North Georgia Wine and Tourism

The current economic slowdown has increased the importance of the North Georgia wineries to our mountain economy!  As construction and real estate have slowed, tourism has become our most important economic engine and vineyards and wineries provide fuel for that engine.
Early this year Georgia Power commissioned Janus Economics to conduct in depth Community Economic Development Assessments of 13 Georgia counties.  Rabun County was the first county selected and on February 10th Robert Pittman of Janus Economics presented findings from the study to Rabun County Commissioners and citizens at the Rabun County Courthouse.
The assessment showed that tourism is now the biggest job generator in Rabun County but its potential is not being met.  The study recommended that the marketing message and program for tourism, retirees, manufacturing, service, etc. should be consistent and synergistic.
In the last decade the number of wineries in Washington State increased 400 percent attracting two million annual visitors to Washington’s wine country.  An article on tourism states that beginning in May there are no hotel rooms available within 60 miles of Walla Walla because of tourists visiting the wineries.  The wine industry contributes $3 billion to the state’s economy and provides 15,000 jobs.
With the recent growth in popularity of pinot noirs the value of Oregon’s grape crop has increased 27.6 percent to $46.7 million in recent years according to the Salem Statesman Journal.  The wine industry and related businesses provided 8,479 wine related jobs and $203 million in wages.
Closer to home, one only needs to travel in our neighboring states of North Carolina and Virginia to see that wine tourism is not exclusive to California and the West Coast.  Virginia now ranks as the sixth largest wine producing state in the U.S. and Travel and Leisure magazine lists Virginia as one of the “top five new wine travel destinations in the world!”  Last year Virginia won one of only 12 Mercury Awards from the U.S. Travel Association for their marketing of Virginia wines.  In announcing the award, Governor McDonnell stated, “Tourism is one of Virginia’s most powerful industries, generating billions in revenue for our economy.  Our wine industry is a key part of what attracts visitors to this state.”
North Carolina is also listed as one of the top five state destinations for wine tourism activities. The winery at the Biltmore Estate in Ashville, North Carolina, receives more than one million visitors annually and is the most visited winery in the United States.  More wine is sold on the premises of the Biltmore Winery than at any other winery in the world.
Annual wine related tourism expenditures in the US today have reached $3 billion with 27.3 million winery visits each year.  A recent Travel Industry Association study indicates that as many as 60% of U.S. leisure travelers are interested in taking a culinary or wine related trip in the near future.  These travelers are looking for wine quality, a variety of accommodation styles and price ranges, associated regional crafts
and merchandise, and a range of events such as fairs and festivals.
Any of us who have visited Napa Valley or Sonoma Valley will instantly recognize the impact the North Georgia wine industry can have on tourism in our North Georgia mountains.  Gary Vaynerchuk, a host on winelibrarytv.com says, “I believe there is the potential for every state to make world-class wines.  Remember, 30 years ago, no one was interested in wine from California.”
The Georgia Farm Winery Bill was passed in 1983.   By 2002 Georgia had about 200 acres of vineyards with a sales value of $6 million – to that add gift shop sales, hotel rooms, food, etc. Today wineries and vineyards are spread throughout the North Georgia Mountains with Habersham Winery, Sautee Nacoochee Vineyards and Yonah Mountain Vineyards located in the Helen Area;  Blackstock Vineyards, Cavender Creek Vineyards & Winery, Frogtown Cellars and Wolf Mountain Vineyards & Winery near Dahlonega;  Crane Creek Vineyards just outside of Young Harris and Persimmon Creek Winery, Stonewall Creek Vineyards and Tiger Mountain Vineyards in Rabun County.  In addition, there are small tasting rooms and vineyards located near Ellijay, Helen, Dahlonega and Clayton.
According to the Carl Vinson Institute at UGA, winery acreage has more than tripled over the past five years with ten new vineyardsand six new tasting rooms.  This expansion has created 334 new jobs and is expected to contribute $585.4 million to the Georgia economy during the next 20 years.  Revenues to local governments in each of the eight “Georgia Wine Highway” counties will average $482,000 annually.
Stephen Smith, Tourism Director of the Dahlonega-Lumpkin Chamber and CVB, says  “From mid-March through Mid-November, there is a steady line of traffic coming up Ga. 400 from Atlanta.  About half the visitors to our visitor center inquire about wineries. People come up here and see the vineyards and the setting, and the beauty of the area and say, ‘Gosh, I’d love to get married here.’ This has become a destination wedding area.”
Mike Brown, Executive Director of the Winegrowers Association of Georgia, reports that close to 700 visitors participated in the Winter Wine Highway Weekend in December and over 1,500 travelers enjoyed the Spring Wine Highway Weekend in March.  North Georgia wineries have seen a 35% increase in visitors this past quarter as compared to the same quarter in the previous year.  Wolf Mountain Vineyards & Winery reports that this has been their “best year ever” and the Helen area wineries also report that both their numbers of visitors and sales are up for 2010. North Georgia’s growing wine industry is a magnet for tourists in our mountain communities and is a major contributor to our economic future.  Wine tourists spend money at our local hotels, restaurants, and businesses.  By supporting the wine industry in our North Georgia mountains you are supporting our local economy and creating jobs for our workers.
Leckie Stack
Winegrowers Association of Georgia