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Turn Tobacco to Wine

There's an elaborate mural painted behind Kevin Moore's wine bar, here in his rambling, 28,000-square foot winery he practically built with his own two hands. The painting is of a field, of rounded red clay furrows and rows upon rows of greenery, each angled for a perspectival view. At one end of the field, the rows are made of green grape vines, curling in an unruly fashion right off the end of the wall. And on the other end, they're the broad-leaved, gold-tinged vert of tobacco plants.

"Blending the old with the new," the winery's slogan reads, describing the horticultural evolution of Moore's Hurdle Mills, N.C., land.

And it's true. When Moore turned his family tobacco farm into Rock of Ages Winery and Vineyard last year, he broke with the old-the decades his grandfather and cousins spent churning up hundreds of acres of Carolina clay, priming it for the state's most infamous cash crop. And though Moore, 46, made a living for himself as a rock and quarry man-still does, he says proudly, the inside of his winery outfitted with more marble than a Roman bath-he grew some tobacco himself on the side.

As for the new, more than 200 acres of his family farm now grow grapes-a dozen varieties and counting.

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So where does that put the tobacco farmer and granite-hawking man's man?

Decanting Chianti for a couple in matching Fair Isle sweaters-that's where. Or topping off a bespectacled oenophile with an extra splash of muscadine wine, a Southern staple. Oh, and he's over there, too, jogging over to his wife Kimberly behind the cash register, helping her ring up organic artisanal crackers and festive wine accessories.

"You'll be able to taste the spices in this one. They come from the Hungarian oak barrels that we age it in," Moore says of a shiraz one day in late October, the opening day of Rock of Ages. "And there's a hint of cherry at the end of this one," he says, swapping bottles and, with a quick bend at the waist, sending red liquid streaming into a proferred glass.

Moore looks ironed and efficient, his red vineyard workshirt standing away from his body in starched newness. He is trim and tanned, with pale blue eyes and a mustache. The only evidence of his tobacco-farming days is the faint dirt-darkened perimeter around each of his perfectly oval fingernails.

"The fun thing about getting into making wine is that there's an art to it-a lot of creativity," Moore says. "In Italy, you have Chianti. From Australia, shiraz. France, you've got the heavy bordeaux. What are we going to be known for in North Carolina? It takes a lot of time and research, figuring out what grows well here."

Moore isn't the first to convert-the leaves that line Tobacco Road are changing, and moreso every year. And the farmer-turned-vintners making that change are a unique breed in an American industry fraught with a yuppie, California-or-bust image.

Legal trouble for the cigarette manufacturing industry translated into a decline in local tobacco farming throughout the late 1990s, and some small-time tobacco farmers became disenchanted with the business. Though the state's Department of Agriculture still cites tobacco as one of its most profitable and important crops, production-at 350 million pounds statewide in 2004-is less than half what is was ten years ago.

Meanwhile, grape-growing and wine-making are growing at explosive, unprecedented rates, with more former tobacco growers seeing viniculture as an alluring alternative. Moore said at his own last count, there are now 57 wineries in the state, with more to open in the next few months. Last year, the state industry ranked 10th nationally for wine production, producing 600,000 gallons of wine valued at $34 million.

Wineries and vineyards first sprang up in concentration in the state's Yadkin River Valley, just north of Winston Salem. In 2003 the government designated the region an American Viticultural Area-meaning a geographically bounded wine-producing place with unique terroir. Eighty-five percent of the grapes in a Yadkin Valley wine must come from the federal appellation in order to carry the AVA stamp.

"Yadkin Valley has been incredible for our state," says Emery Pike, a musician from Winston Salem and wine connoisseur, at the opening of Rock of Ages. "You see huge buildings with gravity drainage systems, hundreds of acres of wineries. On the East Coast, there's nothing like it."

Vineyards are appearing now in the northern Piedmont region of the state, where Moore is based about 30 miles north of Durham. His is the first vineyard and winery to open in Person County, better known for its granite boulders and-you guessed it-tobacco farms.

"We had to be turning a profit of between $5,000 and $6,000 an acre to justify keeping it as farming land," Moore says. "We knew grape growers were getting around that. I'm just glad it's worked out as well as it has."

But small farms like Moore's-laughably diminutive compared to its sprawling cousins in the northwestern United States-are not going to see the same kind of profit margins with grapes that they saw with tobacco. Where the money lies is in creating both the goods-the homey sweetness of bronze muscadine wine, the tantalizing dry refreshment of a chilled fumé-and the ambience. Luring throngs of thirsty customers out to Rock of Ages promises to be far more lucrative, Moore and others say, than commercial production alone. Right now, the wines Moore is starting to produce will only be available on the Rock of Ages premises, and the only retail expansion planned for the immediate future is to a few local restaurants.

"There's not much money in just growing grapes," says Gene Strikeleather, a Mebane, N.C., native who recently turned his 60-acre tobacco farm into Irongate Wines with the help of his wife Betty. "But all brides like to be out here, with weeping willows, the sun setting on the pond, soaking up views of the vineyard.... It's great for selling wine."

The implicit romance, Strikeleather says, is tremendously marketable. His quaint northern Piedmont farm hosts year-round events geared toward the weak-kneed, from horse-drawn sleigh rides in the winter to bluegrass concerts and dances in June.

The constant? Plenty of vino-and a price tag.

Strikeleather might know his stuff, but he's no turtlenecked cork dork. He can't tell you that he agonized over finding a Mouton Rothschild-esque label design- "I think we hired a graphic guy to do that," he says absently. He doesn't wax nostalgic about the days before the wine world's ubiquitous 100-point ratings system made the game a little less sexy, less mysterious, less commercially unpredictable. He doesn't swish his glass around in your face, bleating vino-speak about hints and legs and bouquets.

But in his tight black Wrangler jeans, a faded denim workshirt and a cowboy hat, he can talk to you all day about root grafting, topsoil acidity and keeping the dad-gum birds off his fruit.

"I had to put a net over the whole thing to keep them out, and I now have 100 percent protection from the birds," he says with a self-satisfied grin. "It's damn hard to make wine when the grapes are on the wing."

Strikeleather spent the bulk of his life in the fencing business, farming tobacco on the side, while his wife worked for a mom-and-pop heating and air conditioning business. They started to operate Irongate as a joint venture about four years ago. Gene plants, grows and harvests the fruit; Betty turns it into wine and keeps the books. The husband-touted brains of the operation, she studied viniculture at a nearby community college and learned the practical skills of trade by working as a "cellar rat" at friend's neighboring winery.

"They made her do all the grunt work, learn how to get a winery up and running," Gene laughs. "She was developing a palate with help from an international judge and expert, but she was also coiling hoses."

Just a few years along, the pair is already reaping the benefits. Wines out of Irongate-particularly the chambourcin and the cabernet sauvignon-have garnered awards in southeastern and international competitions.

Still, turning tobacco into wine is more complicated than shoveling the same dirt over a field of different seeds. Strikeleather and Moore both say the skills needed to be good vintners are different than those needed for any other crop.

"They're both agricultural pursuits, yes, but with tobacco you pretty much knew what variety or plant you were planting every year," Strikeleather says. "With grapes, you very much have to make up your own mind.

"Just because you're a successful tobacco farmer does not mean that you will be a successful producer of grapes," he adds. "Both plants need the same soil, but running a vineyard is not a weekend pursuit. It's a heck of a lot of work."

The difficulty of viniculture comes through when North Carolina wines are sampled. Some are quite good-three Yadkin Valley vintages, at last count, garnered reviews in prestigious trade publication Wine Spectator. But others are not so good, betraying at first sip the greenness of the vintner. And at least for the next few years, as farmers entering the business produce their first, young wines, experimenting with European grapes to see what works in the North Carolina climate, it will be a waiting game.

"You can't make good wine without good fruit," says Moore with a smile, and therein lies the rub.

That doesn't stop Moore, at least, from thinking big.

"I want to make a muscadine port," he says, pointing to a few glass casks on the concrete floor of his cavernous vintification room. The jugs are full of dark, murky liquid, labeled with masking tape: MERLOT, CAB SAUV, BLEND.

"I don't know if it's ever been done before," he adds, smiling.

Moore might have bid farewell to fueling the tobacconist's trade. But when he finally perfects the heft of that sweet, rich port, he just might come full circle in celebration-and light up a cigar.


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