Even in the best of times, growing European varietal grapes in North Carolina is challenging.

There’s aggressive spraying campaigns for bugs and fungus that make West Coast growers blanch. Our gooey clay soils holding water also sends California growers into paroxysm. Our aggressive pruning, hedging and leaf pulling leaves them scratching their heads. There’s critters to be caged out or chased out of vineyards that endure extreme temperatures and humidity during summer days. Harvest time often coincides with tropical storm and hurricane season.

This year’s mild winter was followed by March frosts followed by a mid-April frost wallop. According to a recent industry survey — spotty and self-reporting — the impact was widespread and in some cases nearly devastating to tender buds and young growth. Mother Nature showed her mean streak this spring.

This coincided with shuttering wineries during COVID-19’s attack. Although sales traditionally slump in January and February, wineries rely on tourism and heavy consumer spending in March, April and May to balance the books. Sure, there was curbside delivery service but that can never make up for crowded tasting rooms and even more crowded music events and weddings on the grounds.

The 2020 economic impact to this annual $2 billion industry and its 200-plus wineries has not yet been calculated. When it is, the news can’t be encouraging.

After the state lifted some restrictions, visitors returned to tasting rooms in May and June but those wineries had to limit indoor traffic or they held tastings outside — until two bands of sustained rains chased tourists away.

I visited wineries around Memorial Day and chatted up owners and staff. Several wineries shared with me the unthinkable: Letting the grapes hang and rot through the season.

Why? Because if you’re already in the red — and then you run the numbers in labor costs, bottling/labeling, the harvest crews, the alchemy associated with fermentation — then return-on-investment may be a mirage, only to hemorrhage more money.

Most N.C. wineries are small moms & pops with limited acreage, operating on razor-thin margins. Most can never reach the production scale of even medium-sized wineries much less the sale-price-points of Gallo, Concha y Toro, Casella (Yellow Tail) or Chateau Ste. Michelle.

Last growing season, according to many reports, was glorious for quantity and quality. Here’s raising a glass that it produced enough still in tank or barrel to get most North Carolina wineries through dark times. Some wineries, I fear, may be closing their doors altogether.

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A week’s vacation in the mountains sends me scrambling to pack enough wine to avoid the grocery store in Banner Elk. Among my stash is Domaine Bousquet’s recently released Natural Origins 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2019 Malbec, produced from organic grapes in Argentina.

Packing for a week places a premium on car space. These 3-liter boxed wines ($20) easily slip into nooks and crannies. They also easily slip a palate — luscious forward fruit but with balanced acidity. Before you get all snobby on me about bag-in-a-box wine, consider: It stays fresh a month after opening (a bottle of red goes south after two days); no cork pulling is required; no glass to break; delivery to glass is a snap; it averages out to $5 a bottle or $1.25 per glass (good luck not paying north of $7 a glass in a restaurant); and in this case — featuring a Tree of Life on package — Domaine Bousquet’s new line tastes great.

Recent Nielsen data showed a significant uptick in 3-liter boxed wine sales. Stocking up during a COVID-19 pandemic and quarantines probably informed that sales boost.

Ed Williams is marketing director at Alamance Community College. This column appears the first Wednesday of each month. If you have wine news, email williamsonwine@gmail.com.

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