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Saturday, August 22, 2009

THE SEARCH BEGINS (Really).....

Asheville, North Carolina was our first "port of entry" so to speak. Home of The Biltmore, east of the Great Smokey Mountains. It met our geographical restriction being halfway down the eastern region of the United States. We firmly believed that the tourist trade was going to be our main customer base for our new winery, and at the time we also thought about having a small restaurant and an inn tied in with the vineyard and winery.

The Biltmore had a significant draw for this type of customer, and they had their own winery too which proved to us that it was a viable choice for what we wanted to do. And of course there was our own vacation appeal to go down and check it out.

But before we went I tied into a local real estate agent and explained to him what we wanted to do, i.e. develop a vineyard with all its amenities. Within short course I was deluged with all sorts of properties that "met this criteria", maybe 20 or so. It took some time to thump through them, but I was able to narrow it down to three that appeared to have some potential. I felt this was the right way to go about it, that is getting a local realtor who "knew the area", zip down and spend a few hours to give an initial check, and then decide the next move. In theory this is great, in actuality it became an utter disaster.

I asked my realtor to personally look at the properties and provide feedback, and told him that we would dedicate 4 to 6 hours driving around and looking at the properties. When you are judging distance looking at a AAA road atlas, this seemed a fairly reasonable request.

A few weeks later Diane and I were introduced to the mountains. We arrived as planned, checked into the hotel, contacted the realtor and confirmed our morning's appointment at 9, and settled in for what we thought was a well executed plan. I'm not sure what I pictured the realtor to look like when we met, but what I got was someone who looked like Mr. Brady from the Brady bunch.....a tall guy with a full head of curly hair and black horn rimmed glasses. Sorry, it didn't give me alot of confidence to begin the day. We were soon off to check Property #1 of 3 in his small blue sedan with uncomfortable seats and questionable shocks.

We drove off down the road and he started to look at some hand written directions to the land. This was before GPS became the big thing, and obviously the first time he had come this way. In fact, he hadn't visited any of the properties, and the input we had gotten during previous discussions had apparently been the best foot forward via MLS descriptions. Think "beautiful views of the mountains, clear water stream and pond for swimming and boating, perfect building site, ready access to State routes....." and you can see how I was able to narrow the search to 3 gorgeous sites.

Well, we couldn't find the first property right away. The car was hot, we were basically lost without a clue even though we knew the property was on that road somewhere. After an hour of going back, and forth, and back, and forth our realtor finally stopped at a trailer home overlooking the small back road and knocked on the door to see if THEY knew where the property was. He tried calling the listing agent too, and between the two we were able to find the well-hidden entrance down a ways. It was the starting entrance for some developer's plans for several upscale homes, with a fairly large chunk of land (with what appeared to be a concrete block 2-story barn) off in the corner. Yes, it did have a pond which I'm sure from one direction or another might have been picturesque, though not from where we entered from. The biggest boat for the size may have been a canoe or rowboat. Its farm land was overgrown and over-rated, and after the turmoil to get this far, we were ready to move on. The clock had been ticking faster than our progress; we were already half-way through the allotted time we had set aside, and we had 2 properties more to go, with a realtor who really had no clue where they were. Not good for the experience.

I don't even remember the 2nd piece of property, but the third one made a deep imprint on me.

If anyone knows the Asheville area well, they know of Lake Lure. Maybe 10 or 15 miles away from Asheville proper, it is a vacationer's vacation spot with an attractiveness much like Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. With all the water sports available for your entertainment, a place to go and just have fun, nestled in the surrounding mountains, it is just a nice place to escape.

We may not have taken the fastest way to get there, but we sure took the most direct way. A 2-lane road (hey, at least it was paved !) winding down a steep mountain side, first turning left, mandatory braking, then turning right, more braking, meandering our way down to the base of the steep incline until we reached the bottom. From there we drove just a little ways and found what appeared to be a cul-de-sac in the middle of no where. The car drove in, pausing in front of any visible sign, looking for the proper real estate ForSale sign for us to declare some sort of quiet victory. And there it was, a small driveway going into the piece of land for sale, and at the very end of the short driveway was a 2 story white house that was a handyman's dream (assuming he had nothing else better to do !)

The 3 of us got out of the car with some warped sense of enthusiasm, but like all abandoned properties we used a bit of caution as we approached the house. We gave it a circle, saw the screened in porch on the back, and immediately identified it as uninhabitable until it was given a major overhaul. Windows and doors were broken, junk all around; it gave abandonment a new meaning. We continued our tour, and as in all future real estate reviews Diane and I talked out loud on the positive things we felt about the land (Southern facing slopes are a good thing for a vineyard), and held off saying too much negative until we were alone and could vent.

We learned that to have land in the Asheville area required one leg shorter than the other.....it appeared that you were always on the side of a hill or mountain somewhere....no big pastures anywhere. And we were told U.S.40, the main Interstate in and out of there, was closed several times each winter because it iced over and trucks slid off the road not expecting the sheet of ice suddenly appearing on the occassional freezing night. Not a good sign. With this we also felt that if anyone had a little too much wine during a wine tasting, that we had better have great liability insurance, for they were sure to die in a car crash either going or returning from the winery. It was a tense enough trip being tired and sober, let alone a bit tipsy.

But one of the things you learn on these early reviews is what each of us didn't like, and Diane hated high tension power lines ! Not that I loved them, but what we found in future properties was that there seemed to be a large number of properties for sale with electrical power lines and their liens and right of ways going right down the middle of otherwise nice farming land. It's too bad I guess and I wish I had a solution to this eyesore but I don't. Maybe if I wasn't going to invest heavily in vines, posts, trellising, and wire it wouldn't matter. But since I am, it did.

You would think that was the end of this tour, but the finale was about to unfold. As we went back to the house and started towards the car, I looked at the front door of the house and saw that it had a stapled sign on the front door. What could it be ? I assumed a real estate sign, or maybe even a condemned sign after having taken a walk around the house. However, on closer inspection it turned out to be a posting by the DEA saying that there had been arrests there for drug manufacturing, and that they couldn't guarantee that during their sweeps they got all of the contraband out of there. If this wasn't an incentive to run clear, I don't know what is. Asheville was crossed off the list, and from here we were Charlottesville bound......

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