For North Carolina’s wine industry, watching what happened to craft beer must be like watching your kid brother become a rock star.
Still, while the state’s 159 wineries don’t command the shelf space in stores that local beers are enjoying, they’re pulling in plenty of sales and attention as major players in state tourism.
Whit Winslow, executive director of the N.C. Wine & Grape Council, a 10-member commission that’s part of the N.C. Department of Agriculture, says that wineries bring in enough money to make it a thriving business.
It’s actually bringing more to the state economy than beer, he says. The last economic impact statement, in 2009, showed wine was a $1.28 billion industry. They’re preparing the next statement now, based on 2013 figures, and he says it’s now $1.7 billion, compared to an estimated $791 million for beer.
“North Carolina has a lot of great players in the wine industry that contribute regionally as well as nationally,” he says. “A lot of wineries are smaller, boutique wineries that focus on smaller production and focus on their home regions.”
Ten years ago, before beer broke into the stratosphere, the growth of the state’s wine industry was grabbing headlines. With a history that dates to the earliest explorations of North America, sweet wine from native muscadines was a thriving business here until Prohibition. Then, starting in the 1980s, it took off again with the vinefera grapes that create dry wines.
N.C. wine still shows healthy growth, according to Winslow. The state now has four of the agriculture regions defined as American Viticultural Areas – Haw River Valley, Swan Creek, Upper Hiwassee Highlands and Yadkin Valley.
The state has always treated wine as both agriculture and tourism – you go to the wineries when you want to go to the country. Visiting is a big part of their business, but it’s also one reason it hasn’t gotten the retail support of beer, says Margo Knight Metzger. Now the executive director of the N.C. Craft Brewers Guild, she used to have the same job at the wine commission, and she still works with wineries at events.
“Breweries have the benefit of operating in urban areas,” she says. “It’s a whole lot easier to attract an audience when you’re on Main Street than when you’re growing grapes on a hillside 20 miles from the nearest post office.”
Still, she says, while there is plenty of growth potential for wine, “it doesn’t mirror the growth potential for beer.”
Part of the issue with the attention for wine has been uneven quality. With just a few ingredients and batches that are finished quickly, beer makers can hit their stride a lot faster than wine makers who have to spend a year, at least, growing and creating a vintage.
Even though craft beers can be pricey, they’re also more affordable than wine, so consumers are more willing to try them, Metzger admits.
“A North Carolina wine is expensive to produce – they don’t have the economy of scale.” A bottle of N.C. wine in a store might be $15 or higher while a similar bottle of California wine at $12.
The best way N.C. wineries find audience is at the winery, among the vines, says Metzger.
“That’s where the magic happens,” she says. “That personal transaction is so important.”