride the wave now until it’s done.”
Parker-Binns Vineyards currently produces approximately 2,500 cases of wine per year, but with new vines in the ground, they are on track to produce more than 3,000 next year, says Cory while taking a look at the rich mixture of grapes his winemaker is stirring.
Cory has taken over the reins of daily operations at Parker-Binns after Bob, now in his 80s, decided to take a well-deserved step back from the labor-intensive work of running the vineyard during the pandemic. One of the projects Cory is actively involved in with other area vineyards is establishing the Tryon grape growing region as an American Viticultural Area, or AVA. In total, there are more than 20 local vineyards and five operational wineries in the area. One of the more well-known AVAs in the country is Napa Valley.
Part of the AVA application process is looking at the history, climate, and geology of the area and how it contributes to the area’s ability to produce distinctive varieties of grapes. A team of geologists recently paid a visit to the area to review soil samples from the surrounding hills and mountains as well as the climatic features that affect how Tryon’s grapes are grown. Cory says the process has been on-going for about two years, but they hope they are in the final stages of the AVA designation process.
One aspect of the AVA application that Cory found fascinating is learning about the history of viticulture in Tryon.
“Polk County has a long winemaking history dating back to the 1860s,” says Cory. That’s when George Washington Biltmore brought Jacques Alexus Lemort to the Biltmore Estate, but viticulture at that time proved unsuccessful in Asheville.
In 1865, Lemort discovered the more temperate climate, better drainage, and circulation of air in Tryon allowed grapes to thrive. Lemort remained in Tryon and commercial grape cultivation and winemaking began in earnest.
“In addition to winemaking, ‘Tryon Grapes’ were on the famed menu of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City in the early 1900s, and they even made their way west to California,” Cory says. “There’s a lot of history that has gone into the AVA application and a lot of work to make the region known for cultivating a great variety of grapes and some of the finest wines in the Carolinas.”
He says Parker-Binns Vineyard is proud to carry on the winemaking tradition of Lemort and to be part of re-establishing the region as a viticulture gem.
Tasting Room Addres: 2275 Whiteside Road
Mill Spring, NC 28756
Phone : (828) 894-0154