North Carolina Wines Rise as Tobacco Declines

ByABC News
November 25, 2006, 12:26 PM

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.