Three friends — John Rorer and Duncan and Lorraine MacRae — took circuitous routes from their respective lives to end up on the Outer Banks making wine commercially through their business, OBX Winery and selling it at their winery store, Hop ‘N Grapes OBX.
Rorer, who hails from Lynchburg, Virginia, first met New York-born Lorraine (née DuChemin) MacRae in Charlottesville, Virginia, more than 50 years ago. They lost touch for decades, but reconnected years later on Facebook.
She’d met her husband, Duncan — a native of Indiana who had moved to Florida — online, and the two were married in 1996, in Port St. Lucie, Florida.
Rorer relocated to the Outer Banks in 2004, and joined the Outer Banks Chapter of SCORE (Service Core of Retired Executives).
After 18 years in Florida, the MacRaes moved to Fredericksburg, Virginia, to be closer to family.
“What brought us here were long-time desires to retire here and open a business,” Lorraine MacRae says. “I had been talking to John about opening a winery here on the OBX. I had always wanted to retire here, and with not being happy in Fredericksburg, it just made sense. With our small 401k cash-out, we came down here and started looking for a good storefront for our operation.”
Rorer approached his SCORE colleagues and asked if any of them had any personal experience starting a business. When only one had, Rorer says he decided to take the group’s lack of experience in that arena and try and experiment: “Let’s see how well we could start our own business as an experiment from which we can learn and then advise others.”
Wine-making seemed like a good place to start.
“Since this was our own experiment, we started putting this together on a shoestring, so the plan of action started,” says Rorer, secretary at SCORE and executive director at Albemarle Business Center.
In order to meet the requirements of commercial zone compliance, the winery would have to meet two conditions: occupy less than 50 percent of floor space and generate less than 50 percent of the revenue.
Rorer knew Kill Devil Hills’ zoning codes would permit them to make the wine they sell on the premises, so he scouted out a few ideal locations and settled on 2606 N. Croatan Hwy., in Kill Devil Hills.
After finding the site, he filed all the proper paperwork, went through proper channels and applied for permission to operate from the Kill Devil Hills Board of Commissioners.
With a green light from the town, OBX Winery was born.
In Spring 2014, OBX Winery’s microbrewery opened its doors to consumers and laid claim as the only “urban winery” on the Outer Banks.
According to the North Carolina Wine and Grape Council, the state is home to 186 wineries and more than 525 individually owned grape vineyards across the state. Chief among them is Biltmore Estate Winery in Asheville, which receives more than 1 million visitors annually and is the most-visited winery in the U.S.
To be a successful commercial wine grape grower, it’s imperative to use varieties that grow well in a specific region and that have an established market.
While North Carolina has one of the most varied climates of any eastern state, its warm, humid climate limits the availability of access to grapes. OBX Winery embarked on a global search for the best wine making ingredients.
Its wines are handcrafted in small batches on a continuous basis, not all at the end of the local grape season. “We also craft mead and hard cider when honey and apples are available,” Rorer says. “What has actually happened has amazed us. Business has doubled every year.”
In its first year, OBX Winery was awarded Best on the Beach, “and we have won it every year since,” Lorraine MacRae says.
OBX Winery makes a variety of classic wines like pinot noir, pinot grigio, chardonnay and white zinfandel, plus its top sellers “Greentail,” a green apple riesling; “Mellow,” a blend of Cabernet sauvignon and merlot; and “OBX Sweet Mead” from honey produced by local beekeepers.
They also can craft a wine to match a customer’s particular taste and personalize labels to make a one-of-a-kind gift or souvenirs of a visit to the Outer Banks.
And tasting always are free.
Their biggest challenge now is “to make enough to meet the demand,” Rorer says, adding they sell out of almost every batch of every wine they make.
Due to the time it takes to ferment and process, it is difficult, impossible really, to predict what will be in demand when that wine is ready to sell, he says.
OBX Winery produces a dozen wines, evenly divided into dry and sweet. Its easily-accessible Kill Devil Hills location — in a small strip shopping center just north of Milepost 6 on the west side of the bypass — the eclectic array of merchandise, and laid-back vibe makes it a popular stop with visitors and locals alike.
With its continued success, wine-making keeps the “Three Muscatels” busy, but they haven’t forgotten what brought them to the Outer Banks in the first place — and the store’s hours make that clear: “Tuesday-Friday 11(ish) to 5(ish) maybe later... Saturday11(ish) to 4(ish) maybe later... Sunday-sometimes noon(ish) ‘til?? Call 757-641-2597 (our cell phone) anytime if you need something because we’re always close by and will meet you.”
“We don’t take this too seriously,” Rorer says. “We former northerners have faithfully adopted island time.”