Published on 08/19/17

Beginning grape growers flock to North Georgia vineyard workshop by the bunch

By Merritt Melancon

For many wine lovers, running a vineyard is the ultimate dream job, but not many are able to make that dream a reality. 

At a recent Beginning Grape Growers Conference organized by University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, more than 70 new and would-be grape growers learned wine industry basics and the best ways to bring their dream jobs to fruition. 

Deborah and Josh Jones, a Greenville, South Carolina, couple who recently bought a vineyard from their mentors after making wine in their home for years, came to the workshop to seek a network of growers and to pick up some tips on new varieties to plant when they replace some of their vines later this year.

“There aren’t that many vineyards in South Carolina,” said Debra Jones, newly minted co-owner of City Scape Winery. “We don’t have the same resources or expertise in grape growing that you have.”

“We came here because (Georgia) has a similar climate and weather profile to upstate South Carolina,” said Josh Jones. “We’re coming to see what you guys are doing in Georgia.”

Most of the workshop attendees were from north Georgia, but west Georgians and residents of the Carolinas were also well represented.

The daylong workshop, hosted by Crane Creek Vineyards near Young Harris, Georgia, covered technical and business resources, site selection and cultural practices, and a primer on grape varieties that are the best for Georgia’s moist, variable climate. It also featured startup and war stories from successful Georgia winemakers.

Eric Seifarth, who started Crane Creek Vineyards in 1995 and now produces about 4,200 cases of wine a year, warned the new and aspiring growers that the vineyard business was not easy, but added that the time was right to pursue their dreams.

“I have been to a lot of new grape growers' conferences over the years and, most of the time, everyone there would fit at one table,” Seifarth said. “With the renewed interest in wine and the new expertise we have in the state, I wouldn’t be surprised if we have 100 or 125 wineries across the state in the coming years.”

You can’t be a part-time vineyard owner, he warned. The secret to success is to be devoted to your vineyard and to be really honest with yourself before you get started.

“If you want to make money growing grapes, you have to remember what industry you’re in. You’re in agritourism!” Seifarth, who is a retired military officer, said. “If you’re an introvert and you think you just want to spend your time growing grapes in solitude, you may want to reconsider.”

Crane Creek, like the majority of Georgia’s almost 60 wineries, relies on attracting crowds to its tasting rooms through wedding weekends, tasting parties, concerts and festivals. The wine business is one-part agriculture, one-part winemaking and one-part event planning and hospitality, Seifarth said.

About one-third of this week’s conference was dedicated to business development and business planning for agritourism endeavors, specifically farms and vineyards. While it can greatly vary, new vineyard owners usually don’ t see a return on their investment for 7 to 14 years after planting their first vine, UGA Extension state viticulturist, Cain Hickey, told the crowd

“Since planting grapes is a long-term investment, we wanted to help new growers get it right from the very beginning,” Hickey said. “We wanted to provide an opportunity for new and interested grape growers to learn about the challenges they will face and ways in which these challenges can be overcome.”

Brandi Peck, a civil engineer from west Georgia, who is planning on a second career as a vineyard owner, wanted guidance on building a strong, realistic financial plan for a new vineyard.

“I want to make sure that my concepts are good, and I’m planning it correctly,” Peck said. “I’m glad they’re spending so much time on the financials and cost estimates because I’m in the process of writing my business plan now. Not having any farming background, it’s hard to know what values to include.”

The first-time workshop was a success.

“I received immediate feedback from attendees," Hickey said. "Based on the responses, I feel attendees are now better informed about growing grapes and in a challenging climate. They are also now informed about how UGA Extension can help, and the necessary actions to take to have the greatest chance of success with their vineyard.”For timely information about grape growing guidelines and events in Georgia, visit the UGA ExtensionViticulture Blog 

For timely information about grape growing guidelines and events in Georgia, visit the UGA ExtensionViticulture Blog

Merritt Melancon is a public relations manager with UGA's Terry College of Business and previously served as a public relations coordinator for the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and UGA Extension.

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