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Elevating the Bar

Scanning through one of those ubiquitous, glossy real estate guides can cause dizzying effects when all you see is agency after agency jockeying for your attention with hundreds, possibly thousands, of residential properties for sale. For you the homebuyer, the challenge is to find the ideal home among so many choices that fit your lifestyle. For you the seller, you want to make your home stand out in the sea of competition and of course, get top dollar for the eventual sale. What was once the path to sell a home—listing with an agent, putting up a “For Sale” sign, getting on the MLS, and listing your home in a real estate guide—is no longer the optimal strategy. In today’s competitive marketplace, it takes two things to sell your home: 1) finding an agency that has a proven track record and is a trustworthy expert in the field and 2) finding an agency that uses advanced marketing practices to attract buyers across the country to your listing, giving you the best opportunity to sell your home.
 

Welcome to the age of digital marketing
On the Cashiers-Highlands Plateau here in Western North Carolina, there is one real estate agency that stands apart from its competition, a name recognized nationally and internationally since 2008, Silver Creek Real Estate Group. Winning awards and topping the performance charts in home sales in this predominantly second home market, Silver Creek believes in “building relationships and delivering dreams.” Part of the prestigious Luxury Portfolio International and respected member of the Leading Real Estate Companies of The World, Silver Creek, with its staff of ten brokers and a highly skilled marketing team, has a solid reputation that checks all of the important boxes: name-brand recognition, integrity, broad network, track record, level of service, quick response time, and powerfully effective marketing tools. 
Silver Creek recently won the coveted award for Best Real Estate Website in the Country by International Property Awards. This is no small feat considering there are over 86,000 agencies in the U.S. according to a 2012 census. Their website is not only enticingly beautiful but smart, too. Adding 3D, or three dimensional, digital home tours to their site, it is now an influential marketing tool that goes far beyond other brokerage agency sites in this area. 3D virtual reality offers a high-performance and convenient online platform for buyers and sellers to view the inside of a home and digital floor plans, empowering them to navigate homes from the comfort of their own living room or while traveling, make immediate inquiries, and quickly share content with friends, family, and designers.
In addition, with the growth of shopping for homes via smartphones, websites like Silver Creek’s must be mobile-friendly. “Our website, which now showcases our listings using aerial drone footage, high-quality photography, and interior video has significantly ramped up our online presence by 17.25% in six months,” says Zena Lynch, Silver Creek’s Marketing Director. Further marketing with their own lifestyle magazine NC Living, printed collateral, newsletters, and targeted print advertising in local, regional, and national magazines such as The Laurel, Atlanta Homes & Lifestyles, Architectural Digest, and Vanity Fair, Silver Creek corners the buying market.
“I do believe that name recognition of a broker organization is extremely important,” says happy Silver Creek client Jim Philip. “Repeatedly we see the name Silver Creek Real Estate Group on all kinds of platforms … social media, digital, print.” Lynch concurs by saying that no other local brokerage has their level of name recognition and overwhelming presence on all digital, social, and print channels. “We know people don’t just buy property, they buy lifestyles. Silver Creek creates an emotionally savvy digital landscape to peak buyer curiosity using three mediums of striking visual promotion–world-class photography to spark interest, vibrant video to capture the mood and feel of the property, and 3D virtual home tours to fully engage the buyer.”

Staggering Statistics
>  The National Association of Realtors claims 42% of recent buyers looked online at properties for sale as their first step in the home buying process. 
> Statistics show 3D virtual walk-throughs produce 95% more phone inquiries and 49% more qualified leads.
>  Viewers retain 95% of a message when they watch it in a video compared to 10% when reading it in print.
> Homes with aerial footage sold 68 percent faster than homes with standard images.
According to Lynch, “Decorators love being able to use our digital floor plans to map out furniture, and clients who are unable to travel to the Plateau frequently can view a home instantly using our 3D 'walk-throughs.' After seeing a property in person, clients also find it extremely helpful to later look at our videos to refresh their memories.”
Tracking buyer research closely, Lynch cites recent statistics, “With the average user spending 88% more time on a website with video and knowing that listings with high-quality video receive 4 times more inquiries, we can not afford to miss exposing our clients’ homes to buyers from around the world.” Speaking of around the world, their membership with Leading Real Estate Companies of the World connects their clients’ properties with real estate professionals in 70 countries across 6 continents. “You never know who might be looking to relocate to the area or buy a second home,” says Lynch.

Happy Clients
A visit to Silver Creek’s client testimonials page on NCliving.com exhibits rave reviews about their unparalleled service, amazing brokers, speedy turnaround time, high-tech marketing capabilities, and the ability to get the job done expeditiously. Because of Silver Creek’s adept team of photographers using HDR photography, enrichments to the property’s images can easily be made, like adding fires to fireplaces and enhancing the views out the window. Their talents along with the brokers exceed expectations and are key to getting the home listed and sold quickly. “Experience had told me that only a firm truly committed to the total process, each piece, would be the correct partner to sell our higher-priced home,” says Silver Creek client Andrew Angle. “Silver Creek’s marketing package is by far the ‘best in class’ on the plateau” … as well as “their attention to detail on all other aspects of the process. We made the correct choice in hiring them.”
Why wouldn’t you call Silver Creek Real Estate Group to sell your home or buy your next one? •

Rancho La Puerta

Rancho La Puerta is a magical place where people escape from the mundane to revive their souls and gain a fresh outlook on life. 

Year after year, the Ranch is voted a top spa destination by both Condé Nast Traveler and Travel and Leisure magazines. As for what sets the Ranch apart from other spas and resorts, it’s difficult to narrow down just one thing … as it is, according to one guest, “something that must be experienced to be explained.” 
     “We provide the true luxury of time and space,” says founder Deborah Szekely, “that which is most lacking in today’s life. Space to breathe freely, to relax and enjoy what will be ‘the longer-living, younger life.’” This unique element at the Ranch, along with its unparalleled staff, vast amenities and healing environment, is what keeps the Ranch’s guests coming back. 
     Often touted as the original “fitness resort” and spa, the fitness program is truly unmatched. Presided over by a staff of more than 20 full-time instructors in-residence, the daily offerings include everything from pilates, cardio-cycling, volleyball, weight training, and most of the expected fitness classes, as well as guided hikes, Feldenkrais, Qi Gong, NIA (Neuromuscular Integrative Action), meditation, and many more. Additionally, the Ranch offers world-renowned cuisine prepared from organic gardens, sublime spa treatments, and plenty of opportunities to recharge your mind and spirit.

The Philosophy
Family-owned and operated, the Ranch has provided guests with unparalleled luxury amidst a natural, environmentally-sound setting for nearly 80 years. Founders Edmond and Deborah Szekely started the ranch as a sort of “health camp” where people paid $17.50 to pitch a tent and bathe in the year-round near-perfect climate while learning to live a more holistic life—all without any electricity or running water. And nowadays, as it was from their opening day in June 1940, guest comfort is the staff’s first priority, and they continue to ensure that while taking care of individual needs, it’s done so in a safe, eco-friendly manner that reduces the spa’s environmental impact.
     But the approach to sustainability at the Ranch goes further than the basics, such as simply using refillable water bottles or chemical-free cleaners, as they’ve incorporated technology and installed composting toilets among other things.
     The Ranch’s motto, siempre mejor, means “always better,” and Deborah Szekely believes it also means “always changing;” a philosophy the Ranch reflects from the ground up. 

The Program
Typically, guests come to the Ranch for a Saturday to Saturday stay, but shorter stays are available. Throughout the year, there are specialty-themed weeks like family week, chamber music week, detox and cleansing week, yoga week, and more, including educational workshops and executive wellness programs. During the week, there can be up to five different classes at one hour, so there’s truly something for everyone, all day long, and many are sequential in developing a student’s expertise, assuring guests become stronger and more skilled in several disciplines by the end of the week. A typical day could include:
6 a.m. Meet in the main lounge for one of many hikes which can range from two to seven miles, then head to the dining hall for breakfast. 
9 a.m. to noon Take a class or two or three: pilates, tennis, H2O, yarn painting, volleyball, sound healing, postural therapy, or TRX before stopping for lunch. 
1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Take a few more classes—perhaps one on cooking, meditation, drumming, or join a scheduled discussion on mastering your metabolism, brush up on your Spanish skills, or maybe lay by the pool and nap.
5:30 p.m. Enjoy dinner and conversations with fellow Ranchers, then, if you’re not too tired, watch a movie, learn the art of self-hypnotic techniques, or relax in one of the many lounges with a book.

The Grounds
Nestled under the watchful eye of Mt. Kuchumma, Rancho La Puerta offers 4,000 acres of peaceful tranquility, including hiking trails, an organic farm, 32 acres of gardens, several pools, an exquisite spa, state-of-the-art fitness facilities, a salon, dining hall, an intimate library and more. Throughout the Ranch, you’ll find colorful Mexican folk art along with sculptures, paintings, and outdoor areas designed for rest and personal reflection. Take at least one of the morning hikes as the sunrise is unlike anything you have ever seen. Some are more advanced than others, but the Ranch has guides for those who want to fly up the mountainside as well as for those who want to take a more laid back, leisurely stroll. Be sure to pack some warmer clothes you can layer as mornings can prove chilly. 

The Food
Mealtimes at the ranch are community-centered and designed to bring people together. Breakfast and lunch are buffet-style and offered during a generous window of time so you can come and go as you please. A sit-down dinner is served at a set time each night and guests are encouraged to meet new people by joining different tables. The cuisine is semi-vegetarian, featuring an abundance of organic fruits and vegetables. Additionally, the freshest-of-the-fresh seafood from the port of Ensenada, Baja California, is brought in daily, allowing Ranch chefs to prepare spectacular seafood dishes five times a week. Many recipe ingredients come fresh-picked, only-hours-old from the Tres Estrellas organic garden, a six-acre working farm located north of the main Ranch area. •

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Welcoming Merry Soellner

We're thrilled to welcome Merry Soellner as the newest addition to our team! She brings a reputation for enthusiasm and integrity to our Silver Creek Real Estate Group and has consistently been among the top sales leaders in the area since 2015. Learn more about her at ncliving.com/realestate/agent/merry-soellner #realestate #silvercreekrealestategroup

The Literary History of Western North Carolina

North Carolina's mountains are well known for pristine lakes, world-class golf courses, and scenic hiking trails. But less visible is the rich literary underbelly known to the lucky readers among us.
Perhaps it's the isolation of life in the mountains, or the spirit of hundreds and hundreds of ancestors and their stories that seem to come alive in the quiet of the woods. Whatever the source, the mountains of North Carolina abound in literary history.
Thomas Wolfe, arguably the most famous of North Carolina writers, grew up in Asheville, the son of a stonecutter, before beginning his writer's life in New York City. The locals knew him to be an able wordsmith...he had, after all, edited the Daily Tar Heel, University of North Carolina's student paper. But when Look Homeward, Angel was released to enthusiastic reviews and sales, it caused an uproar among the town, as apparently some of the characters in the best-seller seemed all too familiar. Wolfe called the town “Altamont” and says in the book, “The mountains were his masters. They rimmed in life...They were his absolute unity in the midst of eternal change.”
Those mountains, of course, have been the setting for countless significant events in our country's history, most notably the Civil War and the institution of the “Trail of Tears” by which native Americans were banished to Oklahoma.  
Charles Frazier's award-winning fiction is firmly planted in the local mountains. Did you realize there really is a Cold Mountain for which his novel Cold Mountain is named?  Just southwest of Asheville, the 6,000-foot peak is the tallest in the wilderness area and was the home of the protagonist Inman's wife, to whom he struggles to return after serving in the Confederate Army.  Inman's character is based on stories handed down—in true mountain tradition—by Frazier's father about his great-granduncle named Inman.
His second novel, Thirteen Moons, is also set in the North Carolina mountains and tells the story of a man's experience with the Cherokees during their removal from the area.
Kaye Gibbons, who grew up in rural North Carolina, is a prolific contemporary writer mostly about complex women with layered emotions. She draws on her hardscrabble upbringing in Nash County and many of her characters have similar struggles, especially as they attempt to push back against a restraining Southern culture. Her voice apparently rings true, as evidenced by her best-selling status, innumerable awards, and selection for Oprah's book club.
Ron Rash, who has been hailed by New York Times' Janet Maslin as an “elegantly fine-tuned voice”, grew up in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, and received a master's degree from Clemson University. A former professor and part-time resident of Sapphire Valley, Hallman Bryant, regrets that “Clemson let him get away.”  Seems he applied for a teaching job there but was turned down because he didn't have a doctorate but only an “ABT” (all but thesis). He concedes it was their loss and Western Carolina University's gain, as Rash spent years on WCU's faculty.
Rash went on to become a prolific novelist and short-story writer. He is perhaps best known for his 2008 novel Serena, which was a finalist for the famed PEN/Faulkner award and was eventually made into a feature film starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper.
Wiley Cash, who made his debut with A Land More Kind Than Home, has more recently published The Last Ballad, a critically acclaimed story of a single mother's fight for rights in a North Carolina textile mill.  Based on a true story, Cash, who has been called by Vanity Fair magazine “a charming North Carolinian”, illuminates a dark period in Appalachian history and breathes life into it through his rich, intriguing characters. He was the writer-in-residence at the University of North Carolina Asheville in 2018.
Perhaps it is the incomparable scenery that stirs the creative soul.
Laura Lane McNeal sought solace in Cashiers, where her parents lived, following the 2005 upheaval of Hurricane Katrina in her hometown of New Orleans.  The quiet winter in the mountains was a useful backdrop as she spent the time here writing Dollbaby, a Southern take on coming of age, which was published to enthusiastic reviews.
“I spent countless hours with my dog Max taking hikes in the fiercely beautiful landscape of the Blue Ridge Mountains,” she says. “The gorges and waterfalls, the hidden streams, the fresh smell of cedar and hemlock, the way the earth and sky came alive after the rain, the ethereal sunsets that reminded me there would be light after the dark...”
Though she and her family did eventually rebuild in New Orleans, the mountains had claimed them, and they now own property in the Cashiers area and spend some of the season here. And, Laura has written two more novels following the best-seller success of her Cashiers-inspired debut.
Deanna Klingel is one of the more prolific writers to set up shop in these mountains.  She didn't seriously get down to fiction until she had raised seven children. Her stories, which she describes as being for the young and the young at heart, include civil war historical fiction and another called Blue-Eyed Doll which is based on a doll exchange that her elementary school class conducted with students in Japan at a time when there existed a deep mistrust of all things Japanese. Not surprisingly, she is a frequent guest at schools throughout the country, where her stories are enthusiastically received. “Maturity,” she says, “is a blessing when it comes to writing.”
But best-seller status is not required to take a stab at creative writing.
That many local residents are inspired by the environs is supported by the popularity of the Highlands Writers Group, a collection of short story writers, memoirists, novelists, poets and journalists who gather each Tuesday at the Bascom Center for the Arts to engage in writing exercises, readings, and critiques.  Highlands has always beckoned writers to visit the area...Walker Percy, Cassandra King, Pat Conroy, and Sandra Brown are examples...and the local literary culture even spawned a Writers Group anthology.
Even if you're just a passionate reader, you can indulge in a bit of literary sightseeing in this part of the world. Start in Asheville, at the Thomas Wolfe House, located in downtown Asheville.  It was actually a boarding house, run by Wolfe's mother, and the setting for Look Homeward, Angel.  Built-in 1883 in the Queen Anne style, the 29-room home is now a National Historic Landmark, and offers visitors an introductory film and guided tour.  Meticulously curated, with many of the furnishings from Wolfe's time there, the museum even displays each holiday season a copy of his original handwritten letter to Santa Claus.
The Grove Park Inn, also in Asheville, has been the backdrop for lots of literary action.  F. Scott Fitzgerald spent summers there in the 1930s and each year on a weekend near his September birthday, the Inn hosts an “F. Scott Fitzgerald Weekend” whereby visitors are taken on a tour of the author's favored suite and treated to insights of noted literary critics. Sadly, Fitzgerald's wife Zelda died in a tragic fire at a nearby psychiatric hospital. 
Another literary road trip could be made to Carl Sandburg's farm in Flat Rock, near Hendersonville.  Sandburg spent the last 22 years of his life in the bucolic setting where his wife was known for the cows she raised.  Visitors may tour the farmhouse, visit the dairy barn where some descendants of Mrs. Sandburg's herd reside and hike over five miles of trails.  In the summertime, visitors may enjoy live performances of Sandburg's Rootabaga Stories and other adaptations of his work at the farm's amphitheater.
But perhaps the best place to celebrate the literary culture of these mountains is from your favorite chair on your private porch with a book in hand.  Let everyone else rush to make their tee times!  
Which begs the question: Have you had a chance yet to pick up Charles Frazier's latest novel?  Varina is the story of Jefferson Davis' wife and the reviews, so far, are excellent. •

 

The Truth About Sulfites

There are all sorts of misconceptions about sulfites found in wine. Yes, many winemakers add small amounts of sulfites to preserve their wines, but sulfites are also naturally occurring. Sulfites in wine, usually red wine, get the blame for everything from headaches, sleepless nights, congestion and hangovers. Those who speak out against sulfites even claim European wines do not have any sulfites post-production, but are injected with them prior to shipping to the U.S. The confusion among the general wine-drinking community is great, but let’s look to one wine connoisseur to shed some light…

Sulfites (chemically known as sulfur dioxide or SO2) are a preservative and can be found in all wines as they naturally occur as a by-product of fermentation.  Most wineries, including those in Europe and around the world, also add a minuscule amount of sulfites to preserve the color and flavor of their wines. Interesting to note that more sulfites are added to white wines, especially sweeter dessert wines, while dry red wines have the lowest sulfite content.  Sulfites have been used in wine production for centuries, including to clean storage tanks after use rather than harsh chemicals. 

It may come as a surprise that few countries require wine labels that state "Contains Sulfites," and less of a surprise that the U.S. is one of the handful that does.  There is a tiny percentage of the population that is allergic to sulfites, mainly severe asthma sufferers, and there are many foods and beverages, other than wine, that contain more sulfites, such as dried fruit.  It's a mystery why any wine made in the U.S. or imported into the U.S. must be labeled with "Contains Sulfites" while these other products with higher sulfites are not required to do so.

Bottom line: unless you are one of the few who is allergic to sulfites, the sulfites are not the cause of the “dreaded wine headache.”

- source: Fred Bowen from adeptlifestyle.com

Wine 101

// what to drink now

Looking for something pink to drink for a Valentine’s Day outing? Turn to rosé in a can by Amble and Chase. This rosé, sourced from Provence, France, will add to the fun while wetting your whistle, $19.99 for four cans

Crisp, fruit forward, and refreshing
Portable, eco-friendly, and a good value

You’ll fall head-over-heels for the 2015 Joseph Phelps Chardonnay, Freestone Vineyards, $55.00

A well rounded Sonoma Coast white that works perfectly with spicy foods
Tasting notes reveal lemon and pineapple, while the nose sniffs out scents of lemon curd, peach and toasted cinnamon

Interested in something refreshing and bubbly, how about red bubbles? Lini 910- “Lambrusca” Lambrusco allows wine drinkers to step out of the box and try something new, average price $15.99

Appellation is Rosso Reggiano from Emilia-Romagna, Italy
A dry, sparkling red with tastes of berries and cream

Calling all California Pinot lovers! This 2014 Cambria, a.k.a. Julia’s Vineyard, Benchbreak Pinot Noir is a luxurious warm red to cozy up to on a cool, winter night $25.00

Rich, deep fruit, mild tannins and very balanced
Flavors of plum, cinnamon and black pepper
Pair with anything, especially pork

Robert Parker highly rates this easy drinking red, 2014 André Brunel Grenache, $20.99

90% Grenache grape
Produced in the Rhone Valley of France
Complex and intense; tastes of strawberry, cocoa and vanilla with round tannins
Ideal to relax by at the end of the day or pair with lamb


// what to cellar

Suggestions by sommelier Jennifer Cunningham at Highlands Wine Shoppe

2013 Emblem by Michael Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon,  $35.99

93 points by Wine Enthusiast
Rich blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (79%), Petite Sirah (8%), Petit Verdot (5%), Syrah (4.5%), Zinfandel (2%), and Merlot (1.5%)
Polished, full-bodied with flavors of caramelized crème brulee, blackberry and spice
Any vintage of Domaine de la Berthete Chateauneuf-du-Pape, price varies on vintage

2012 was winemaker Pascal Maillet’s first vintage of this wine
50% Grenache, 50% Syrah
Aged 18 months in stainless steel tanks
Handcrafted, limited production from 50+ year old vines
Aromas of black currant and spice; well balanced, rich, with tastes of pepper

2014 Smith-Devereux Cabernet Sauvignon by Steve Smith and Ian Devereux, $40.99 

First release at a great price point, and a champion out of the gate
Sourced by sustainably farmed vineyards from Napa Valley’s Howell and Diamond Mountains
Deep ruby red fruit, complex, well constructed tannins with tastes of black currant, blackberry, cassis, dark chocolate, loamy earth, leather, and tobacco

2016 Booker Vineyards “My Favorite Neighbor” Red Blend by Eric Jensen $84.99

Full bodied and elegant with tastes of crème de cassis, licorice, and tobacco
97 points by Robert Parker 
2011 Bruno Giacosa Santo Stefano Barbaresco, 100% Nebbiolo, $175.99 

Intense and complex with tastes of violets, licorice, and raspberry
Received 95 Points by Wine Enthusiast 
An icon in Italian winemaking, Bruno Giacosa passed away in January 2018. The 2011 vintage was his last that will make this vintage very collectible.


// Wine Education

Highlands Wine Shoppe (828) 526-4080

Wine tastings and education are part of the offerings at this well stocked wine shop. Advanced Sommelier, Nick Demos, is brought in once a month for the Highlands School of Wine, an educational series to taste and learn about wine. Each class has a different theme from bubbles to food pairings to wines from different countries. Call for a class schedule and to make a reservation.


// Wine Events

Tim Lundy of Rosewood Gourmet in Highlands often holds food and wine tastings at The Vineyard at High Holly in Scaly Mountain. There are two coming up in September and October as well as a special wine pairing dinner at a private home in November. Call for more information at (828) 526-0383.

Old Edwards Inn and Spa in Highlands hosts celebrity chef dinners including wine pairings. Go to halfmilefarm.com/chefdinners for the winter schedule

Highlands Food & Wine Festival is a four-day event featuring food and music of course, but also wine tastings, winemaker sponsored dinners, and education. Check out the website for tickets and the schedule of events at highlandsfoodandwine.com


// NC Wine Trail
Wineries and Vineyards in the Mountains
Burntshirt Vineyards - Hendersonville, NC
(828) 685-2402, burntshirtvineyards.com

Growing only estate-grown fruit from rosé to chardonnay to merlot to riesling, Burntshirt has several medal winners to share with tasters. Daily tours start at 2 pm and wine tastings are available all day. A bistro for a sit-down lunch is on premise as well as a food truck to provide sustenance while tasting. Live music rounds out the experience on the weekends.

Calaboose Cellars - Andrews, NC 
(828) 321-2006, calaboosecellars.com

Noted as “the smallest winery in America” and the furthest west located in NC, Jailhouse Winery, a.k.a. Calaboose, is a tiny 300-square-foot winery with award-winning wines. It’s history as an old jail makes the visit all the more interesting. Their vineyards are located elsewhere in the mountains of Cherokee County, but the wines and beers can be tasted Monday through Saturday. Varietals include Chambourcin and Seyval Blanc. 

Biltmore Estate - Asheville, NC
(828) 225-1333, biltmore.com

The most popular wine tasting destination in Western NC due to its fame and Disney-like draw, the Biltmore Estate offers a behind-the-scene tour and various wine experiences. Relax at their wine bar tasting all of their many vintages of reds, whites and roses while snacking cheese and charcuterie. Make sure to taste their award-winning pinot grigio. Consult the website for more general information, hours and about booking a private event.

Addison Farms Vineyard - Leicester, NC
(828) 581-9463, addisonfarms.net

Located seventeen miles northwest of Asheville, Addison Farms is a family-owned-and-operated vineyard and winery sitting on 55 acres that has been passed down through four generations. The Addison family grows six varietals including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc, Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Petit Verdot and Petite Manseng. Several of their wines have medaled. Receive a personal tour from winemaker, Jeff Frisbee, and enjoy a flight afterwards in their tasting room. Open year-round. See website for days and hours of operation.

Savory, Salty, and Sweet

Like the Oscars are for the film industry, a fierce competition known as the sofi™ Awards is for the gourmet and specialty foods industry. Little known to the layman, this contest, in its 45th year, calls for hundreds of gourmet and specialty food companies nationwide, small and large, new and old, to duke it out for the Best Product of the Year, plus Gold, Silver and Bronze medals. The awards ceremony highlights the newest culinary innovations, recipes, and technology. Aside from bringing fame and prestige to the winners, a sofi™Award can mean millions of dollars in sales. 
Categories from baked goods to condiments to sauces and meats, cheeses, and seafood are judged by a vast panel that include gourmet food industry tastemakers from the Culinary Institute of America, food media like the Wall Street Journal, Williams & Sonoma, Sur La Table, cookbook authors, famous chefs and restaurateurs, Whole Foods, and many more. These judges are not only the experts in their field but influencers of trends. 
Outside of the industry, everyday foodies and culinary “passionistas” long to stay on top of the food trends for the pleasure of eating, drinking, cooking and sharing. Reading popular gourmet magazines like Bon Apetít and Food & Wine usually provide an insider’s look at cooking trends and recipes, however, some of the sofi™ awarded products never make it on their pages.
However, NC Living Magazine is in the know, and we are sharing the best in most categories so you can be on the forefront of some epic culinary covets. These stellar award-winners from the 2018 competition are ideal to incorporate into your next recipe, give as a hostess gift, or as a present for the food lover in your life. If not found on your grocer’s shelves, all products can be found on the Internet. To see the entire list of award winners, go to www.specialtyfood.com.

1 WINNING CATEGORY: PRODUCT OF THE YEAR
Product: Cardamom bitters, Brand: The Bitter Housewife
An ideal savory bitter to add to your next craft cocktail using añejo tequila or scotch (currently available at Whole Foods, Amazon and other online stores).

2 WINNING CATEGORY: BAKED GOODS, GOLD MEDAL WINNER
Product: Gran Pasticceria Tortina White, Brand: Loacker USA
A “trifecta of sublime tastes” per the winning notes, melding together creamy white and dark chocolates, crispy wafers, and hazelnut crème to make one darn good tortina wafer.

3 WINNING CATEGORY: BAKING INGREDIENT, GOLD MEDAL WINNER
Product: Roasted Peanut Oil, Brand: La Tourangelle
Made in the USA, this virgin pressed oil rates high on its nutty fragrance and ability to ramp up the flavor of any baked recipe, not to mention using it to dress a salad.

4 WINNING CATEGORY: BBQ SAUCE, GOLD MEDAL WINNER
Product: Badass Smoked Sriracha & Roasted Garlic Mop Sauce, Brand: Wildly Delicious Fine Foods 
A sweet, salty, and savory sauce good to mop up anything and everything. Once you go Badass, you won’t go back. Enough said.

5 WINNING CATEGORY: COW’S MILK CHEESE, GOLD MEDAL WINNER 
Product: Organic Rogue River Blue, Brand: Rogue Creamery
Aged for one year and produced in Oregon, this multiple award-winning veiny blue comes from pasture-raised cows that graze on organic land. The wheels are wrapped in Syrah leaves and soaked in pear brandy. Flavor notes include hazelnuts, berries, morel mushrooms, and sweet woodsy pine. 

6 WINNING CATEGORY: DARK CHOCOLATE, GOLD MEDAL WINNER 
Product: Poco Dolce Olive Oil and Sea Salt Bar, Brand: Poco Dolce Confections
Small batch bittersweet chocolate tiles made with California olive oil and topped with grey sea salt. Divine!

7 WINNING CATEGORY: COOKIE, GOLD MEDAL WINNER 
Product: Orange Pistachio Shortbread, Brand: Smart Cookie
Nothing like a buttery shortbread sprinkled with toasted green pistachios, zests of orange, and hints of cinnamon and vanilla to make your mouth water. Balanced by texture and taste, this cookie is good enough to serve to dinner guests or at your next tea.

8 WINNING CATEGORY: CRACKER, GOLD MEDAL WINNER 

Product: ParmCrisps, Brand: That’s How We Roll, LLC

These crackers pack a punch and a crunch made with 100% aged Parmesan Cheese. Made in small batches with no artificial ingredients, these fine artisanal crisps pair beautifully with a fig spread or raspberry jam.

9 WINNING CATEGORY: SALSA/DIP, GOLD MEDAL WINNER 

Product: This Dip is Nuts: Roasted Green Chile and Pepita, Brand: Bitchin’ Inc.

Organic, gluten-free, vegan, and non-GMO, this dip with an almond base is not only tasty, but also healthy. A clear winner with its mellow heat and savory sweet flavors, it is smooth and “bitchin'” according to the brand.
 

10 WINNING CATEGORY: ICE CREAM, GOLD MEDAL WINNER 

Product: Black Sesame Ice Cream, Brand: Humphry Slocombe

Handcrafted small batch ice cream blended with toasted black sesame seeds and garnished with sesame oil creates a new taste sensation for those who like savory and sweet. The product gets rave reviews across the board.
 

11 WINNING CATEGORY: COOKING MARINADE, GOLD MEDAL WINNER 

Product: Ancho Chile Tamarind Sauce, Brand: Salsaology

Flavors inspired by the Jalisco region of Mexico, this marinade positively challenges the taste buds with its combination of savory, smoky and sweet. Delicate and tangy tamarind, roasted peanut and smoky chilies bring a new zing to chicken and pork dishes.
 

Feel Good Giving

At the end of every year, we turn the page to move ahead into the next year. Like the old saying goes, “out with the old, in with the new,” we reflect on our past and plan for our future. With good intentions, we look ahead with a positive forecast bound by our goals and resolutions. Personal growth in the form of fitness, money, self-help, or education is usually at the top of the list. Whatever our past struggles, we step forward armed with new ways to better ourselves in the new year. According to studies done by the Mayo Clinic, giving of our time through volunteerism has an immeasurable effect on our wellbeing. 
Volunteerism is on the rise as individuals look for ways to enrich their lives and progress forward on their path. There are endless opportunities to volunteer, so it is important to find a non-profit organization that speaks to you and aligns with your interests. Whether you want to be hands-on as part of an emergency response team, love on animals up for adoption, or work behind the scenes stuffing envelopes, charitable organizations have a role for anyone willing to help positively impact the lives of others.
In helping others, we help ourselves. Results from a study called Doing Good is Good for You in partnership with United Healthcare and VolunteerMatch show many “feel good” reasons we should volunteer. 
“The results of this study affirm that volunteering is a relationship that brings people together and can profoundly change the way we think about ourselves and others,” said Greg Baldwin, president of VolunteerMatch, the largest online volunteer engagement network which serves over 113,000 participating nonprofits, 150 network partners and 13 million annual visitors.
The Highlands-Cashiers Plateau in Western North Carolina is no exception when it comes to an abundance of non-profit organizations looking for volunteers. The list is too long to name them all, but NC Living has compiled a select list of local organizations that welcome volunteers. Others can be found online by searching “non-profit organizations in your area” or by visiting volunteermatch.org or greatnonprofits.org. Giving just an hour, a week, or a few hours a month can make a tremendous difference in others’ lives, and yours too. As the Universal Law of Gratitude says, the more you give, the more you will receive.

 

/ Food Pantry of Highlands and Cashiers: These two non-profits provide nutritious foods to hundreds of individuals and families living at or below the national poverty level. Since both towns are seasonal communities, work becomes scarce in the winter months and families face the difficult challenge of putting food on their tables. These pantries are busy stores where community members go weekly to receive fresh foods, staples, and canned goods. Volunteers are needed for as little as one day a month to operate the pantries. Learn more at highlandsmethodist.org and fishesandloavescashiers.org.

/ Literacy Council of Cashiers and the Highlands Literacy Council: Both non-profit organizations share the goal of helping people to read and become educated. Some 30% of county residents cannot read. Teaching children, adults, and families to become literate will help them find employment (or a better job), gain confidence, vote, learn, and feel more connected to their community. Anyone who loves to read or teach will make a great volunteer. Learn more at cashiersliteracycouncil.org or highlandsliteracy.com.

/ Big Brothers Big Sisters of Western NC: This organization aims to enrich children’s lives through one-on-one mentoring programs. With inspiration and encouragement, children are led to find positive and productive paths. Volunteers become “Bigs” for “Littles,” creating relationships that spur growth. Learn more at bbbswnc.org.

/ Team Rubicon: Dedicated to disaster response and relief, this Los Angeles-based nonprofit’s mission is to coordinate teams of military veterans and first responders to work in service together helping communities affected by natural disasters. Chapters are created in locations around the world that can be in close proximity to the areas served. A local Highlands chapter is currently on task to help those devastated by Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida by removing debris and rebuilding homes.

/ Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust: Protectors of nature since 1883, HCLT essentially guards our natural resources, the air we breathe, our lakes, streams, mountains, flora and fauna. If you enjoy nature and want to preserve it for generations to come, this might be the right place for you. Learn more at hicashlt.org.

/ The Cashiers-Highlands Humane Society: This no-kill not-for-profit shelter does so much to help care for our furry friends. Volunteers walk, socialize and play with these sheltered animals making them better future pets and more adoptable. Fostering in your own home is another way to serve the shelter. For animal lovers, this is a heart-warming volunteer experience. Learn more at chhumanesociety.org.

/ Rotary Club: A civically minded organization where driven citizens and local leaders come together to do good for their community. Advocating “service above self,” Rotarians meet weekly to share ideas, enjoy fellowship, and develop projects that serve their area. Learn more at highlandsrotary.org and cashiersrotary.org.

/ REACH: With a mission to eradicate domestic violence, human trafficking, and sexual assault crimes in both Macon and Jackson Counties, this bilingual nonprofit works to support their mission through prevention, intervention, counseling, and education. There are many volunteer opportunities at REACH, from working directly with the abused or in the roles of fundraising, fielding Hotline calls, court advocacy, event marketing, and shelter assistance. Learn more at reachofmaconcounty.org.

Spying the Skies

Several decades ago in the days of spy secrets, espionage, and space wars, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had a little known and well-hidden facility right in our own backyard, an undisclosed satellite-tracking center sitting on 200 acres.  Opened on October 26, 1963, this top-secret campus located deep within North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest, with its bunkers, hidden tunnels, and cutting-edge tracking technology, was critical to national security. It was at this time that the race for space was full-on with the Soviets and each side battled for greater knowledge of space exploration and technology by watching and listening to the other’s satellites. 
Fast-forward fifty-five years, and what once was a covert spy center is now a public education science facility called the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute or simply known as PARI. Situated near the town of Rosman, NC between Lake Toxaway and Brevard, PARI still largely remains a secret today. Founded by Don and Jo Cline in 1998 as a non-profit astronomical educational foundation, PARI serves to inspire young people, hopeful scientists, astronomers and those who just want to learn more. An entertaining outing for the whole family, PARI surprisingly only sees a little over 6,000 paying visitors annually, as people are just slowly discovering this magnificent destination.
“PARI was founded with the vision of providing science discovery and learning experiences to people of all ages, with a special focus on getting young people interested in science with fun, hands-on activities,” said Don Cline. “Today, PARI is a well-equipped science center bristling with instruments and expertise to help maximize an experience that people will remember for a lifetime.”
Stargazing is at its highest level here at PARI as they are well equipped with the latest technology for viewing and recording the skies, including two radio telescopes of 26-meters (85 ft.), one at 12-meters (40 ft.), and one at 4.6-meters (15 ft.). With no light pollution to impede the view due to their remote surroundings, PARI’s optical telescopes can see deep into space, providing a unique opportunity to identify new stars, galaxies, comets, and things not yet named. With more than two trillion galaxies and one to four billion stars in each galaxy, there is a lot to see and learn at PARI.
Their goal is to bring greater knowledge of the skies to a wider audience including many young people.  Partnered with Duke University for their summer Talent Identification Program (TIP) as well as many county scholastic programs for all ages and programs for underprivileged children, PARI has a personal mission to get kids of all ages involved in science by making it fun. Having hosted approximately 100,000 students over the course of fifteen years, PARI is proud to have inspired several students who were once new to space science to go on and serve as astrophysicists, astronomers, and scientists. 
Last summer during the total eclipse, PARI hosted NASA, along with 250 amateur astronomers and eighty astronomers from Italy that wanted to use the facility to conduct research and record the skies before, during and after the eclipse. According to a PARI spokesperson, “This was the first time in history that an eclipse has passed over an array of sophisticated telescopes like [ours], giving us the opportunity to conduct scientific studies that have never before been possible. Another first for this site.”
In addition to their state-of-the-art telescopes, PARI owns and displays an impressive collection of rare meteorites from around the world in their museum. One meteorite dates back to 1492 found in Alsace, France. Also on display are several fossils, gemstones, and petrified wood specimens. In another area of the museum is a fascinating display of NASA Space Shuttle artifacts and items used and/or collected from outer space.
Aside from PARI’s own archival data collected since their infancy, they also house the Astronomical Photographic Data Archive (APDA) with over 400,000 plates representing 120 years of history in astronomical data. Next to Harvard, they are one of the largest collectors in the U.S. Essentially PARI has a library of over 220,000 photographs of the sky that show how it has changed or evolved over the years. 
PARI is still growing its 30 building campus and has many exciting capital projects on the books like the Fluorescent Mineral Exhibit due to open May 2018. Colors from these minerals when exposed to different types of ultraviolet light produce a captivating array of colors, sometimes from the same rock. The largest specimen displayed weighs 2,000 pounds. This glowing tunnel of fluorescence will be a spectacular site to see.
When you visit PARI, make a day out of it. Explore the miles of nature trails, eat at their cafe or enjoy a picnic either at Jo’s Cove or atop their observation deck offering an incredible 360-degree long-range view.
PARI is open Monday through Friday (9 am to 4 pm), Saturdays (9:30 to late) and Sundays (9:30 to 6 pm). Entrance fees are $10 with senior and student discounts. Children under the age of 5, military and first responders receive free admittance. For an extra fee, private tours can be arranged in advance for small to large groups. For $20 a person, Evenings at PARI, on the second Friday of each month, offer amazing entertainment to view the nighttime sky with astronomer docents. To donate to PARI or for more information on PARI’s mission, guided tour hours, educational programs, and to see a calendar of events and activities, visit their website at http://www.pari.edu/. 
 

A Winter Hike

Stepping onto the trail, I feel like I am greeting an old friend. It’s been a while since I’ve visited, but there’s a connection to something bigger here. Maybe it is the trail’s history dating back to the eighteenth century. Winter and early spring just happen to be my favorite times to hike this trail, the North Carolina Bartram Trail, for the stillness of it. With the leaves on the trees gone, you can hear the tiniest pin drop. The crunch of the crisp foliage beneath my feet indicates this is a road less traveled. The only other sound I hear is the animated commotion up ahead as my “Labradorgi” (lab/corgi mix) dives into a small waterfall pool. He’s like a kid in a candy store.

Aside from my four-legged hiking companion, I am taking to the Trail with a small group of friends who gather annually for this winter hike. Considered one of the most famous hikes in North Carolina, it honors the legacy of the legendary William Bartram, the botanist, naturalist, artist, writer, and explorer who pioneered this route in 1775. On his exploratory journey from Florida to the Carolinas, he documented his findings on native flora and fauna and acutely studied the multiple Indian cultures. According to an article written by National Geographic, Bartram dedicated his life to nature and is considered an icon in wilderness preservation, leaving behind a unique collection of art and writings from pre-Revolutionary War days.

The Bartram Trail, all one hundred miles of it, is a moderate to strenuous trail that winds through old-growth Nantahala Forest, waterfalls, and tunnels of rhododendron thickets while undulating over mountains of granite. Backpacker magazine rated it as one of the “Ten Best Long Trails in America” and “Number One” for solitude. The North Carolina portion of the Trail begins just after the second highest peak in Georgia, the magnificent Rabun Bald (4696 feet elevation). Today our group chooses to catch a two-mile moderate part of the Trail off Highway 106 and summit Scaly Mountain (4804 feet elevation). 

Time feels elusive on the Bartram Trail. There is no evidence of modernity except for the occasional yellow trail blazes that assist in keeping you on the path. While ascending 1100 feet, we are reminded that this was once Cherokee land and every now and again you’ll pass an ancient “marker” tree that was once used to guide the Indians on their travels. As we climb, we pass a small exhibit of cairns, or rock piles, created by previous hikers. Although the profusion of color from wildflowers and plant life seen on the trail in warmer months is now gone, the colors that remain are hues of evergreen, sage, burgundy, and brown. 

As we reach the pinnacle of Scaly Mountain, the breathtaking blues of the Blue Ridge Mountains come into view. Our group settles onto the warm bed of granite with a southerly exposure to catch some rays and take in the vastness of the mountains before us. We are all quiet as we breathe in the clean fresh air and let the awe-inspiring vista imprint our reflective thoughts. One can only imagine that this is the same view that spurred William Bartram to write in his journal while resting on an elevated peak in these same mountains, “…I beheld with rapture and astonishment a sublimely awful scene of power and magnificence, a world of mountains piled upon mountains.”

For a trail with many places of interest and incredible biodiversity, it is never crowded even in the summer. On today’s four-mile hike, we encounter only five people and two dogs over the course of two and half hours. The Trail is not a loop, so consulting a trail map is important when determining a turning-around point. Going beyond Scaly Mountain, the trail will take you on a much longer, more strenuous hike towards Tessentee Creek Campsite and further yet to Wayah Bald (5342’). At one point, the Trail briefly crosses the Appalachian Trail and continues for many more miles to the trail’s end at Cheoah Bald (5062 feet elevation). 

North Carolina Bartram Trail Society, a non-profit trail club established by local residents in 1977, created the North Carolina Bartram Trail. Along with the aid of the US Forest Service, the society’s volunteers are responsible for maintaining the trail and continuing the work of William Bartram. A helpful trail map can be purchased at local hiking shops and from the Society at ncbartramtrail.org. Memberships are also available if you would like to help contribute to their efforts.

The week following our group hike, we received 15” of snow. My group decided to do the same hike again, but this time with snowshoes. The Trail took on a distinctive character with sugary white fluff decorating the forest and blanketing the mountain. We were the first and only tracks in the snow and felt as if we were pioneering the Trail, just like Bartram must have felt almost 250 years ago.


My Day Hike Checklist

One excited dog
Leash
Backpack
Collapsible dog water bowl
Water for my dog and me
Smartphone
Trail map
Snack
Bear spray/ whistle
Hiking shoes
Hiking poles (optional)
Sunscreen
Sunglasses
Layers of clothing: hat, gloves, and jacket
Small first aid kit 
 

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