- Associated Press - Sunday, November 2, 2014

BUTLER , Tenn. (AP) - Wayne Gay is one of a kind. His Watauga Lake Winery is the only commercial producer of wine in the highlands of Carter and Johnson counties.

But Gay does not wish to remain unique. He is hoping a proposed federal wine-producing designation for the region will be approved and more wineries will be attracted to the area. Such designations are officially called an American Viticulture Area and are made by the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

Gay is not afraid of competition. He said the best wine-producing areas have so many wineries that a thriving tourist industry develops, with wine trails attracting connoisseurs to the region.

Some of the most famous are in Napa County, California, and New York’s Finger Lakes region.

While Gay is the only winery from Tennessee that would be in the proposed AVA for now, he said there are also wineries in Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Mitchell and Watauga counties of North Carolina and Grayson County in Virginia that would be a part of the region. The region would be known as the Appalachian High Country AVA.

One important requirement is that the grapes must be grown in vineyards above 2,000 feet in elevation. In addition to the elevation, Gay said extensive studies have shown the large area has many other shared characteristics, such as soil and climate. All of these similarities should come together to make the wines produced here distinct and identifiable to consumers. There would also be a distinct AVA mark on bottle labels to identify the wine as coming from the Appalachian High Country.

“It should take about 6-8 months until we get the decision from the government,” Gay said.

While this is a new venture for Gay, it is just one of many remarkable events in the multifaceted life of this renaissance man. As a young man, Gay seemed destined for a career in the federal government. He worked in Florida with the Army Reserves and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. That changed when his wife, Linda, started her own import business in Tampa. It was so successful Wayne changed careers and joined her. They soon became successful in the furniture retail business in Central Florida.

As the successful entrepreneurs began considering retirement, they took a fateful business trip to the North Carolina furniture region in 2002. During the trip, they drove over to Johnson County and were impressed with the area’s topography, reminding them of the northern Italian countryside they had come to know so well from their import business. They saw a for sale sign on 37 acres of land at an elevation of 2,350 feet near Watauga Lake. They made the deal that day and soon were preparing to build an Italian-style villa at the summit of the property.

But the Gays’ plan for an easy retirement went awry in 2005, when Wayne decided to try wine making as a hobby. His results were so exceptional that his friends kept encouraging him.

“Some men take up collecting, or fishing or become interested in another woman when they retire,” Linda said. “My husband took up winemaking.” He now has 4,800 vines growing in his vineyards, and Linda jokes that she will leave if he plants one more vine.

Winemaking became a business in November 2012, when Watauga Lake Winery went commercial. The wines were well received, and the 2012 vintages are nearly sold out. The winery produced 1,300 cases in 2013, and about 1,500 cases will be produced this year.

The winery produces a wide variety, from light and crisp whites to robust and well-balanced reds, as well as blushes and dessert wines. Each variety is named after a well-known locality in the region and each carries a black bear in different poses on the label.

The reds include Big Dry Run Red, Copperhead Hollow Red, Cracker’s Neck Red, and the award-winning Doe Mountain Red, which is the first to win a gold medal for the winery. The award was presented by Wines of the South in 2013. Doe Mountain Red is an intense full-bodied wine made from the Cynthiana grape.

Other offerings include the Stone Mountain White, the Forge Mountain Mist and the Villa Nove White, named after the winery’s own vineyard.

Another award-winner is Laurel Creek Surprise, a dessert wine that won a silver medal from the Wines of the South and another silver from Winemaker magazine.

With such distinctive names for such distinctive wines, Watauga Lake Winery is prepared to see the local high country stand tall as a national wine-producing region.

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