Polk vineyards pursuing national recognition of Tryon-Foothills area

Published 6:24 pm Monday, February 23, 2009

There were 190 American Viticultural Areas as of May, 2008. American Viticultural Areas range in size from the Ohio River Valley AVA at 26,000 square miles across four states, to the Cole Ranch AVA in Mendocino County, Cal., at only 62 acres. The Augusta AVA near the town of Augusta, Missouri was the first recognized AVA, gaining the status on June 20, 1980.

When used on a specific wine label, an AVA specifies a geographical location from which at least 85% of the grapes used to make a wine must have been grown.

Lilly, who will soon earn a degree in winemaking and viticulture from Surry County Community College, owns a 10-acre vineyard, and is one of 18 grape growers in Polk County today. There are 125 acres of grapes in production in Polk County today, he said, and a total of 700 acres held by vineyard owners.

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Local vineyards have a great customer in the Biltmore Estate, which Lilly said is &dquo;the most visited winery in the world.&dquo;

Biltmore sells 500,000 cases of wine annually, Lilly pointed out, and pays top dollar, around $1,450 a ton for local grapes. Lilly said typically a vineyard can produce three or four tons per acre.

The recognition of Polk County as an AVA will bring sustainable tourist dollars to the county, Lilly said, with the designation promoted on signs, maps, in the regional and national press and on local wineries&squo; labels. Vineyards, which are typically open to the public, are great draws for visitors and wine-inspired festivals are common tourist events in AVA areas.

The Rockhouse Vineyards in Mill Spring already draw 3,000 tourists a year, Lilly said.

By promoting agriculture, the AVA designation will also help to preserve the rural character, and the open, green spaces of Polk County, Lilly said.

In addition, Lilly said the AVA designation will attract buyers looking for land to start new vineyards. Two Florida families have recently purchased farm land in Mill Spring, he said, and plan to start new vineyards there. There could be more buyers once the county is an AVA, Lilly said, accelerating farmland preservation efforts here.

&dquo;An AVA designation will foster pride in our community,&dquo; he added, &dquo;and vineyards have a real synergy with the equestrian community. There are several hunts which pass through area vineyards.&dquo;

Lilly said Polk County application for AVA recognition is a strong one considering that the heritage of grape growing here goes back to 1867, when the first vineyards were established, mostly in Tryon on the southern facing slopes of Warrior Mountain. The Doubleday Vineyard at one time included 19,000 vines on 198 acres. An historic sign on Hwy. 176 still points to the old Tau Rock Vineyard. Others were the Rankin/ Fuldner vineyard and the Vollmer vineyard.

Lilly&squo;s presentation included pictures of the remnants of local vineyards, the remaining structures and vines and signs, and even an old Vollmer red wine bottle with the label intact.

A French wine-maker, Alexis Lamort, was brought to the area in 1891, Lilly said, by either the Doubledays or the Biltmore Estate. Which entity had more responsibility for coaxing him over the ocean is in dispute, Lilly said, but Lamort did much to help make the vineyards in Tryon successful. Lamort is buried here, having never returned to France.

&squo;Tryon Grapes&squo; became famous. They were sold to the passengers on the ten trains which passed through Tryon every day, Lilly said, earning a national reputation even then.

&dquo;Tryon became synonymous with grapes like Milwaukee and beer,&dquo; he said. &dquo;&squo;Tryon Grapes&squo; were even on the menu at the Waldorf Astoria (in New York City) at one time.

&dquo;Tryon is an internationally known name,&dquo; Lilly said. &dquo;We have a richer history of grape growing here than many places in California and Oregon.&dquo;