After two years of pandemic, Georgia vineyards are thriving

Visitors to Qualusi Vineyards in Acworth may be surprised when their GPS leads them down a cul-de-sac in a residential subdivision in suburban Paulding County, Georgia.

But once they drive down the gravel road from the vineyard, they’ll see rows of vines along the gravel driveway that leads to the tasting room and outdoor seating.

There, patrons listen to live music, eat at food trucks, and sip one of 11 Qualusi wines.

Owner Emilee Gilbert planted the vines in 2017 to add a new crop to the family flower farm. Gilbert’s is one of more than 60 wineries that make up a growing industry in Georgia – one of the few industries that has not only withstood the pandemic so far, but many say it has thrived as the people are looking for new outdoor activities, Taree Darby, executive director of Georgia Wine Producers, says.

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“It was a place where people felt safe,” Gilbert said. “We promoted a tailgate-style atmosphere, and that stayed with us today. People bring their own picnic blankets and lawn chairs, and we have places to sit with a glass of wine on field.”

According to the Georgia Department of Revenue, wineries paid $48.7 million in taxes and fees to public coffers in 2021. This is up from $40.1 million in 2017 and $42.7 million of 2019 dollars, just before the start of the pandemic.

This means that Georgia wine producers and sellers are selling more wine and more businesses have applied for licenses to produce and serve wine.

Georgia Wine Producers, the industry trade organization, estimates that the state’s wine industry supports more than 35,000 jobs, many of them in rural areas. Not all wineries have their own on-site vineyard, but many do and use the setting as a draw.

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Grapes grown on site, such as those surrounding the tasting room with rows of vines on wire trellises at Qualusi Vineyards, provide a visually appealing place for patrons to drink wine, although not all wineries use exclusively grapes on site. Some wineries import grapes or juice from other farms in and out of state because the grapes take several growing seasons to become viable for winemaking.

“The opportunity for agritourism and the opportunity for events is critical,” said Philip Brannen, a plant pathologist at the University of Georgia who has worked with Georgia wineries for 22 years. “When you have that, you bring in a lot of people, and it opens the door to people staying in hotels, going to restaurants, all the other things that maybe small communities don’t always have.”

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North Georgia has earned a reputation as a wine-tasting destination — the Dahlonega Plateau is the only U.S. wine-growing area (a designated wine region) in the state, receiving the title in 2018. However, Darby said she hopes to see more wineries across the state, rather than just the northern regions.

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“Wineries in South Georgia are rare,” Darby said. “If we could open more wineries there, we could have more of a North Georgia industry where you can take a day trip and visit two, three, five wineries in one day.”

Georgia’s climate can pose a challenge, which contributes to the lack of vineyards in South Georgia. While local grape varieties like muscadines are accustomed to Georgia, European grapes face heat and rainfall issues in the state, which can leave plants susceptible to diseases not prevalent in their ranges. of origin.

“We get late blight, which if you have a dry climate like California, you don’t see it,” said UGA plant pathologist Brannen. “But we also have powdery mildew, which is a dry weather fungus. We catch all the diseases that can occur on the grapes, which makes things difficult.

Due to South Georgia’s climate and the long growing period for the vines to be viable for winemaking, more vineyards opened in the mountainous areas of North Georgia.

Connie Baptiste, a restaurant chef from Locust Grove, is about to start a vineyard and winery in Sylvania in central Georgia, near where she grew up. She works with an expert to determine the best grapes to plant on her 44 acres of land.

Baptiste said she wants to bring jobs and tourism to the area and show young people that farming can be a good career.

“There are very few vineyards below Macon, so for me to step into this space to learn and be prepared to do that, I think I have the opportunity to change the trajectory and the look of this what a Georgian wine producer looks like,” she said.

Despite its growth and the resilience of the winemakers producing in South Georgia, the wine industry still faces challenges, especially for wineries located within the city limits.

Painted Horse is the only winery in the town of Milton in northern Fulton County. In addition to growing grapes that will soon be used for the winery’s nine wines, owner Pamela Borgel raises horses, cows and bees. The farm was established in 1994 and the tasting room opened in 2018.

Last year, the city imposed a moratorium on new wineries and limited the hours of operation of its tasting room. Councilman Paul Moore said the moratorium was passed because officials are revamping local codes and don’t want new wineries to open under rules that are likely to change.

But Borgel is not happy with the city’s approach. Under old codes, she was allowed to hold weddings or corporate events in Painted Horse, but revamped city codes mean that now any event must be related to agricultural activity.

“We make a living on our farm, and without the trade and without the ability to sell and be open the hours we need to be open and do the events we need to do, we won’t be able to do that,” said Borgel. “The town of Milton did not support the working farm aid.”

Despite the challenges facing winemakers across the state, Georgia Wine Producers expects the wine industry to continue to grow, Darby said.

The work of opening a winery can open the door for others to follow in the future. Qualusi Vineyards was Paulding County’s first winery, but the foundation laid by Gilbert in 2017 was already in place when Three Strands Vineyard and Winery opened nearby in 2021.

“It’s good to see that the job wasn’t just for us, and that other wineries will be able to follow us into the county,” Gilbert said.

Wineries benefit from being close to each other – people like to take a day trip or weekend trip to visit multiple wineries, so the more open they are, the more people will come to that area for the tasting rooms, Gilbert said.

Because each winery offers a different experience, having more offers a chance to build the wine community rather than inducing fierce competition.

“You can’t really compare yourself to anyone else,” Gilbert said. “It’s not like you’re opening another Arby’s or something, where you can see what works. It’s unique, and that’s why no one really competes. Everyone is different .”

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