Add To Favorites

N.C. winery continues to make veterans a major part of its business model

Patriot-News - 1/29/2024

A North Carolina winery that emphasizes the hiring of veterans got more recognition for its initiative last month.

Haze Gray Vineyards, located in the small community of Stony Knoll, won the Hire Vets Platinum Medallion from the U.S. Department of Labor. The award recognizes the Surry County producer for hiring and retaining veterans and putting programs in place for veterans. This isn’t its first; Haze Gray won the Hire Vets Gold Medallion in 2020.

Founded and operated by Deane and Becky Muhlenberg, who both grew up in military families, you don’t have to get any farther than a step into the tasting room to see the connection. There’s a propeller hanging on one wall, and beneath it are around 200 photos of U.S. military members and veterans who have visited.

Says Becky: “It has finished the one wall and continued almost to the window of a second wall.” The business not only draws veterans to work (and taste) there but the winery name — haze gray refers to the color of the U.S. Navy warships and the term haze gray and underway is shorthand for naval surface warships at sea — tends to stop in their tracks those connected to the service when they see it.

“I’ll see somebody drive by and they’ll slam on their brakes,” Becky says. “They back up and inevitably it’ll be a veteran. [They’ll come in and say] you must have a veteran who owns this place. And I’m like, yeah, I do.”

One veteran they have hired to assist with the grapes is EJ Sutton, a retired 30-year Army veteran who decided he wanted to start a vineyard and begin farming but lacked experience. As Deane explains, the U.S. Department of Agriculture runs a program called Boots on the Ground, which trains veterans. In North Carolina, it’s managed through N.C. State University.

“So we have him here as an apprentice for 18 months,” Deane explains. He’s purchased a property down near Cherokee, North Carolina, but he doesn’t know enough to start it and run the vineyard. I’m basically training him. He’s my apprentice. I show him everything that needs to be done in a vineyard. So when he starts his vineyard, he’s ready to go.”

He’s also enrolled in a Viticulture program at Surry Community College, which no doubt will mention the spotted lanternfly in one of its classes. Discovered in Pa. in 2014, it has continued to spread across the East Coast, being seen in several North Carolina vineyards, the closest being 20 miles north of Stony Knoll.

I got to know the couple in 2021 while writing stories on 50 East Coast wineries in 50 days. That story posted in March, and Fox News anchor (and today also the Senior Vice President and Managing Editor of Business News for Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network) Neil Cavuto saw the story and interviewed the couple in connection with Memorial Day, focusing on their push to hire veterans. You can see the interview here.

At that time they were still working through the hurdles of a new business, having bought the 85-acre farm in 2015 and then planting vines that year and the next. They opened the tasting room in December 2019 and, well, then COVID happened. Four full years into the business, Becky and Deane were asked how tough it has been.

“Everybody in the industry will tell you it’s difficult,” Deane says. “People who are nonindustry assume that it’s easy, but the industry folks, at least around here in North Carolina, they’re not shy about telling you it’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of commitment. So we didn’t go in here with our eyes closed.

“We both had education in marketing and sales and things like that. So we knew conceptually what needed to be done. But as you touched on, the big thing, at least for me in the vineyard, is the labor. That’s the struggle. I did not know going in that it would be so difficult to get labor.”

Altogether, they grow nine varieties of grapes on 9 acres (six red and three white), making wine only from their grapes. Here’s a link to a list of their grapes, from Chardonnay to Petit Verdot. Their newest release is Tannat, the last grape they planted.

“We were trying to figure out the ninth grape,” Becky explains. “We actually went to [nearby] Shelton Vineyards for one of their concerts and we bought a bottle of that. And we’re like, there’s the ninth grape.”

While the standard for a lot of new wineries has always been a few dry wines to accompany a majority of sweet wines, that’s not the setup at Haze Gray. Deane, the winemaker, produces around a dozen and a half wines, and a majority are made in a dry style.

“Mostly we’re known for dry reds,” Becky says. “So we do French-style reds. Dark red, flavorful. Smooth. Long finish. That’s what we want to be known for. People come in for our sweets, but we don’t have a lot on the menu.”

Several of their wines carry military names such as Aviator Red, Boot Camp Red and Two Bells, and its new fortified wine is called General Quarters. In addition, Haze Gray offers military discounts, as it notes on its webpage that lists its wines. Haze Gray has won its share of awards in a state that would surprise many with the number of premium wineries that continue to open.

The winery, at 761 Stony Knoll Road, is about a 45-minute drive from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and around a two-hour drive from Roanoke, Virginia. It’s currently open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday, and otherwise open by appointment.

If you get there, you can look for LT, or Lieutenant, their 5-month-old Vizsla pup. “He’s still in training, so he’s not here 100 percent of the time,” Becky says. “And then we have, obviously not in the tasting room, we have our cows and last year added three horses.” Those are Percherons, and if you ask nicely, they’ll lead you down from the tasting room to see them.

Becky is the vice president of the North Carolina Winegrowers Association, which will be gathering in Winston-Salem on Feb. 8-10 for its annual conference, including a Taste of NC wine and food event on the evening of Feb. 9.

The association also is holding a tasting event atop the USS North Carolina in Wilmington on May 3.

In addition, the winery schedules its share of events throughout the calendar year. A wine and chocolate pairing is planned around Valentine’s Day, and several casual winemaker dinners that pair with Haze Gray wines also will be held again this year. Other events are held exclusively for their wine club.

“I think people are looking for things to do. After COVID, people wanted the social distancing and being outside,” Becky says. “We added the gazebos. We added the back deck for outside music. So we try to balance it. Some people want music, some people don’t. First and foremost, we sell wine. We don’t want to interrupt people, so we want to give a couple of weekends where we have music, and when it’s warmer, have food trucks, but a couple of weekends where we don’t. If we don’t have food trucks, you can bring your own food.”

©2024 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.