- Associated Press - Thursday, September 17, 2015

LEXINGTON, N.C. (AP) - People who grow grapes in Davidson County are a pretty close bunch, and they recognize they are part of a rising industry in North Carolina.

In an area where agricultural roots go deep, growing and manufacturing of grapes and their subsidiary industries is beginning to bloom into a sustainable and profitable endeavor.

According to a recent study by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the wine and grape industry had a $1.7 billion impact on the state’s economy in 2013, which is an increase of more than 33 percent since 2009. Mark Friszolowksi, winemaker at Childress Vineyards, said the increase in the consumption of wine has allowed the grape and wine industry to flourish.

“North Carolinians are drinking more wine, there is no doubt about that,” Friszolowski said. “It is starting to shift. Just like America is trying to be more energy independent, it’s the same thing here. They want to keep more of the money local. We are starting to see that trend increase.”

In 1999, the Golden Leaf Foundation was established to transition North Carolina away from a tobacco-based economy. By 2003, the Yadkin Valley was designated as the first viticulture area in the state, including the northwestern quarter of Davidson County; all of Surry, Wilkes and Yadkin counties; and portions of Davie, Stokes and Forsyth. Friszolowski said when Richard Childress decided to build a vineyard in Davidson County, he wanted to support the local economy through jobs as well as subsidiary businesses and to be an example for other potential vineyards.

“When Richard wanted to make this investment, it was important that it would help the rest of the state,” Friszolowski said. “We knew to build the economics of the wine industry here, we needed a region, like Bordeaux, Napa Valley or Alexander Valley. No region is known by one or two wineries; they all have to be successful.”

In 2005, there were 48 wine producers in 28 counties in North Carolina. By 2015, the number had grown to 159 producers. Michael Zimmerman, owner of Julius Lindsay Vineyards in Welcome, is a third-generation farmer who switched from traditional agriculture to growing grapes. He said he chose grapes to preserve the farm for future generations and because of the growing interest in wine in North Carolina.

“I wanted something that I could plant to sustain and keep the farm for the fourth generation,” Zimmerman said. “At first, (grapes) was a tiny industry, but everything changed when Childress built his place in 2003. That made it possible for me to grow grapes and sell them. . Our business is growing every year. North Carolina will never be as big as California, Washington, Oregon or New York, and probably Virginia, but it is still a very viable industry.”

The one thing all growers agree on is the fact growing grapes is unlike any other agricultural industry. It takes years of commitment.

“You can’t just throw roots in the ground and grow grapes,” Friszolowski said. “Tobacco farming is a totally different animal than grapes, like the difference between plumbing and electrical. It takes years of commitment to develop a profitable vineyard.”

Although growing grapes is a singular industry, it exponentially supports the growth of dozens of other industries. Sid Proctor, owner of Weathervane Winery, said the grape industry is just like its product in the fact a single shoot can produce many different offspring.

“It works like the grape vine: It grows in all different directions,” Proctor said. “Subsidiary businesses have started to develop. We have our bottles out of Hendersonville, and we get our labels here in Thomasville and High Point. We can actually make our wine here, grow our grapes here and use all North Carolina products. The grape industry has also played a big, silent part of tourism dollars. It is unbelievable the people who come in from Ohio, New York, Florida and all across the nation to this little wine trail that we have started.”

The fact the grape and wine industry is growing in this part of the state can be attractive to other businesses. Tammy Absher, director of the Lexington Business and Community Development Office, said the wineries have a unique ability to bring other businesses and services along with them.

“We are starting to see an interest in wine shops, wine bars and similar businesses,” Absher said. “Craft beer, wineries and cideries are one of the fast-growing industries right now, and we are very fortunate to have these kinds of businesses in Lexington. Our location at the southern end of the Yadkin Valley wine region has been very beneficial. . Entertainment, wineries and microbreweries are found in communities that are growing. They are big indicators that there is interest here and things are picking up.”

But no other industry has a bigger impact on the grape and wine industry than tourism. According to the report by the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, roughly 1.7 million people visited North Carolina wineries in 2013 and spent over $257 million. Wine, grapes and related industries account for 7,709 jobs in North Carolina with an associated payroll of roughly $260 million. Most of these jobs were in the tourism industry.

Robin Bivens, director of the Lexington Tourism Authority, said visits to the local vineyards and wineries are becoming more frequently requested and continue to make an impact.

“Visiting wineries is something that folks are always looking to do,” Bivens said. “We are fortunate to have one of the largest wineries (in the state), with Childress Vineyards, but we also have others that are all different. Because they are all different, we can take the same person to all the wineries, and they can have a different experience at each of them. There is a lot of indirect spending that might lead you to eat somewhere else or shop somewhere else, so all of that lends to those tourism dollars. The wineries are good business for us.”

Although the grape and wine industry is making positive inroads, there are still some stumbling blocks to overcome. One important factor is it is still illegal to sell wine or fortified spirits in Davidson County outside of the city limits of Thomasville and Lexington. There is a referendum on the 2016 ballot to allow the sale of alcohol in Davidson County. There is also a question of the content rule to require only North Carolina grapes in North Carolina wines.

Zimmerman agrees there needs to be legislation to support local growers. He said it is logical to use local produce in a local product.

“It is important to us as growers. It would be nice to have some support from the state,” Zimmerman said. “Those of us who are growers think it makes a lot of sense to have North Carolina wines using North Carolina grapes.”

The impact of grapes on the local economy has become more evident as each year goes by. Gov. Pat McCrory named September as North Carolina Wine and Grape Month. The N.C. Wine and Grape Council will sponsor Grape Day at the State Farmers Market in Raleigh and also will hold the annual N.C. State Fair Wine Competition for amateur and commercial wine producers. Several local vineyards are also holding special events.

Proctor said since the decline of “King Tobacco” in North Carolina, grapes and wine have become a major player without losing the down-home charm of the growers themselves. He says what makes the wine trail so appealing is every vineyard and winery is different.

“We pride ourselves in having award-winning wines without the attitude,” Proctor said. “We want to make it a pleasurable experience for them no matter what level of wine experience they have. People are now more open to wine and how it benefits the body. North Carolina has also done a great job at marketing the wine to the general consumer. The good thing is everyone around here works extremely well together, even though each has their own personality.”

Friszolowski said he believes this is only the beginning for the grape and wine industry in the state and the region. He is looking forward to watching the Yadkin Valley Wine Trail become a mecca to wine lovers throughout the United States.

“The industry is growing and growing very rapidly,” Friszolowski said. “I look at all the opportunities that we have in the future. It is going to grow in the state; we are seeing a lot of people passing through from Michigan, Ohio, Canada and Pennsylvania. We are becoming a regular stopover for people coming to the beach, and a lot of our wine club members are from out of state. We are happy to see the impact our industry had made on the local economy.”


Information from: The Dispatch, https://www.the-dispatch.com

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