What could be better than being snowed in for two days in Winston-Salem, with 100 or so of your favorite North Carolina winegrowers? That was the situation at the NC Winegrowers Association annual meeting, as a winter storm swept across the state in late January.
Many conferees, from wine growers to bloggers and exhibitors, came in on Thursday night ahead of the storm. Snow rained down on Winston’s downtown Marriott and Embassy Suites hotels all day Friday, but the precipitation had stopped by Saturday.
Unfortunately, the storm hurt Friday night’s signature conference event, the NC Grand Wine & Food Tasting at the Embassy Suites. Most of the wineries that signed up were there, but only a handful of chefs were able to bring their “food pairings” for the wine selections. Still, conferees enjoyed the wine and reception, while snow blew sideways down the street outside.
Saturday’s NC Showcase of Wines and awards banquet were excellent, and by then, others who could not travel on Friday had joined the group. It was a treat to share a table with Morgan Ridge Vineyards owners Tommy and Amie Baudoin, who brought many fine bottles of their red wines to share.
Despite the weather, it was a good conference. Some presenters, including NC State’s Dr. Hannah Burrack and UNCG’s Dr. Erick Byrd presented their slides remotely, and sessions went on with barely a hitch. Here are a few highlights and wisdom from the winegrowers conference.
Increasing the quality of NC wines
Producing high-quality wines in the state is important for the future of the NC wine industry, according to NC Winegrowers President Mark Friszolowski of Childress Vineyards. It was a theme that ran through a number of presentations, and several initiatives are already underway to enhance the quality of NC wines.
“High-end buyers won’t take us seriously until we produce high-quality wine at the local level,” Friszolowski said. “To increase the value of your farm and your business, we have to take this issue seriously.”
Friszolowski said he would like to see North Carolina adopt standards, like Virginia’s, requiring that North Carolina wines use a defined percentage of locally produced grapes, an issue he has raised with N.C. state Sen. Brent Jackson, head of the senate’s agriculture committee.
In addition, Friszolowski wants NC State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Science to commit its support of the industry. Viticulturist Dr. Sara Spayd will retire in September, and Frizolowski wants to make sure the college continues its support of the wine industry. At one time, the college had three positions devoted to wine – in addition to Spayd, the college at one time had an enologist and a muscadine extension position, based in Duplin County. Once Spayd retires, there will be no NC State researchers devoted to the wine industry.
Winegrowers Vice President Ken Gulaian told winegrowers about a new effort underway to ensure wine quality in the state – the Quality Alliance Program. The voluntary program provides wineries with a taste panel to detect flaws in their wine.
Launched in January 2015, the program has tested 86 wines and 71 passed the panel’s quality test.
Here’s how it works: Wineries submit two bottles of their wine to the quality program. Three trained sensory panelists taste the wine, looking for any taste flaws. If the wine fails the panel review, it is sent to a lab for analysis. Results of the analysis are provided to the winery, and those that pass, can place a quality assurance label on their wine bottles.
In addition, efforts are underway to launch the NC Fine Wines Competition a year from now. The competition’s gala will be held Feb. 18, 2017. Most of the competition categories will be for vinifera wines: red, white, rose, sparkling and dessert/port, as well as a “best hybrid” category. Award levels are double gold, gold, silver and bronze. In addition to the medals, gala and accolades, winners will be able to share with customers video vignettes about the winning wines.
Seasoned wine judge Linda King told winegrowers, “you have to have medals” and you have to put them where your customers can see them. Medals help tasting room guests to see the value of your wines.
King advised winery owners to first consider competitions close to home, like the Dixie Classic and NC State Fair competitions (though she has some reservations about the State Fair competition, which apparently won’t acknowledge who judges the wines). In choosing which competitions to enter, King advised winegrowers to consider the cost to enter, the number of bottles required and the location of the competition. East Coast wines generally don’t do well in California competitions, she said.
King is optimistic about the future of the wine industry. She told winegrowers that, “The quality of wine in this country has skyrocketed.” The same can be said for the quality of NC wines over the last 15 years.