SURRY COUNTY, N.C. — North Carolina is one of the largest wine-producing states in the country. Many old tobacco farms turned to producing grapes after the 1998 tobacco master settlement.
Surry Community College is teaching people how to break into the industry. Its viticulture and oenology program at Surry Community College started in the early 2000s.
Sarah Bowman is an instructor in the Viticulture and Enology Program at Surry Community College, where they teach the science and practice of both wine making and grape growing.
A lot of her students want to create their own vineyards and wineries. She teaches them hands-on skills on a 5-acre former tobacco field, which is now a vineyard across the street from the college.
“What I can tell you is that the highest concentration of vineyards and wineries in the state is in Surry, in Yadkin County,” Bowman said.
Bowman says the restrictions placed on tobacco companies after the 1998 settlement played a role in enabling the wine industry to take hold in the state.
The Golden LEAF Foundation, a nonprofit created after the settlement, has been working to increase economic opportunity in the state, including helping communities that once depended on tobacco to find new agriculture avenues.
“That particular crop was something that was falling out of favor. And farmers needed another source of income as they were transitioning out of growing tobacco,” Bowman said.
As the tobacco industry was declining, farmers switched to grapes, which are considered a high-value crop.
“Tobacco soil is typically somewhat sandy or poor in fertility, and that's one thing that vineyards may sort of seek out as a desirable site characteristic, especially in a humid climate like we have here,” Bowman said.
She says the North Carolina climate, lots of rainfall and well-drained soil on these old tobacco farms have played a big role in the industry's shift.
“And wine is a really great vehicle to be able to do that because it allows you to not just connect with the earth and the environment and other organisms, but it allows you to connect with people too, and tell the story about where the vineyard is, what the growing season was like, what varieties are being grown, how they're grown, and how that's all reflected in the wine,” Bowman said.
In Surry and Yadkin counties, agriculture is the No. 1 industry, and she says the college's classes provide a foundation for students who want to enter the wine industry. The students are able to sell and bottle the wine made during the program, enabling them to get the full experience of the wine industry.