WINE RENAISSANCE UNDER WAY; Georgia's Wineries Hope to Harvest Growing Industry Vineyard Owners Want State to Become More Involved in Tourism Promotion

Article excerpt

Byline: VICKY ECKENRODE

ATLANTA -- In the state known for peaches, grapes once held a respectable edge.

But years before the national prohibition of alcohol (1920-33), Georgia said no to spirits and stomped out its wine industry for decades.

Now, the Georgia grape is poised for a comeback and fledgling growers in the state are trying to take the next step in promoting local vineyards to a rapidly expanding market of wine consumers.

Vineyard owners are hoping to get the state more involved in the effort, saying the properties can become a significant tourism asset like it has in other Southeastern states.

"The industry is certainly going to grow, there's no doubt about it," said Steve Gibson, president of the Winegrowers Association of Georgia and general manager of Habersham Winery in Helen, one of the first in the state to open after Georgia began allowing wineries again in the early 1980s.

"We know what a huge draw it can be in California and Virginia," Gibson said. "People travel to Virginia just to go to wine country."

Gibson recently gave a presentation about the potential for growth to members of the state Department of Economic Development board who were visiting Rabun County near the North Carolina border.

Even those officials, whose positions include keeping close tabs on tourism in the state, expressed surprise at the activity in the scattering of wineries tucked in the North Georgia mountains.

When Gibson began talking about getting some support to improve road signs along the state-designated "Georgia Wine Highway" directing travelers to properties, board chairman Phil Jacobs saw potential for a bigger focus.

"When you hear 'Napa Valley,' you think of a whole region," he said. "You need overall brand recognition rather than competing for individual wineries."

Whether the state actually takes a more active role in promoting Georgia's winemaking industry remains to be seen.

In other states, such as Virginia, where wineries have grown to more than 100, the state runs a wine marketing board and the agriculture agency has stepped in to help with product developments.

And in North Carolina, growers opened a store in the Charlotte airport where travelers can try wines grown in the state, which now boasts nearly 50 wineries. They are looking to expand the idea to airports in two other cities.

BECOMING BIG BUSINESS

For states, even those outside California and its sprawling wine country, the industry is becoming big business.

Every state now has at least one bonded winery.

"There is a renaissance of farm wineries in the U.S.," Gibson said. "Even North Dakota and Alaska have wineries."

From muscadine grape growers in South Georgia to the wineries in the North Georgia mountains that are beginning to grab attention for their European and French-American hybrid grapes, the state also is seeing it numbers grow, even though Georgia lagged behind many other states in reopening the door for wine production. …

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