NC Wine Gals showcases the vineyards reshaping North Carolina’s wine industry through private and public tours to Yadkin Valley.
by Amanda Lea
Megan Riley owns a global travel-tour company and is familiar with wines from Sonoma to Croatia. When she attended a wine-tasting event in the Queen City in 2007, she tried wines from several North Carolina vineyards. She quickly concluded that the state’s reputation for sweet wines was deserved.
North Carolina has been known for syrupy vino for decades. Cultivation of the scuppernong vine, a variety of muscadine, began in the 1500s. North Carolina led the nation’s wine production at the beginning of the 20th century. But Prohibition tanked sales, and the industry didn’t start growing again until the mid-2000s.
Now, there are about 200 wineries and 400 vineyards in the state — many of which offer a very different taste. (Spoiler alert: It’s not all muscadine.)
Several years after her first North Carolina wine encounter, Riley found herself at another wine tasting, this time paired with locally sourced food prepared by top-notch chefs. “In addition to the thoughtful food pairings, the local wine was paired with Old World options, so you could really have a head-to-head matchup of tastes,” Riley says. “There were North Carolina and French cabernet sauvignons, so you could see how our state compared to wines from other areas of the world. Experiencing the taste next to wines from California, France and Italy made me realize that our wine has come a long way from my first experience.”
Riley reached out to a friend, Jessica Diehl, about showcasing that progress by arranging winery tours. “We wanted to show wine drinkers the top quality vineyards in our area,” Riley says. “We are so passionate about changing the stigma about North Carolina’s wine options, we painted a motto on our vans that says ‘The unsweet wine tour.’”
Riley reached out to several local wineries to become familiar with the landscape. She also saw an opportunity to make the wine-tasting experience more personal. “There were a lot of ‘wine Ubers’ out there — transportation companies that would drive you around to different wineries but didn’t care if you bought the wine and weren’t invested in helping people learn more about North Carolina wines,” Riley says. “We wanted to go beyond transportation and provide a more personal and educational experience.”
In early 2019, Riley and Diehl bought the NC Wine Gals domain name and hit the ground running. Diehl left after the first year of business, while Riley is leading the company into its fifth year. NC Wine Gals has two vans and operates private and public tours from Asheville, Charlotte, Greensboro and Winston-Salem. The seven-hour tours include visits to three vineyards from a rotating roster of more than 40 vineyards in North Carolina’s Yadkin Valley, about an hour north of Charlotte. Prices range from $159 to $229 per person, according to the company website.
To kick things off, the wine guide walks through an aroma kit, which consists of little perfume vials that help guests identify different smells they will encounter at the tastings. Each tour includes pairings of pastry and charcuterie, a picnic lunch, and vineyard tastings or flights.
In addition to running the business, Riley puts on her wine-guide hat, too. She leads about half of the Charlotte-based tours herself, about 30 or 40 a year. One thing that sets the business apart from similar tours is the level of engagement by their guides, Riley says. Over the course of the tour, the guide helps guests branch out and try adjacent varieties. The goal is to spark memories that will last.
“We aren’t just driving the van,” Riley says. “We build camaraderie with the group, share relatable wine knowledge, and even create fun playlists to sing along with on the ride. Some of my favorite customer reviews are when people talk about their wine guide by name.”
Right: NC Wine Gals founder Megan Riley
When the pandemic struck, NC Wine Gals had to fight to stay afloat. “Covid-19 decimated small businesses, and we were no exception,” Riley says. “It sent us into economic turmoil. A bridge loan from a family member allowed us to refund all our bookings. By that summer, we were able to do smaller tours with masks. It was enough to pay the bills. The business didn’t grow through 2021, but we maintained cash flow.” Bookings have been consistent since October 2022, and Riley hopes to add a third vehicle.
NC Wine Gals now averages at least eight tours per month among its Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Greensboro locations, and about four tours per month from Asheville. The audience skews about 95% female, ranging in age from 25 to 65. Riley would be happy for more men to show up. A new Bourbon & Wine tour could encourage that: The tour includes stops at two wineries and a distillery, plus doughnuts and a barbecue lunch. But she takes pride in being a rare woman-owned-and-operated company with female tour guides who demystify an often-intimidating topic.
Riley particularly enjoys getting to know vineyard owners, many of whom have been vintners for generations. Her company chooses its stops based on the quality of wine and relationships with the operators.
“One vineyard was deeded their land from the queen of England in the 1700s,” Riley says. “Some are bootstrappers who taught themselves how to make wine a few decades ago and are working hard to keep that tradition going. It’s a great feeling when you go to these family vineyards and see them following their passion. They make a great variety of approachable North Carolina wine, and I’m excited I can play a part in sharing that with others.” SP