January 2011 Issue of Wines & Vines

N.C. Promotes Wine Tourism

Haw River AVA helps local industry transition from textiles and tobacco to winemaking

by Gregory D. McCluney
Haw Valley
Set amid 44 acres of winegrapes, Grove Winery & Vineyards is

located about 20 minutes from downtown Greensboro, N.C.

The wine industry in North Carolina, which now has more than 110 wineries, according to WinesVinesDATA, is rapidly becoming a big player in the wine business in the Southeast. A combined effort by state government, regional tourism bureaus, winery owners, grapegrowers, chambers of commerce and associations is attempting to transform the state from its history of textiles and tobacco production to one of tourism, wine and green industry.

One of the areas benefitting from these efforts is the Haw River Valley, now home to seven wineries: Grove Winery & Vineyards, The Winery at Iron Gate Farm, Benjamin Vineyards and Winery, SilkHope Winery, GlenMarie Vineyards and Winery, Wolfe Wines and Starrlight Mead. The Haw River’s history of polluted service to textile manufacturing has been cleaned up to the point that visiting tourists from urban centers such as Greensboro paddle along the river and stop for wine tastings and lunch on its banks.

In March 2009, after three years of waiting, Haw River was named the state’s third AVA by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). The seven wineries and 14 growers within the 868 acres of the Haw River watershed in the north central area of the state (including parts of six counties) are now approved to use the designations “Haw River” and “Haw River Valley.”

Patricia McRitchie, the attorney and winery owner who served as the point person throughout the petition process, said the Haw petition was primarily financed by a grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation (GLF). The North Carolina legislature created the GLF in 1999 to strengthen the state’s economy, especially agri-tourism and business development such as the North Carolina wine trail. Approximately $20,000 was spent on the Haw River petition.

According to Margo Knight Metzger, public relations manager for the N.C. Division of Tourism, the AVA was granted because its area wineries and vineyards were able to make a strong case that their region is unique.

“Geographically, North Carolina has a very diverse landscape with a wide variance in climate and soil types,” Metzger said. “Wines produced here are likewise extremely diverse in character. That’s why AVA designations are so important: They help the consumer understand a wine’s sense of place.”

The TTB states that to be granted an AVA, a winegrowing area has to demonstrate that its history, climate, soils, elevation and geography are in some way unique, and that the wine consumer would want to know this when purchasing a product from the area.

Name recognition and history
One TTB requirement is evidence that the area is locally or nationally known by the name specified in the petition. According to McRitchie, this requirement was not a problem.

“The name Haw originated with the Sissipahaw Indians living in small villages along the river before the arrival of the Europeans in the 16th century,” McRitchie said. “The name survived the new settlers and was noted in several sources of American history. Moreover, the ‘Haw River Valley’ is currently used by the area media today.”

Distinctive climate and common soils
Common climatic features in the valley include precipitation, air temperature and growing season. Using data from four weather stations throughout the valley, McRitchie established that the Haw climate is more moderate than in surrounding areas, and it receives more moisture than areas outside of the proposed boundary line.

The soil composition changes from north to south as the river flows southeasterly. The original soils of the valley, according to McRitchie’s soil scientist, were derived from intermediate volcanic rocks of the Carolina Slate Belt, which extends to and under the Atlantic Ocean. The Haw River rock dates back 700 million years, while Yadkin Valley to the west dates to 1.5 billion years ago.

“A wine grown in the sandy soil of the coast is going to be dramatically different from a wine grown in the Piedmont or in the mountains,” Metzger said.

Elevation and boundaries
Elevations in the new AVA are 350 feet in the southernmost section to more than 800 feet at the northwestern boundary, but the entire valley lies within the Piedmont Province near the fall line with the Inner Coastal Plain. To the west, elevations rise to more than 1,500 feet, and to the east, eventually they descend to sea level. The petition had to include specific boundaries supported by current United States Geographical Survey maps, and the natural terrain of the watershed gave the petition in this area of commonality.

Vintners in the area point to a more practical fact about the Haw River area: The geographic location allows them to grow and make both vinifera and Muscadine sweet and fruit wines. To the east, the sandy soil and climate is well suited to Muscadine, while growers in the west nearly meet the border and elevation in the Yadkin Valley, where vinifera grapes are well established.

Yadkin Valley, the first North Carolina AVA
For a flashback that puts the Haw River AVA in perspective, growers need only review the progress made in Yadkin Valley. In less than 10 years, Yadkin Valley has grown from a handful of small wineries to 30—including the Swan Creek sub-appellation, which includes five wineries. The area’s first winery, Westbend Vineyards, began making wine in 1988. There was no further activity for the next 10 years, until Charles and Ed Shelton recognized that the decline in tobacco farming might provide the opportunity to grow grapes instead. They purchased a struggling farm near Dobson and opened Shelton Vineyards in 1999.

In just two years, three more wineries emerged. Activity increased when the Yadkin Valley AVA was awarded, and between 2003 and 2009 the area added 25 new wineries.

“There’s a mystique to owning a winery that you don’t get from cornfields or tobacco fields,” said one local vineyard owner. “Getting that AVA really helped the wine business grow.”

Growing wine tourism
According to Susan Dosier, public relations consultant to the N.C. Wine and Grape Council and a former food editor at Southern Living magazine, the addition of the Haw River AVA opens yet another door for wine marketing in the state.

“One weekend is really enough time to complete the wine trail,” Dosier says. “Wineries save our farmland from development and encourage a connection with the land. Tourists will still pass a few tobacco patches in the area, but the Haw AVA enhances our state’s wine tourism product and brings hikers, bikers, float trippers, restaurants, festivals and, of course, wine tasters.”

As far as North Carolina’s future AVAs, McRitchie says it is too early to call. She believes, however, that Tryon in Polk County could be next, and then perhaps Uwharrie Mountain.

Gregory McCluney is a contributing editor to The Wine Report in Atlanta and also writes about wine and spirits for AirTran Arrival in-flight magazine and the James Beard Newsletter. He is a member of the International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association.

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