Horticultural Science Department in January 2001, he was thrilled to serve the state’s fledgling wine grape industry. But it didn’t take him long to discover it was not a job he could do from a desk in Raleigh.
So last December, Allen moved from the campus home of N.C. State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences to an office in the Burke County center of North Carolina Cooperative Extension, making that his base of operations.
From his new Morganton location, he is much closer to the vineyards and wineries of the state’s Foothills. A large part of the region recently received the federal designation of “Yadkin Valley Appellation,” identifying wines from the area as having a consistent character and quality.
For many years, Southeastern growers were discouraged from growing Vitis vinifera, or European varieties of grapes, because of their susceptibility to phylloxera, a root-feeding insect, and Pierce’s disease, a bacterial infection that is lethal to bunch grapevines. Muscadines and native American grapes made up most of the grapes grown in North Carolina because they are generally resistant to PD and phylloxera, respectively.
But new cultural practices, such as grafting vinifera vines onto pest-resistant rootstock varieties, made it possible for growers in North Carolina and other Southeastern states to revisit the idea of growing Chardon-nay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and other varieties of vinifera grapes.
In Surry, Yadkin, Polk and Stokes counties, as well as others in the Piedmont and Foothills, vineyard development has exploded. After years of decline, in 1997-98 the state’s vineyards numbered only 400 acres. Last year, that number had reached 1,120 acres, and Allen believes additional acreage planted this year brings the total to more than 1,200 acres, a three-fold increase in five years.
In 1999, the state claimed about a dozen wineries. Today, the number is 25, and 12 more are slated to open within the year, Allen said.
Allen grew up in Greenville, Miss. He earned a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from Mississippi State University and a master’s degree in horticulture, specializing in pomology, from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, where he worked as a fruit research specialist before coming to N.C. State. His specialty was apple tree canopy management, and he had started working with grapes as well.
In 1998, the University of Arkansas attracted Fresno State University’s Gallo Chair viticulturist Keith Striegler. Working with Striegler, Allen’s interest in grape production grew, and he began looking for a viticulture position.
Allen’s position at N.C. State originally included responsibilities for strawberries and grapes, but the strong demand for a viticulture specialist soon changed his job description. He divides his time training Cooperative Extension agents in the many facets of the wine grape industry and working with growers, many of whom are new to agriculture.
“There’s a lot of hand-holding, so to speak,” Allen said. “Many of those getting into grape production have no background in agriculture at all.”
Most North Carolina vineyards are small, roughly three to five acres. Vineyards are an expensive endeavor, costing as much as $8,000 to $10,000 per acre to establish, and growers will not see profits for at least three years, when vines begin to bear. It takes seven to eight years for growers to break even, if everything goes well.
Vineyards are labor-intensive, requiring eight to 10 hours per week per acre to maintain. Small vineyards cannot afford large equipment used by major growers, so most work on vines is done by hand. This year’s excessive rainfall has caused vines to grow vigorously, requiring additional attention from growers.
And finally, vineyards are not for the faint-hearted. Diseases, fungal infections, pests, rot and even weather can take a toll on production. This season’s damp, foggy mornings have been particularly hard on neophyte grape growers. Having gotten into grape growing during a four-year drought, many have never experienced the fungus and rot problems they’ve encountered this season.
“Diseases this year
have been unbelievable,” Allen said. “The bunch
grape crop may be down 30 to 40 percent. And the lack of heat this season won’t
generate a banner crop.”
Some like Jack Loudermilk, county Extension director and agricultural agent in Yadkin County, try to accompany Allen when he visits local growers to learn more. Yadkin is probably the state’s second in wine grape production, with 100 acres planted and two wineries in operation.
“With a new enterprise like wine grapes, there’s a huge learning curve,” Loudermilk said. “We act as a contact between growers and Andy, and we let him share his expertise.”
On an August morning, Allen’s phone is ringing early. A grower asks what to do about the mildew she’s found on her vines. Allen tells her to spray, but cautions that too weak an application can generate resistant organisms that will plague her vines forever.
The day before, Allen visited a site where a landowner wants to locate a vineyard. Using a computer program, he analyzed the site for elevation, slope, soil type and sun exposure.
This morning, Allen is visiting Larry Kehoe, president of the N.C. Winegrowers Association and owner of South Mountains Vineyard west of Morganton. A retired chemistry professor who planted his first vines in 1993, Kehoe has had much success with about four acres of grapes he manages himself.
Kehoe got started growing grapes when agents were still advising North Carolina growers not to plant vinifera grapes. Having Andy Allen nearby has been “like night and day,” he said. “When I have a problem, I could look it up on the Internet. But now, I can ask Andy, and he will tell me what to do.”
Kehoe uses a “ballerina trellis system” for his grapes. The system allows the vines to carry more shoots, producing more grapes by spreading out the vine growth. Allen is impressed with Kehoe’s vineyard site, which has good slope, elevation, good morning sun exposure and proper space for cold morning air to drift away from the vines.
“ He’s got the vineyard I wish everybody around here had, in terms of site and management,” Allen said.
RayLen Winery in Mocksville, about an hour and a half east, buys Kehoe’s Chardonnay grapes to create its “South Mountains Vineyard Chardonnay.” This year, Kehoe hopes to harvest four tons of grapes that will produce about 600 gallons of wine.
RayLen Winery and Vineyard, started in 2000, is much larger in scale, with about 38 acres of grapes. RayLen grows 10 varieties of grapes used to produce 10 wines, seven from single grape varietals and three blends. Several already have won national and international recognition.
Winemaker Steve Shepard explains the wine-making process, from harvest to bottling. Putting different varietals together, once fermented, is his favorite part of the job, he says.
“ When the grapes come in, you can tell what will make a good wine,” he said. “For wine blends, we’re looking for consistency from year to year.”
Shepard was instrumental in getting N.C. State to move Allen to the field. “Andy means a lot, with the growth in the industry happening here” he said. “We know he’ll come if we have a problem.”
A short drive away, Allen visits Forsyth County’s Westbend Vineyards. Westbend’s owners, Jack and Lillian Kroustalis, started growing vinifera grapes about 30 years ago, despite warnings that vinifera grapes could not be grown in North Carolina.
Today, the vineyard has 75 acres of vines, growing 12 vinifera varietals and three French hybrids. The winery turns out about 8,000 cases of wine each year. Like other nearby wineries, Westbend is developing facilities like a new patio area to attract tourists, along with its tasting bar and gift shop. There is talk of a restaurant.
Allen says that having several wineries in close proximity is good for the industry, creating a tourist destination.
Westbend winemaker David Morrison, who worked in a state with dwindling support for wine making, says having a specialist in the field is “wonderful, very helpful.”
It’s beneficial to the industry as a whole to have someone to go to, Morrison said, “but especially in a growing industry with new people coming in, someone like Andy is priceless.”