All about the Vanderbilts: Biltmore Estate has put this North Carolina winery on the map

Here in the rolling hills outside Asheville, Sharon has helped Biltmore become one of the country’s best wineries. And lucky for me, Sharon was gracious enough to share her wines with me and some other local wine fans recently over lunch at Tampa’s Mise en Place.

Among her biggest challenges is dirt. The area doesn't have ideal soil for all grapes, Sharon says, but viognier and chardonnay thrive.

Her Biltmore Estate Viognier 2008 North Carolina convinced me. There’s a quiet riot of sensations going on here – lemon and apricot and flowers. It’s just lovely. And criminally inexpensive at $19 a bottle.

The Biltmore Reserve Chardonnay 2008 North Carolina ($15) was bright and nicely acidic, with hints of apple. Sophisticated stuff, but not stuffy. I’d serve this as proudly at a dress-up dinner as I would at a backyard cookout.

More fickle fruit such as pinot noir and syrah, comes from California.

Made entirely from organically grown grapes, The Antler Hill Syrah 2006 Napa Valley ($35) is one fine wine, deep and bursting with plum, cherries and the faintest smoke. Wonderful.

Of her Biltmore Reserve Pinot Noir 2008 Russian River Valley, I scribbled only one word in my notebook: “Juicy!” I’m drooling just remembering tasting this wine. Well worth the $25 price.

I also liked the Biltmore Reserve Passport 2008 Sonoma County ($25), a rich and nicely balanced blend of cabernet sauvignon, peppery cabernet franc, with a bit of merlot.

Fans of bubbly (who isn’t?!) will find a very fine example in the Biltmore Estate Blanc de Blanc Brut, which is a steal at $25 a bottle.

Sharon also makes a nifty and not-too-sweet dessert style sparkler, Biltmore Pas de Deux Methode Champenoise Sec ($19). “We call this our ‘girls’ night out’ wine,” Sharon says, adding that it’s equally good at celebration and consolation. “Every time any of my girlfriends breaks up with someone, we also drink one of these.”

As charming as Sharon and her wines are, I could see how breakups could be habit forming.

Most kids fantasize about cool jobs they’ll do as grownups. Few of us ever become astronauts or artists.

Sharon Fenchak is doing today just what she told her parents she’d be doing when she was nine. More unusual still was her childhood career pick: Winemaker.

“I announced at a holiday dinner that I was going to be a winemaker,” she recalls at a recent lunchtime tasting of her Biltmore Estate wines. Her first vintage — Welch’s grape juice and yeast — served to her parents that night, was “pretty disgusting,” she says with a laugh.

An early fascination with science, particularly chemical reactions of yeast, pointed either to fermentation or distillation.

Degrees in food science, along with a hitch as a satellite technology specialist in the U.S. Army (what can I tell you, she’s as interesting as she is lovely), led to winemaking gigs at small wineries in Georgia. Soon she was tapped to become winemaker at Biltmore Estate, then known mostly as the Vanderbilt family’s home, which at 175,000 square feet and 250 rooms, makes New York Yankees superstar Derek Jeter’s soon-to-be-completed Davis Islands mega-McMansion seem restrained.


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