Take an engineering brain, a love for farming and the land, creativity and a refined palate.
Blend all that together and you end up with someone like Erik Mitran, the award-winning winemaker for …
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Take an engineering brain, a love for farming and the land, creativity and a refined palate.
Blend all that together and you end up with someone like Erik Mitran, the award-winning winemaker for Chatham’s newest vineyard, FireClay Cellars on Bowers Store Road between Siler City and Pittsboro.
FireClay Cellars and its nearly five acres of grapevines are situated near the highest crest of Bowers Store Road, overlooking the valley that lies to the west. Nestled behind the vines is a large building with an open, two-story tasting room, surrounding on two sides by generous porches and decks. On the rear of the building, built into a hill, you’ll find a modern wine-making facility, complete with crushers, vats, and barrels required for the process.
The vineyards are also home to blue birds, purple martins, guinea hens and bat boxes — anything to “eat the bugs” and allow Mitran to “do things more naturally.”
Mitran, who studied Chemical Engineering at N.C. State, started making beer, mead and wine in the basement of the home of his parents, Andrei and Sue, in Cary.
“I love the balance between the art and the science [of wine-making],” Mitran said. “I grew up farming, my dad grew up on a farm, and he always had a tractor service. I had my own bees and started making mead. We also had grapes and I always liked wine so I tried making my own.”
Mitran began entering and winning awards in the amateur category at the N.C. State Fair — first his meads, which he said “gave him a lot of confidence,” then his homemade wines. His father and Steve Thiedke, who are also partners in FireClay Cellars, opened a software company in Cary in 1987. As Mitran’s awards began to accumulate and the N.C. Wine boom began in earnest, the three set out to find the perfect property for a vineyard and winery.
“About 10 years ago, Shelton [Vineyards] had opened [in the Yadkin Valley in North Carolina] and was growing,” Mitran said. “I realized you can make a really good dry wine in North Carolina, not just sweet ones.”
He began getting interested in hybrid European grapes, which he says are disease-resistant and hold their acidity. The hybrids were developed mostly by University of California-Davis for the wine scene there, but Mitran says “they were made for this area.”
After researching several possible locations, the 16-acre Bowers Store Road property was acquired by the partners in 2012. Several different varieties of grapes were planted and, over time, the best and hardiest were selected. After about two years after planting, Mitran began harvesting and taking some of the crop to make homemade wine — practicing and entering amateur competitions — but sold most of the rest of the grapes.
“At one point we just said, ‘hey, we put too much into this,’” and they began in earnest building toward wine-making commercially and opening the vineyard. They began designing the tasting room and wine-making facility. In 2017, Mitran and his partners began harvesting the grapes to process at Windsor Run Winery in Hamptonville, a “custom crush” production arrangement, to be made into wine. Mitran noted that he wanted to be sure they would have wine to sell as soon as the tasting room was open.
It takes one year to make white wine and two years to make red wine from harvest to market. White grapes are harvested in August with the reds reaped in September. The grapes are harvested first thing in the morning to preserve all the aroma of the grapes, are then weighed, then put into a de-stemmer. They are then moved into a press to squeeze out all the juice before being moved to giant vats. During the week or so after picking, juice must be drained off into another vat every 10 or 12 hours. After that, it remains in the vats, depending on how long Mitran wants the juice to ferment. After about a year, the whites are ready to sell while the reds are placed in French oak barrels to age for at least one more year.
The tasting room and winemaking facility opened in September 2018. Mitran notes that they were able to get in their last harvest just in time before last year’s hurricanes hit the county. The team had just finished pressing the last of the red grapes when the power went out during one of the storms.
“Setting everything up and using it yourself is different [than doing it at Windsor Run Winery],” Mitran said. “We do everything by hand. This means we can be meticulous through the process.”
For Mitran, everything is about attention to detail — from maintaining the vineyards, choosing the grapes, making the wines, and even the barrels in which he chooses to age the wine.
“You actually have to taste the wine,” he continued. “There’s no formula so you have to taste it. Grapes are different, whether it’s the type of grapes or the same grapes from year to year. You have to take measurements, taste, and decide. Those decisions are the balance.”
Mitran notes that someone can taste FireClay’s 2017 and 2018 White Blends side-by-side and taste the difference, even though they use the same grapes.
“They are made the same but taste completely different,” he said. “The 2017 is fruitier with hints of grapefruit, while the 2018 has a lemon citrus flavor more like a Chardonnay.”
FireClay Cellars currently sells seven wines, though two are not made by Mitran. The White Blend contains juice from Chardonel, Traminette, and Seyval Blanc grapes grown on the vineyard. The 2017 is a smooth, dry white wine with citrus, tropical fruit and honeysuckle notes. The 2018 is dry blend that’s crisp and light with fresh citrus, apple blossom, and soft minerality lead to a clean finish with hints of white pepper and honeydew melon. The 2017 White Blend has won awards at the N.C. State Fair and the N.C. Fine Wine Society.
FireClay also has a Red Blend made with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Tannat and Chambourcin grapes. The 2016 — they will be bottling 2017 this year — is a Bordeaux-style, dry red wine with earthy notes of black raspberry and dark plum aged for 18 months in oak barrels. The 2016 Red Blend won silver at the N.C. State Fair last year.
The winery also sells a Chambourcin wine, perhaps its most highly-awarded wine, from the 2016 harvest. This wine is a dry and full-bodied red with soft tannins, similar to a Cabernet. It is well-balanced with notes of cherry, plum, and lavender. This wine won awards at both the N.C. State Fair and the N.C. Fine Wine Society.
“I love the new white because its drier,” customer Chatherine Faulkner, a Chatham County resident said. “I like the red, but I love the Chambourcin.”
This year, the vineyard is introducing a Cabernet Franc Rosé, the first wine it created and bottled at the facility. It’s a very light, off-dry wine with hints of blood orange and strawberry. FireClay also sells two sweet wines not made by Mitran, an effort to ensure there is something for anyone’s palate. The Valvin Muscat is a 2017 wine made from an ancient grape related to Moscado. This lightly sweet wine has hints of peach, honey and orange blossom balanced with moderate acidity. The 2017 Honey Apple is a unique wine is made from a blend of N.C. apple cider and honey. It is spiced with cinnamon, cloves, and a touch of sweetness.
FireClay Cellars is producing about 700 cases a year of wine, but Mitran hopes when the planned eight acres are fully planted to be able to produce 2,500 cases a year.
The tasting room is open on Saturdays and Sundays, but on every other Wednesday, the vineyard holds a “Wine Wednesday for Women” event organized by Siler City native Zoann Adams.
“I came in March for a tasting and fell in love,” Adams said.
Every other week, about 15 to 20 women come to the event, which is exclusively for women to have a place to unwind. In fact, Adams noted that at one event someone didn’t realize that it was women-only and brought their husband. He sat dutifully on the front porch the whole time.
In addition to tastings on the weekend, FireClay Cellars is hosting an event June 30 for Siler City’s Oasis Fresh Market and Deli, which has created a menu in partnership with Smithview Farm and Angelina’s Kitchen, both of Pittsboro.
“We have partnered with the best of Chatham to bring you East meets West of our bountiful county,” according to the event’s website. “Oasis Fresh Market and Deli has created a menu in partnership with Smithview Farm and Angelina’s Kitchen showcasing other Chatham producers, to bring you a wine tasting menu that is truly farm to fork.”
The menu will consist of open flame grass-fed skewered beef tips, grilled flame skewered and seared lightly seasoned chicken, spanakopita, layered phyllo dough stuffed with spinach and feta, crudités of locally grown vegetables served with Oasis Hummus, artisan mini loaves baked by Michael’s Breads served with the Oasis’ Celebratory Dairy goat cheese blended with apricots and mandarin oranges, and handmade filled chocolates by Better Then Sliced Bread. A paired glass of wine will be included with the meal. There will be recommended pairings or guests can sample some the wines to create their own pairing. The cost of the ticket is $30 and must be purchased in advance.The event will be held in the tasting room from 4:30-8 p.m. at FireClay. The food will be served from 5-6:30 p.m. with Oasis Staff Serving. For more information on the event, visit www.oasisfreshmarket.com.
Casey Mann can be reached at CaseyMann@Chathamnr.com.
2016 Chambourcin - Double Gold at N.C. State Fair, 2018
2016 Chambourcin - Bronze at N.C. Fine Wine, 2019 (commercial award)
2016 Red Blend - Silver at N.C. State Fair, 2018
2017 White Blend - Silver at N.C. State Fair, 2018
2017 White Blend - Bronze at N.C. Fine Wine, 2019 (commercial award)
Saturdays: noon to 6 p.m.
Sundays: 1 - 5 p.m.
Space available for rental
1276 Bowers Store Road
Also available at
Oasis Fresh Market, Siler City
Chatham Marketplace, Pittsboro