Last week, UGA Extension Viticulture hosted its largest program yet:  The New Grape Growers Conference.  Over 75 industry members, new growers and specialists gathered at Crane Creek Vineyards in Young Harris, GA, to take part in a crash course of how to start, manage and succeed with your vineyard and winery.  Attendees were primarily from Georgia, but attendees also came from North Carolina and South Carolina as well.  The main purpose of this program was not only to provide information necessary for having a successful business, but also for both potential and new growers to network with current industry members and specialists.

Our first morning session focused on turning your vineyard into an effective business.  Cheryl Smith with Georgia Tourism gave an overview on marketing resources available to fledgling vineyards, Emily DeFoor of Habersham Vineyards introduced the Georgia Wine Producers and Winegrowers Association of Georgia, and Joyce Rigby gave an overview of many things to consider before planting your first vine.  Starting a vineyard can be an exciting, overwhelming, and at times frustrating task.  However, knowing your support system and planning for potential problems you may face can make all the difference.

After a short break, we resumed with talks from Bruce Cutler of UGA on success factors for farm wineries, Extension Viticulturist Cain Hickey on a useful calculator tool to help plan harvest yields and costs, and an insightful overview from Crane Creek Vineyards owner Eric Seifarth on lessons learned from his twenty years of growing grapes.  While the early morning focused on how others can help you, these speakers gave overviews on what you can do yourself to ensure your success as a wine grape grower.

Our after lunch sessions provided more technical information. Cain Hickey spoke to us about variety considerations for different areas of Georgia, and the local Viticulture Team members gave a presentation on the current status of the Georgia wine industry, current research projects, and services offered. Mike Mengak, UGA wildlife specialist, gave an overview on an inevitable factor that affects any fruit production:  wildlife pest management.

Rounding out the final session was Phil Brannen, UGA Fruit Pathology Extension Specialist with an overview of grapevine diseases, Mario Mazza, CEO of Mazza Vineyards with tips on how to maintain good grower-winery relations, and Cain Hickey once again with a talk on site selection, establishment and trellis options.  The program concluded with a tasting of local Georgia wines and a networking session where current and potential producers were able to speak with specialists and agents.

Throughout the program, attendees were actively engaged as they asked questions, introduced themselves to each other and the speakers, and enjoyed the grounds of the host vineyard.  The on-site feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with almost all attendees staying for the closing networking session and asking for similar programs in the future. The written evaluations further reflected this positive sentiment.  Written feedback showed the presentations were a “good balance of academics and growers,” and it was asked several times that we “have more programs just like this in the future,” referring to the long day and short session layout.  Overall, attendees reported a significant increase in their knowledge concerning variety choice, vineyard finances, establishment of vines, and potential disease threats.  Also, about 75% of attendees reported that it was highly likely they were going to put vines in the ground as soon as possible.  These findings are promising not only because of their implications for the future of the Georgia wine industry, but also because they show the enthusiasm and receptivity of our new growers.  To quote Eric Seifarth of Crane Creek Vineyards, “Owning a vineyard is a commitment…and a lifestyle,” and with so many new producers ready to take on this lifestyle, the future of Georgia vineyards and wineries looks very bright indeed.

Special thanks to all of our fantastic speakers, our host Eric Seifarth and Crane Creek Vineyards, all Georgia Wineries who donated wine for this event, and our sponsors – the Winegrowers Association of Georgia and Georgia Wine Producers.  We look forward to more successful programming in the future!