North Carolina: Wine & Sustainable Farms

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Sip Wine Ship

From outside, it can be easy to overlook the unassuming shop, shyly snuggled in a strip mall in Cary, North Carolina; however, most people who enter ‘Sip: a wine store’ start planning their next visit before they leave. April, who co-owns the store with her husband, Josh, greets visitors with a smile and a glass of wine. Owning a wine store has always been April’s dream, as she’s been passionate about food and wine for as long as she remembers.

When asked what she loves about wine, her eyes sparkle as she says with a smile, “I love seeing people’s lights go off when they realize they found a white when they say they hated whites, or when they find a red that’s not tannic and they had no idea there was anything beyond a Cabernet. [Wine] is like a living art form, always evolving and never boring. And there’s something for everyone.”

The store embodies the warm feeling that comes with a good glass of wine, with its homey ambiance and kitschy thrift store furniture, pieces found by the side of the road or crafted by local carpenters using repurposed local wood. It’s not by accident, but because April wanted the store to be an extension of her home, as she invites visitors to wander around and settle in various nooks to relax and enjoy themselves.

sip wine store

Inside Sip: displays are creatively created to minimize the store’s carbon footprint

A Store That Practices What They Preach

The shop sells organic, biodynamic, sustainable and carbon-neutral wine and beer, but aims to create a community of educated and contentious consumers. Along with living out their sustainable philosophy, Sip offers immersive wine-related experiences that teach people about wine in a causal, conversational way.

My first introduction to their wine classes highlighted Argentinean Wines. Tables were arranged communal-style and strangers quickly turned into friends, as we shared snacks and stories in between April’s presentations. She introduced the group to the wines themselves, the vineyards in relation to Argentina’s geography and the farming practices behind production.

While I can’t remember exactly what wines were poured, I clearly recall April buzzing in and out of the room delivering trays of artisanal cured meats and cheeses, homemade empanadas and Spanish tortillas. She cooked all of these delectable dishes for us herself and surprised us by revealing she had given birth to her third child just a couple weeks before. I was thoroughly impressed by this woman, whose enthusiasm about wines outshone the unavoidable sleep deprivation that accompanies the birth of a newborn.

bacon

Sip is a pick-up location for Bella Bean Organics, which delivers sustainable local products

A Growing Community Hub

The stores’ growth since that first class sometimes seems mind-boggling, until I remember the woman behind the business, whose warmth, personal attention and creativity never ceases.

Since that first class, April has expanded her relationship with local farms, vineyards, breweries, artists and organizations. Sip displays and sells local arts and crafts. Additionally, the shop is a community-supported agricultural pick-up location, connecting customers to local and ethical produce, eggs, meat, baked goods and foods. In addition to weekly wine classes, the store hosts movie nights, Wine-o (Bingo for wine fans) and weekly concerts, often with food trucks or a mini-farmers market.

By highlighting local foods and connecting local people, every gathering at Sip instills North Carolina pride and a sense of community in an area that needs it. Located near the Research Triangle Park — anchored by North Carolina State University in Raleigh, University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and Duke University in Durham — Cary has lightheartedly earned the nickname, “Containment Area for Relocated Yankees.” This is in reference to its rapidly increasing population due to transplants from around the country. As such, the majority of people here have no historical or ancestral connection to the local land. Luckily, Sip’s celebration of the region is contagious, since the shop makes it easy to support other local businesses.

Wine And Bacon: A Love Story

Today I find myself at April’s newest event, a class titled “Wine and Bacon: A Love Story” exemplifying the symbiotic relationship the store has with local businesses. The class is co-hosted by Ann, a representative of Coon Rock, the sustainable family farm providing the bacon. April artfully cooks creative dishes with the meat, which she pairs with wines and distributes throughout the class: onion and bacon tart with a 2012 Jean Claude Chanucdet Garnay; bacon-wrapped dates with a 2o12 Demeter Lunar Apogé Syrah; spinach and bacon salad with a 2007 Syrah from R. Merlo Estate Vineyard; deconstructed cassoulet dip with an Alto3 Merlot; and candied bacon for dessert with Tintero Moscato d’Asti.

crostini and wine

Crostini with wine poached figs, candied bacon and gonzola cheese served with a Brut Rosé

With each course, Ann and April take turns teaching us about the remarkably similar sustainable and biodynamic practices that produce the meat and wine. Biodynamic farming is one of April’s favorite topics, although even she admits it sounded mystical and far out in the beginning; however, after 15 years in the wine business, she believes there’s something to it. This approach treats all aspects of the vineyard as an interdependent whole and aims to create a completely self-sustaining farm.

Where it gets wacky is when farmers attune the sowing, harvesting and tasting of the crop to the phases of the moon and position of the planets. They may even bury manure in a cow’s horn for the winter, unearth it in spring, mix some with water, strategically stir it in alternating directions for an hour, then spray it over the vineyard. They even characterize days into five categories — flower, leaf, root, fruit and chaotic — based on what you should tend to that day. For April, the days are also important, as they can affect the way wines taste, highlighting and bringing out certain notes, for better or for worse.

“Most people have a go-to bottle of wine or comfort varietal that they taste again and again over their lifetime. Have you ever had a frustrating day when even your favorite wine tasted bad?” she asks. “The good news is it isn’t you. Some professional wine tasters refuse to taste on root and leaf days when earth tones are exaggerated, changing the flavor in a potentially unflattering way.”

pigs

Coon Rock pigs in their natural habit at the Hillsborough, NC farm

In terms of the bacon, all of Coon Rock’s animals are pasture-raised, without antibiotics or hormones. Anne explains how the pigs “help out” on the farm, tilling the fields, eating leftover grain — including limited amounts donated from local breweries — and planting new seeds. The current owners of Coon Rock, both east North Carolina natives, abandoned careers in software engineering and political science to buy this farm and open an organic restaurant in Fall 2004. Like April, the owners are committed to a multi-pronged approach to outreach. In addition to producing food on the farm, they share their products love of local foods through their Piedmont Restaurant in Durham and Bella Bean Organics, a home delivery grocer.

I always depart Sip feeling good, and leaving this class is no different. It’s empowering to educate yourself as a consumer about eco-friendly farming and even better when you can directly support local businesses and organizations by indulging in homemade food, elegantly paired with sustainable wines. I leave planning to attend an artisan market on Saturday where April will be selling her wine-poached figs, and to sign up for a Community Supported Agriculture weekly winter food delivery box.

Who says a little wine store can’t change the world? Sip’s heading in that direction, one earth-conscious convert at a time.

*All photos courtesy of Katie Foote, a doctoral student who contributed this post.