Tar Heel Tattler - August 2006

Yadkin wineries try to crush a festival
By Arthur O. Murray

It’s bigger, more established and has the better name. So why do some of the state’s leading winemakers want to put a cork in the North Carolina Wine Festival in favor of a new event that attracted only about a third as many people?

Simple, says Charlie Shelton, co-owner of Shelton Vineyards Inc. in Dobson. The event, held each June in Clemmons, isn’t focused enough on wine to suit him and some other members of the Yadkin Valley Winegrowers Association. The food, crafts and entertainment distract visitors from buying vino, he says. Plus, nearly two-thirds of the 15,000 who attended this year got free tickets from the Triad radio station that runs it.

No, the issue is power, says Tom Hamilton. He’s senior vice president and market manager of WSJS, a Winston-Salem-based AM talk-radio station that puts on the festival. He says Yadkin Valley winemakers want to control the event, at which 28 of the state’s 55 vineyards and wineries were represented this year.

The N.C. Grape Council, a state-sponsored trade group, launched the event in 1999, although it wasn’t held in 2000. The next year, Hamilton says, the council gave the radio station a one-time $9,000 grant to stage the festival. About 11,000 people attended, he says, adding that council officials were happy with the effort. Margo Knight, executive director of the council, confirms that there was a cordial relationship with WSJS through the 2004 festival.

Last year, the Yadkin Valley association withdrew after complaining that members were giving away nearly as much wine at tasting booths as they were selling. They also said the station was using the event to reward advertisers and promote itself. “We were the magnet that was drawing people there, but there were too many other places for them to go,” Shelton says.

This year, the council gave the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership $15,000 to start a new event — Salute! The North Carolina Wine Celebration — held two weekends after the original festival. Attendance was estimated at 5,000. Now, Knight says, the council wants the name back. “Our concern is that when people hear the name North Carolina Wine Festival, they assume, ‘That’s the one.’ ”

Hamilton says WSJS has spent nearly $500,000 since 2001 promoting the festival and has a registered service mark for the name. He thinks separate events will harm the state’s wine industry, which turned out $34 million of wine last year, ranking 10th in the nation. And he’s not about to give up the festival’s name. “I don’t think it’s somebody else’s name just because they want it.”