Jan 7, 2022
Making wine, growing family bond at Overmountain Vineyards

A father-daughter bond is a special thing, especially in the context of farming. Sofia Lilly, winemaker at Overmountain Vineyards in Tryon, has grown up learning the trade from her father and is proud today to be one of the only father-daughter winemaking teams in the state.

“I have been watching and helping dad make wine since the vineyard was started in 1994,” Sofia said, “We started very small with dad making wine just for friends and family on the porch, but I have many memories of learning from him that I still look back on and benefit from.”

Although she didn’t always know that the vineyard was where she wanted to spend her career, the love of family and close-knit bond with her father brought Sofia to the farm full-time right after college. “My dad and I are like two peas in a pod,” she said, “it is an honor to work with him every day and continue to learn from him and grow the family business.”

Today, Overmountain Vineyards has grown to 70 acres with 18 of those acres being reserved for grapes alone. The family grows cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, petit verdot and petit manseng grapes. In fact, they were the first vineyard in North Carolina to start growing the French grape, petit manseng, and are proud of the white wine it produces today. In addition to grapes, the vineyard is home to 25 acres of forested pines as well as a few other crops, including blueberries.

The Lilly family started out growing their grapes for Biltmore Winery in Asheville and worked with them for many years before deciding to produce their own wines. “It was an absolute honor to grow grapes for Biltmore,” Sofia said, “but in 2010, we decided to start our own family business, which is when we settled on the name of Overmountain Vineyards.”

A typical day in Sofia’s life can vary based on the time of year. Like many farmers across the state, she wears a variety of hats, including marketer, social media manager, accounts payable, maintenance/repair crew and winemaker. Her busiest time of year, however, is harvest when days can run 14 to 16 hours. “During harvest we will get to the farm around 6 a.m. and work in the fields until around 11 a.m.,” she said, “from there we will process the grapes for about six hours before we start making the wine.”

Sofia’s wine making process is very different for white wine and red wine, but both take a lot of hard work and dedication. “With white wine, you have to crush the grapes to get the juice out and that’s what we use to make the wine, no water added, because we want the purest product possible,” she said, “once all the juice has time to settle, we put the yeast in and let it ferment for four to six weeks to keep it cool.”

Sofia explained that white wine must be kept cool during fermentation in much the same way a runner must be kept cool when exercising. “When someone is running they are exerting energy, they are working and they are sweaty. When you ferment wine, the yeast is doing the very same thing,” she said, “so we have to keep it between 58 and 62 degrees so that it doesn’t get overworked or smelly.” All their white wine is fermented in stainless steel bins before being bottled and sold to consumers.

Red wine, however, has a much different process due to color extraction from the grapes. Some may be surprised to know that red grapes are white on the inside, meaning that the grapes have to be fermented whole in order to draw out that beautiful red color. This extra step translates to a lot more manual labor and intentionality. “We sort the red berries individually and destem them based on size,” Sofia explained, “we have volunteers that help us do this each year, which is a huge blessing.”

Once the grapes have been sorted they are fermented whole for about one and a half weeks before they are pressed and put into bins to finish fermenting. Despite the extra steps and labor, red wine is actually Sofia’s favorite to make because it is so hands on and she feels very in touch with the final product.

The vineyard is open to the public each week, Wednesday through Sunday. With two Airbnb’s located on the farm, customers can either choose to come for a relaxing weekend or simply a glass of wine and peaceful scenery. “As soon as you pull into the vineyard you are hit with stunning views of the N.C. mountains,” Sofia said, “we welcome you like family here and offer a comforting, homey and peaceful experience.”

Tastings are also available for customers looking to fall in love with a new wine or find out about the winemaking process. In fact, Sofia recently started offering tableside wine tastings that educate about each wine and how it is made. “It’s so rewarding to walk customers through the process and see their faces as they taste and enjoy each wine,” she said, “it really brings everything full circle and makes the hard work worth it.”

For those seeking a career in the winemaking industry, Sofia recommends getting hands-on experiences early through internships and farm work opportunities. “Getting involved is always the best way to learn if you truly love something,” she said, “it will really give you validation if this is where you want to be and where your passion lies.”

In the future, Sofia and her family are looking forward to diversifying their operation through expanding their already flourishing U-Pick business and trying their hand at commercial flower growing. They are also heavy into agritourism and excited to start working on new ideas and ways to drive customers to the farm. “Agritourism is huge here and one of my favorite aspects of the job,” Sofia said. “Anytime I can bring people out to the farm, show them what we do and educate them on why it’s important is a good day.”

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