Cary, N.C. — It started out with the science of making wine for Chatham Hill Winery owner Marek Wojciechowski. He holds a doctorate in Chemistry and used to work in Research Triangle Park. He and a friend were always wine fans and they decided to figure out how it was made.
After two years of research, Wojciechowski launched Chatham Hill Winery in 1999 - one of the first 14 wineries in the state since Prohibition. Little did he know, Chatham Hill was part of a growing segment in the industry - urban wineries, which utilize outside vineyards. Grapes are shipped to their production facilities and the wine is manufactured there.
Wojciechowski's wife and co-owner Jill Winkler said they had no idea they were part of such a growing segment until they started reading about the rise of urban wineries in California and New York.
"That's when we realized - that's what we are," Winkler said.
Chatham Hill originally envisioned being a traditional vineyard winery, but plans changed after they discovered that the climate in the Triangle wasn't conducive to growing grapes. Too much humidity or cold kills the grapes. A few days of below zero temperatures wiped out some vines they use in Yadkin Valley last year, Wojciechowski said.
Picking grapes starts in the fall when the vineyard transports samples overnight to the winery. Early in the morning, the grapes are analyzed to see if they are ready to be used in the wine. If so, the vineyards get the word to begin picking the grapes before noon. By nightfall, the grapes are at Chatham Hill and are ready to go in the tanks.
No one is stomping grapes at this winery. One machine separates the grapes from their stems, while another smashes them and extracts the juice. The liquid is then placed in a fermenter. The wine ferments and then it is moved into barrels, where it is aged. Different barrels are used for different wines and how long they age just depends on the wine.
Chatham Hill opened in its first location in a Cary office park in 1999. Last year, they made the move to Chapel Hill Road in Cary, not far from RDU International Airport. The building used to be home to a manufacturing facility. Chatham Hill has turned it into a tasting room, wine store and production facility. Local artists have work on display in the event room and you can even purchase local beer and cheese in the shop.
A small vine along the highway is the only signage they are allowed near the road to attract drivers. Their new patio hosts live music and food trucks. The winery also offers team building events that include blind tastings.
The facility is designed to be a one-stop location for wine enthusiasts in the Triangle with tours, events and educational opportunities. For the owners, the entire process represents their love of wine.
"You have to feel it, taste it, smell it and get the appreciation for it," Wojciechowski said.
If you go into a visit at Chatham Hill expecting a traditional vineyard experience, you will be disappointed. The concept of an urban winery is to offer the winery experience closer to home. What Chatham Hill does is provide an educational tour, great tasting wine and a great patio and inside room to enjoy it. You come for the wine and stay for the live music and the environment.
Tours are designed to educate you about the wine culture of the state, where the grapes are grown and how wine is made. Each tour is unique to the group - it just depends on how much you want to know about the wine-making process and industry.
Our favorite part of any tour is the tasting! At Chatham Hill, tastings include eight different wines usually from one of two groups - dry or sweet. We were fans of the 2011 Chardonnay and on the sweet side the new Cranberry Pomegranate infused wine.
To help educate restaurants serving their wine, Wojciechowski said he invites servers and managers to spend some time at the winery to sample the wine and take a tour. The impact of educating the restaurants on the wines leads to immediate sales increases, he said.
In addition to their winery, you can check them out in RDU's new Terminal 1. They are being served at a bistro and wine shop in the newly renovated terminal.