Casey - Winemaker

I grew up on a farm in the small southern Surry County community of Rockford, North Carolina.  Rockford is a historical community of only a few hundred residents on the banks of the Yadkin River, and served as the county seat before Surry County was split into Surry and Yadkin Counties. The old courthouse sits atop the hill as you make the descent towards the river and down past the one room post office, general store, and tavern. The Yadkin Valley was carved by glaciers descending down the Appalachian Mountains during the last ice age. The valley’s rolling hills, creeks, and river itself are the result of this action and form the backdrop of my childhood memories.

Like a lot of kids growing up in rural North Carolina, I knew that there was a wide world out there that had so many different things to offer than my little town of a few hundred. I’ll never forget how excited I was in high school to be accepted to UNC-Chapel Hill and to be able to start my opportunity to get out and see the world. Chapel Hill is probably the most diverse town in the state. Living there opened my eyes to just how diverse our planet is. Students from 120 countries attend UNC-CH, and living amongst such diversity, especially with the backdrop rural Rockford in my mind, piqued my interest in Anthropology. I graduated in 1999 and by that time had gained an interest in teaching, a career that my mother retired from after 30 years.

Something surprised me a few years out from graduation. I had spent most of my time learning about the world I hadn’t experienced as a kid, travelling to new places, meeting new people. The desire I had to get out and see the world hadn’t gone away, but it was now accompanied by an emotion I hadn’t anticipated. I missed that small little community of a few hundred, those rolling hills, and the creeks I had so fondly remembered. The turn of the century had brought changes to the valley as well. As it turns out, those rolling hills and rocky soils were just about perfect for growing vinifera grapes. The 1990’s had seen a fledgling wine industry come into its own, and then become a major player in the region’s economy. I had studied ancient winemaking techniques in college. I also had the good fortune of having friends who knew the difference between good and bad wine, so I like to think I had a pretty decent palate a little earlier than most. Things were getting pretty exciting back home. Who knew? One of the best places to grow wine on the East Coast was my old back yard.

I moved back home in 2006 and enrolled in the Viticulture & Enology program at Surry Community College, which at the time, housed the only degree program in the field on the East Coast other than Cornell University in New York. I had two really outstanding instructors there in Gil Giese and Molly Kelly. I also had the opportunity to get my foot in the door of the industry that same year when I started working in the vineyards at Raffaldini Vineyards. It was invaluable to be able to take classes at night and go out the next day and put those concepts to use. I continued to work in the vineyard for four seasons, each one different, and each one demonstrative of the importance of quality sound fruit in the winemaking process. You can make bad wine from good grapes, but it is impossible to make great wine from poor grapes. Winemaking starts in the vineyard, and your potential for quality is set there.

In 2011 I made the move to the winery side of things. I had the great fortune of apprenticing under B. Kiley Evans, a Florida native and winemaker by way of UC Davis. I learned a great deal from Kiley. He brought techniques from the West Coast, more specifically Southern Oregon that most winemakers on the east coast weren’t heavily invested in. We quickly developed a style that was unlike most in the Valley or even the state. Our 2011 Montepulciano Riserva won Best in Class at the San Francisco International Wine Competition, as well as a Moscato d’Asti style wine we made. We also won the Governor’s Cup that year for best in state. While these were impressive so early in my career, the real lesson we were learning was how to grow wines that fit your site, how to accentuate features that you enjoy, and how to downplay those you don’t like so much. The beautiful thing about wine is that it is a living, moving, constantly evolving thing, from the time the vine is planted, to the time that it is consumed. In 2013, Kiley moved back to Oregon and I took over the helm at Raffaldini. It was a little nerve-racking to take over such a large production, but I’ve had great teachers my entire career and it quickly became evident that they had done a good job, even with me.

After a couple of years I had the opportunity to do what I love in another place that I love. I like to tell people that you don’t very often hear of winemaking and the beach in the same sentence, but after talking with John Wright a couple of years at the annual conference and hearing about and tasting the success he was having, he had my attention. The success John was having at Sanctuary was based on the same idea that brought success to Kiley and I. You have to grow the grapes that fit your site. If something isn’t working, replace it. If there is something you can do to improve the quality of you fruit, even if just by a little, do it. It takes dedication and perseverance to incrementally get to the best wines you can possibly make. John created that culture of dedication at Sanctuary, and it is that dedication to making your best wines that brought me here. 2015 was a great season to have as my first, and I believe that the hard work and perseverance we strive for every day certainly comes through in the wines.