Hippo Manchester
July 28, 2005

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Wine for the NASCAR set

Racer speeds into curve with new wine list

By Tim Protzman 

Do wine and gasoline mix? If you’re Richard Childress they do. He’s a race car driver and a vineyard owner.

Childress has been racing since 1969 and he caught the wine bug in California. Now, as part of his multi-million-dollar empire, he’s making wine in the lovely Piedmont country of North Carolina.

NASCAR is an acronym for National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. It means the racers use cars like the ones you see driving down the road, not the souped-up  Formula One Racing vehicles. This was confusing to me until someone explained that NASCAR vehicles are more like the ones the Dukes of Hazard drove, not the ones in the Indianapolis 500. Another person told me “If it’s got fenders, it’s NASCAR.”

NASCAR is America’s fastest growing spectator sport, with good reason. It’s fun to sit outside and watch the cars fly around the track. It’s social, it’s entertainment and there’s a little bit of daydreaming about being the driver. But will this traditionally beer-and-hamburger sport be ruined by the introduction of wine, cheese and crudités? Probably not.

NASCAR Fans are generally the most tolerant, family-oriented spectators in all of sports. They travel and camp out like Phish fans but their RV’s are more elaborate. They tailgate, like Dartmouth College football fans, but rarely decorate their tables with heirloom candelabras, preferring a simple citronella candle instead. But the fans’ knowledge of NASCAR’s intricacies, their sense of direction and attention to climate conditions lends itself perfectly wine. They’re so humble and friendly you’d never hear; “Could you believe Earl choose a Sangiovese for the Pocono 500! What was he thinking? And he served it with salmon remoularde.”

No, I think the NASCAR crowd is ripe for wine but only in addition to, not instead of, its signature beer. Richard Childress agrees.

My friend James was a well-traveled guy. He worked the Alaskan cruise ship circuit. He stage managed on Broadway and he interned at the Barter Theater in Abingdon, Va. This little place opened in 1933 with government money in a tiny Blue Mountain town. For the last 72 years they’ve staged Shakespeare, Mamet, Noel Coward and Rodgers & Hammerstein for the NASCAR crowd. The name comes from the way some of the folks used to pay for their tickets; a bushel of apples or two pounds of bacon got you an orchestra seat. James claims the best wine he ever tasted was from the vineyards at the Biltmore House, George Vanderbilt’s palace in the North Carolina mountains. And that’s why I’m so interested in the Childress Vineyard. That old upland soil may just be the next Napa.

Childress raced competitively until 1981, building a team of drivers that included Dale Earnhardt Sr., Kevin Havrick and Clint Bowyer. He has his own museum and line of specialty sausages. But his wine is where the rubber meets the road. Childress wants nothing less than to tap the NASCAR market while at the same time producing a quality East Coast vintage that rivals any Californian. It’s very ambitious but he’s off to a good start. His simple House Wine series is priced at $8.99 and comes in white, red and blush. The Varietal Series comes in Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah (which is sold out) Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Franc and something called Pinnacle, a Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon blend. They’re priced from $12.99 to $16.99. The high-end Signature Series is pricey; $40 for the Chard up to $59.99 for the Meritage. The winery’s in Lexington, N.C., in the heart of Yadkin Valley, which is moving into pole position as a premier East Coast Appellation.

The real fun in writing this particular column was in the research. I actually went to the auto races as the guest of 19-year-old NASCAR Late Model driver Ryan Libby. He drives a Chevy Monte Carlo. He drives in the 30-lap heat, and while he didn’t finish the race because another car nailed him, he’s got quite a reputation for a teenager as a skilled driver.

We sat near his crew and I opened five bottles to run a NASCAR taste test. The more ardent beer drinkers got a kick out of palate-cleaning ritual but everyone loved the spitting part. NASCAR fans are enthusiastic, but polite. Having attended several Philadelphia Eagles games I know why there’s a holding cell in the new stadium. This is not NASCAR, and just as Childress predicted, they took well to wine.

The NASCAR Wine Poll results.

1998 Glorioso Rioja from Bodegas Palacio: 3 Checkered flags. Big, deep and meaty $12.99

2001 Rutz Sonoma Pinot Noir: 2 ½ checkered flags. Fruity with cherry and raspberry flavors and a structured finish with a touch of artichoke and eucalyptus. $14.99

1994 Chateau La Garde from Pessac Leognan France. 2 ½ checkered flags (although some were disappointed it was French) Wiry, muscular with chocolate, clove and sage taste notes. $17.99

2000 Champalou Vouvray- 2 checkered flags. This Chenin Blanc from the Loire region ran out first because it was the only white wine in the tasting. Some loved it, some thought it too sweet. $12.99

2002 Turner Road Cabernet Sauvignon- 2 checkered flags. A ultra bargain from Paso Robles California. Fruit, au jus and a touch of tobacco and cinnamon in the finish. $8.99