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What It Takes To Grow A Vineyard

North Carolina was once a top wine producer - until Prohibition killed the industry. But it's growing again. The North Carolina Wine & Grape Council says the state now has 186 wineries and adds about a dozen new ones a year. Dover Vineyards in Concord is one of those startups.

It's a sunny morning in April, Elizabeth Ann Dover is marking where she wants workers to dig holes for new vines.  

"46 ... 50 ... 54 ..." she says as she measures. 

She's adding a two acres of grapes to the four acres she's been farming for seven years on the old family farm off U.S. 29, about two miles north of Charlotte Motor Speedway

As two workers use a power auger to dig holes, she gives instructions to others.

“Some are marked with pink wrappers, some are marked with green wrappers. Cut the green wrapper ones loose … and you can bring them and put one in every hole,” she says.

At 31 years old, Elizabeth Ann Dover definitely isn't a traditional farmer. She has a degree from Davidson College, where she studied medieval Spanish and the roots of conflict between Christians, Jews and Muslims. She once dreamed of a foreign service career.

That changed after she graduated.

"There is no clear story. I just woke up one day. Honestly, I saw a special on PBS about people planting vineyards in North Carolina, and it looked like a good challenge and something I could do,” Dover says.

It wasn’t just an idle thought. Dover went back to school and did her homework on the new venture. She studied horticultural science at N.C. State and winemaking at Lincoln University in New Zealand. She also worked a season at two wineries in Australia.  

In 2009, she planted her first vines. After trial and error, including a couple of vine-killing winter freezes, Dover settled on two main grapes  - Chambourcin for red wine and Villard Blanc for white. And she's experimenting with others.

Whit Winslow, head of the North Carolina Wine & Grape Council, says Dover is like many in the wine business.

“A lot of folks have a passion,” Winslow says. “This is what they wanted to do, or it's a lifelong dream and it's finally coming to fruition. Some of them are well-financed from the start. Some are pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.”

It’s not cheap, and it takes a lot of hard work – and patience, he says.

“A rough estimate's about $15,000 per acre, just to plant your vines. And then they're expensive to maintain, and it's several years before you actually get any good fruit off of them to make your wine from. So you're just spending money for several years before you actually have a chance to make anything,” Winslow said.

Credit David Boraks / WFAE
A sign in the field promotes an IndieGoGo campaign to raise money for Dover's expansion.

  Dover and her family are financing most of the expansion themselves, though she also raised a couple of thousand dollars using a tool new to most farmers - an online IndieGoGo campaign, which she promoted in a video.

“So what are the perks of your investment with us?” she asks viewers. “Well, you can get a bottle of wine, a case of wine, or a gift certificate for vegetables. So please consider the good that you could do with your money and how you could change North Carolina wines for the best. Thanks.”

It's not a business where you can sit back and watch your money grow. Dover also supports the winery by growing vegetables on another six acres.

And she works a second job, at RayLen Vineyards in Mocksville. That’s also where she produces and bottles her own wines.

In late May, Dover celebrated the release of her first bottles of Villard Blanc with a party at Wanda’s - the family thrift store in Concord.  

She told us about the newly opened white wine: “This is 2015. So it’s a little lighter ... more full bodied than a Pinot Grigio, but not as complex or distinctive as a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.”

Dover has sold between 275 and 600 cases a year of all its wines. She’s persuaded a few stores and restaurants to carry the wines, and also sells at area farmer’s markets. But she’s always looking for more.  

The North Carolina Wine & Grape Council says it takes a half-dozen years to generate income from a startup winery, and even longer to turn a profit. Dover wants her vineyard to work as a business, but it's about more than that.  

“I like putting a stick in the ground and then four or five years later drinking something that came from when I put a stick in the ground. Like real creation and progress,” Dover says.

“And making something that's delicious. I enjoy the product that I make. Which is great ... I don't think I would enjoy making Twinkies or something like that,” she adds.

Elizabeth Ann Dover and her crew will harvest this year's grapes in about eight weeks. Next year, she hopes to open a market and tasting room at the vineyard, on the site of a current farm stand.


The Farm at Dover Vineyards website - http://www.thefarmatdovervineyards.com/\

N.C. Wine & Grape Council - http://www.ncagr.gov/markets/ncwine/

David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.