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Re-establishing Wine Grapes in West Georgia

Missouri wine industry helps University of Georgia expand trial vineyard

by Linda Jones McKee
Norton grapevines from the University of Missouri are planted Tuesday at the University of Georgia campus in Griffin, Ga.
Griffin, Ga.—Members of the Vineyard and Winery Association of West Georgia joined staff from the University of Georgia Tuesday in planting 20 Norton vines for a trial vineyard at the university’s campus in Griffin. Working on behalf of the Missouri Wine and Grape Board, the University of Missouri’s Grape and Wine Institute recently sent the vines to re-establish the grape and wine industry in western Georgia.

The vines planted Tuesday will be trained on a Geneva double curtain trellis. Norton vines received earlier from Chrysalis Vineyards in Middleburg, Va., are being grown on a Watson trellis system, a V-shaped trellis that was developed in Texas and increasingly is being used across the South. The Griffin vineyard currently has four other cultivars planted: Blanc du Bois, Lenoir, Lomanto and Herbemont.

The area west and south of Atlanta, Ga., is not presently known for its grape and wine industry—mostly because for the past 100 years there haven’t been any grapes grown or wine made in that region. In the early 1900s, however, western Georgia and eastern Alabama had 20,000 acres of grapes planted, and growers and winemakers shipped train loads of grapes and wine all over the country. Prohibition started early in Georgia (in 1907) and didn’t end until 1935, with the result that the grape and wine industries were completely shut down.

In 2009, leaders in Carroll County were considering a potential revival of the grape and wine industry as a part of a larger sustainable agriculture initiative. The fledging Vineyard and Winery Association of West Georgia was set up and had almost 60 members within its first four months. Today the association has 200 members from 35 Georgia counties and 10 states including Alabama, Florida, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

Doug Mabry, executive director of the association, told Wines & Vines, “We know we can’t grow vinifera, so we’ve been looking for grapes other than Muscadines that will grow here. Pierce’s disease is a problem, so we’re planting hybrids and native varietals.” Mabry, known locally as Carroll County’s “unofficial historian,” has researched the grapes planted in the 19th century in west Georgia and discovered that Norton grapes were planted at that time on the Griffin campus, where they are now being re-introduced.

The Vineyard and Winery Association of West Georgia works with cooperative extension agents to conduct workshops that offer specific step-by-step advice to new growers from site preparation through planting, trellising, pruning, spraying and harvesting. “We bring in grape and vineyard experts from across the South,” Mabry noted. “We go from ‘how to plant’ to ‘Winery 101.’”

The region’s biggest vineyard, with 8 acres, had its first harvest in 2013. As more growers begin to harvest grapes from recently planted vines, Mabry is working on setting up a winery co-op as the next step in expanding the vineyard and winery industry in west Georgia. He has acquired feasibility studies from winery co-ops in Maryland and Illinois and would like to find other successful models.

The relationship between the industries of Missouri and West Georgia will continue, according to Jim Anderson, executive director of the Missouri Wine and Grape Board. “Our industry has seen consistent growth, and we’re happy to help the Georgia wine and grape industry move forward by sharing some of the lessons we’ve learned.”

Mabry is looking forward to a visit from Anderson later this month, and is specifically interested in learning more about how Missouri has made such progress. “I would really like to get an enologist and a viticulturist on board. We need to work on funding and get some percentage of wine taxes to support the industry.”

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