The Winemakers of Valdese
I’ve been working on a radio story for Inside Appalachia about the Waldensian winemaking tradition in Valdese, NC. The story is a kind of homecoming for me. I had the pleasure of recording an oral history interview about this very tradition when I was the oral historian for the Friends of Mountain History exhibit, That’s A Long Row to Hoe, funded by a Blue Ridge National Heritage grant.
If you have never been there, Valdese North Carolina is a charming little town, nestled between Morganton and Hickory NC, and chocked full of history. It was a delight to return.
Next stop was the Waldensian Heritage Museum, which examines the 700 years of history before the Waldenses migrated to North Carolina, as well as the Waldensian history and culture of those who helped settle Valdese. Executive Director Gretchen Costner sat down with me (at a safe distanced) in the museum’s library and tried to consolidate this fascinating story. The Waldensians were persecuted for hundreds of years in Europe for their heretical beliefs, including the belief that people should be able to read the Bible for themselves.
Interestingly enough, it was the end of their persecution and subsequent return to their homelands in Italy that prompted their need to immigrate to the U.S. Once they were able to settle down and farm they began to run out of land. A colony of Waldensians first came to Burke County, North Carolina in 1893. They brought with them all sorts of food customs including bread baking, sausage making and the production of wine.
Finally, I interviewed Eddie Zimmerman, owner of the Waldnesian Style Winery, who led me on a tour through the museum and talked about traditional Waldensian winemaking traditions. I loved hearing about the parts of the winemaking process they brought over from Italy, and seeing the tools used by Valdese’s winemakers.
Another “character” in the story is Freddy Leger, one of the founders of the Waldensian Heritage Winery and the man I interviewed 11 years ago. When I started making calls about the story I discovered that Freddy had died only a week before. It took some digging but I finally got my hands on a copy of the interview I had conducted so many years ago at the winery. What a gift to hear his voice. And what a lesson about the importance of archives. If it hadn’t been for the Waldensian Heritage Museum, Freddy’s story would have been lost.
You can hear more about the Waldensian winemaking tradition when the story is aired on Inside Appalachia, on West Virginia Public Broadcasting. I’ll post the link here when it is on the air.
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