Story and Photography By Carolyn Bowers

Beware of buying that first $99 wine kit. It could be the start of what will morph into a very expensive hobby. But it might also be the beginning of an exciting new passion and priceless friendships.

At least that is how it turned out for Jim Wilgus of Mableton, Georgia, three-time gold medal winner in the Silver Coast Winery 9th Annual Amateur Wine Competition held in March in Ocean Isle Beach.

Wilgus got his start in the winemaking business 10 years ago when his wife, Judy, gave him a gag gift — a “Make Your Own Merlot” winemaking kit from the Discovery Store.

“The wine was terrible,” Wilgus says. “But making it was a lot of fun.”

Wilgus quickly became hooked. Ten years and over a thousand dollars later, he has accumulated 16 medals and met a lot of other wine hobbyists who have become friends.

“This year’s entries in the competition were the best wines we have ever had,” says Al Gomes, Silver Coast Winery tasting room manager and one of the competition judges. “This is the first year we have had anyone get a ‘perfect score,’ and we had three of them.”

Gomes explains the scoring system like this. Each judge scores the wine based on a 20-point system. The wines are judged on five elements: appearance (3 points), aroma (6 points), taste (6 points), aftertaste (3 points) and overall impression (2 points). Medals are awarded as follows: gold (18-20), silver (15-17) and bronze (13-14). The three that had perfect scores were wines by Jim Wilgus, Chris Miller and Ricardo Torres. Miller won Best in Competition with a nearly perfect sherry.

Forty-two wines were entered in this year’s competition, which drew contestants from as far away as New York, Maryland, Ohio and Georgia. About 20 people were on hand to cheer the medal recipients, compare stories and enjoy sampling all of the entries.

Josh Bennett had to work, so he couldn’t be there to hear the applause when his name was called again and again. His wife, Linda, made five trips to the winner’s table to collect his medals — two golds, a silver, a bronze and an honorable mention. And this was Bennett’s first competition. Linda says he prefers to start with the real fruit, instead of using juice or a concentrate. He hopes to grow his own grapes one of these days, but for now he gets his grapes and peaches from her parents’ home in Hickory, N.C.

“The quality of his wines has gotten better every year,” Linda says. “He listens to the comments they give him and he does what they tell him. He plants, cares for, and picks his own blackberries. Josh thinks, ‘If it’s a fruit it can be made into a wine.’”

Charles Fritz, from Hickory, also was unable to attend the medal ceremony, but was represented by his wife, Linda, who couldn’t wait to call him and let him know that he won two gold medals, his first ever.

Gomes is the man behind the Silver Coast Winery’s annual competitions. He has been the tasting room manager ever since he answered an ad in the Brunswick Beacon in 2002 for a barrel washer.

“When I interviewed with them, they soon discovered that I knew a little something about wines,” Gomes says.

That was a bit of an understatement. Gomes began helping his amateur-winemaking father when he was five years old.

“He used to take me with him to taste the grapes,” Gomes says. At age 18, his dad gave him his own equipment and they competed against each other.

Silver Coast Winery started the amateur winemaking competitions nine years ago as an outgrowth from the seminars Gomes gave. A lot of the same people compete each year and look forward to the annual medal ceremony to see their friends, congratulate the winners and encourage the new folks. The competition makes the event exciting, but the camaraderie is what makes it so much fun.

The stories of winemaking as a hobby morphing into an all-consuming passion are matched only by the story of how the Silver Coast Winery came into being. A transplanted Southport resident by the name of Maryann Azzato had a little idea that didn’t work, so she turned it into a much bigger idea. And that worked perfectly.

As Azzato tells the story, when she moved to Southport 18 years ago, she was struck with the fact that if you lived in Southport and wanted a good bottle of wine, you needed to travel either to Myrtle Beach or Wilmington. So, she thought, why not start a wine club? The club would import fine wine. That sounded like a reasonable solution, until she learned that, at the time, importing wine was also a felony. Private individuals could not import wine into North Carolina; it had to be made here (the law has since been rescinded and now individuals can import no more than two cases per month). Not to be deterred, Azzato had another idea. She learned of a winery in Massachusetts that was run by a bunch of Italian iron workers. They were closing, so she bought their inventory. Next she bought an old barbecue restaurant, hired a local architect, wrote a business plan, got the bank to give her a loan, and in May of 2002 became the owner of southeastern North Carolina’s only winery.

But she didn’t stop there. In a conversation with her best friend and artist, Justine Ferreri, Azzato said, “I don’t want to move out in the woods by myself. Let’s incorporate your art gallery and the winery together.” Ferreri agreed, closed her shop in the Lowes Foods shopping center and set up a gallery in the winery.

Today the art gallery is one of the main features of the winery, with juried artists from all over the state competing for a chance to hang their works there. Currently, the well-known metal sculptor David McCune has several distinctive pieces on exhibit, and the featured artist is Michael S. Green, whose paintings include whimsical pieces as well as landscapes and scenics. And, of course, Ferreri’s easily recognizable figures dot the walls.

In addition to sampling good wine and enjoying lovely works of art, visitors to the winery are treated to a tour to see how the wine is made. Then there is the Barrel Room, which is available for weddings and other events and is filled on Tuesday evenings and Sunday afternoons with line dancers.

Now that the winery is doing so well, the entrepreneurial spirit in Azzato has sprung up again. She has recently opened a satellite store for Silver Coast Winery in Southport on Howe Street. Taking advantage of its proximity to the water, the theme is the coastal waterway. The bar is the hull of a boat, and, as soon as it is delivered, the cashier’s desk will be a stern.

Clearly the overriding theme for both locations is the same: Come join us for a wine tasting, a little education, a bit of art and a lot of fun. And all this is because Maryann Azzato didn’t want to go to jail for starting a wine club.