Dr. Dave Lockwood, a long-term faculty member of the University of Tennessee’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, surveyed the various plots of land that Carroll farmers are hoping to convert into vineyard space next year.
While grape development isn’t rocket science, he said, it does take year-round dedication and a certain amount of patience. After the seeds go in the ground, it’s usually between three and four years before any grapes appear.
“With vineyards, like any long-term crop, you want to make sure you do a good job getting the soil ready before you plant,” Lockwood said. “The soil, the pH, the nutrition. You need to look at the types of grapes that are adapted to this area. That’s what we’re going to focus on. What kinds of grapes grow well here and don’t have weaknesses like susceptibility to certain types of insects and diseases? It’s not hard to grow a crop of grapes, but it is something you have to stay with pretty much year-round. You have insects and diseases in summer. You prune in the winter, and hopefully you’ve got a harvest in the fall to go along with it.”
It’s largely unknown what kind of grapes will grow well in Carroll County, though muscadines have long flourished in the region.
The Vineyard and Winery Association of West Georgia, which was formed about four months ago, has generated local interest, with about a dozen people committed to beginning their own vineyards at the start of 2011, said Doug Mabry, a consultant with the county who is spearheading the effort.
One of those interested, farmer Brian Kent, said that by cultivating a vineyard on his property, he hopes to be paving the way for the future of agriculture in the county.
“We have a cattle farm here, and it’s a matter of trying to plan ahead. It’s a way to get your foot in the door,” he said. “There’s history behind these grapes going back to the late 1800s, and it’s neat to bring it back.”
Carroll County was once one of the biggest wine producers in the country. In the 1890s the area was known as the “Napa Valley of the East.” Bulgarian and other Eastern European immigrants developed a massive local industry that at one time touted 1,500 acres of vineyards. But in 1907, prohibition went into effect, and the local industry never really recovered.
Local development of vineyards could possibly lead to a cooperative winery.
What is known is that the market is there.
For the farmers, a vineyard provides a sustainable crop that also increases the value of the land itself, and a feasibility study conducted by the University of Georgia Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development paints an even broader picture of a local winery’s economic impact. The study, completed in 2009, concluded the county could support such an industry, as it would draw from a 75-mile radius. The county market area would include much of metro-Atlanta, representing more than 5 million people.
Not all of these people are of legal drinking age and some don’t drink wine, but according to numbers from The Wine Market Council, those who do drink wine do it liberally. On average, Americans drink 3.2 gallons of wine a year, and when broken down by the number of wine drinkers in the market area and the average amount of disposable income, estimated retail sales for wine in Carroll County comes to $5.7 million.
But the possible impact to the local economy doesn’t end there. Wineries are big business, Mabry said, and it’s not necessarily because of the wine they sell. Wine-related tourism has always been a cash cow for areas typically known for their wine production, like northern California, and there’s no reason Carroll County couldn’t reap the same benefits, he said.