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Watauga Lake Winery opening in old Dry Run School

For the first time in decades the doors of the old Dry Run Elementary School were opened in a Saturday night celebration officially welcoming Johnson County’s latest unique attraction, Watauga Lake Winery. A passion project of Wayne and Linda Gay of Dry Hill, the operation is a product of years of business experience combined with a love and knowledge of growing grapes and making wines.
Guests packed the halls of the refinished school house to dine in the remodeled class rooms, sample some of the winery’s 10 distinct varieties in what was formerly the gymnasium, and check out the all the big changes that have been made, from the wine processing facilities to the ultra modern kitchen. Yet, true to its historic roots, the Gays have also tried to maintain an air of tradition and heritage in the old building, placing pictures of each of the classes that graduated there on the walls of the main hall, and retaining the blackboards in the classrooms.
The process of renovating the school began several years ago, when Wayne and Linda, the owners of Villa Nova Vineyards just up the road on Dry Hill, first made the decision to begin making their own wine. “We’ve been working very hard,” Linda said. “We’ve got about 3,500 grape vines and we just decided why not do something to encourage tourism in Johnson County. We retired and decided let’s try something new. We make homemade wine out of our grapes and have joined several wine clubs, and we felt that it was something we would enjoy doing and we thought Johnson County would be a great place.”
The Gays chose the Dry Run School house because of its size, proximity, and its historical character. The building had changed hands several times since it closed as a public facility in 1989, becoming a small factory at one point building boats and airplane parts. As a result over the past few months the couple has been working tirelessly to make the building look new again. “We always wanted to do an historic building, but there’s not an inch that we haven’t gone over,” Linda said.
In fact the Gays worked right up to opening night, putting the last labels on the bottles just hours before the event kicked off that evening. The open house and charter meeting of the wine tasting club featured live music by Ed Torres, wine tasting, and a dinner of fresh low country boil. The shrimp for the meal were actually caught at Mobile Bay in the Gulf of Mexico just two days before and were prepared by Wendel and Cecilia Johnson. Bottles of wine made on location were also for sale, featuring such varieties as the bold and fruity Big Dry Run Red and the crisp, dry Elk River White.
Teachers and alumni from Dry Run were also present, with special guest speeches by Elma Ruth Stanton who not only attended when the facility was first opened in 1949, but also taught for many years, and Kate Potter who worked as a teacher’s aid, janitor, kitchen assistant, and substitute teacher. Potter also had two children attend all the way from first to eighth grades and helped with many of the annual festivals, ball games, class reunions, and dinners.
The official opening to the general public will be November 1st, but the Gays already have big plans for the future. “We’re working on getting ourselves included as an aviation destination that would tie us into Boone, Banner Elk, and Blowing Rock”, Linda said. “I don’t know if people realize how many tourists follow wine trails around the country, but we look at the revenue in Virginia, North Carolina, all around us, and Tennessee is missing out. We’re only the 80th winery in the state, and that’s it.”
In addition to the wine tasting clubs, blending parties, and general wine trail activities, the couple is also planning on using the school to host a variety of events including regular cooking classes and hands on demonstrations with special guest chefs, special events for couples as well as weddings and reserved occasions. In fact, the Gays have built a beautiful wedding pavilion at their vineyard, featuring a gorgeous 360-degree view of the rolling Appalachian Mountains. The couple already has their first wedding scheduled for the next weekend, and hope the school will become a popular choice for receptions and ceremonies.
In addition to their five white and five red wine varieties, the Gays also raise blackberries. A very large operation, Villa Nova has been selling their grapes to wineries in Pigeon Forge and the local area, but with the opening of their own facility, will divert most of their crop for their own production and sales. “Our wine is made from local grown Johnson County grapes and there are different varieties that people will find than if they go to any other state,” said Linda. “We produce so many grapes that we will still sell part of our production at other places.”

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