Roanoke Island's Mother Vine is one of the oldest in the state. Photo credit: NC Culture
Grape vines have been an important part of North Carolina’s coastal plains and foothills since long before European colonists arrived and started planting vineyards. At the start of the 20th century, North Carolina was the leading wine-producing region in the nation, until prohibition destroyed the industry. Since the start of the 21st century, North Carolina’s wine and grape industry has seen explosive growth, with the number of wineries more than quadrupling in the last fifteen years.
With funding from the North Carolina Wine and Grape Growers Council, researchers at UNC Greensboro just released a strategic plan. The plan includes suggestions for how to keep the wine and grape industry growing at a healthy rate, while building a reputation for high quality products.
When the tobacco industry collapsed in the early 90’s, many farmers began to see grapes as a potentially lucrative alternative crop. North Carolina is now home to more than 140 wineries and more than 400 individually owned grape vineyards, employing almost 8,000 people.
The report recommends that wine and grape growers share innovative production methods to improve quality and eventually achieve zero negative impact on the environment. One way to do this is to continue heralding the merits of the native muscadine or scuppernongs grapes, which are relatively pest resistant and are bread to thrive in North Carolina’s hot and humid summers. These vines need few pesticides or fertilizers, making them one of North Carolina's most sustainable crop. These native grapes have incredibly high concentrations resveratrol, a chemical compound that research suggests helps prevent heart disease, cancer, alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and lyme disease. Some wineries have begun selling muscadine skins to nutraceutical companies for use in resveratrol supplements.
However, in more western regions of the state, many vineyards are successfully growing more traditional wine-making varieties of grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and Viognier. Even though some North Carolina vineyards are making wines that out compete wines from well-established vineyards in Europe and California, North Carolina made wines doesn’t even make up 1% of the wine that North Carolinians currently drink. This is both economically and ecologically costly, with some wine using fossil fuels to travel thousands of miles before it arrives at the final consumer. The report admits that North Carolina-made wine and grapes currently ranges from incredibly high quality to merely mediocre, and calls on wine-makers and grape-growers to work together to improve North Carolina’s wine-making reputation.
The report also suggests that vineyards work together to make North Carolina’s wine-growing regions more of a tourist destination. Though many vineyards already receive a substantial number of tourists, getting more people out to the wine-growing regions will create customer-loyalty, and create economic opportunities for local hotels, restaurants and tour companies. Duplin Winery, the largest winery in the south, recently completed its own wedding chapel. The winery can now accommodate as many as five hundred people for wedding ceremonies.
The report concludes with an appendix providing detailed analyses of costs and impacts of the recommended action items. If members of the North Carolina Wine and Grape Growers Council pick the low-lying fruit on the list, the state’s wine and grape industry can look forward to a bright future.