Everything's grape in North Carolina

Published June 24, 2021

By Tom Campbell

As a proud born and bred North Carolinian I thought I knew a lot about my native state. That notion was disabused after our state’s unofficial “Goodwill Ambassador,” Phil Kirk, gave a talk on North Carolina’s wine industry. Who knew there were more than 200 wineries and 2,300 grape bearing acres producing more than 1.1 million cases of wine each year? North Carolina is sparkling as a major player in wine production, generating some $1.97 billion per year in economic impact and 10,000 jobs.
We have a vintage heritage, boasting the first cultivated grape grown in the U.S. Mother’s Vineyard in Manteo boasts the scuppernong grapevine dating to 1524. The first commercial winery started in 1835, the Medoc Vineyard in Halifax County and we were the leading wine producing state in the nation early in the 20th century. Prohibition wiped out the industry; our state was slow in repealing the ban, so we didn’t rebound fast, but by 1972 Duplin Winery opened, the largest winery in North Carolina and the South. From about 20 wineries at the turn of this century the industry has grown exponentially, both in numbers and importance.
Our soil conditions and a growing season of 150-200 days make our climate ideal. Eastern North Carolina is the worldwide leader in growing the sweet muscadine grapes used in scuppernong, sangria and rose wines. They love the hot, sandy coastal conditions. In the western sections the European style vinifera grapes yield cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, syrah, chardonnay and viognier. And lest you believe that the best wines come from the west coast, North Carolina wines have fermented a stellar reputation among connoisseurs and win ribbons in national competitions.
I was thirsty to learn why almost 2 million tourists a year come to sample and buy our wines. Looking at the map you figure out it would take the better part of a year to visit all 200, but as a first taste we decided to sample wineries in the Yadkin Valley and were fortunate to have experienced guides (our son and daughter-in-law) choose three from among the 48 in that region. Jones von Drehle was picked because of their focus on classic European (especially French) style wines, Raffaldini Vineyards for their Tuscan influence of wines and Shelton Vineyards, the largest family-owned estate winery in our state. Each had acres and acres of vineyards, inviting tourist centers for tasting, along with entertainment venues. Go to https://www.ncwine.org to learn more about the many other outstanding wineries from all sections of our state. Go see for yourself.
It was quite an experience being offered tastes from the wines each produced, enabling us to make side-by-side comparisons and decide which most pleased our palates. We learned a lot and had wonderful experiences, capped off by a concert from North Carolina’s premiere show band, The Embers. You won’t be surprised we left with many bottles to enjoy back home.
I admit I never appreciated the significance and importance of the spirit industry in our state. In addition to being 11th in the nation in wine production, we now have some 77 distilleries (second in the South) and 320 craft breweries and brewpubs (largest number in the South). Our growing reputation is attracting tourists from all over. Not only do these firms directly employ people, but they impact a number of other businesses including real estate, insurance, advertising, marketing, shipping, equipment distributors, bottling, boxing and labeling firms.
There are so many wonderful things to see and do in our state and this weekend reaffirmed my belief that we live in the best state in the nation. As we approach our nation’s birthday, we recognize our state (and country) has many challenges, but we also have much for which to be thankful and proud. Pardon the bad puns, but North Carolina is a grape state.