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Let’s be blunt—North Carolina wine has a bad rap.
If you’ve been to a wine festival here anytime in the past decade, chances are you were offered more than a couple sweet muscadine-derived wines. The reputation of these somewhat flat, one-note wines makes restaurants reluctant to put a locally grown vintage on its wine list.
Mention this to Erik Mitran, co-owner of Siler City’s FireClay Cellars, and he’s liable to roll his eyes. He might sigh heavily too. It’s an uphill battle for a winemaker in a region known for just about every other agricultural product save for quality vines. And though Mitran’s been at it for several years, his family’s operation just west of Pittsboro still operates in relative obscurity.
Timing hasn’t helped. FireClay opened its taproom about a year before the pandemic hit. They were forced to close for much of what would’ve been the busiest part of 2020. But, now, as vaccine rollout strengthens and the weather warms, this scrappy little vineyard and winery is positioned to take the Triangle by storm. That’s because FireClay is the ideal place to spend a sunny weekend afternoon—and because its wines are turning heads.
There’s not much out here in this part of Siler City off US-64. Cow pastures, grain silos and church spires punctuate the scenery. Like most vineyards, FireClay is built on a slope, but the bump in the landscape means its grand taproom with soaring ceiling and wraparound porch are barely visible from the road. The sign out front—like the people who run it—is modest. But that modesty belies the masterful wines that FireClay is slowly, diligently producing.
This is a small, family-run business. Erik and his parents, Andrei and Sue Mitran, operate the vineyard and winery with another couple. Compared to some of the state’s big-dog wine producers (think Shelton and Childress), FireClay is barely a blip on the radar. But its size says more about the limits of quantity than quality—FireClay’s 2016 chambourcin won double gold at the NC State Fair wine competition in 2019. Some of its newer wines, including a couple rosés, are arguably more popular—having quickly sold out.
This isn’t your typical winery. From the floral-nosed valvin muscat to the crisp and versatile oaked chardonel, FireClay often relies on less popular (and thus in many ways more rewarding) grapes. It’s an arduous process, and Erik’s ripped up several different varietals that didn’t seem to take to the North Carolina red clay well. But the payoff is obvious, making this the kind of place you’re likely to buy six bottles on your way out the door (as one recently witnessed customer did).
These aren’t necessarily your typical winery owners either. Andrei and Sue both grew up in Canada before relocating to Cary, where they raised Erik. Once here, Sue took up ice hockey and even co-founded a women’s league in 1995. Now a spritely 65-year-old with short and curly gray hair, she’s the North Carolina Trailblazers’ oldest member. Trailblazer indeed.
“I always joke that I’m really tough out there, but I’m very gentle,” Sue says as she sits in the corner of FireClay’s stately lounge with one of its rosés by her side.
Back in the ’80s, her husband, Andrei, founded a local software company, where he still works, but now you’re just as likely to find him among the vines pruning with Erik. Andrei’s also a bike and motorcycle enthusiast, and actually found the plot where FireClay now sits while on a quiet countryside motorcycle ride.
Erik learned to make wine while tinkering around in his parents’ basement. He’s come a long way since then, propelled by a chemical engineering degree from NC State and a seemingly insatiable appetite for experimentation. That creativity, paired with an attention to detail, shines through in his wines, including the newly released chambourcin reserve he’d been holding onto until the wine reached its highest form.
And while you may now want to… you can’t find FireClay wines in almost any local restaurant or bottle shop. Instead, it requires a trip less than an hour west to the picturesque grounds.
No complaints here—nestled between a few homesteads and rolling woodlands, FireClay is exactly the kind of place you’d want to spend a Saturday afternoon lazing on the expansive porch or lounging with friends at one of the picnic tables among the vines. It’s easy to see why people stage Instagram photo shoots here, where a gang of pet ducks waddle beneath the grapes—and why at least one couple decided to get married on the property. The kid-friendly taproom still offers an adults-only lounge up a spiral staircase, and it’s one of the lone vineyard getaways within spitting distance from Downtown Raleigh.
While you’re there, swipe a bottle of the 2019 cabernet franc rosé—Sue’s favorite. It’s not the kind of wine she’s traditionally reached for, but it’s different once you have more control over the process.
“It’s good to be involved with everything because, then, when you open that bottle of wine, you appreciate the beginnings of the grapes,” she says. “Just putting that plant in the ground, it’s just so magical.”
That magic is evident—even if you’re not there for every step from grape to glass. All you need to appreciate it is a sip. And once enough people catch on, maybe North Carolina wine won’t have such a sour reputation.
Photos courtesy of Erik Mitran
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