New Bern, NC – Before prohibition began, North Carolina was a leading producer of wine in the United States, but when prohibition was enacted the alcohol industry in North Carolina all but died out. Since its repeal in 1933, the wine industry has risen, and for the past fifteen years the number of wineries and vineyards has substantially increased.
"there was a recent economic impact study that was commissioned by the North Carolina wine and grape council that showed the economic impact of the industry to be about, I believe its 1.28 billion dollars on an annual basis."
The extension viticulture specialist for North Carolina at N.C. State University, Sara Spayd, says the scientific finds of wines health benefits is a major contributor to its growth.
"The health reports related to particularly red wine consumption have helped the whole wine industry and it's not just a beverage its part of the meal experience; it's not just a drink it's a food as well."
Buddy Harrell shares the same sentiment. Harrell is part owner of Bennett Vineyard, located in Edward, a community in Beaufort County. He is a large producer of the less well known Vitis Rontundifolia, commonly known as the Muscadine or Scuppernong grape. Harrell says the grape stands apart from the better known Vinifera and Lubrusca blends of wine.
"These grapes only grow in the Southeastern United States and they produce anywhere from eight to forty five times the antioxidants than any other grape in the entire world."
Even so, the Vinifera's and Lubrusca's dominate the wine market, and in North Carolina are grown predominately in the Western Region. In Eastern North Carolina the Vinifera and Lubrusca don't produce nearly as many grapes as in the middle of the state, and are highly susceptible to disease. Fortunately, the Muscadine's are immune to the East's harsher climates, so much so, that they are even used to combat disease, such as Pierce's disease, in other regions of the state.
"they use this rootstock of this Native American grape to grasp their vines to keep the root rot from peeling them off."
Harrells says his grapes were not immune to the recent Hurricane Irene, which cut his production down, and he is now only able to sell his wine in North Carolina.
"I'm going to plant another ten or fifteen acres hopefully within the next year to two years because the demands for these grapes keep increasing and I sell a lot to other wineries other than what I use in my own wine, but the more popular my wine gets and the more I sell the more grapes I have to keep for my own wine."
Harrell has seven different wines on the market, his biggest customer being Harris Teeter, one of the largest grocery stores in the nation; and recently, a company in the eastern world approached Harrell.
"We have signed a contract with Hong Kong and they want to put our wine into twenty five foreign nations."
At one point Harrell was selling his Pomace, the skins, pulp, seeds, and stems of the fruit, to a company in New York that produced pharmaceutical pills, but the practice became so popular that he discontinued it, and now strictly uses his grapes for drinking.
"there are over eight thousand wines on the market from every country in the world and their all different grapes and all different wines."
The diversity of wines is a key factor in the economic success of the wine industry. Another factor, says Extension agent Sara Spayd, is the economic downturn, which has caused an increase in stay-cations, the rise in people staying more local for a getaway. She says changing attitudes toward alcohol consumption has also created stronger interest in wine drinking.
Owner and Operator of Duplin Winery and Vineyard, David Fussell, references the increase of people moving from northern states as an influence in common southern perceptions of wine. Duplin Winery, located in Rose Hill, is the oldest winery in the state, and is the biggest wine producer in the East. Along with their own vineyard, they've signed contracts with forty nine families throughout the Southern States, to grow grapes for them. He distributes his wine to thirteen states. In 2011, 92000 people visited Duplin Winery. Fussell credits government support.
"We have a great deal more support from the government here in North Carolina through the agricultural department or the Department of commerce, they have seen that wineries are a great economic tool to help in times of recession, we are able to drive people into the state for tourists, and we're able to collect dollars so they put a lot of support behind promoting the North Carolina wineries."
Much of that support goes to the Piedmont region which has about 72 Vineyards and Wineries, and rises far above the East's wine sales. Max Lloyd Owner of Grove Winery in Gibsonville, located in Alamance and Guilford Counties, says the local food movement is creating popularity for wine.
"You know are people realizing now that if they buy a bottle of wine that weighs three or four pounds from Australia and New Zealand that's halfway around the planet and that's got a huge carbon footprint, and there's also something special about tasting wine where its grown."
When asked about the East's future prospect for wine Lloyd says there's room for some growth, but considering the humidity and temperature, doesn't think there's much potential for anything but the Muscadine blends.
Bannerman Vineyard, Bennett vineyard, Grapefull sisters Vineyard, Huffman Vineyard, Duplin Winery, Silver coast Winery, and Lumina Winery are a few of the wine makers in Eastern North Carolina. In the state, there are now more than 400 individual grape farms that exist, covering 1800 acres. In 2005 the economic impact of wine was 800 million dollars, and with the monetary value now at one billion, one can only expect more of an increase in a state that's been able to reestablish an identity in the wine industry.
Next Saturday, on May 26, the 12 annual NC Wine Festival takes place at Tanglewood Park in Clemmons, located in Forsyth County, featuring wine tasting, music, and art. For more information on the event go to ncwinefestival.com.