Originally created 06/11/04

Vineyards squeeze into state



JACKSON - After eight years of working the vines, Guy and Theresa Valentine are starting to taste the fruits of their labor in their dry white wine made from a diminutive Virginia grape and a sweet red from the tougher-skinned muscadine.

"This is a passion. Once you get involved, you don't want to let go," Mr. Valentine said.

But the couple admit that making a profit at their Valentine Sadgefield Vineyards is a challenge. Only certain types of hearty grapes and muscadines will thrive in the sandy soil of the Palmetto State, which the Valentines have learned by trial and error, watching as cold winters and rainy springs took a toll on the harvest of previous years.

And then there are the tiny, killer pests that make vine-to-bottle winemaking such a challenge in the South.

The Valentines make wines from muscadines, a thick-walled cousin to the grape, and a small white grape called vistis estavalis that originated in Virginia. When French vineyards were wiped out by disease in the mid-19th century, they turned to America for a supply of grapes that would withstand such ravages.

"In the 1850s, Europeans got a lot of the roots of these grapes and took them back to Europe and grafted them onto their root stock, making them more resistant to disease. That's another way we Americans save the French," Mr. Valentine said.

In Georgia, vineyards made about $3.5 million in production last year, but that's hardly a drop in the bottle compared with the poultry industry, which brings in $2 billion each year.

The number of vineyards in Georgia has not increased in the past decade, said Dave Abbe, director of the Georgia Department of Agricultural Statistics. But the state doesn't keep a tally of estates. In South Carolina, there are even fewer acres where grapes are grown and fewer than a dozen vineyards statewide.

Several of the vineyards around South Carolina are working together to form a winery association to interpret South Carolina law on wineries. In addition to natural pests, wineries in the Southeast have to compete with California wineries that can produce a wider variety of wines more cheaply and can sell them for lower prices.

Montmorenci Vineyards, started in 1985, was one of the first vineyards in South Carolina, marketing manager Stepheni Scott said.

"There's not a university in South Carolina that experiments with growing the vines, so they are able to tell growers what kind to grow," Mrs. Scott said. "So we're kind of on our own to learn that."

Reach Karen Ethridge at (803) 648-1395 or karen.ethridge@augustachronicle.com.

VINTAGE YIELDS

Georgia: 1,100 acres in 2002;
$3.5 million in production

South Carolina:
577 bearing acres in 2002;
no sales figures

Sources: Georgia Department of Agriculture Statistics and South Carolina Department of Agriculture Statistics