At 44, he has more than 30 years of experience in the wine industry, and he is now making wine for the first time under his own label, McRitchie Wine Co.
He came to North Carolina from Oregon in 1998 to help start Shelton Vineyards in Surry County. As a vice president and general manager, he oversaw the planting of 180 acres of vineyards at Shelton, one of the state’s largest wineries.
Though not formally trained, McRitchie has spent almost his entire life in vineyards, thanks in large part to his father, Bob McRitchie, a former winemaker who followed his son to North Carolina.
Bob McRitchie, who recently retired as a winemaking instructor at Surry County Community College, left a career as a biology professor to get into the wine business. He started in Napa Valley, and then helped Oregon establish its wine reputation, first at Sokol Blosser and then at Willamette Valley Vineyards.
When Sean McRitchie was just 13 in 1976, he started working his way up in the wine business.
“I remember a Saturday and it was pouring down rain,” Bob McRitchie said. “We were digging a ditch for the wastewater to go underneath the road and into a holding tank. This was Sean’s first job in the wine business.”
Sean McRitchie said he dug a lot of ditches and did a lot of menial work before advancing to jobs managing the crushing of the grapes or the operations in winery cellars.
After he graduated from high school, he hit the road. “I traveled a bunch and always ended up working at cool wineries,” he said. “I’d grown up doing it, and it got in my blood.”
After working at wineries in Germany and Australia, he ended up back on the West Coast at Domaine Chandon in Napa Valley, one of the top U.S. producers of sparkling wine. He spent five years there, before heading back to Oregon to work at Willamette Valley and other wineries in the 1990s.
Having watched Oregon wineries establish a world-class industry from scratch, he was intrigued when Charlie and Ed Shelton contacted him about a job in North Carolina.
After five years of helping Shelton establish itself as one of the largest wineries in the state, he was ready to move on.
He and his wife, Patricia, bought a 30-acre farm as an investment in Thurmond, in Wilkes County between Elkin and Sparta, while he was at Shelton.
After leaving Shelton, McRitchie began doing consulting work for such Yadkin Valley wineries as Round Peak Vineyards and Brushy Mountain Winery. And he planted five acres of chardonnay on his farm in 2003.
The McRitchie Wine Co. (www.mcritchiewine.com) now has its winery up and running. The tasting room opened in May.
Working with his own grapes and those bought from other North Carolina growers, McRitchie has produced five wines: two chardonnays, a pinot gris, a Niagara wine and a red blend called Ring of Fire.
The winery produced 600 cases last year, and McRitchie expects to make 1,200 cases this year. He is also making hard cider, an idea that harkens back to his teenage years in Oregon.
“I used to walk home from my high school and stop by my friend’s winery and ciderworks. Fred Arterberry was a very cool guy, smoked a pipe and told these great stores. I’d stop there and chug a bottle of cold, fresh hard cider, and he’d tell stories. I just remember having a good memory of that.”
McRitchie is buying Brushy Mountain apples for his hard cider while he waits for a young apple orchard on his farm to mature. His cider is carbonated, with low sugar levels.
He is getting ready to release his first merlot from purchased grapes. He will plant merlot, cabernet franc and petit-verdot vines in the spring.
He laughed when he said he is also thinking about planting some pinot noir, a notoriously difficult grape to produce and turn into fine wine. He said that he wants to try a little bit in sparkling wine - an interest sparked during his years at Domaine Chandon.
Besides the cider, McRitchie is already producing one other sparkling beverage, the Niagara wine, which he believes is the first sparkling Niagara in the state.
McRitchie could have moved back to Oregon after leaving Shelton, but he likes the idea of raising his three kids here, and he sees a lot of potential in North Carolina’s growing wine industry.
“I see a lot of good grapes out there, and there are some good wines. I also see it becoming more competitive, in a positive way, in the improvement in quality,” he said.
“Growing up in Oregon, there were a lot of dog wines, and now they are pretty much gone. And I see the same thing happening here.”
As a winemaker, McRitchie said, he strives to make “clean” wine.
“By that, I mean take the fruit that you have and let the fruit become the wine, instead of trying to manipulate it. I enjoy making something expressive of what the vineyard gave you,” he said.
Patricia McRitchie said that her husband is very intuitive. Though he doesn’t take an academic approach as his father does, she said, the two share a joy of working with their hands.
And, she said, Sean gets creativity from his mother, Maria McRitchie.
“He’s very experimental,” she said. “For a winemaker, it’s good not to be bound by the rules.”
■ Michael Hastings can be reached at 727-7394 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Age: 44.
• Birthplace: Houston, Texas.
• Education: McMinnville High School, McMinnville, Ore., 1982. Classes at University of Oregon, 1983-84, and Portland State University, 1989.
• Experience: More than 30 years working in vineyards in Germany, Australia and the United States, including Shelton Vineyards in Surry County.
• Family: Wife, Patricia. Children: Aidan, 13; Ava, 11; Asher, 8.
• Quote: “I think the signature grape of North Carolina or Yadkin Valley is yet to be discovered, and that’s part of the fun.