Risky agri-business

Standing guard: Sam, a Jack Russell and border collie mix, keeps the deer and turkey away from the fruit. Photos courtesy of Addison Vineyards.

“Vineyard work is farming, plain and simple, and weather is always a consideration in agriculture,” says Jeff Frisbee. Frisbee and his family own Addison Farms Vineyard, an Appalachian Grown farm in Leicester. And since Western North Carolina (and much of the rest of the nation) experienced a mild winter this year, all of Addison’s varieties of grapes — from cabernet sauvignon to Montepulciano — budded by mid-April, making them susceptible to a late spring frost.

Though that early budding was atypical, growing grapes presents unique agricultural challenges, weather-related and otherwise.

“It takes three growing seasons before the vines produce fruit, so the lag time from investment to revenue is pretty long,” he notes, estimating that it takes eight years to break even on a vineyard. “Any MBA would tell you, it’s a poor investment choice.”

That might explain the reaction his father and mother, Eddie and Maleada, had when he announced the idea in 2008. “They thought I had lost my mind,” he recalls. They know the risks involved with any agricultural enterprise firsthand, having raised Jeff and his brother on Maleada’s parents’ farm — the site of Addison Farms Vineyard — along with cattle, tobacco, a handful of chickens and veggies.

But Jeff was undeterred. After college at North Carolina State University and eight years in Atlanta working in telecommunications (during which he was laid off twice), it was time to return. “My wife, Dianne, and I had been talking about trying to find a way back home, and a vineyard and winery had been one of the ideas we discussed. The layoff was the kick in the pants to do something about it,” he says.

Jeff’s parents warmed to the idea. In fact, Eddie planted the first 600 vines himself in the spring of 2009; they applied for federal and state approvals soon after, becoming the state’s 98th bonded winery in June 2010. Now, everyone is involved. Jeff is the official winemaker, Maleada helps with bookkeeping and Dianne handles design tasks from the logo to labels. And Eddie still manages the vines nearly every day, along with the rest of the family, who pitch in for pruning.

“Working the land my family has worked for four generations, and working with my family to grow the fruit and make the wine, are some of the most rewarding parts of this venture,” Jeff says. “That’s exactly why the MBA would be wrong.”

He comments on the beauty of the vineyard and the special moment of tasting the sweet fruit come September — which brings him back to the weather concern.

Depending upon nature’s behavior the rest of the month, it’s likely that Addison Farms Vineyard will have very little fruit, and it’s even possible they may not have any fruit at all this year. “That would mean we would have to find fruit from other growers, and most likely set back our growth plans for the winery by at least one season,” Jeff says. That’s the bad news.

The good news: This year’s harvest won’t have an impact on whether or not they open their brand-new tasting room, on which they have already broken ground, and which is scheduled to open this summer.

“This July would have been my maternal grandfather’s centennial birthday, and since the vineyard is named for him, it would be a great way to celebrate his life and our grand opening together,” Jeff says.

The planned tasting room will keep regularly scheduled hours for sampling their selection of wines, as well as be available to host weddings, receptions and corporate events. They completed their first crush with fruit purchased from the Yadkin Valley in 2010, and they’ll be bottling their first wines from there in the next month or so. Their initial portfolio will include a 2011 Gwinn, a white wine blend of traminette and chardonnay that pairs nicely with fish, roasted pork or chicken. They’ll also have a dessert wine, a 2010 chambourcin, finished in the port style. That particular bottle will pair well with chocolate or be a great finish all by itself, they say.

As of now, how the harvest will finish is up in the air — though the future of the winery is not. The Frisbees plan to grow the vineyard a little each year, with the goal of 10 acres under vine by 2015 in order to produce 2,000 to 3,000 cases annually.
Only three more uncertain springs to go…

Addison Farms Vineyard is located at 4003 New Leicester Highway. For more information, visit http://www.addisonfarms.net.

— -Maggie Cramer is communications manager for ASAP. She can be reached at maggie@asapconnections.org or 236-1282.

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