Uncorked: European grapes grown in North Carolina get a different treatment than in Europe By Ed Williams Special to the News & Record Jul 1, 2020

Even in the best of times, gro­wing Euro­pean varie­tal gra­pes in North Caro­li­na is cha­llen­ging.

There’s aggres­si­ve spra­ying cam­paigns for bugs and fun­gus that make West Coast gro­wers blanch. Our gooey clay soils hol­ding water also sends Cali­for­nia gro­wers into paroxysm. Our aggres­si­ve pru­ning, hed­ging and leaf pulling lea­ves them scrat­ching their heads. There’s crit­ters to be caged out or cha­sed out of vine­yards that endu­re extre­me tem­pe­ra­tu­res and humi­dity during sum­mer days. Har­vest time often coin­ci­des with tro­pi­cal storm and hurri­ca­ne sea­son.

This year’s mild win­ter was follo­wed by March frosts follo­wed by a mid-April frost wallop. Accor­ding to a recent industry sur­vey — spotty and self-repor­ting — the impact was wides­pread and in some cases nearly devas­ta­ting to ten­der buds and young growth. Mother Natu­re sho­wed her mean streak this spring.

This coin­ci­ded with shut­te­ring wine­ries during COVID-19’s attack. Although sales tra­di­tio­nally slump in January and February, wine­ries rely on tou­rism and heavy con­su­mer spen­ding in March, April and May to balan­ce the books. Sure, the­re was curb­si­de deli­very ser­vi­ce but that can never make up for crow­ded tas­ting rooms and even more crow­ded music events and wed­dings on the grounds.

The 2020 eco­no­mic impact to this annual $2 billion industry and its 200-plus wine­ries has not yet been cal­cu­la­ted. When it is, the news can’t be encou­ra­ging.

After the sta­te lif­ted some res­tric­tions, visi­tors retur­ned to tas­ting rooms in May and June but tho­se wine­ries had to limit indoor traf­fic or they held tas­tings outsi­de — until two bands of sus­tai­ned rains cha­sed tou­rists away.

I visi­ted wine­ries around Memo­rial Day and chat­ted up owners and staff. Seve­ral wine­ries sha­red with me the unthin­ka­ble: Let­ting the gra­pes hang and rot through the sea­son.

Why? Becau­se if you’re already in the red — and then you run the num­bers in labor costs, bottling/labeling, the har­vest crews, the alchemy asso­cia­ted with fer­men­ta­tion — then return-on-invest­ment may be a mira­ge, only to hemorrha­ge more money.

Most N.C. wine­ries are small moms & pops with limi­ted acrea­ge, ope­ra­ting on razor-thin mar­gins. Most can never reach the pro­duc­tion sca­le of even medium-sized wine­ries much less the sale-pri­ce-points of Gallo, Con­cha y Toro, Case­lla (Yellow Tail) or Cha­teau Ste. Miche­lle.

Last gro­wing sea­son, accor­ding to many reports, was glo­rious for quan­tity and qua­lity. Here’s rai­sing a glass that it pro­du­ced enough still in tank or barrel to get most North Caro­li­na wine­ries through dark times. Some wine­ries, I fear, may be clo­sing their doors alto­gether.

A week’s vaca­tion in the moun­tains sends me scram­bling to pack enough wine to avoid the gro­cery sto­re in Ban­ner Elk. Among my stash is Domai­ne Bousquet’s recently relea­sed Natu­ral Ori­gins 2019 Caber­net Sau­vig­non and 2019 Mal­bec, pro­du­ced from orga­nic gra­pes in Argen­ti­na.

Pac­king for a week pla­ces a pre­mium on car spa­ce. The­se 3‑liter boxed wines ($20) easily slip into nooks and cran­nies. They also easily slip a pala­te — lus­cious for­ward fruit but with balan­ced aci­dity. Befo­re you get all snobby on me about bag-in-a-box wine, con­si­der: It stays fresh a month after ope­ning (a bottle of red goes south after two days); no cork pulling is requi­red; no glass to break; deli­very to glass is a snap; it ave­ra­ges out to $5 a bottle or $1.25 per glass (good luck not paying north of $7 a glass in a res­tau­rant); and in this case — fea­tu­ring a Tree of Life on pac­ka­ge — Domai­ne Bousquet’s new line tas­tes great.

Recent Niel­sen data sho­wed a sig­ni­fi­cant uptick in 3‑liter boxed wine sales. Stoc­king up during a COVID-19 pan­de­mic and qua­ran­ti­nes pro­bably infor­med that sales boost.


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