Sunday, September 30, 2018

Pepper Festival returned to Chapel Hill for 11th annual event

By Dathan Kazsuk

It was all about the peppers. Spicy peppers. Mild peppers. There’s the Jalapeno peppers for that nice heat. Serrano peppers are great when cooking. Poblano peppers are for fixing up a batch of Chile Rellenos. And you’ll always have someone go crazy with Habanero heat. Or downright insane with Carolina Reapers. I tend to like the heat and flavor that stems from peppers such as the Fresno or Hatch. It really comes down to your palate and where you like your Scoville scale to lean towards.

Peppers are something I enjoy in my food – spice it up – kick it up a notch – all of that. However, at home, I have to be mindful of the better half of Triangle Around Town, who doesn’t prefer intense heat. So, when we got the invite to be two-thirds of the judges in the beverage department for the 11th annual Pepper Festival in Chapel Hill on September 23 – we were thrilled.

It was an afternoon of sampling pepper-themed drinks and food crafted by dozens of local chefs, brewers, distillers and artisans. All of this brought to life by Abundance North Carolina – an organization that brings people together to cultivate and celebrate community resilience in our Piedmont-region of our state. We were anxious to begin.

Once signed in, we made our way around to the vendors. After a quick pass around the lot to get our bearings and away we go! As soon as they started letting people in, it was just like an old ‘60s movie where flocks of men would surround a beautiful girl – that’s how it was with long lines starting to grow around some of the more popular restaurants and breweries. On the south side of the lawn you’d think that Mystery Brewing, The Brothers Vilglays and Heirloom were the Jayne Mansfield, Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot of the festival. But instead of blowing kisses and batting an eyelash, they were serving up pepper beers, spicy mojitos and pulled chicken sliders with homemade pickles.

Tracking our way slowly, so we’d have time to take in all the vendors, we made a pit stop at Chatham Cider Works to taste the guava pepper mimosa, which was brilliant – as well as buy a full pour of the bourbon barrel-aged dry cider. The cider, which had just a hint of sweet wood and peaty aroma paired well with some of the other pepper treats we tried. Come to think of it, a lot of the chefs that afternoon were keen on blended soup-based elements as well as experimenting on various forms of succotash.

Around the north side of the lawn, we found Diane Currier, owner of Honeygirl Mead in Durham. We were happy to see her at the pepper festival, knowing the last time we visited her meadery we sampled a few meads that weren’t quite ready at the time – but thought would be perfect for this festival. “I made those meads just for this event,” she said as she poured her first mead for us to try. So now we got to try the finished products – a mango habanero and a strawberry habanero mead.

Bidding adieu, we continued on our journey – to judge. And by God, judge is what we were going to do. But with just about an hour to hit up 10 different places, it was going to be a drink and dash sort of afternoon – at least until we were done tallying up our scores. Jen points out the first of my list of vendors, and that was Chapel Hill’s TOPO Distillery. Pulling up to the tent, TOPO was quick to see the clipboard in hand and started pouring samples of all three drinks they were offering that afternoon. From there between the two of us we hit up local-area businesses such as Brothers Vilglays, Vencino Brewing, Fair Game Beverage and Fullsteam Brewing to name a few.

While pulling up shop at a wooden table, sampling around 6 different beverages on the table, we were greeted by Dave Tollefson of NC Beer Guys fame. He, along with his wife, Linda, thought it was funny that the ‘beer guy’ didn’t have any beers to judge this time around. Which was quite funny, I have to admit. However, he raved about Honeygirl’s habanero meads, as I told him about some of our favorites that afternoon.

So let’s mention the judges for this year’s Pepper Festival. Judging the food were Nancy Thapa (Yelp NC Triangle); Ashley Freeman and Andrew Keravuor (Raleigh Food Pics); Lisa Jeffries (Raleighwood Media Group). Judging the beverages were Dave Tollefson (NC Beer Guys); Dathan Kazsuk and Jennifer Primrose (Triangle Around Town).

And without further ado, we present to you, the winners of the 11th annual Pepper Festival.

  • Feeling Spirited, Best Spirit: Fairgame Distillery
  • Ale Drink to That, Best Beer/Cider/Mead: Honeygirl Meadery
  • Most Loved Libation, Best in Show Drink: HomeBucha
  • The Savory Stunner, Best Savory Dish: Little River Eco Farm
  • My Sweet Heat, Best Sweet Dish: Big Spoon Roasters
  • The Double Take, Most Creative Dish: Fusion Fish
  • The Platinum Pepper, Best in Show: The Food Fairy
  • The Staff Sweetheart, Most Local: Angelina’s Kitchen

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Yes! There is a wine industry in North Carolina!

September is North Carolina Wine month and that means it’s time to celebrate and acknowledge our growing wine and grape industry here in our own backyard.
We’ve been blogging for quite some time now, and in the past couple of years found our focus shine more toward the NC wine industry. We have visited 80 wineries here in the state in addition to wineries in Virginia, Michigan, Ohio and our first trip to Napa Valley this past May.

Along our journey we’ve developed an appreciation for the wine produced here in our state. And over the years, we have not only seen growth with the addition of new wineries and vineyards, but we’ve also seen these wines improve and mature over the years.


Being located in Raleigh, we have experienced a difficult barrier to break when it comes to the perception of NC wine. This state is home to the “Mothervine” on Roanoke Island, and yes, the state fruit is the scuppernong grape, but that only accounts for a percentage of what NC is producing. If sweet, muscadine or scuppernong is not to your liking, simply travel further west and you will find some spectacular wineries producing varietals such as chambourcin, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. There are wineries that are experimenting with different varietals not common to the state, such as corot noir being produced by Midnight Magdelena in Jonesville, or the nero produced by Piccione Vineyards. And Raffaldini Vineyards is currently growing an Italian-based grape known as liguria.

So, when we talk NC wine, and the look of utter disbelief comes across people’s faces that we even have a wine industry here, we start the conversation. But conversation only goes so far. You must try!


Let’s look at some recent experiences we’ve had around town. At our neighborhood bottle shop we noticed several bottles of JOLO Vineyards award-winning Jolotage sitting on the bar for sale. When we mentioned how pleased we were to see NC wine, the owner almost turned her nose up at us. She had not yet tried the wine but was convinced to sell it in the shop, but her perception was that if it was NC wine, it must not be good. We made her open up a bottle and drink it with us. Her response was priceless!  “Ooohh, this is good!!!” she exclaimed!  “We know,” we responded.

Not too long ago there was a wine dinner in town featuring the wines of Jones von Drehl out of Thurmond. JvD is another favorite of ours. Good, solid wines that never disappoint. We were unable to attend the dinner but had the opportunity to talk with the hosts later when we visited the establishment. They were telling us what a great event it was and that very few, if any, attendees had even heard of the winery before. By the end of the evening, they had just about sold every bottle with rave reviews.

And just recently, we bought tickets for the Yadkin Valley Summer Whites event and convinced some family members, who are fairly new to the state, to join us.  We made some suggestions on which wineries, of those we would be visiting that day, where they may enjoy a full tasting. They chose Laurel Gray in Hamptonville to start their day. We met them as they were finishing their tasting. We are glad to say, they loved it! They had no idea North Carolina was home to so many wineries, and so close to home – for them the Charlotte area.  As we began our Summer Whites tour, and with each stop, more questions were directed towards us … “what makes the wine so good here?” …. “how many wineries are there?” …  “it’s so beautiful here!”  We have no doubt they will be back for more and we can’t wait to plan their next tour in NC Wine Country.

These are just a few examples where perception or stereotypes need to be thrown out the window. Not all varietals will be your style but we’re sure you will find some to please the palate.


Sure, you’re looking at a 2-hour or so drive from Raleigh whether you head East or West – and sometimes it’s hard to plan that day trip. You venture out to your local Total Wine or bottle shop and the pickings are slim when it comes to NC wine. This is another obstacle and barrier that is hard to break and a topic for another day. The plus is that we are starting to see more and more NC wineries make their way to our area so keep your eyes open for tasting events at the local bottle shops as well. In our opinion, however, the best way to experience what our wine country has to offer, is to visit!

If you decide a day trip is the way to go but you find yourself not knowing where to start, let us know. Email us at or visit our web page at or even our Pinterest for ideas. Let us know what you like or what you are looking for and we’ll be glad to guide you on your next winery adventure!

As we head into September and NC Wine month, follow along with us on Facebook as we will be posting blogs on wine trails and winemaker/owner interviews, tasting room tips and helpful hints for your winery adventure and more!

We find this industry in a very exciting place right now as it continues to grow and flourish. We urge all of our wine drinking followers, to give NC wine a chance and let us know what you think!


The 7 top views of North Carolina's Swan Creek wineries

North Carolina's Swan Creek AVA located in the heart of Yadkin Valley is home to 7 different wineries. Visiting the wineries you can find anything from award-winning cabernet sauvignon wines to moonshine. You can taste rare hybrid grapes such as the corot noir or sample a wine that tastes like a liquid Tootsie Roll pop. And all of them are surrounded by scenic views of the valley. 

We have decided to rank these 7 wineries by their views, according to Triangle Around Town, and put together our "Seven Top Views of N.C.'s Swan Creek Wineries." Each one of these are worth checking out your next time in Yadkin Valley.

7. WINDSOR RUN CELLARS | 6531 Windsor Road, Hamptonville
Driving up to Windsor Run Cellars, you see what you're expected to see ... grapes ... and not much else. But don't let that fool you in the slightest. Step inside and you get great hospitality from any one of its employees. You can find yourself going through a tasting of all its wines, and if that isn't enough, Windsor Run Cellars also offers a tasting flight of all its fortified wines (don't miss out on the Midnight Run ... it's one of our favorites). And if that's not enough, stop by on a Saturday when you can head over into the distillery for a tour and tasting of its 3 brand new spirits.

6. MIDNIGHT MAGDELANA | 5109 Howell School Road, Jonesville
We always enjoy talking to owners Jim and Tauny Zimmer at Midnight Magdelana each time we're in the valley. You don't see many grapes growing as you approach the tasting room – they're all across the street. But the couple are planting grapes currently and in several years, the rows of vines will blend beautifully with the mountain side that lies just behind the tasting room. Come here to check out the corot noir – the only winery in the state growing this red wine.

5. DOBBINS CREEK | 4430 Vineyard View Lane, Hamptonville
Dobbins Creek offers up a nice view of its property and vines while sitting on a wooden deck enjoying a bottle of wine. Owner Charles King's winery serves up a variety of wines to sample which include a riesling, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay. On picture perfect days one can see in the distance the high-rises of downtown Winston-Salem on one side and the silhouette of Grandfather Mountain on the other.

4. SHADOW SPRINGS VINEYARD | 5543 Crater Road, Hamptonville
You can't ask for much more if you're looking to enjoy wine on a perfect day out in Yadkin Valley. Shadow Springs pretty much has it all. Nice green grass. Rows and rows of vines. A gazebo overlooking a lake. All you need now is some wine – and Shadow Springs can help you out with that. On a nice sunny day, its seyval blanc really hits the spot. Outside on a fall evening ... the 2014 petit verdot will warm you up.

3. LAUREL GRAY VINEYARD | 5726 Old U.S. 421, Hamptonville
You always get a picturesque view when you head over to Laurel Gray Vineyards. Walking up to the tasting room, one is taken back by all the rose bushes and flowers that line around the building, making it very inviting. Take a bottle or glass out back and relax in the new enclosed patio, or make your way outside and sit in one of the many chairs that overlook vines, a small lake with a fountain or the mountain that lays right behind the winery. The outdoor patio is lined with ceiling fans for those warm afternoons and has a fireplace for the chilly autumn evenings. 

2. RAFFALDINI VINEYARDS | 450 Groce Road, Ronda
What's more amazing than driving up the path to Raffaldini Vineyards and seeing a breathtaking glance of an Italian villa where award-winning Italian wines can be found? Not much! From walking through the garden en route to the front door of this winery, you feel like you left the real world behind – at least for an hour or two. Decide to sit upstairs on the veranda or out on the patio around the water fountain and enjoy views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Owner Jay Raffaldini knows a travel destination is needed here in wine country and hopes to bring it here with these views, as well as a new restaurant and inn coming soon on the property. There's not much that can beat these views.

1. PICCIONE VINEYARDS | 2364 Cedar Forest Road, Ronda
We just said not much can beat the view from Raffaldini – but there is one. And that's our No. 1 view of Swan Creek – Piccione Vineyards. Elevated just slightly higher and Raffaldini and right next door, this winery has the best view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and on a clear day, you can see Mount Mitchell, which resides 6,684 feet in the blue skies. Take a bottle outside and just enjoy the views, and take lots of selfies. We always do. The winery hosts food trucks and local musicians on the weekends that only add to your temporal bliss for the afternoon. 

We hope you enjoyed our list. Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Instagram for more adventures and to keep up with our upcoming blogs on North Carolina wine, beer and travel.