People and Place

04 Jun 2024

Bringing wine country to high country

By Marianne Leek

In 1997, Guy and Judy Davis founded Davis Family Vineyards in Sonoma County, CA, bringing to fruition a dream, the seed of which was planted in the late 70s when Guy was 19 years old working his way through college in the kitchen of a small, family-owned French restaurant in the Pacific Northwest. Twenty years later, the Davis family realized the second half of that dream, creating a mountain home and bringing a little bit of California’s wine country to the high country of western North Carolina. 2024 marks the first full season of High Country Wine & Provisions, owned and operated by Guy Davis and Davis Family Vineyards, where “After 15 years of spending time and falling in love with this area, we wanted to go from welcome guests to proud hosts.” High Country Wine & Provisions is a stunning space where family, friends and community can come together to gather, relax, unwind, connect and celebrate all of life’s little milestones.

Talking with Guy Davis, you’ll quickly realize that his ability to recognize wine's subtleties, nuances and flavors is part of his DNA. While pursuing an economics degree at the University of Washington, Davis answered a want ad at a local French bistro called The Creperie. He remembers being handed an apron and immediately put to work snapping green beans. The restaurant’s owner was from France and in an effort to educate his staff about food and wine he hosted a family dinner each night after the restaurant closed. Davis was responsible for helping to prepare the meal and clean the kitchen before joining the rest of the staff. He lyrically recalls the invaluable master class in food and wine he received through this experience, “At 19, a free meal every night is priceless, absolutely priceless! And that’s when all the education took place. Right away, I had this aha moment. The chef was talking about wine and what we should smell. In the beginning, it just smelled like wine. I thought, how could it smell like anything else? About three weeks later, we were comparing two different wines. I picked up one glass and I could smell the aroma of bell pepper, and then I picked up the other one and I could smell tart pie cherry aroma, just as the owner was describing. When I tasted them, they tasted just like they smelled. I was so fascinated that I could smell things in the wine. The next night I asked, ‘What am I supposed to smell in this one?’ I realized that I have an extra sensitive olfactory nerve, the same thing that people who are called supertasters in our industry have. I appreciated and loved all of it, but I had a palate that gave me the unique ability to have a conversation with the chef and owner about food and wine that others couldn’t have. I started cooking for my friends on the weekend. I would make this white wine and butter reduction, put it on a piece of fish I’d bought at the grocery store, and I would go into great explanation about the meal and the sauce. I learned a tremendous amount about cooking in the kitchen, but I was learning just as much or more about the wines at family meal. But the greatest lesson I learned is that wine is just like bread and butter. Wine is supposed to be at the table. It’s part of the meal.”

After college, Davis worked for about five years in the finance industry. Feeling unfulfilled, he realized he could use his finance and business expertise to pursue a career in the wine industry. He began traveling, and while visiting wine country in California he met a family from France. That connection led to traveling to France where he visited small family vineyards and wineries and became fascinated by the entire wine-making process - the places, the families, the stories - all of the tiny details that ultimately add to the unique flavor of the wines he was tasting. Davis parlayed his love of wine into a business, starting Passport Wine Club, a mail-order wine club where he began to have conversations with customers telling the stories behind the family vineyards and wines they liked.

Davis described this transformative time in his life, “I got invited to harvest for one of the wineries whose wine I was selling, one of the small families. So first I worked at harvest in Burgundy. Then I worked a harvest in northern Rhone and one in southern Rhone. I worked for free just to learn and to be able to better tell their story. I learned so much during this time. Imagine working hard in Burgundy, making wine as somebody who’s enthusiastic and has this great connection - it was fascinating. I also realized that I wanted to take it one more step - I wanted to be one of these people.

“I was living in Sonoma County, and I decided this is where I can be passionate. I have a love for this. I realized that I had a much better palate than a lot of people did in the industry. I would drive to UC Davis three nights a week and take night classes in fermentation science and viticulture. I bought an abandoned property in 1995 while I still had Passport Wine Club and replanted it. In the beginning, Passport was my mainstay and the winery was my side project. 1997 was my first vintage of my own. I planted my vineyard when my son Cooper was 2 1/2 and he’s now 32 and my assistant winemaker. He grew up on the property and learned everything about it. It turns out he has the same genetic supertaster sense of smell.”

Davis eventually sold Passport Wine Club giving him the ability to focus full-time on developing his family vineyard and winery. Ever cognizant of his impact on the environment, Davis and his family have farmed organically since 1995. “The day I took over that property, I put into practice all that I’d learned from the people I’d worked for both in California and France. I was fortunate because they all made wine. They grew grapes. They taught me that soil is the first living thing, not the vine. It’s essential to take care of your soil. I asked a family that I worked for in France about his property and he said, ‘This is not my property. I’m the steward for now, but this property belongs to my family. I’m just a steward.’ He was like, ‘Why would I ever use chemicals or put anything on the land that would make it any less?’ He was the one who told me that soil is the first living thing. I have hung on so tight to that concept. We’ve always farmed organically and I’ve passed that knowledge along to my son. He went to the Waldorf School in Sonoma County, which is a working biodynamic farm that all the kids from kindergarten through high school get to work on. Everything he was doing, even in grade school, related to what I do and where he lived on the vineyard.”

There’s a reason why the unofficial motto of the Davis family tasting room is “Always adventurous, never pretentious.” Hoping to demystify wine, Davis has created a welcoming and inviting wine-tasting experience for his guests. For years, Davis has heard people make the disclaimer, “I don’t know anything about wine. All I know is what I like.” He explained, “I stop them and say, ‘Well then, you know everything because it’s unimportant to the rest.’ I learned at 19, sitting at the table at our family dinners each evening after work that wine is an essential part of the meal that adds layers to the meal and friendships. It’s not a mystery. It shouldn’t be intimidating. You shouldn’t have to know anything about wine to enjoy it. However, wine is about a place and a people and the history of that place, and there are reasons why it tastes like it does. And if visitors want to know more, if they are interested, there are layers and information and stories that are steeped in wine areas. The families have stories, and they are passionate people who are doing really hard work to create delicious wine.” Davis is happy to help pass on those rich family stories to interested guests as he helps them find, taste and enjoy wines from all over the world.

Strategically situated next to Highlands Smokehouse, Davis is excited to welcome guests to High Country Wine & Provisions and looks forward to celebrating their first full season on the plateau. With a QR code for Smokehouse conveniently located on their menu, guests can order food to be delivered to the tasting room. Davis has been working closely with Smokehouse owner Bryan Lewis to create several signature dishes, “that are Mediterranean inspired, but have a Southern twist to them and that are intentional to pair with the wines. Smokehouse does such an amazing job. The food is not your typical barbecue joint. It’s not all sauce or overly smoky. It’s all about low and slow cooking of brisket or chicken or pork, and they’re so juicy and succulent. They’re all so wine-friendly, and so are the sides that the Smokehouse offers.”

Davis is excited and optimistic about the future of Davis Family Vineyards and High Country Wine & Provisions. He splits his time between his beloved Highlands home and the family’s Sonoma Soul Patch Vineyard. His son Cooper and his family are rooted in California and Cooper runs the Sonoma tasting room. With similar intentions as his early mentor who hosted those family dinners after work, Davis recently took his Highlands tasting room team to visit the Davis Family Vineyards in California, passing along some of the lessons to his staff that he learned all those years ago.

Whether you’re a visitor or resident of Highlands, High Country Wine & Provisions is nothing short of an exquisite wine-tasting experience where guests can try and buy wines from not only the Davis Family Vineyards but from all over the world. They are open every day except Tuesday from noon - 8:00 p.m. “We’re here. We’re ready. We’re excited. We’re starting some things earlier in the day other than the tasting room. We are adding coffee in the morning so if you’re coming to town you can take advantage of the beautiful outdoor space, enjoy some coffee and possibly some new food items. We’ve added lunch items. In addition to that, we look forward to future collaborations with local chefs. Highlands has a rich culinary scene and several chefs have reached out and want to do some fun things. There are so many wonderful things to do during the day in Highlands, from enjoying the charm of downtown, to hiking, enjoying waterfalls and playing golf. Our goal is to make our tasting room part of the community, which I’ve been so embraced by. I’m incredibly grateful. We’ve been thoughtful about creating a special experience here, and now we have all season to show people just how much fun, relaxing and joyful discovering wine can be. I’m excited to show everyone what we’ve curated.”

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