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Sunday, June 23, 2024

NC trend: Megan Riley is on a mission to reshape the state’s wine industry


Charlotte’s 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.”

A BUSINESS IS BORN

The experience inspired Riley to share news of North Carolina’s transformation. She reached out to a friend, Jessica Diehl, about showcasing that change 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,” Riley says. “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. 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 or 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 wine country, about an hour north of Charlotte. Prices for the outings 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 a vineyard tasting or flight.

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 tours 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 longer than their glass of merlot. 

“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.”

North Carolina topped U.S. wine production until Prohibition in 1919. After decades of little activity, the winery count rose from 21 in 2000 to about 200 now in 71 counties, according to state data. The state’s wine output ranked No. 9 in 2019, the Frank Rimerman research firm reports.

GOING WITH THE FLOW

When NC Wine Gals began, Riley and Diehl reached out to influencers and hotel concierges to help spread the word about the business. It was slow-going at first, but in September 2019 they started to reap the benefits of organic search. 

“People were saying that they found us by Googling ‘wine tours,’” Riley says. “It turned out that 85% of our business in that first year was organic.”

Then the pandemic struck, forcing NC Wine Gals 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.”

Early 2022 saw a spike in tour bookings, partially from people feeling more comfortable venturing out, and also from those who were itching for a staycation. 

“Summer 2022 dropped off again, though, because people were ‘revenge traveling.’ Everyone went to Europe,” Riley says. “But by October 2022, we were booked for the month and we have had consistent bookings since then.”

Considering their pandemic setbacks, Riley considers this year to be the company’s first “real year” of business. Sales are up 41% through mid-year.

“That’s with two vehicles,” Riley says. “Our next goal is to add a third vehicle,” which she says would add $50,000-plus in annual revenue.

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. But she takes pride in being a rare women-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. No money changes hands between NC Wine Gals and the vineyards.

“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.”   

Amanda Lea
Amanda Lea
Amanda Lea is a freelance writer in Charlotte.

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