At a table in his tasting room, Alan Ward makes direct eye contact. This is clearly a guy who wants to not only get his point across, but also make sure you understand just what makes Henderson County so special.
“We can grow anything as good as what’s grown in Europe, if not better,” he said.
Ward’s statement isn’t one of false pride. Owner/founder of Saint Paul Mountain Vineyards in Hendersonville, his words come from being a ninth-generation Henderson native, one who is farming on the same land his ancestors planted and cultivated those many years ago.
“This area is so unique geographically, where we have cool nights and warm days, protection from bad weather by these beautiful mountains, and all these diverse ecosystems that reside and thrive within this region.”
Opened in 2012, Saint Paul Mountain was the first vineyard of its kind in the county. Specializing in 14 grape varietals that result in a bevy of award-winning styles, the locally minded company harvests its delights from over 75 acres of land. Add in another 100 acres of Henderson County apple orchards they pick from for their Appalachian Ridge Artisan Ciders, and you have a business that is as flourishing as the products themselves.
“People want to eat healthy, and also want to know where their food and beverages come from,” Ward said. “Our wines aren’t mass-produced and sitting on some grocery store shelf for months or years. We grow our own fruits. We know who our other local growers are, and we try to do things that are good for the environment.”
Though he is ninth-generation, Ward aims to change the philosophy of how the land is treated, managed, and cared for. It’s not about perfect rows of vines and apple trees. Rather, the focus is on working with the land, following its contours, and responding appropriately to what the climate throws at you.
“We want to preserve the uniqueness of this area—geographically, economically, and culturally,” he said. “We live here, eat here, drink the water from here, so we don’t try to fool nature. We try to work with nature for the best, safest, and most sustainable results possible.”
Originally a student of chemistry and biology at Clemson University, Ward has spent his adulthood traveling the world in search of the finest agricultural advances out there. Whether it’s researching grape growth and wine fermentation in the California fields, looking at cider techniques in the Normandy region of France, or apple varietals at a laboratory in Switzerland, it’s about a thirst for knowledge that will be absorbed by their land back home and its many uses.
“And none of this was an overnight thing,” Ward said. “It’s about sustainability, where we didn’t want to just do row crops, which can erode the land, not to mention the pesticides that get used. We didn’t want to do that. Apples and grapes are pretty sustainable, and also a large part of the history of Henderson County.”
As the number one apple growing county in the state (with North Carolina the seventh largest apple growing state in the country), Henderson has a long and proud past when it comes to nature’s own deliciousness plucked simply from a nearby branch.
“The farmers that came here during the Great Depression are the real heroes,” Ward said. “They came here with nothing, didn’t know anything about the land, and started something so incredible with apples and farming that it still exists today.”
“We want to keep people in farming, get them more involved where great progress and prosperity can happen.”
—Alan Ward, Saint Paul Mountain Vineyards
In recent decades, the apple impact on the local economy, though vast, had shifted from a finished product to a commodity. With the bottom slowly dropping out from the industry, a resurgence has occurred in recent years with the implementation of hard cider companies and wineries sprouting up in seemingly every direction. The endless natural beauty will remain in Henderson County and beyond as the farming community has found stability and growth.
“With farming, a lot of it is desire, but we’re also so fortunate enough to be able to do this,” Ward said. “Farming before used to only last a few generations, ‘shirt sleeve to shirt sleeve’ as they say. We want to break that cycle. We want to keep people in farming, get them more involved and educated where great progress and prosperity can happen.”
Gazing out the tasting room window, Ward is looking onto the land of his forefathers, and also the land of his destiny, where the possibilities are as endless as the rows of vines and trees heading towards to horizon.
“The beauty of Western North Carolina is something I think we may all take for granted,” he smiled. “We breathe fresh air, drink clean water, enjoy gorgeous mountains with four seasons and more plant diversity than anywhere in the world. There are so many things to see and do. The people here are like fine wine—all different ages and flavors, all unique.”