Meet the winemaker and vineyard consultant for Shelton Vineyards, the largest winery in North Carolina’s Yadkin Valley.
Like a wine grape, Gill Giese made his way from the field to the glass.
Giese earned bachelor’s and master of science degrees in agriculture at the University of Arkansas, then worked at Arco Seed Company as a research technician. He later returned to his alma mater to conduct research for the entomology and enology departments, earning a teaching certificate in the process. In 2002 he moved to North Carolina to join Surry Community College as its resident instructor for viticulture.
Shortly after his arrival in the Tar Heel State, Giese was hired as a vineyard consultant by Shelton Vineyards, the state’s largest, family-owned estate winery. A decade later he joined Shelton Vineyards full-time as vineyard consultant and winemaker, though he likes to call himself “winegrower.” He manages nearly 200 acres of multiple varietals of vinifera grapes on the 383-acre estate.
Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shelton Vineyards is the largest of the 35 wineries and vineyards that currently operate in the Yadkin Valley, North Carolina’s first federally-recognized American Viticulture Area (AVA).
Wine Tourist recently spoke with Giese to learn more about him, Shelton Vineyards and the Yadkin Valley.
What first sparked your interest in wine?
I tried my first wine when I was six years old. My father let me taste it, and I was always intrigued. I came to wine through horticulture. I’m most interested in vines. My approach is growing wine in the vineyard.
What do you most love about your work and why?
I’ve got the ideal job. I can work outside or inside. I get to make a physical product that people enjoy -- that’s satisfying these days when a lot of the time we’re dealing with the virtual. This is a real product that enters people’s lives and I get to participate in that a bit. It’s never boring. I’m always challenged. It’s fun.
Who most shaped the way you think about wine?
- My father was quite a craftsman and he instilled in me the importance of paying attention to detail, of becoming competent. I carried that into winemaking.
- Also, my education: Dr. Justin Morris at University of Arkansas was a big influence. He did a lot of research in grape growing.
- Dr. Tony Wolf at Virginia Tech emphasized precision in the vineyard and how environment shapes the berry, juice and, ultimately, the wine.
- Also the students at Surry Community College—as a teacher I learned as much from them as I hope they learned from me.
- I respect winemaker Jim Law of Linden Vineyards in Virginia. I aspire to be as good as he is as a day-to-day working winemaker.
What have been your biggest challenges or surprises?
The climate here in North Carolina. People might expect it to be like California but it’s more like continental Europe in terms of rainfall and four seasons. I’m surprised every year by weather and the effect it has on the wines. You can get some stellar vintages and some real challenges. We’re still a fairly young region so matching varietal and rootstock to soil and climate is a constant challenge. We really need viticulture research in this state to help growers in that respect.
What are the grape growing conditions in the Yadkin Valley?
A warm, humid growing season with more than adequate rainfall. That’s the challenge: rain. We have well-drained soil but the rainfall and humidity can work against us. The growing season is long, which allows the fruit to fully ripen.
Why make wine in North Carolina?
One of the drivers is business. We can talk all we want about making wine, but ultimately we have to sell it to make a sustainable business. North Carolina has a fairly sizeable population and a rich, successful history of family farming. A lot of the grape farmers came out of tobacco and know how to make an income on a small family farm.
Does Shelton Vineyards buy grapes from other local farmers?
We grow everything we use. We aspire to be a true estate winery.
What has been the most dramatic change in Yadkin Valley wine industry since you first started?
There’s a steep learning curve and growers respond in individual ways. We have people drying grapes, people making lighter wines with fruit that can be picked earlier and so on. People have adapted to the region and are making it work.
What distinguishes your approach to winemaking?
I like to consider myself a “winegrower.” I think the growing part is as important as the winemaking. You can make bad wine from good grapes but you cannot hardly ever make a good wine from bad grapes. It’s all about growing fruit. In the winery there’s careful exclusion of oxygen and traditional things we do to maintain the integrity of the wine from fermentation through aging to bottling, but it starts in the vineyard.
Do you have any innovations or experiments currently in the works?
We have planted a small block of Petit Manseng. Also, we’re working with a cover crop to regulate moisture.
What might surprise a Yadkin Valley wine region tourist?
The quality levels you can find. In red and white, from European-style dry to sweet Muscadine, opulent to elegant, this is a versatile wine area. New things are being tried. This is not one-size-fits-all.
It’s a beautiful area and people in the business are very friendly. We’re less formal than Napa Valley or France. You’d find Yadkin Valley welcoming, comforting.
What can visitors to Shelton Vineyards expect?
A wide variety of wine and excellent food pairings from our chef. We’re a very professional operation with an extensive tour, reasonable prices and a wide variety of price points. It’s a pleasing day trip.
What do you predict for the future of the Yadkin Valley wine region?
I think it will continue to grow. As the wines continue to improve and we get more recognition, everything is looking very positive. That is not to discount the fact that it’s a lot of work with slim profit margins, but I think we’ll continue to grow and contribute to the North Carolina economy.
What was your most memorable wine travel experience?
I’ve been to France twice and am a dedicated Francophile. They obviously know what they’re doing and don’t overdo it. They don’t force the grapes to do what they’re not suited for.
What’s in your wine cellar right now?
It’s sparse because I tend not to keep them very long, but I do have a couple of French rosés, a couple of Italian Barolos and some unfiltered Cabernet Sauvignon from Shelton Vineyards.
Who would you most like to share a bottle of wine with?
If You Go…
- 286 Cabernet Lane, Dobson, NC 27017
Tours and tastings are offered daily (except New Year's Day, Easter Sunday, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day). Regular tours are $6 per person; reserve tastings and other specialty tours start at $25 per person.
Harvest Grill restaurant is adjacent to the winery and serves seasonal, upscale preparations of Southern comfort food in a vineyard setting.
Need a place to stay? An award-winning Hampton Inn is three miles from the vineyard.
Shelton Vineyards is approximately an hour drive northwest of Winston-Salem.
Hope S. Philbrick is a freelance writer and editor based in Atlanta, Georgia. She writes about travel, food, wine and spirits (as in booze, not ghosts) and in the name of research has visited more than 34 countries. In defense of good taste, she's sat at the judges’ table at numerous culinary and wine competitions. Her work has appeared in dozens of publications nationwide, including her online magazine GetawaysforGrownups.com. When not writing, she can usually be found on the road or savoring something tasty.