North Carolina Wines Rise as Tobacco Declines


Nov. 26, 2006 — -- For years, tobacco was king in North Carolina. The leafy plants thrive in the state's rich clay and used to provide a reliable payday at harvest.

But the war on smoking -- lawsuits, new laws and higher taxes -- has left farmers looking for alternatives.

"Tobacco was going down and down," says Frank Hobson, a farmer in Boonville. "We wanted a plan B to keep the farm agricultural so we wouldn't have to sell it off to building developers."

He decided to give grapes a try. He figured the fertile land of the Yadkin Valley in northwestern North Carolina would grow most wine grape varieties.

He was right, and the Yadkin Valley is now the state's first federally recognized American viticultural area, home to 400 acres of vineyards.

Frank Hobson and his wife Lenna opened RagApple Lassie Vineyards in 2000. Named after his prize calf, the winery hosts 500 people a week and sells cabernet sauvignon, pinot gris, zinfandel, chardonnay, merlot, syrah and a grape that won't even grow in California's renowned Napa Valley -- viognier.

Wine is not going to replace tobacco in North Carolina anytime soon, but the state's viticulture industry has exploded. In the last six years, the number of wineries in North Carolina has tripled, bringing in tourists from all around the world. They come for the wine and the small-town feel.

"Going to a winery in North Carolina is different from anywhere else," says Margo Knight of the North Carolina Wine and Grape Council. "You're going to get a truly North Carolina experience with southern hospitality and really unique wines. And the people you talk to are probably going to be the owners."

And it's not just wine growers who are benefitting from the boom.

Hannah Holyfield saved a century-old family home by turning it into the Rockford Inn Bed and Breakfast. She says she probably wouldn't have made the investment if it weren't for the growing number of wine tourists.

Robin Hester and her husband Thurman started a second career with their B & B.

"Ninety-seven percent of the people visiting our Sobotta Manor are coming to tour and visit with the local wineries," she says.

Karen and Dominic Payson opened a European style bakery called Strudel's to give tourists a break from all that wine tasting.

And innkeeper Twyla Sickmiller bought a limousine on eBay to take guests on wine tours. She says they're good customers because they have money to spend.

"You have the people who drink soda pop and you have the people that drink wine," she says. "One pays 89 cents for the bottle of Coca-Cola and $15 for the bottle of wine. Now, which one do I want? I like the $15-bottle-of-wine people."

It's taking others some time to get used to making money off wine-drinking outsiders. After all, this is the Bible belt and the home of the real Mayberry.

But times, they are a changin'. In May, locals voted to kill dry laws when they realized the wine industry pumped $317 million into North Carolina's economy last year.

North Carolina's wines are winning awards domestically and holding their own against the world's best. Frank and Lenna Hobson hope those wines will continue to draw people to "Yapa," as they like to call their Yadkin Valley. The goal is to make it a must-see destination like California's Napa Valley.

After all, they point out, no one ever traveled here to look at their tobacco fields.

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