Tar Heel Tattler - October 2006

Global glut of grapes makes growers gulp
By Maggie Frank

The bloom may be off the grape in North Carolina. A worldwide wine glut left Yadkin Valley and other growers struggling this year to find buyers for their crop.

Not that they didn’t contribute to the problem. In 2001, there were 200 vineyards in the state, with 900 acres of grapes planted. Last year, there were 375 vineyards, with 1,300 acres planted. While Eastern North Carolina growers planted mostly native muscadine grapes, which are not part of the glut, others are growing European varieties such as chardonnay and merlot. Among them are farmers who had tired of the uncertainty connected with growing tobacco.

The increase in production, among other factors, had analysts predicting that North Carolina grapes from this year’s harvest, which began in mid-September, could fetch as little as $400 a ton, down from an average of $937 a ton in 2005. That could damage a burgeoning industry that contributed $79 million and more than 850 jobs to the state economy last year.

But Mark Friszolowski, who manages Childress Vineyards near Lexington, has another reason for the price drop: Most of the grapes aren’t very good. “Currently, there is a glut of mediocre grapes.” The winery grows only about half the grapes it uses and buys about 250 tons a year. Childress will pay at least $1,500 per ton when it finds a crop that meets his standards, Friszolowski says. Most Tar Heel grapes don’t.

The disbanding of the Old North State Winegrowers Cooperative in Mount Airy also fueled worries. It used grapes from 38 small growers to produce wine under one label, 38 Vines. Most of those growers were just learning the business, says former co-op member Tim Dowd of Flint Hill Vineyards in East Bend. The co-op ran out of capital in July before members had learned enough to produce consistently good grapes. But, Dowd says, “if you’ve got quality fruit, I think you can find a market for it.”

Even so, Flint Hill still is spending more than it makes, investing in equipment and outside expertise. “We haven’t gotten far enough in our business plan to see a profit,” Dowd admits. He hasn’t quit his day job as the owner of a machine shop. Low prices this year might not be enough to dissuade more farmers from planting vines. But, Friszolowski says, anyone caught telling farmers that grapes could replace tobacco as a cash crop “should be shot.”