Jolo Winery: Valleys, Vines & Vino

Pilot Mountain is one of the most recognizable natural landmarks in North Carolina.  It is a remnant of the ancient chain of the Sauratown Mountains. The earliest inhabitants of the region, the Saura Indians, called the mountain “Jomeokee” or “great guide.”  Follow the guide and it will lead you to one of the area’s other most adored and famed landmarks: JOLO Winery & Vineyards.

By Liz Wiles

Merriam-Webster defines the word “winery” as: a wine-making establishment. JOLO Winery & Vineyards, nestled along the winding roads of Pilot Mountain, NC, is certainly known for its excellence in being simply that. To restrict this family-owned (and family-operated) business to simply this, would be quite misleading. While some say that business is not personal, JW and Kristen Ray consider it the most personal thing in the world.

This is evident in the name of their establishment, which was fashioned from the combination of the names of their two sons: Joey and Logan.  

The business was personal from day one.  

                                                                             

During my visits to JOLO, there has never been a time that JW has not spoken to myself or my family. Most often, he is the one who seats us for our meal in their End Posts Restaurant.  My most recent visit earlier this Spring was no different. Despite the excellence and capableness of his staff, he is always present, always personable and always more interested in hearing about your day than telling you about his.

Upon first meeting, you wouldn’t identify JW as the owner of this winery and vineyard in the often unrecognized Yadkin County. His perfectly quaffed hair (about which he says people often ask; however, it’s a secret, and he will never tell) and his impeccable fashion suggest that he is simply a visitor from somewhere along the West Coast.

“Before people ask me about our wine, they usually comment on my attire or my suggested hair products,” JW says with a smile. “Then we move on to the wine.”

In relation to the coast on the other side of the continent, earlier this year JOLO was named one of the top wineries in the nation outside of California by TripAdvisor’s “7 Top-Rated Wineries In The US—That Aren’t In California!”

JW grew up serving others, spending over 10 years in the food and beverage industry and working at two five-star hotels. By age 19, he was the owner of his own restaurant.

He then moved on to his next venture in his role of co-founder and chief operating officer of Learn.com. In 2010, JW decided to put his era with the organization to an end, and Learn.com was sold.

Still committed to finding joy in catering to others, JW decided to move forward in a different direction. Kristen was prepared to take this next step as well, after 20 years in corporate sales. As lifelong wine enthusiasts, pursuing a venture such as a winery and vineyard was the perfect fit for the couple. Their search ultimately landed them in the historic Yadkin Valley.

While you may have never heard of these parts, I grew up around the area. The scenery is pristine, the atmosphere is unpretentious and the sounds of urban life are absent. It’s somewhat of an escape. These subregions in North Carolina are developing in the wine industry, and bringing in folks from all areas.

Not just for the wine, not just for the scenery, and certainly not just for a trip for seclusion. You can get all of that at JOLO, but it’s more likely that you will walk away with some new friends and a new appreciation of the epitome of a fantastically owned and operated establishment.

The vineyards, JOLO Tasting Lodge, wine cellars and outdoor event venue are displayed 900 feet above sea level in the foothills of the Piedmont region. Pilot Mountain can be viewed from almost anywhere on the property – but you’ll get the best view standing from the gazebo – perfect for a romantic moment, a photo opportunity with friends and family, or a wedding ceremony.  The surrounding land on which JOLO is settled does not lay flat. As a result, the rocky soil and uneven ground of the vineyard estate had not been utilized for widespread agricultural purposes. But what is a loss to one, is a gain to another. What may not be ideal for agriculture, provides the excellent conditions for growing grapes.

Their wine is made in the vineyard and in the Ray’s’ own words, “The precise day to harvest – after a season of carefully cared-for and hand-selected clusters – is the secret to great wine-making.”

JW and Kristen are coy in the description of their efforts, as most of the south-facing sections of the vineyard require hand farming, because the terrain is too steep for tractors to safely function. The manpower needed and the result produced is a testament to the Ray’s commitment to their winery and their wine.  

They use stainless steel tanks to ferment their white and Rosé wines. Red wines are aged in a combination of American, French and sometimes Hungarian Oak. JOLO’s Pilot Fog offering – made of Cynthiana grapes – is barrel-aged exclusively in 100% new American Oak.

Jerry Ann Brown, guest services manager, has been with JOLO for three years.  After retiring from her career in elementary education and the role of coaching varsity sports, she found herself in conversation with JW about a potential weekend job, as her daughter worked at the JOLO Tasting Lodge and encouraged Jerry Ann to join the team.

“Guests like that most of us that work here are here every time,” says Jerry Ann.  “There is not a lot of turnover. They see the same faces every time, get personal attention, we know them by name, and it’s a family atmosphere.”

Perhaps this is why JOLO has one of the fastest growing rates of wine club members in the state of North Carolina in just under five years, currently peaking at 1,300 members to date.

“It doesn’t hurt that we have very good wine,” she adds with a smile.

While Jerry Ann can’t name her favorite wine, she tells me that it’s not only because they are hard to choose between, but that it also depends on what she’s eating.  Some favorites of hers (and mine) from the End Posts Restaurant include the Grilled Salmon Salad, accented with balsamic vinaigrette, shaved onion, cranberries, walnuts and goat cheese.  Another includes Mediterranean Lamb Lollipops with pomp puree, sauteed seasoned vegetables and apricot glaze. And lastly – but certainly not least – the Beer Glazed Momma’s Meatloaf – a famous recipe created by none other than JW’s mothers.

All of their wine selections are carefully crafted and thought-out; perhaps this is the reason they sometimes find themselves running out of certain wines.  Weather, climate change and pesky thieves—including deer, coyotes, foxes and raccoons—that wander into the vineyards for a midnight snack all play a role in which wines will be available.

“It’s frustrating for us at times, because we do run out of certain favorites,” says Kristen.  “People sometimes don’t understand that if there is a demand for something, and it’s not available, we can’t just run out to the store and buy it.”

With a total of 150 acres under their belt as of late, JOLO will have the ability to produce even more of their liquid pleasure.  Five of the 60 additional acres recently purchased already have vines planted and will be yielding grapes in the coming years.

Among their many accolades, the Rays remain humble and thankful. They shake your hand when you arrive and invite you back upon departure.  

“We love our patrons… they are who and what defines us,” says JW.  “Everyone who spends time here becomes our family.”

Wines are available to order on the JOLO website at www.jolovineyards.com.  

Side note: “Beach Bubbles” is my favorite.

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