Parker-Binns Vineyard
in the Inner Piedmont of Polk County with
Blue Ridge escarpment in the background

Geology and Viticulture across the Blue Ridge Escarpment, from the Inner Piedmont to the Blue Ridge Plateau: How Rocks and Landforms Play a Critical Role in the Cultivation of Wine-Grapes in Polk, Henderson and Buncombe Counties, NC

Dates: September 18th. 19th and 20th, 2020

Starting and Ending Point:  Hendersonville, NC

Introduction

Viticulture, the art and science of wine-grape cultivation, is one of the fastest growing agricultural ventures in North Carolina, accounting for one of the state’s most important fruit crops and one of its riskiest.  The state now has 185 vineyard/wineries (ranking number 10 in the US) and an estimated additional 400 vineyards selling grapes to wineries and for table consumption.  The industry employs over 24,000 people directly or indirectly, produces approximately 2.4 million gallons of wine annually (ranking 7th in the nation) and generates an economic impact of around $4.7 billion.  In the 2020 CGS field excursion we will explore how geology and geomorphology play a critical role in determining the natural environment, or ‘terroir’, of three quite different, but adjacent, physiographic settings in western North Carolina in which wine-grapes are being cultivated.  The excursion will follow a transect from the inner Piedmont in Polk County, across the Blue Ridge escarpment in Polk and Henderson Counties, into the Blue Ridge plateau in Henderson and Buncombe Counties, all of which have active vineyard/winery operations that are producing excellent wines. Logistics of the excursion are tentative at this stage but here are the plans as they presently stand:             

We will visit five operating vineyard/wineries along the excursion transect:

Parker-Binns Vineyards, Polk County, Inner Piedmont

Marked Tree Vineyards, Henderson County, Blue Ridge escarpment

Burntshirt Vineyards, Henderson County, Blue Ridge escarpment and plateau

St. Paul Mountain Vineyards and Appalachian Ridge Cidery, Henderson County, Blue Ridge plateau

Biltmore Estate Winery/Vineyard, Buncombe County, Blue Ridge plateau

At each vineyard stop the operators or winemakers will present short introductions to their operations and discuss the grapes they cultivate, the wines they produce, technologies utilized, and the strengths and weaknesses of their geographic locations.  This will be followed by a discussion of how the local geology and geomorphology play a role in the vineyards’ terroir, including such issues as bedrock, soils, slope, aspect, solar exposure, climate and weather, length of growing season, and other macro-, meso- and microclimate influences.  Importantly, participants will have the opportunity to sample each wineries’ products.

Field Trip Leaders and Topics to be Discussed

The excursion will be led by Joseph (“Joe”) Forrest, a retired petroleum exploration geologist and GIS/Remote Sensing consultant who lives in the Boston area.  In recent years Joe has assisted vineyard operators in North Carolina and Georgia in preparation of three successful American Viticultural Area petitions; He is presently working on additional areas in both the northern and southern Appalachians.  Joe will be joined by the following co-leaders/guidebook contributors:

John Havlin, Professor of Soil Sciences, NCSU Raleigh

Mark Hoffmann, Assistant Professor of Horticulture and Extension Specialist, NCSU Raleigh

Charles (“Chip”) Konrad, Professor of Climatology/Meteorology (Dept. of Geography), and Director of the Southeastern Regional Climate Center, UNC Chapel Hill

Philip Prince, Independent Consulting Geologist/Geomorphologist, Greenville, SC

Sara Spayd, Emeritus Professor of Horticulture, NCSU, Raleigh

Topics to be discussed in detail by the excursion leaders will include the following:

  • The meaning of “terroir” and the role of geology in the concept.
  • Geography and origin of the three geomorphic regions of the excursion transect – Inner Piedmont, Blue Ridge escarpment and Blue Ridge plateau, with emphasis on the important role played by the Blue Ridge escarpment in differentiating environmentally distinct agricultural regions in the three counties. 
  • Soil types and characteristics and how lithology and geomorphic processes determine their generation.
  • Do soils, and by inference, rock types, really play a role in determining a wine’s taste and textural characteristics, or is this a marketing myth?
  • Breaching of the Eastern Continental Divide, capture of the Broad River and origin and significance of the geomorphic feature referred to as the “Hendersonville bulge.”
  • How the regions’ landforms control climate factors, such as temperature, precipitation and length of growing season, and how these factors affect the types of grapes that can be sustainably cultivated.
  • The nature of the infamous “Thermal Belt” of Polk and Rutherford Counties; Is it real and, if so, does the geomorphic setting really explain its origin.
  • The effects of global climate change on the future of viticulture in North Carolina and the southeastern US.
  • The idea of the American Viticultural Area, what it means and how geology plays a critical role in determining a region’s designation.
  • How geology, geomorphology and climate factors can be used to zone southern Appalachian viticultural regions.
  • Comparison of the excursion region’s terroir characteristics with those of other viticultural regions along the Blue Ridge escarpment and Eastern Continental Divide in North Carolina, South Carolina and northern Georgia.
  • Geohazards to viticulture in the excursion region.
  • Use of GIS and remote sensing data to relate geologic factors to viticulture and other cultivatable crops.

Headquarters and Lodging

Headquarters for the excursion will be Hendersonville, NC.  There will be no designated headquarters hotel, so participants will be responsible for securing their own lodging. We have purposely set the dates of the field trip early this year to avoid the peak Fall leaf coloring, and to allow participants to have the wonderful experience of seeing berries on the vines just prior to harvesting.  We encourage you to make reservations early, though, in case the Fall leaf season is premature.  In addition, Hendersonville is the center of apple production in North Carolina, and our excursion will coincide with peak apple harvest time, further reason for making early lodging reservations.  A good listing of hotels/motels in the Hendersonville area can be found on the following website:  https://www.visithendersonvillenc.org/.  Find the section titled “Top Six Reasons to Visit Hendersonville, NC”, scroll to Reason #6 and click on “Accommodations.”  Camping sites can be found by Googling “Tent camping in Henderson County, NC.” 

Registration, Friday, September 18th

Registration on Friday evening, September 18th, will be held at Burntshirt Vineyards.  Dinner will be served with wine tasting. Following the annual Society meeting excursion leaders will present (1) an overview of what we will see and learn during the next two days, (2) a review of the history of viticulture in North Carolina, and (3) a talk on the fascinating natural history of the Blue Ridge Escarpment and conservation/preservation efforts within this beautiful and rugged but poorly-understood feature.

In the Field, Saturday, September 19th

On Saturday, September 19th, buses will depart downtown Hendersonville at 8:00am and drive down the Blue Ridge escarpment to the Inner Piedmont region for our first stop at Parker-Binns Vineyards, where we will begin our exploration of the origins of the rugged, precipitous Blue Ridge escarpment and its relationship to the Piedmont and Blue Ridge plateau.  If time permits, we will make a short stop at a particularly tragic landslide site in Tryon, NC, following which we climb back up the escarpment to Marked Tree Vineyards.  This young vineyard is located directly on the Eastern Continental Divide and illustrates the effects of the breaching of an earlier divide by the Broad River.  A box lunch will be served at the Carl Sandburg National Historical Site in Flat Rock, NC.  On our way to St. Paul Mountain Farms, we will make a stop to view geomorphic evidence of headward erosion and capture of the Broad River.  Three optional activities are planned at St. Paul Mountain, including an opportunity to simply sit and enjoy the company of other participants with a glass of wine or cider, or a relaxing tour of the winery and cidery operations, or a more vigorous, but not overly stressful, hike in the cidery orchard with talk on sustainable agriculture by the vineyard/cidery owner.  This last stop of the day is a great place to rest and enjoy the setting sun before returning to downtown Hendersonville.   

In the Field, Sunday, September 20th  

On Sunday, September 20th we will depart Hendersonville at 8:00am and drive to the Biltmore Estate Winery, which is the most visited winery in the US.  Though thousands of people visit the winery at Biltmore, the estate’s vineyards are not normally accessible to the public, so our visit may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view and learn about an interesting and controversial site.  On our way back to Hendersonville we will conclude the excursion with a stop on Point Lookout Mountain for a spectacular view of the Blue Ridge plateau, the Blue Ridge escarpment, and the Eastern Continental Divide.  If weather conditions are right you will have a view of Mount Mitchell, the highest point of the Appalachians, and a final toast to the magnificent beauty of the southern Appalachians.

Possible Additional Stop on Sunday, September 20th We are trying to arrange a visit to Burntshirt’s high vineyard (3600’) on the Blue Ridge escarpment.   This site is one of the most beautiful vineyards in eastern America (See accompanying picture) and one of the highest, but is not easily accessible, due to the steep and winding dirt trail to the isolated site.  We are not sure the school buses we normally use for transportation can make this climb.  We may be able to hire smaller vans that can accommodate 12-15 passengers and offer an extra stop on Sunday afternoon for those who wish to experience this gorgeous site.  There would be an extra fee for this visit to cover costs of the vans.  More on this possibility in a later update.

Burntshirt’s high vineyard site at 3600 feet on the Blue Ridge Escarpment.

In 2014, the CGS Board of Directors approved a change in the pricing for the annual meeting.  If you are an active member in good standing in CGS, you can register at a lower price than non-members.  Non-members must pay a higher price to offset the cost of processing their registration.  IF YOU ARE UNSURE IF YOUR MEMBERSHIP IN THE SOCIETY IS ACTIVE AND UP-TO-DATE, PLEASE INQUIRE WITH CGS SECRETARY-TREASURER TYLER CLARK AT:  carogeosoc@me.com.

This year’s prices are as follows:

                                                Members    Non-members    Reduced*

Friday Welcome Party               FREE                  FREE                FREE

Saturday Field Trip                     $TBD                  $TBD               $TBD

Sunday Field Trip                        $TBD                  $TBD                $TBD

Guidebook                                   $TBD                  $TBD                  $TBD 

*the Reduced Rate is intended for all active students (high, middle school or college), active high school earth science educators, or retirees.