Tobacco farming is on the decline in North Carolina, but all those empty farms won’t be going to waste.
Something else is taking the place of king tobacco: wine. There are more than 140 wineries currently operating in the state — more than five times the number in 2001 — making North Carolina ninth in the nation for grape production.
This isn’t North Carolina’s first foray into the wine industry. At the dawn of the 20th century, North Carolina was the nation’s top wine producing region. Then came prohibition, and tobacco had its turn. Tobacco production in North Carolina peaked in 1955, when the state produced 978,755 pounds of flue-cured tobacco annually.
Tobacco production has since fallen to 248,000 pounds annually and generates $416,640 each year. Wine, on the other hand, now generates $1.28 billion, attracts 1.3 million tourists per year and produces $156 million in tourist spending and $51 million in state and local taxes.
But wine isn’t a get-rich-quick industry.
“You’re not in it for the money,” said Sandy Utberg of Grove Winery in Gibsonville. “The best way to make a million making wine is to start with four million. It’s a long-term investment, and it takes a while for you to get your return.”
The climate is right
Wine is proliferating in North Carolina for mainly the same reason tobacco did — the climate is diverse and suitable for growing the crop, as both wine grapes and tobacco need long growing seasons to reach full maturity. There are six wine regions in the state: the mountain region, the Yadkin Valley, the Piedmont region, the Sand Hill or Coastal region, the Haw River valley and the Swan Creek region.
The Swan Creek, Yadkin valley and Haw River valley regions are all federally recognized American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). The Haw River valley has 214 frost-free growing days as well as deep, well-drained soil. This combination provides wine grape growers an ideal climate for their crop.
“We’ve got very mineral-rich soil here,” Utberg said. “It just seems to make a huge difference. Many times AVAs are right around a river, which is where those minerals come from.”
Utberg called North Carolina a microclimate, a local atmospheric zone where the climate in a particular area differs from the surrounding area.
One of the biggest influences on the flavor of wine is how much rainfall occurs near harvest time, said Utberg.
“You want it to be dry [at harvest time],” Utberg said. “Typically, when August rolls around, you want the weather to dry out so the vines get stressed. The plants start holding on to their sugars, and the sugar shoots way up high in the grapes themselves, which gives the winemaker a lot more to work with.”
Harvest time for wine grapes usually occurs from August to October, and winemaking season lasts through December.
Rows of grapes at wineries are traditionally planted north to south, according to Utberg, so the grapes on the vine can receive sunlight as the sun moves across the sky from east to west. This arrangement allows for more productive pruning of the vine to allow for the greatest yield at harvest time.
Other than the climate around the winery, the soil is equally as important to creating quality wine during the grape-growing process.
Nancy Zeman of Benjamin Vineyards, which opened in Graham in 2003, said she and her husband “shopped around” for the proper soil to grow wine grapes.
“Everywhere we went, we took a shovel and took a soil sample,” Zeman said. “We sent the samples to the state and got a reading back on whether the land would be good for grapes and what it would need as far as amenities go in order to grow grapes.”
The Haw River flows directly behind Benjamin’s Vineyard, creating a sandy loam for the winery to rest on and providing ideal grape-growing conditions. A sandy loam is good for growing grapes because grapes need land that drains well, and while Benjamin’s Vineyard doesn’t rest on a large slope, this type of land provides a sufficient drainage.
According to Zeman, working with the land instead of trying to manipulate the land is key in creating a profitable business with quality wine.
Benjamin’s Vineyard, the 26th winery to open in the state, survived the recent recession.
While a large number of wineries have sprung up on old tobacco farms across North Carolina — such as Grove Winery and Benjamin’s Vineyard — the land’s history as a farm doesn’t automatically make the soil good for growing grapes.
“If you buy an old tobacco farm, you’ve got to look at whether or not the soil has been stripped of its nutrients,” Zeman said.
Different methods for different flavors
Wineries in North Carolina use a variety of different grapes to create a multitude of different wines, each selecting the type of grapes that will grow best under mountain, piedmont or coastal conditions.
North Carolina wineries mainly use vinifera, muscadine, scuppernong and labrusca grapes, though some wineries use hybrids.
Grove Winery also makes fruit wines, such as strawberry wine, which take between two and three months to make. Traditional wine made from grapes takes longer to make, often requiring several years. According to Utberg, white wines have a shelf life of five to 15 years, fruit wines last for one to three years and red wines last for 10 to 20 years. After that, Utberg says, wines start to go downhill because of the effect air entering the bottle has on the aging process.
Grove Winery currently has three vintage wines for sale, and while this isn’t typical, the different years allow tasters to observe how the various wines age.
“We have three vintages in the house all at the same time,” Utberg said. “Most of the time we sell out of one vintage before we introduce the next one, but they’ve handled it differently and now they’re offering a 2010, 2011 and 2012 Sangiovese vintage for the experience of going home with your friends and opening all three bottles and tasting the difference a year can make.”
The vintage that shows on a bottle of wine is the year the grapes for the wine were harvested. Grove Winery also plants grapes that originate from Italy and Spain, creating unique wines that are atypical for North Carolina wineries.
“Anywhere on the east coast where [wineries] don’t irrigate, you’re going to get a bigger variation in the taste from year to year than you will out of California wineries for example,” Utberg said. “California typically irrigates their fields because they don’t get enough rain. That way they control, very strictly, how much water their vines get so they can control how much sugar gets into the grapes, making it easier for them to make every vintage taste the same.”
“To make a reserve wine, wineries hold aside a certain batch of grapes, processing them differently at a different period of time in order to declare that crop of grapes the best of the best,” Utberg said.