To go out on a limb, 30 feet up, standing on a treehouse porch amongst the branches of a mighty white oak tree, is to discover the cozy confines of a bottle of wine and an order of pizza. Phil and Dianne Nordan, both in their 70s, will drink to that, since they have clinked glasses together on this lofty perch while dinner was served by rope and pulley. "I'll never forget the first time we called the pizza guy," Phil says. "He wouldn't bring it up to us."
That's why Phil rigged up the rope-and-pulley contraption: to keep height-queasy pizza guys on terra firma. He built these date night digs --a treehouse for grown-ups--more than 20 years ago as a fun, above-it-all escape. "We'd go up there on Friday or Saturday night, have a glass of wine, and a lot of times have supper,"
Phil says. Around Monroe, home to about 35,000 people, the Nordans became known as "the people with the treehouse." A few years later, in 2005, Phil hatched another hopelessly romantic idea: plant vineyards and open a winery.
At first blush, the southern edge of downtown Monroe might have seemed an improbable spot for a winemaking venture, with houses and apartments all within view and a Food Lion within an easy walk. "They think they're lost," Phil says about many guests who navigate their way to the tasting room. But the ground is fertile with meaning and memory: Dianne grew up here, and the land has been in her family for more than 200 years. Now, with 15 verdant acres laced with rows of muscadine vines, Treehouse Vineyards is the toast of Monroe, drawing about 1,000 visitors every week.
"We are, without question, the largest attraction in Monroe," says Phil, 78, while sitting on the winery's expansive patio where guests can sip wines named "Her Way," "Rock Quarry" and "Liquid Sunshine." To appease those who prefer mugs over stems, the winery now offers beer.
Back in the 1930s, this property had a big hole in the ground. What is now a picturesque pond among the grapevines was a quarry owned by Dianne's grandfather. He leased it to the city of Monroe during the Great Depression, and its rocks were used to pave the city's streets until the 1950s. Monroe, founded in 1844 and named for President James Monroe, is a city that gave the world Belk stores, former Sen. Jesse Helms (whose father was once the fire and police chief) and the drums played by rock star Ringo Starr.
Dianne remembers the days when "we had to go to Charlotte to do anything, even to get a pizza." But...