1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
BusinessUnited States of America

The woman in charge of wine at Biltmore

November 5, 2021

Running a big winery has traditionally been the job of men, but in North Carolina Sharon Fenchak is tasked with turning the best grapes into the best wine. For her it is the perfect mix of science and food.

Wine maker Sharon Fenchak at the Biltmore Estate Wine Co
Biltmore wine master Sharon Fenchak believes 'each wine has a personality'Image: Racahel McIntosh/Biltmore Winery

"Wine is my boss!"

Yet wine can be a finicky boss, susceptible to weather and other whims of Mother Nature, not to mention changes in customers' taste. No one knows that better than Sharon Fenchak, head of winemaking at Biltmore Winery in Asheville, North Carolina.

The grapes sometimes cause headaches, but they are the source of her joy and the main ingredient for the winery's wide range of 45 different wines on offer. They make everything possible.

The company is a major wine producer based at the Biltmore Estate, an 8,000-acre property in the Blue Ridge Mountains with a 250-room French chateau still owned by descendants of the famous Vanderbilt family. It has long claimed to be the most-visited winery in the country. Last year, despite the coronavirus pandemic, they made around 2 million bottles of wine.

During pandemic closures, the winery was able to stay open since it was considered an essential food-related business. So even while the mansion, gift shops and restaurants closed, the winery kept buzzing with its staff of 20 employees together in production and the vineyard. The few who were temporarily furloughed are now all back; no jobs were lost. Many other businesses in the area didn't fare so well.

Grapes at the Biltmore Estate Winery
At the Biltmore Estate, 50 acres have been turned over to grapesImage: T Rooks/DW

Still a man's wine world

Fenchak, who is from Pennsylvania, is the third winemaker in the company's history. Both her predecessors were Frenchmen. She studied food science before working at small wineries in Georgia in the southern US.

When she started work at Biltmore in 1999 as assistant winemaker, she was the only woman in the whole place. In 2003, she was made winemaker and in 2018 she was promoted to vice president of wine production, which means she is in charge. This puts her in a select group of women winemakers. Even with recent advances, only around 10% of American wineries have women as head wine masters.

She admits it may have taken a while to gain the respect of her colleagues, but she never really gave it much consideration. "I never thought I couldn't do something," she told DW.

Questions about being a woman in a man's field also never really came up until around three years ago, which shows a welcome new attitude, she said. Today her assistant winemaker and lab assistant are now also both women. For her, though, it is important to have the most qualified person regardless if they are a man or woman.

Grapes being turned into wine at the Biltmore Estate Winery
At Biltmore harvest season is from the end of August to Thanksgiving near the end of NovemberImage: T Rooks/DW

Wine is a specialized science

For Fenchak, wine is science. True, its raw material comes from nature, but creating it requires chemistry and specialty knowledge. Just to understand the business takes around three years she believes. In this regard, Biltmore has the advantage of many long-term employees. Some have been there 20 or even 30 years.

The minute grapes enter the winery she and her team start checking them for quality, sugar and PH levels. Keeping temperatures regulated is of the utmost importance right from the beginning. She checks the fermentation, making tiny adjustments if needed. Daily walkthroughs and team mentoring are part of the job. After all that is done, she can work on budgeting, costs or personnel.

When time is left, she can dream up new wines. This requires great skill. "I need two years to bring an idea to the shelf, if I have the grapes or can buy them," she said. "If I have to find the grapes or plant them myself, it is double so long. But I have a lot of creative freedom."

At the end of the day it is a dirty job and she often goes home in grubby clothes. Despite being the public face of the drinks enterprise, she always tries to remain focused on winemaking.  

 The entrance to the Biltmore Estate Winery, Asheville, North Carolina
'The rule in the business is you grow the vineyard for your grandchildren,' said founder William Cecil in 2003Image: T Rooks/DW

A long time in the making

But it wasn't always like this. The hills around Biltmore didn't always glow with grapes. In fact, when the property first opened to the public in 1930, the building that now houses the winery was a dairy — one big enough to milk hundreds of cows twice a day.

In the 1960s, George Vanderbilt's grandson, William Cecil, took over the estate and thought wine could help pay the bills. In the 1970s, he experimented with different grapes and set up a provisional bottling room. By the early 1980s he took out a multimillion-dollar loan to invest in his dream.

Officially called Biltmore Estate Wine Co. the company was established in 1983. The dairy was refurbished and opened to the public in 1985. Despite hiring an experienced French wine master, it was a big gamble. The local weather can bring unwanted frost and rain. And would anyone even buy or invest in wine made in the Appalachian Mountains?

A bright future

Nonetheless, demand has grown so much that today only 10% of the grapes needed come from North Carolina in a good year. The rest is bought from trusted growers in California and Washington. Personally selected by Fenchak, these grapes let the winery offer a wider range of wines. It is something most wineries do to meet demand. No matter where the grapes are from, the majority is processed and bottled at Biltmore all year long — four days a week for wine and one day for sparkling wine.

 Christmas white wine for sale at the Biltmore Estate Winery
Every two years, five acres of grapes are replanted because old grapevines don't produce as much over timeImage: T Rooks/DW

Since taking charge Fenchak has brought in her own style. The biggest change is her sense of adventure, "trying to follow trends more quickly or trying things like blends to see what might work."

Surprisingly, sourcing grapes from other places is the most complex part of the job at the moment. As in other industries, supply chains are strained. Droughts in California and the pandemic have made this an "interesting" challenge she said. Meeting these new difficulties is eased because of Biltmore's many long-term relationships with growers.

But the whole place was founded with a long-term view to the future. Today, 36 years after opening its doors, millions upon millions of bottles of fine Biltmore wine have left for tables across the country. This liquid legacy has helped keep the Vanderbilt name alive and is now all under the watchful eye of its first female winemaker.

California winemakers adapt to climate change

Timothy A. Rooks
Timothy Rooks One of DW's business reporters, Timothy Rooks is based in Berlin.
Skip next section Explore more
Skip next section DW's Top Story

DW's Top Story

A wide shot of the three-train accident in Odisha, India on June 3, 2023
Skip next section More stories from DW
Go to homepage