A Case for a New AVA in North Carolina
July 28, 2009
With more than 80 wineries in the state, North Carolina is taking wine seriously, with a combined effort by state government, regional tourism bureaus, winery owners, grape growers, chambers, and associations to transform the state from its history of textiles and tobacco production to a future of tourism, wine and green industry. In the process, the Haw River’s polluted history of service to textile manufacturing was cleaned up to the point that visiting tourists from urban centers such as Greensboro are able to paddle along and stop for wine tastings on its shores.
But how did this relatively large area with only six of the state’s 80 plus operating wineries and some 14 additional growers get its own AVA?
There might seem to be lots of bigger, even better-known candidates both in North Carolina and certainly in other Southeastern states. (Georgia for instance, has only one
Catching Up to Do
North Carolina’s new Haw River Valley AVA includes a sizeable chunk of land in the very center of North Carolina. Vineyards are making a comeback in tobacco fields (though a few stands of tobacco remain), but It’s like starting over from scratch, since the vineyards of 70 to 80 years ago disappeared. Once an important center of North Carolina’s textile industry, the area was in fact planted to vineyards in the 1800s - Muscadines, primarily - which thrived until Prohibition when tobacco and soybeans took over. The Haw River runs south through the center of the AVA, historically notable for the large mills that dot its banks. The river, it is said, sometimes ran red, blue or yellow, according to which dyes were being used for cloth.
. Winegrowing today in Haw River Valley is experimental and proceeds by trial and error. As yet there are only 60 acres under vine, planted to French hybrids such as Chambourcin, native American varieties (Catawba, Muscadine, Norton), but increasingly to vinifera grapes (Merlot, Sangiovese, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc). The climate is warmer here than in the higher elevations of the Yadkin Valley AVA to the west. The soil is fertile and deep, laced with minerals (principally iron); some parts of the valley have sandier soil, particularly in the south. Muscadines do particularly well here.
Currently - and especially since the river has been reclaimed and cleaned up - the region is best known as a tourist destination for North Carolinians. Historic towns along the Haw River, such as Saxapahaw and Mebane, offer a bucolic quaintness that draws bikers, kayakers and tourists. Wineries in the Haw River Valley make the most of the tourist trade, featuring attractive tasting rooms and picnic areas, hosting musical events and wine festivals. Among the most popular events are Paddle Dinners, which combine canoeing on the Haw River with catered dinner and wine tasting.
Only six wineries are officially designated in the AVA: Grove Winery, Iron Gate Vineyards, Benjamin Vineyards, Silk Hope, GlenMarie and Wolfe, as well as several growers who sell grapes. Dick Carstens, vineyard manager at Grove Winery (currently the region’s largest producer at 3500-4000 cases annually), has had several inquiries about grapegrowing prospects here. “I had a fellow the other day from New Hampshire”, said Carstens, “wanting to know about starting a vineyard in this area and asking about the different vinifera varieties that will grow here.” The new AVA designation will likely promote even more interest.
~ Barbara Ensrud
Technically, the TTB states that to be granted an AVA a wine-growing area needs to demonstrate that its history, climate, soils, elevation and geographic history are in some way unique and that the wine consumer would want to know this when purchasing a product from the area. Thus, a consumer can expect certain quality, reputation or taste characteristics from the grapes grown in the area. The petition, over 100 pages long, had to address this and many more concerns.
“We waited two years from the date of filing,” McRitchie said. “And there was another year of preparation before that. We were uncontested, or it could have taken much longer - or it could have been denied.” She also handled the petition for North Carolina’s second approved AVA, Swan Creek, which is within the Yadkin appellation.
Margo Knight Metzger, Executive Director of the North Carolina Wine & Grape Council, feels the AVA was granted because the wineries and vineyards in the region were able to make a strong case that their region is unique.
“They proved they are making quality wines,” she said. “Now, when a consumer sees the designation on the label, they can feel more confident about buying the product. Geographically, North Carolina has a very diverse landscape with a wide variance in climate and soil types. Wines produced here are likewise extremely diverse in character. That’s why AVA designations are so important - to help the consumer understand a wine’s sense of place. “
“A wine grown in the sandy soil of the coast is going to be dramatically different from a wine grown in the Piedmont or in the mountains. The announcement of the new Haw River AVA gives additional credibility to our state’s burgeoning wine industry. Haw River is the state’s third AVA, and we expect several more to be designated in the next few years. Each is a feather in the cap of our industry, which has made great strides recently in gaining recognition as a wine state.”
What made the designation credible to the TTB is a bit more technical. In summary, the McRitchie filing for Haw succeeded in convincing the reviewers of the following:
Unique Geography Evidence that the proposed area has geographical features such as climate, soils, elevations and other physical features that distinguish it from surrounding areas. McRitchie petitioned that 98 percent of the proposed AVA lies in the watershed of the Haw River Valley and shares common connections of the above attributes.
Name Recognition and History Current and historical evidence that the area is locally and/or nationally known by the name specified in the petition is a requirement. For this, McRitchie provided evidence that the name Haw originated with the Sissipahaw Indians living in small villages along the river before the arrival of the Europeans in the 16 Century, and the n