While the beer industry continues to be a burgeoning boon for tourism in Western North Carolina, another fermented drink is increasingly drawing visitors to the region. The WNC wine industry has quietly accumulated about 30 wineries and vineyards over the years, many of which are open to guests and offer tours and tastings.
Peter Fland, president of French Broad Vignerons, an 18-member collective of regional wineries and vineyards, says great soil and climate, when paired with selecting the proper grapes, make the area desirable for winemaking. “Much of this region has a somewhat similar climate to the Finger Lakes in New York,” he says. “Our winemakers work in relatively small volumes. They may seem large to you, but they are relatively small, and because of that, they are able to very carefully control the winemaking process.”
The fruit of that labor is adding up in the form of tourist dollars spent in WNC. Wine and grape-related sales from area wineries and vineyards are estimated at $50 million annually, with much of that coming from people specifically visiting the region to tour wineries and vineyards.
Fland says that in spite of those impressive numbers, the region’s wine industry is still working on marketing itself. “Beer was not even here first, but they have garnered a well-earned reputation, and when you have over 9 million folks coming into an area annually, I do not see beer as a threat. We have to get our message out,” he says.
March is traditionally the month when wineries open their tasting rooms, says Fland. The Vignerons will kick off the tourist season this month by offering a variety of ways to discover WNC’s wineries, including train and bus tours.
The group has scheduled at least three train-based winery tours this year. The three-hour tours leave from the depot in Bryson City and wind through the mountains while passengers are served a three-course meal paired with eight regional wine samples. During the ride, each luxury coach is staffed with a host explaining the wines being tasted and sharing information about the wineries they come from.
This season, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad’s MacNeill Uncorked dining car, with which the French Broad Vignerons debuted the wine tours last spring, has morphed into a full, four-car train, dubbed the Railroad Reserve. The Sept. 3 tour will be pulled by a fully restored steam engine built in 1942.
FBV also offers four bus tours — three daytime tours and one in the evening — all focusing on different parts of Western North Carolina. The Catawba Valley 20 Tour, for example, stops at three wineries in the Morganton area, and the Evening Wine and Dine Tour offers a full French dinner and views of mountains and vineyards with samples of at least eight local wines. All bus tours include food. Charter offerings, including a bachelorette party and custom-designed tours, are also available.
Tours begin March 30 and prices range from $99 for bus tours to $129 for train tours. For more information about FBV, its members and tours visit frenchbroadvignerons.org.
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