Sunday, October 2, 2022

Lakefront winery an hour outside Wilmington hosts iconic art exhibits, national concerts, award-winning sips

Cape Fear Vineyard and Winery houses a restaurant, winery, cottages for lodging, distillery, butterfly garden petting farm, and has an extensive art collection, some of which will be for sale in the upcoming gift shop that owner Alex Munroe is in the process of building. Click the photo to open the gallery. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

In the world of art and culture, few people would put Elizabethtown, N.C., on the map as a destination. The small, rural town (population of almost 4,000) is better known for its surrounding farmland and the mom-and-pop burger joint Melvin’s — its sparkling crown jewel. Yet, 14 acres of Cape Fear Vineyard and Winery is becoming a cultural haven.

Vineyard owner Alex Munroe has collected over 400 pieces of art, a quarter of which align the walls of the winery’s restaurant, The Cork Room. Last month, the venue debuted “Reflections: The Art of Bernie Taupin” (yes, the same Benrie Taupin who writes songs for Elton John). It closed on Father’s Day before the exhibit moved to New York.

Friday, Munroe will officially open a Henry Diltz photography exhibit, on display through Sunday only. Well-known in the rock world, Diltz captured iconic imagery from Woodstock, along with numerous album covers he helped create for musicians from the ‘60s — The Doors, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Crosby, Stills and Nash. He will speak about it at a dinner at the winery Friday evening. 

Every inch of wall space in the brightly colored Cork Room is adorned with framed-and-matted or canvas works, originals or limited-signed editions. 

“This is a Diltz photograph of the Eagles at the Joshua Tree, taken in 1972,” Munroe said as he pointed to the piece. “This is an original Joni Mitchell, Marilyn Manson. This is Shepard Fairey. I have Eric Clapton, David Lee Roth of Van Halen, Snoop Dogg.”

Fifteen years ago, Munroe bought a 13-piece suite of Salvadore Dali works.

“Most of the collections, the series, have been split up,” he said. ”Somebody will sell a piece here or there. I was fortunate to find the whole complete suite.”

Munroe started collecting art over two decades ago, culling original and reprinted works. Grace Slick, John Lennon and Ringo Starr’s art mix in with Picasso, Matisse, Renoir and Dr. Seuss. Even artifacts of clothing worn by singers and actors — a suit from James Brown here, a jacket from Michael Jackson there, with Madonna’s pajamas nearby — are draped on mannequins tucked in corners across the restaurant and adjoining event space.

The space resembles a pop-culture museum as much as it does a winery. The hallway connecting the restaurant and event space is covered floor-to-ceiling with celebrity-signed photographs, some personally addressed to Munroe. It reads like a comedy club that showcases headshots of all who performed there. 

Alex Munroe giving a tour through his compound, Cape Fear Vineyard and Winery in Elizabethtown, NC. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

In this instance, it marks the beginning of Munroe’s habit of becoming a collector.

“When I was a kid — I was, like, 10 years old — I was on an airplane to New York with my brothers and family on vacation, and Dean Smith happened to be on the plane, and my older brothers dared me to get his autograph. So I did, and he was so nice about it. When I came back to the seat with it, my brothers thought I was the coolest guy.”

It kickstarted Munroe’s love of pop and celebrity culture. When he decided to get a Jimi Hendrix autograph years later, it came with a piece of Hendrix’s artwork. 

“So that was even better,” he said. “Back then, it wasn’t worth much.”

Today, he said, it’s “probably worth $30k or so.”

“The more I got into it, the more I got to know people in the art world,” Munroe continued.

He said when he took interest in owning a piece by Grace Slick, lead singer from Jefferson Airplane, Munroe decided to call up her art manager, Scott Hann, personally.

“I said, ‘Hey, I’m Alex Monroe from North Carolina,’ and he said, ‘Hello, Alex Munroe. I’m a redneck from Salisbury!’ So we got to know each other really good.”

Hann is helping Munroe bring Slick’s exhibit to the winery, the next on his wishlist. 

Singer-songwriter Bernie Taupin’s works were on display at the winery through Father’s Day. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

From plastics to wine

Turning his passion of collecting into a fundamental part of business wasn’t always in Munroe’s eyesight. In fact, his road to owning a winery is a winding one. Munroe comes from the world of plastics, by way of journalism. He graduated from UNC Chapel Hill and had ideas of becoming a writer.

“It was 1989, there was a recession, and I couldn’t find a good-paying job at a newspaper,” he recalled.

Munroe said for six months he had written for Whiteville’s The News Reporter in his hometown, located one county over in Columbus, 30 minutes from Elizabethtown. 

“My grandmother lived out in the country alone,” he explained, “and she was 75 and had a heart condition. Well, in the newsroom, the scanners were going off all the time, and I would hear them every night when I was writing my stories.”

One particular evening Munroe said he overheard someone from EMS having trouble finding a residence, since the back roads would often be dark, stripped of street lighting.  “I heard them ask, ‘Where’s this road at? Tell them to come out by the street,’” Munroe recalled. “And I said to myself, ‘Well, daggone, my grandma, if she has a heart attack, will they find her?”

Munroe decided to create an emergency light that people could put on the outside of the house to help inform first responders. The light plugged into the phone so when and if they dialed 9-1-1, it automatically would illuminate so EMS could detect the correct address.

“So that’s how I started getting into the plastics business and left the newspaper industry,” Munroe said.

He was in sales for a while and continued inventing products, such as AlertTile, plastic tiles that can be staked into concrete to easily create handicap ramps. He launched his own company, Cape Fear Systems, in Wilmington in 2000 and moved the manufacturing plant to Elizabethtown when the Bladen County Economic Development Commission contacted him in the 2010s. 

“They gave me a good deal on the warehouse because I was going to bring jobs,” he said. 

It just so happened it was located behind the municipal airport and across the way from a tree-filled lot that housed a vacant, serene vineyard and abandoned winery, all surrounded by a lake. Munroe said he would take his Irish Setter, Dan, out to the property to run daily. 

“There was a shell building here and they had some winemaking equipment,” he detailed, “but the company didn’t survive. They’d been out of business for several years.”

It was 2012 and Munroe said he and Dan, who suffered from a heart condition, made it a point to visit daily. One day, Munroe picked up the phone to ask the economic development commission about the land.

Muscadine grapes are grown on 3 acres, however, the winery also produces less sweet wine from grapes procured from other NC vineyards on the west portion of the state. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

“My buddy that recruited me said, ‘We are foreclosing on it tomorrow,’” Munroe said. “By that afternoon, I had a contract on it.”

Though Munroe never worked in hospitality before, he said he immediately had a vision of what his new purchase could become, aside from Dan’s favorite running spot. He envisioned a restaurant, winery and vineyard, with an agritourism flair, even an art gallery to show off the collection he had been culling throughout the years. It would be a destination site — an artistic retreat even.

For the first six months, Munroe put his plan together. While also running his plastics company, he began clearing land, working with architects and landscape designers to keep the tranquility of the lakefront property. He got the restaurant and winery up and running, and began managing 3 acres of muscadine grapevines to make wine.

Though the eastern part of the state is known for its sweet vino, Munroe didn’t want to make only sugary blends because, he said, there wasn’t a lot of profit margin. So he reached out to vineyards in Wilkesboro, Chatham County and Yadkin Valley to utilize their grapes and juices in order to make drier styles.

To date, the winery makes eight wines, including a merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Moscato, and Chardonnay, plus a variety of red and white blends. Munroe only makes wine to sell on the property; he doesn’t distribute it. 

“It was never in my game plan,” he said. “We sell enough here that we are kind of running at almost maximum capacity right now.”

In the early days, finding a caliber of workers to help grow and maintain the operation presented obstacles, Munroe said. He admitted he was so green to the hospitality industry that trial-and-error cost him some.

“I had a hard time finding managers,” he said. “Our food costs were 85%, labor costs were 60%.” 

He went through 200 workers to get the crew of 50 he praises now for steering the business to success. But it almost didn’t happen: “I was ready to throw in the towel. I said, ‘I’m gonna just retire and play golf around the world.’”

He bought the ticket and flew to London. He was on the first hole at Stoke Park and birdied it.

“And I remember feeling like something just wasn’t right,” Munroe said. “As I reached down to get the ball out of the hole, I said, ‘You know, I can do this anytime.’”

He walked off the course, caught the next flight out and landed back at the winery the next day. 

“So I retired for one day,” Munroe quipped.

Head distiller Judith Scott gives a tasting tour of Cape Fear Distillery products. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

From wine to spirits

2018 was the turning point for Munroe. He made the decision to fully focus on the winery’s operations and sold Cape Fear Systems. Then Hurricane Florence made landfall that September.

“When it hit, it collapsed the dam,” he said. “So all of my water in the lake drained out — it was like a big mud hole out there.”

Despite the hardships, it ended up being a good year for business. Munroe expanded operations on the winery’s compound by launching Cape Fear Distillery, which turned out its first bottle of Maritime Gin. Head distiller Judith Scott said they took a different approach to flavor the spirit, avoiding heavy pine-needle notes indicative of the liquor.

“So we went really low on the Juniper and we added lavender,” she said. “So it’s a touch sweet and it has a citrus base, which makes it unique and light.”

Since then, the distillery portfolio has grown to include Cape Fear Rum, Frying Pan Shoals Bourbon, Solera Whiskey, and Gamefish Vodka. Unlike the wine, the spirits are distributed throughout North Carolina ABC stores and restaurants and bars. 

All are created from a still that looks like a submarine. “If we put 150 gallons in here, we’ll pull out about 30 gallons of vodka,” Scott explained. “So it doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s 180 proof and we bottle it at 80 proof, so that’s actually a lot of alcohol.”

Cape Fear Distillery’s still takes in 150 gallons of white lightning and pulls out 30 gallons of vodka. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

The single-barrel bourbon has a 3.25 char, according to Munroe, with a mash of corn, rye and barley. It stays in the barrel for almost three years before it’s bottled. 

“And, you know, if you don’t like it, it’s God’s problem,” he said, “because we do it the way it’s meant to be — now, it is 94 proof.”

His crew cascade-ages the Solera Whiskey, moving the spirit down the line of barrels over six years before it hits a bottle. The distillery is only one of three in the nation that processes whiskey that way, according to Munroe. 

“It’s very arduous, very time-consuming, and not very many people do it, but it’s damn good,” he added.

They also are aging rum for a special release, but their current product, Scott said, sips like dessert: “the perfect little after-dinner drink.” 

The vodka is the distillery’s latest release, already winning two golds from the John Barleycorn Awards. In fact, all its spirits have received the Barleycorn stamp of approval in some form or fashion (silver and gold), among other accolades.

“It’s just a good neutral vodka,” Scott said. “We tried different recipes with grains but the potato was the most neutral, drinkable, smooth flavor.”

As part of launching the vodka, Munroe also created the Cape Fear Distillery Conservation Foundation to donate partial proceeds from its sales to coastal initiatives across the nation. The vodka’s label was designed by Wilmington resident and international marine wildlife artist Steve Goione, featuring fish “swimming” around the glass bottle.

Munroe is in the process of building an official Goione art gallery on the winery’s grounds located near the up-and-coming gift shop. Both are situated between The Cork Room and the petting farm — another important element to the vineyard.

Being surrounded by farmland — and housing its own crops of grapes — Munroe said it seemed a natural fit to include agritourism in his business plan. “The average child today is three generations removed from farming,” he added. “So most kids have never petted a donkey or a horse or chicken.”

Flemish bunnies are part of the petting farm at Cape Fear Vineyard and Winery. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

Bunnies, chickens, peacocks, llamas, donkeys, miniature horses –– they all walk the grounds, nuzzling hands that feed them, talking and clucking back to visitors. “With the recent rains, the grass has been growing,” Munroe said. “And they’ve been leaning on the fence to get over the grass. Suddenly, the fence fell this morning and out they went running, ya know? It took an hour to get 15 horses back into the stall.”

Then Munroe said he was off scrambling to find a dishwasher, who called in for the day, before taking a phone call from a local senator who wanted to discuss a new distillery bill. Thereafter, he was dealing with landscapers about dead-heading rose bushes, before chatting up painters who were priming the side of the winery for his latest mural, dedicated to his dear dog, Dan, who passed away some years ago. 

“Then I headed to room three to deliver a hairdryer — I mean, you don’t want to mess with women and their hair,” Munroe said. 

The cottages have grown from three into 14. Munroe’s in the process of adding five more, which according to the entrepreneur, stays booked at 90% occupancy.

He said folks fly into Curtis L. Brown Jr. AirField, adjacent to the property, often for day or overnight trips. The municipal airport welcomes 3,500 flights annually, according to the City of Elizabethtown. 

“We do a lot of business in lodging,” Munroe said, “because of weddings, class reunions, any type of party. A lot, a lot of weddings, for sure — about 200 a year. I’m thinking about adding a spa on the property next.”

Alex Munroe stands in the event space of Cape Fear Winery as staff prepares the space for the night’s party. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

From winery to cultural haven 

Elizabethtown and surrounding institutions recognize the winery’s local economic footprint. In 2018, UNC Pembroke awarded Munroe ​​the 2018 Business Person of the Year. In February 2021, Munroe was awarded the 2020 Outstanding Small Businessperson Award from Elizabethtown’s Chamber of Commerce 

Mayor Sylvia Campbell told Port City Daliy Munroe has created an attraction for Elizabethtown and Bladen County that has impacted the area already in a positive way, boosting sales from real estate to insurance, advertising to shipping, bottling to boxing and beyond. She added the city often utilizes Munroe’s facilities for rotary club meetings and uses it as a “drawing card” for business growth. 

They’re also connecting the town’s walking trail to the vineyard, which will loop to the new, soon-to-be-opened Greene’s Lake Conservation Park. 

“It is reported that North Carolina is 11th in the nation in wine production,” she said. “We now have close to 77 distilleries statewide. This clearly attracts tourists from all over.”

Munroe confirms he’s had visitors from D.C., Florida and Canada, but has also drawn in nearby residents looking for an easy day trip. “We’re only an hour from Wilmington, an hour from Myrtle Beach, an hour from Fayetteville, a couple hours from Raleigh, and we fulfill a need for smaller towns like Lumberton, Whiteville, Bladenboro,” Munroe explained.

Even his chef, Kye Ransom, came from Wilmington. Ransom previously worked for LM Restaurant Group before taking over the reins at The Cork Room. He prides his relationship with local farmers to procure fresh ingredients and just debuted a new seasonal menu last month. The restaurant itself seats about 100, yet the event space behind it can double capacity. 

“We’ve got an economic development convention coming to town with about 100 people,” he said. “ And we have some type of political fundraiser going on that we’re prepping for today.”

Ransom said he utilizes the wine and spirits in The Cork Room menu to marry and complement flavors from sip to bite. Naturally, distillery and vineyard tasting tours are offered, and folks can sit in the restaurant to enjoy pairings.

A group of 12 people, as part of a reunion, were dining in the restaurant at the end of May. Lisa Barnes, a resident of Elizabethtown, brought in her family from Nebraska, all of whom were staying at nearby White Lake. Barnes frequents the winery. 

“We came to the Jo Dee Messina concert,” she told Munroe. “It was so much fun.”

It’s the latest addition to the Cape Fear Winery fold: concerts. 

In conjunction with White Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, the City of Elizabethtown is collaborating with the venue too. Chadwick Howard of White Umbrella Group out of New Bern has led the charge on booking musicians like Tracy Lawrence and Uncle Kracker. 

According to Howard, 2,000 tickets so far have sold across four events. Tracy Lawrence sold out completely and Uncle Kracker topped out at 700 tickets. 

Howard said the uniqueness of the winery’s tucked-away beauty is a real draw. Fans seem to appreciate the intimate, one-of-a-kind experiences arising from the shows, too, he added.

“I have a friend in New Bern that works for JetBlue and has been to concerts all over the world, but when Tracy Lawrence was giving high-fives to people 3 or 4 feet from the stage, he said he had never really seen anything like it. Our concerts have a personal touch to them — guests get a kind of interaction that is purely unique.”

And while the venue itself has amenities that make it appealing —  like built-in food and drinks for an audience — working with Munroe, Howard said, also is its own reward.

“I am in this to make people happy. That is why I like working with Alex,” Howard said. “He isn’t just a money guy, he just wants to have fun. I would relate Alex to a kid on Christmas Day.”

July 23 — Henry Diltz Dinner and Exhibit, $25
July 31 — Cape Fear Hoopla, Free
Aug. 28 — 38 Special, $59-$79

Click photo to open the gallery or scroll down to view the images.

Frog sculptures are placed all across the 14 acres of the vineyard and distillery compound. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
The winery’s restaurant, The Cork Room, serves lunch and dinner on site and does tastings of Cape Fear’s wines and spirits. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
Art work hangs all over the winery’s restaurant and event space. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
Art work hangs all over the winery’s restaurant and event space. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
The restaurant is bright and welcoming to patrons who wish to dine outside or inside for a bite or wine and spirit tasting. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
A butterfly garden is highlighted along the property’s walking path. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
Miniature horses graze on the land and welcome visitors to feed them. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
The vineyard is situated on a lake and offers a serene view. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
Fourteen, soon-to-be 20 cottages faces the lake and are available for lodging year-round. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
The vineyard’s cottages overlook the lake outside. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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