When Richard Childress was 17 years old, he began racing a 1937 Plymouth he bought for $20. He eventually made his way onto the racing circuit as a driver, but after only a few years, he turned to running a team and brought on the now legendary, late Dale Earnhardt. Since then Richard Childress Racing has racked up 125 victories over the past 36 years, and today has top-ranked drivers Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Dave Blaney behind the wheel of three teams in NASCAR's NEXTEL Cup Series. And just like a rookie driver trying to overcome the critics' doubts, Childress is trying to defy the skeptics who wouldn't dream of growing grapes or making wine in North Carolina. With Chardonnay, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon planted and a winery that opened just last year, Childress wants to make wine that everyone will like--even NASCAR fans.
Wine Spectator: How and when did you first get into wine?
Richard Childress: Back in the '70s when we used to go to Riverside and race in California, when I was a driver, there were some small vineyards around the racetrack near Ontario [in the Cucamonga Valley AVA]. We used to leave the racetrack and go out there and taste some wine. I just always enjoyed the atmosphere out there.
WS: Why make wine in North Carolina?
RC: I had looked at purchasing wineries and vineyards in California and New York, up in the Finger Lakes area. I decided North Carolina, because it's home and North Carolina has a pretty rich history with winemaking, before Prohibition, so I wanted to do it back here where I could enjoy it and help the economy.
WS: How did people react when they heard a NASCAR team owner was opening a winery?
RC: We've been jabbed at in Sports Illustrated and Jay Leno made a comment on it. But when Mark Friszolowski, our winemaker, came on, I told him, "I want to make wines that will fit everyone's palate." It takes time to get there. I want something that a wine connoisseur will enjoy drinking, but I also want to introduce wine to the new wine drinkers.
WS: How involved in the winery are you?
RC: When I'm at home, which is usually three or four days a week, I walk the vineyards every morning when the weather is good. When I can, I go down there at lunch, and I go down there every evening. I really enjoy it, and I like to taste the wines we're making. The one thing I've learned is that what I like everyone else may not like, so we try to put together the best wines that we can. It's just a lot of fun.
WS: Since your estate is so new, where are the grapes for the Childress bottlings coming from now?
RC: We have contracts with 19 other North Carolina vineyards that we're purchasing grapes from to crush this fall. ... This year we bought 107 acres, and we're hoping this coming year to plant 80 to 100 acres. Right now, we have 64 acres that are producing grapes, and we'll have some estate wines hopefully next year.
WS: When drivers win would you like to see them break with tradition and celebrate with wine instead of milk?
RC: I sure would like to see ours drink it. We're gonna make some champagne, but it'll be about a year before we bottle it. Hopefully we can get some of the Childress champagne in the winner's circle.