When millionaire George W. Vanderbilt completed the construction of Biltmore Estate in 1895, he didn’t originally envision it as having a winery. However, as a passionate collector of both art and wine, he probably would be pleased with the 150,000-case winery that is now part of the estate, along with a hotel, seven restaurants, sustainable gardens, and many more tourist attractions.
Also, as an early supportive of sustainability and social initiatives, Vanderbilt would most likely be satisfied with Sharon Fenchak achieving the position of first female winemaker at Biltmore Winery. Given that March is Women’s History Month, Fenchak is another positive example of the vital role that women have in American history.
In a recent interview with Sharon Fenchak, Head Winemaker and VP of Operations at Biltmore Winery, she described how she worked her way up the ladder to achieve this position, as well as the unique aspects of making wine in North Carolina, along with the joy of introducing people to wine.
“I am proud of the wines I handcraft for Biltmore, and honored to be part of the small percentage of women winemakers in the world,” reports Sharon Fenchak in a recent interview.
Working Her Way Up the Ladder at the Most Visited Winery in the U.S.
Located in Asheville, North Carolina, the Biltmore Winery is considered to be the most visited winery in the U.S., partially due to its location within the Biltmore Estate, which is reported to attract over 1.7 million people each year. Biltmore also has the distinction of being the largest home in America with more than 175,000 square feet, including 65 fireplaces, 35 bedrooms, and 43 bathrooms on 8000 acres of land.
“The first vineyards were planted here in the 1970’s,” reports Fenchak. “I am the third head winemaker.”
The first winemaker was Philippe Jourdain from France, who oversaw the release of the first wines in 1984. The Biltmore winery was officially open to the public in 1985, and the following year Jourdain hired an assistant winemaker, Bernard Delille from France.
As in common in many great wine estates, the head winemaker will hire an assistant who is groomed to take over when the head winemaker retires or leaves. This tradition is what led to Fenchak being hired as assistant winemaker in 1999.
“Bernard Delille became head winemaker in 1995, and a few years later he hired me as assistant winemaker,” Fenchak explains. She describes how enjoyable and educational it was working with Bernard for many years, along with the other 25 employees that now make up the vineyard and winery team. In 2003, Fenchak was promoted to Head Winemaker, and with Bernard’s retirement in 2018, she achieved the added title of VP of Operations.
The Joys and Challenges of Making Wine in North Carolina
With a master’s degree in food science from University of Georgia, a passion for wine formed in her U.S. Army days stationed in Italy, and years of working under the tutelage of Bernard DeLille, Fenchak is ideally suited to her position as head winemaker at Biltmore.
“Today we make 45 different wines,” she reports. “We source 10% of the grapes from our own 50 acres of estate vineyards (which includes all vitis vinifera varieties such as chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and others), and the other 90% we purchase from other states, such as California, Washington, Virginia, and other vineyards in North Carolina.”
Fenchak explains that because of the higher altitude (2300 to 2600 feet) of where they are located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, that they usually get snow in the winter, and can have frost as late at mid-May. “This can be challenging for our vineyard team,” she explains.
However, when they do have a good vintage in North Carolina, the results can be stunning. Many of the wines have lower alcohol levels, such as 12.5% on cabernet franc, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon wines, with fresh berry notes and earthy complexity. “They are more Old World in styles,” says Fenchak.
“We are especially known for our estate sparkling wine,” she enthuses. The most recent release in the 2019 Biltmore Estate Chateau Reserve Brut Blanc de Blancs ($52) made in the méthode champenoise from 100% North Carolina chardonnay grapes. It is bursting with green apple, lemon, and a hint of creamy brioche, with tiny bubbles and some intriguing minerality.
Other popular wines that customers really enjoy, according to Fenchak, are the Biltmore Estate Limited Release Malbec ($22) and Orange Muscat ($21). Biltmore Winery also has a very large wine club with more than 10,000 members, ships to 41 states, and holds many wine events at the estate.
Americans Need to Be Open to Exploring New U.S. Wine Regions
When asked about her hopes for the future, Fenchak quickly responds that she wants to sell more wine. Then on a more serious note, she says, “I would like people to be more willing to try wines from more states. People seem to think that only certain places can make wine, and they are still a little hesitate to try wines from other places.”
Indeed, wine has been produced in all 50 states for many years now. Also, very few Americans know that the first wine was actually made in South Carolina, according to Thomas Pinney’s, A History of Wine in America (p. 52), and that it quickly spread to Virginia, North Carolina, and other states.
Today, North Carolina has nearly 200 wineries, with neighboring Virginia boasting more than 300 wineries. “People need to know that we can make great wine anywhere,” states Fenchak.
And then she concludes with some of the joys of working in North Carolina. “When I drive to work I often see birds, black bears and other animals. Then when I drive into the property, the beauty of Biltmore Estate sometimes takes my breath away. This is a great place for people to come, relax, and leave their troubles at the gate. George Vanderbilt was all about gracious hospitality, and that is what we offer here. Let yourself be embraced with the enchantment.”