The greeter for those who visit Chestnut Trail Vineyards welcome all to his home to taste a wine named after him and his mother.
Legado, a Peruvian Paso stallion, can be seen and heard from the front patio of the tasting room where owner Claudia Ellis can hear him call to guests when he is not gazing at them as they enjoy the pavilion he seemed to be sure was set up for his entertainment.
Gazing at guests as they travel about the property enjoying the vineyards that exclusively produce the grapes for Chestnut Trail in Mocksville, Legado reminds those who have heard the Ellis family story of the blessings that can be found by those who work for it.
“That little horse, he’s a little miracle horse,” said Ellis, who described their experience with Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis (EPM), which is a neurological disorder that affects horses.
“There’s no vaccination for it. Most horses don’t recover and if they do, they always have a residual effect,” said Ellis.
Legado began to fall for no obvious reason when he was just over a year old. After working out the problem with local veterinary assistance, Ellis began a process of intense physical therapy.
“How many people have you heard of that have had a stroke or a head injury and they were told that they were never going to recover but with work and therapy they did?” asked Ellis. “That was kind of my encouragement for the whole thing.”
Legado’s PT started with walking up and down a hill on the farm with assistance.
“I treated him twice a day for probably four months on that hill down there. I just kept on up and down that hill, up and down that hill,” said Ellis.
“When he was able, we put him out with the gelding and the two of them would go up and down that hill, up and down that hill, and he finally got to the place where he actually reared up on those back legs.”
“Those back legs were absolutely paralyzed,” said Ellis, who remains inspired by her miracle five years later.
“We took him to a show when he was 4 and he won the versatility award for the show. He didn’t win the breeding awards, but with his movement and what he was able to do and what they could do with him, he got the versatility award.”
That is not the only award won by the Ellis family, who has received several for its wines as well.
Named after Legado’s dame, Fantasia won the Muscadine Cup at the North Carolina State Fair in 2016.
“[That] was the first year we produced it so it was a little bit of an irony because Fantasia was kind of a leftover of what was left in the vineyard,” said Ellis. “We got it all in together and we added a little fizz and got the Muscadine Cup.
“Fantasia is not as sweet as most muscadine wine so you get a lot of fruit flavor,” said Ellis of the wine named in memory of the mare.
“What you don’t get in muscadine wine is a lot of tannin like you do get in European varieties and that’s what gives people headaches,” said Ellis, who makes wines according to her own personal strict standards which starts with an organic base.
“We grew according to normal specifications of planting muscadine and putting in the chemical fertilizer and using the herbicides trying to get them started,” said Ellis, who decided she absolutely did not want to continue producing according to what was considered normal standards.
“After that first year, I didn’t like using the chemicals. It was FDA approved, [but] the spray was very strong.”
The Ellis family realized that by basic mowing they could cultivate clover, which is an organic fertilizer.
“Rather than spraying for all those weeds, we just started mowing and the vines did very well without any chemicals,” said Ellis, “and then we took the next step and decided to go with organic fertilizer.
“We use fish emulsion and they come in these big barrels of concentrated fish goo,” said Ellis. “It’s wonderful. Sometimes we use kelp or a little oyster shell to add some lime or whatever, but it’s all organic.”
Even the pests are controlled without chemicals.
“As far as pesticides, we don’t even worry about it. Occasionally we will get an infestation of Japanese beetles, but our worst problem I think is yellow jackets,” said Ellis, “that’s because they get in there and they will sting the dickens out of you.”
Traps are used for both bugs and birds instead of lethal poisons, but part of the reason this is possible is because of the choice in grapes.
“The vines are pretty forgiving. If we do get an infestation, they come and they go,” said Ellis, who, with husband John, chose the muscadines at the recommendation of another local grower.
“We chose muscadines by the suggestion of Bob Whitaker, the owner of Garden Gate Vineyards and Winery in Mocksville,” said Ellis. “Bob was very helpful. He said you have less problems growing them.”
Ellis said Whitaker described the muscadines as “more forgiving because their native to the area. You have a market for them even if you don’t produce wine and you’ll get a crop. He said even if you have a freeze, they’ll rebud and you’ll still get a crop. Pests are not as much of a problem so we decided to take his advice.”
Initially the grapes and their unfermented products were sold, but the harvest was bountiful.
“As we got more and more grapes, we needed a way to use them besides jams and jellies so I started making wine,” said Ellis, who learned how to produce the smooth elegant flavors from reading.
“I got one book that was really very tailored to someone who wanted to produce their own wine. He was very informative and he was kind of my go-to source,” said Ellis, who obviously enjoyed the chemistry behind the process.
“When you make wine, you don’t really make it from my recipe because you want to get the balance right.
“You have to have the right balance between sugar, acid, your yeast, so you start with grape of course,” said Ellis, describing the process of finding out how much natural sugar is contained in a harvest before continuing to add the necessary elements to making such flavors as Primor.
“Primor is the first one I ever made,” said Ellis of the more traditional muscadine wine. “It’s made from a blend of about five of the dark varieties. It’s got a lot of layers to it.”
Before making wine to sell, Ellis had been making it for people she knew.
“I made wine for several years. We supplied to friends and family,” said Ellis, who also made wine for 350 guests when her granddaughter got married on the property.
“We had wine for everybody that was made right here on the farm, but there’s a difference between what you make for your friends and what you can sell commercially. I realized that we needed a controlled environment to produce a consistent product and we just didn’t have it.
“Childress offers that service to small wineries,” said Ellis, describing how they fill bins with the Chestnut Trail’s grapes and then take them to the Childress facility where they are processed to Ellis’ specifications.
“It’s truly our product, but it’s produced there. They do it for several vineyards and it’s really a very, very nice service that they provide,” said Ellis, who enjoys the cooperation between the various vineyards.
“No wineries are in competition with one another,” said Ellis, noting different customers have different tastes. “There’s one for everyone and the more wineries around, the better it is for everyone. So we just all try to help each other.
“If you think about it, if you were wanting to go on a wine tour, wouldn’t you want to go to an area where maybe there were three or four wineries in the area?” said Ellis. “You wouldn’t want to travel three hours to go to one winery.”
This kind of cooperation hasn’t always been a part of the Ellis family history, which started in California.
“My husband and I were both raised in California, and John had a very good career working in the motion picture studios in California as a musician,” said Ellis, whose husband died in November of 2015.
“He worked for some top-rated composers like John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Hans Zimmer, some really good ones, Quincy Jones, Marie Shar,” said Ellis, noting her husband worked on such popular films as “Doctor Zhivago” and “Jaws.”
The family left California for an interesting adventure in Pennsylvania where the children learned the hard work involved in farming instead of the hard living available in Hollywood.
“We left California in 1979 and the reason was strictly for family reasons,” said Ellis. “We were kind of watching what was happening with other musicians’ kids and we didn’t want that happening to our kids and so we left.”
Discussing that history with Ellis is one of the treasures to be found at Chestnut Trail along with the fine flavors of their organically grown grapes.
“We only have four wines because we only produce what we grow right here,” said Ellis, who now owns the winery and vineyard with her son Rob and his wife, who also live on the property, which houses the horses as well.
“The Peruvian Paso is a smooth and elegant horse and that’s why we felt it was fitting to name our wine after the horses,” said Ellis.
Legado and his friends, including those from other stables, can be seen during the Harvest Fiesta each fall.
Chestnut Trail also has a variety of activities throughout the warmer months including outdoor movies and live music.
“Probably April will start the music,” said Ellis. “We’ve had R&B. We’ve had country, bluegrass, just sort of Americana.
“It’s free and they can just come listen to music and buy wine if they choose, but it’s not required,” said Ellis. She welcomed people to bring a picnic out just to listen to the music and appreciate the beauty of the legacy or Legado of the Ellis family.
“After John died we tried to accomplish some of the things that he would’ve wanted to do,” said Ellis, “and so we built the pavilion and we will eventually move the tasting room down there. We’ve got a little more to do yet.”
Part of what they have to do is continue to share the family story of perseverance and productivity whether it be cultivating culture, horses or the wine.
“The friend who did [John’s] memorial for us said, ‘you know John would be out there working on the farm or he’d be under some piece of equipment, he’d come in all greasy and then he go in and take a shower and put on a tuxedo and go and play a concert,’” said Ellis.
“He was happiest when he was out here on the farm, but you’d never guess that that was what he did for a living.”
It is that same smooth transition from elegant to earthiness that is reflected in the wines created by Chestnut Trail.
To learn more about Chestnut Trail Vineyard, including upcoming events and activities, go to www.chestnuttrail.com.
Beanie Taylor is a staff reporter for The Tribune and On The Vine. She can be reached at 336-258-4058 or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/TBeanieTaylor.