Food & Beverage

Follow the Trail to Watauga Lake Winery and Villa Nove Vineyards

By Karen Rieley

This fall marks the eighth year of operation for Watauga Lake Winery, in Butler, Tennessee, and finds the award-winning business poised for continued contributions to the quality of life in the High Country. Along with its partner, Villa Nove Vineyards, Watauga Lake Winery is designated among the wineries of the Appalachian High Country American Viticultural Area (AVA). This AVA represents 2,400 square miles, all above 2,000 feet in elevation in North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, that provide unique growing conditions distinguished by distinctive climatic and geographic conditions.

“AVAs are important to areas like the High Country because they increase tourism, not only to the vineyards and wineries themselves, but to related businesses like restaurants, gas stations, hotels, and shops,” said Linda Gay, who is the co-owner of Watauga Lake Winery and Villa Nove Vineyards with her husband, Wayne.

Watauga Lake Winery and Villa Nove Vineyards Farm Winery joined with three North Carolina High Country wineries—Grandfather Vineyard & Winery, Linville Falls Winery, and Banner Elk Winery & Villa—to achieve AVA designation. Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Mitchell and Watauga counties are included, as well as Carter and Johnson counties in Tennessee, and Grayson County, Virginia. The Appalachian High Country AVA now covers 10 wineries and 21 vineyards.

The original four wineries also established the Appalachian High Country Wine Trail. Guests can pick up a Wine Trail Passport at any participating wineries and have the card stamped at each winery they visit. Once they complete the trail and get a final stamp, guests receive a special thank you gift. Learn more about the Appalachian High Country AVA at

What eventually became Watauga Lake Winery and Villa Nove Vineyards Farm Winery began in 2002, when Linda and Wayne Gay decided to sell their Italian furniture import business in Florida, retire after 22 years in the import business, and build a farmhouse villa, reminiscent of the quaint villas, olive groves and vineyards they loved visiting on their buying trips to Italy. Back then, the couple wasn’t planning on running a winery business. But, clearly, fate had other plans, retirement for the couple not being one of them.

Having noticed the similarity between the mountains around the North Carolina-Tennessee line and the Tuscan mountains they loved in their travels, the Gays were thrilled to find 35 acres overlooking Watauga Lake that they could buy.

“There was nothing on the land when we bought it,” Linda said. “We found the perfect spot at the top of a hill to build our farmhouse villa. It took eight flatbed trucks to bring Texas limestone in from Dallas for the house’s exterior.”

The couple originally thought they would plant a few grape vines, just to complete the image of a Tuscan villa, and maybe try making a little wine, grape jelly and juice for themselves and friends. The concept of a few grape vines for home consumption grew to an initial purchase of 700 grapevines that produced 250 cases and five varieties of wine in 2006 to currently more than 4,000 grapevines that produce 2,000 cases and 18 varieties of wine.

Linda and Wayne purchased the historic Johnson County Big Dry Run Schoolhouse, at 6952 Big Dry Run Road in Butler, Tenn., in 2010. The school was open to first through eighth grade students from 1948 until 1988.

Originally, the Gays used the schoolhouse for storage and as a woodworking shop. But by November 2012, Linda and Wayne had transformed the five-room schoolhouse into a tasting room and an event center that can seat 100 guests. They have added a full caterer’s kitchen where food and wine pairings, gourmet dinners and “hands-on” cooking classes and demonstrations by guest chefs take place. The school’s gymnasium now houses the entire wine production area, and reservations for tours are encouraged.

“We’ve also added a patio and deck for people to sit, sip and eat,” Linda said. Watauga Lake Winery offers weekend wine events such as Flatbread Friday, Sangria Saturday and Savory Sunday.

In 2015, Watauga Lake Winery won the prestigious William O. Beach Award, an annual award given for “The Best of Tennessee” wine made exclusively with Tennessee fruit, for its Cracker’s Neck Red wine. And that’s just one award of nearly 30 that the winery and Villa Nove Vineyards have won annually since 2014 in competitions throughout the South.

“Most wines are named after local areas,” Linda said. Evidence is in the names of their wines—Laurel Creek, Doe Mtn., Watauga River, Forge Mountain Mist, Black Bear Ridge, Roan Creek, Copperhead Hollow, Duncan Hollow, Fox Hollow, and more. In all, the vineyards now include 18 different flavors of table, fortified, dessert and sparkling wines.

Linda and Wayne’s Villa Nove Vineyards, located at 1877 Dry Hill Road, also in Butler, is a distinctive farm winery. All wine is produced from fruit grown on the land of the winery itself. Many wineries, including most commercial wineries, produce wine from fruit purchased from all over the United States. Farm wineries not only produce distinct, craftsman-style wine, but they support the local community and enhance the local economy. The six estate wine varieties produced by the farm winery include Amore red, Bella Fiore white, Bianco Secco white, LaDolce Vita Moscato-styled, Serenita red blend and Tramonto blush.

Visitors to Villa Nove Vineyards drive through large, Italianate, wrought iron gates on a winding driveway up and through a lush grape vineyard to a large Tuscan-style villa and wedding pavilion. The pavilion can accommodate 200 guests.

The exterior of the villa is the perfect site for a romantic wedding ceremony, complete with a tower and Juliette balcony, water fountain, and breathtaking 360-degree view of four mountains—Iron, Stone, Beech and Roan.

“We’ve hosted destination weddings for couples and their families and friends from as far as Dubai, Egypt, England and Australia,” Linda said.

Annual events are hosted at Villa Nove Vineyards, as well, like the Lucille Ball look-alike and wine-stomping contest before the grapes are harvested and a fall celebration in the vineyards with food and wine. Events have been modified for safety’s sake in response to COVID-19. Visit the Watauga Lake Winery and Villa Nove Vineyards Facebook pages or call to learn about current specials, discounts and updates.

Linda and Wayne envision a bright future for the winery and vineyards. “There is unlimited potential for growth in this area,” Linda said. “It’s a special place to be outside and enjoy the mountains, fresh air, great temperatures and wonderful wine offerings.”

Whenever you’re in the High Country, whether you’re in North Carolina, Virginia or Tennessee, Watauga Lake Winery and Villa Nove Vineyards are just around the curve and much closer than you think. Take the time to stop, browse in the shop, taste some wines, tour the wine-making production or vineyards and then take home a bottle or case or two of your favorite wines. Oh, and don’t forget to ask the Gays about helping you with your next event!

From the CML Kitchen

By Meagan Murphy Goheen

Pizza Dough

Servings:  2 small pizzas or 1 large


4 cups of all-purpose flour

1 ½ cups warm water

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

1 TBSP of yeast or 1 packet

2 tsp sugar

2 tsp salt


  1. Add warm water to bowl with yeast and sugar. Let proof for five minutes. Continue if yeast turns foamy, or toss and start over with new yeast if it doesn’t.
  2. Add olive oil, salt, and flour. Combine in stand mixer with dough hook on low. If too sticky, add additional flour one tablespoon at a time. Or let the kiddos knead the dough for 7-10 minutes.
  3. Dough is ready is when it springs back a little when you poke it. Add dough to an oiled bowl and cover with a damp towel; put in a warm place for about an hour.
  4. After rising, remove from the bowl and divide into two equal size pieces. Use immediately for your favorite pizza recipe or try our butternut squash pizza recipe!

Butternut Squash Pizza

with a Roasted red pepper Chipotle sauce and Arugula salad

Servings 8


4 slices of bacon, diced

8 oz. shredded Gruyere cheese

Roasted butternut squash (see instructions)

Arugula Salad (see instructions)

For the Pizza base:

12 oz. jar roasted red peppers
2 TBSP Chipotle Peppers in adobe sauce

2 Garlic Cloves, minced

1 Vidalia onion, sliced thinly and caramelized

For the Roasted Butternut squash:

1 small butternut squash, cut into 1-inch pieces

2 TBSP Extra Virgin Olive Oil

½ tsp of chili powder

¼ tsp cinnamon

½ tsp salt

¼ tsp fresh ground pepper

1 TBSP Honey

Arugula Salad:

2-3 cups arugula

1 TBSP Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1 TBSP Balsamic Vinegar

1 tsp Honey

¼ tsp salt

1/8 tsp fresh ground pepper

2 oz. shaved parmesan cheese


  1.  Pre-heat the oven to 425 degrees.
  2. In a medium size bowl add cubed butternut squash, 2 TBSP Extra Virgin Olive Oil,½ tsp of chili powder, ¼ tsp cinnamon, ½ tsp salt, ¼ tsp fresh ground pepper, 1 TBSP Honey.  Toss butternut squash. Spread out in a single layer on a baking sheet.  Roast until tender, 20-25 minutes, stirring the veggies halfway through. Remove and set aside. 
  3. In a medium sauté pan, crisp bacon, set aside.
  4. Drain all but 1 TBSP of bacon fat, add sliced onion and cook down on low until caramelized, add minced garlic until fragrant (about 1 minute).
  5. To your blender, add caramelized onion and garlic, chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, and roasted red peppers.
  6. Preheat your oven to 500 degrees.
  7. Stretch your pizza dough into either 2 small pizzas or 1 large pizza. Add to preheated oven for about 5-8 minutes until very lightly browned.
  8. Add to a medium size bowl arugula, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, honey, shaved parmesan, salt and pepper, then toss.


  1. Add red pepper chipotle sauce to pizza, then add Gruyere cheese, bacon and roasted butternut squash. Bake the pizza for 15-20 minutes or until the cheese is melted and bubbly.

Top pizza with arugula salad and serve. Enjoy!

Apple Brie Prosciutto Roses

Servings 12


2 Sheets Puff Pastry thawed according to package instructions (such as Pepperidge Farm, found in the frozen section)

4-5 Apples of your choice (I used Gala)

1 Lemon, juiced

5 oz. Brie

4 oz. Prosciutto, thinly sliced

Apple Butter


1-2 TBSP all-purpose flour to sprinkle on counter


  1. Thaw puff pastry at room temperature for 20-30 minutes.
  2. Preheat oven to 375 Degrees.
  3. Grease a regular size muffin tin.
  4. Prepare a medium size microwavable bowl, about half-way full of water, and add lemon juice.
  5. Cut the apples down the side, core, slice very thinly. Immediately add apples to your bowl of lemon water.
  6. Microwave the apples in the lemon water for 3 minutes to make them more pliable.
  7. Unwrap the puff pastry over a clean surface, lightly floured. Roll out the dough to about 9 by 12 inches. Cut each sheet into 6 strips, approximately 2 by 9 inches each. 
  8. Spread a thin layer of apple butter on each sheet.
  9. Layer the apples overlapping across the top of each sheet making sure ¼ of the skin side of the apple sticks out.
  10. Layer prosciutto on top of the apple, then layer thin slices of Brie, and sprinkle with roughly chopped thyme.
  11. Fold up the bottom part of the dough.
  12. Starting from one end, carefully roll the dough keeping the apple slices in place. Seal the end by pressing with your fingers. Place in greased muffin tin. Continue with all 12 roses.
  13. Bake at 375 degrees for 40-45 minutes. Best eaten warm. Enjoy!

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