More than a century ago, North Carolina was well known for being the country's largest wine producer in the nation. Prohibition eventually closed down most of that industry, leaving a few producers who made sweet wines from muscadine grapes. But in recent years, producers of red and white European-style wines have sprung up all over the Tar Heel state. Over the last five years, the number of wineries across North Carolina has doubled to nearly one hundred.
This month's cold weather hasn't slowed down work at all at Grove Winery, just seven miles outside Greensboro. On this weekday afternoon, employees are hosing out equipment in a big warehouse full of enormous stainless steel tanks that is the winery. Owner Max Lloyd says he's getting ready to filter what will become his next white wine.:
"We use the stainless steel tanks for letting any of our juices and wines settle, and then some of the white wines- most of the white wines are aged in stainless steel.."
Lloyd strides over to a corner of the warehouse and pushes up what looks like a small garage door.
"So we've got a couple dozen oak barrels here, almost all of them are European, either French or Hungarian…"
The barrels are huge, and expensive. But they add a complex flavor to his tempranillos, merlots, and a reserve cabernet sauvignon that's Lloyd's pride and joy. He hasn't been a winemaker for very long- in fact, Lloyd produced his very first bottle just five years ago. He's a former tech entrepreneur who says growing up he never dreamed he'd own his own winery someday.
"What really sort of made the light bulb go off is I spent some time out on the West Coast working in Sonoma, and was able to hang around some of the wineries out there."
Lloyd's workdays ended at 3 o'clock. As a connoisseur of good food and wine, he says he couldn't help pestering local winemakers to show him around.
"We were drinkin' cabernets and zinfandels and merlots that today would be over a hundred dollars a bottle, and that was right when Sonoma was starting to get started, it looked very much like the Haw River Valley does today, it was mostly agriculture, there weren't all the tourists there yet, so it was a really good time to learn. So I see that same process going on here."
Lloyd chose to locate his winery in the Haw River Valley. The area is now one of three national American Viticultural Areas in the state- they're special grape growing regions that are unique in their geography. And state officials are pleased about the industry's development.
"The interesting thing about the exponential growth that we've seen in North Carolina wineries is that it has taken literally no investment from the state to grow this infrastructure."
Lynn Minges is an Assistant Secretary with the state Department of Commerce. She says new winemakers like Max Lloyd are driving that growth:
"They've literally have done this from the grass roots up. So these are individuals, entrepreneurs, who've followed their passion, their dream, they've used their own money, they've gotten no benefits from the state whatsoever. They've gotten no incentives for growing grapes, or growing their products, they've done this all on their own."
National experts confirm the state is a good place to grow grapes. A recent study puts the annual economic impact of North Carolina's wine industry at eight hundred ten million dollars per year. State officials say the next step for North Carolina's wine producers is to work on raising the quality of their products. And that's happening, slowly but surely. John Gladstone is the General Manager of Grove Winery:
"When I first started five years ago, there were very few restaurants or wine shops that would even be willing to taste your wines. And if you got in you had a lot to prove before they even tasted the first wine. And now everyone is getting more open minded to North Carolina wines."
Grove Winery recently struck a deal with Fresh Market to sell its products. Many other state wineries are doing the same with retailers. That's good news for an industry that's still growing in the Tar Heel state. But for people who dream of opening their own winery, Grove's owner Max Lloyd recommends caution.
"A winery's a horrible investment. You'd do much better to put that money in a savings bond paying one or two percent in interest. It's a horrible business but a great lifestyle. So no one should get into this industry to make money."
But Lloyd says it's a career that fits him perfectly- as a person who loves food and wine and is willing to work hard.