Kiwanis club wades into wine debates

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At the Oct. 14, meeting of the Roxboro Kiwanis Club at La Piazza restaurant in Uptown Roxboro, the club was visited by a group from the Raleigh Kiwanis Club.

One of the Raleigh club members, Phil Kirk, a former lobbyist for the wine industry, spoke about the wine business in North Carolina. He reminisced about serving with Person County native Gordon Allen in the legislature in the 1970’s. Kirk indicated he is a deacon in the Baptist church and was hired some years ago by several wineries to go around the state making speeches to civic clubs and other groups.

He recalled that his first speech was to the Rotary Club in Statesville, and joked that his remarks were so short that too much time was left for questions to which he did not know the answer. Kirk said that the first cultivated grape in North Carolina was discovered in the 1500s in Dare County. The state’s first winery was founded in Halifax County in the 1850s and North Carolina led the nation in wine production before prohibition.

Duplin Winery was started in 1972, making it the oldest continuous winery in the state. In 1986 there were six wineries in our state. When Jim Graham was agriculture commissioner, he began the Grape Commission, which is now a part of the Department of Commerce.

North Carolina is now the 11th largest wine producer in the U.S. Its economic impact is almost $2 billion and the industry employs more than 10,000 people. The largest area for wine production is the Yadkin Valley. The amount of wine consumed is greater than beer consumption. Kirk indicated that Surry County Community College was the first to offer a degree in viticulture.

North Carolina residents can buy wine through the mail, which was not always the case. Directional signs on highways to indicate the location of wineries have been authorized by the legislature. Kirk pointed out that these are not paid for by taxpayers, but by the wineries themselves. He referenced the commonly held concept that wine making requires a great deal of capital.

Biltmore has more visitors than any winery in the country. The top three grapes grown in our state are muscadine, chardonnay and cabernet, and North Carolina is number one in muscadine production. The state is also in the top five states for wine tourism.

Wages paid totaled $375 million last year in the wine industry. Other segments of the economy that benefit from wine sales include real estate brokers, insurance agents, vendors for all the chemicals, advertisers. Kirk stated that N.C. geography is good for grape growing, as is our soil composition and rainfall average. Ninety percent of N.C. wineries are classified as small business, defined as those producing less than 5,000 cases per year.

James Sprunt Community College now has a viticulture program, as does Appalachian State University. UNC-Chapel Hill is involved with studies on the effects of wine on cancer and heart disease and N.C. State University has some dedicated staff to assist those growing grapes. Kirk asserted that North Carolina wines are now recognized for their quality, and they have won some national and international awards.

There is not much wine exported from N.C., but consumption of wine in the far east market has increased.

Kirk also provided some Biblical references to wine, as well as a quote from Thomas Jefferson extolling the value of the fermented grape.

Medical research shows that wine may reduce the risk of cancer and some other diseases, including dementia and Parkinson’s, as well as Alzheimer’s disease. Of course, Kirk emphasized that the key to health benefits is moderation.

There is some debate about natural versus synthetic corks. Wine sales are so large worldwide that there is a shortage of natural cork, which is only available in the Mediterranean. Kirk contended that wine with screw top bottles should not be considered as inferior, and these in fact keep it fresh longer.

According to Kirk, North Carolina must continue to improve quality and debunk the myth that its wine is inferior. We must get more NC wine in stores and on restaurant menus, and more funding for viticulture research is important. He encouraged club members to visit wineries and think of N.C. wine as a gift giving option. visitncwine.com is the statewide website for promotion of the industry.

Kirk closed by noting that most vineyards have wedding and conference facilities in order to supplement sales revenues. Shipment of wine across state lines has expanded in recent years and is regulated on a state-by-state basis.

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