The road is two-lane all the way, winding through the gently rolling landscape of North Carolina’s Piedmont region. The view is a widely spaced mix of modern homes and old farmsteads with deep Southern porches, most surrounded with impressive acreage. The only sign you are entering wine territory are the marching rows of grape vines trellised in almost perfectly spaced intervals.
In spite of that, you would never mistake the area for California’s Napa Valley, another winemaking region at the opposite end of the country. The greens are much greener, the architecture distinctly Early American. The trees –deciduous rather than evergreen – are just beginning to flame in fantastic shades of red and orange and gold.
The Yadkin Valley
This is the Yadkin Valley, north and west of Winston-Salem. It is North Carolina’s first federally recognized American Viticultural Area (AVA), and you are just in time for a first pressing of Viognier, an intensely aromatic wine grape with the sort of bouquet many experts call “terroir” (the characteristic taste and flavor imparted to a wine by the environment in which it is produced).
In addition, the Piedmont/Yadkin Valley climate does not, according to expert agronomists and vintners, “…pose as great a risk of vine winter injury to Merlot (and other desirable but delicate vinafera species) as would be the case in Virginia.” Prime grape-wine growing territory indeed.
As a result, the Valley contains almost 40 wineries and about 400 acres devoted to vineyards. Your destination is another graceful, turn-of-the-century Victorian with deep porches on three sides and a classic wrought iron fence.
The wine? Visitors say it rivals anything from the Napa. No need to mention French wines; America has already proved itself equal in that venue. In fact, with less than 1/8 the total EU land area devoted to wine, the total value of United States’ wine sales still tops $37 billion. In North Carolina alone, the value tops $30 million.
Owning a Vineyard in the Piedmont
If you are thinking of starting your own vineyard – and why wouldn’t you? – there is no better place to start. The battle, against pests, precise soil conditions, and winter frosts, will nowhere be easier than in the Yadkin Valley of the Piedmont: the balance of sunlight and moisture nowhere more beneficial.
The first thing you will need is expertise. Subscribe to, and read, publications like the North Carolina Winegrape Grower’s Guide, which deliver practical information about site choice, soil testing, and the best varieties of wine grape in terms of ease and production. Also, make sure you understand the ins and outs of both active and passive frost protection systems, and hire or work with a professional who can advise you on the best methods of preventing or mitigating Pierce’s Disease. This latter is perhaps the single greatest threat to wine grape cultivation in the Piedmont today.
Choosing the Grapes
Don’t let fear of failure limit you to one type of wine grape, though. Choose varieties for their seasonal quality – early Chardonnay, midseason Merlot, late season Cabernet – and for their market demand.
If you plan to bottle your own wine, consider little-known, “heritage” vinafera species. Your North Carolina State University has a cooperative extension service that can help you determine current and projected wine grape prices, the buyers in this market, and current typical yields by wine grape variety.
It can also help you contact local growers and vintners who cooperate with the Extension and might be able to offer invaluable advice. It’s probably best not to go advice-hunting on your own, however. Remember, in many cases – especially where the grower is also the vintner – you will be competing with the very folks who advise you.
How Much Will It Cost?
When you finally succumb to the lure of the wine grape, your second-most important tool will be your checkbook. The average cost of starting a North Carolina vineyard is about $23,900 per acre (land, vines, trellis, chemicals, hourly wage if any, etc.). Add another $150,000 for the latest in processing and bottling facilities.
Most important, your vines will not produce for about three years, and will not reach maturity (full production) for 20. Expect to see modest profits in a decade. In the meantime, have an occupation or avocation that can tide you (and your family) over the rough financial spots.
Fortunately, the IRS recently acceded to deferring tax on combined vineyard/winery operations, but it would still be in your best interests to have them managed separately, if only because of liability concerns.
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