Little Vine Vineyards and Winery
Couple Re-introduces Vineyards, Winery in Central Georgia Region
|In 2016, the vineyard owners were awarded a $160,000 USDA Value Added Production Grant (VAPG) to support grape processing and to conduct marketing.
It’s been over a century since grapes were harvested and processed to make wine in the west central region of Georgia. Once, the state was known as the second largest grape production state in the U.S., with more than 20,000 acres devoted to them. The entrance of prohibition was the biggest reason for the loss of fine wine fame in the region, coupled with limitations on the types of wine grapes that can be grown – primarily American Hybrid varieties -- that aren’t susceptible to certain bacteria of the region.
Jerry Culver, now a local vineyard owner and winemaker, related this history. He studied it and consulted with vineyard owners in Alabama before taking on his current lifestyle as a vineyard owner.
In 2007, he began taking steps to remedy the loss by purchasing over 11 acres of land. Shortly after, he married Sherry Culver, and the two went to work to re-introduce the once golden age of vineyards and wineries in Carroll County through Little Vine Vineyards and Winery.
After much site preparation, they planted red variety vines on 3 acres in 2011. The next year, they planted two white varieties and some reds on another 3 acres. By 2013, 10 tons of grapes were harvested. It quickly increased to 20 tons. Now the Culvers plan for 20-25 tons at harvest time, which they translate into a potential of 15,000 bottles of wine. They also must consider the feasting of birds (half the vineyard now has netting), climatic variables and the fact that all wine produced in a given year may not sell in that year.
They explained their vision of success in terms of enjoyment of what they do, increased interest of others in their small vineyard and their wines, and profitability.
“We are the first commercial winery in the area in the last 100 years,” said Jerry Culver. He said he is proud of what has been accomplished in such a short time. In addition to the wine produced, the business is licensed to ship into other states, and it hosts monthly tours, taste tastings, weddings and a variety of music and group events.
Each weekend, the Culvers said they have visitors at the vineyard “who say they have never been to a winery before.” That demonstrates market penetration from the couple’s initial efforts as well as a huge market opportunity for Little Vineyards and Winery. “We’re right next door to a 3,000-home subdivision in Carroll and Douglas Counties and 7 miles from a 150,000-population town,” explained Jerry Culver. Atlanta, with millions of residents, is 30 miles away.
Sherrie Culver said a big asset has been the hiring of two experienced employees – a viticulturist to help them grow the grapes and a winemaker to make the product. The operation also has up to eight part-time employees. As a team, the Culvers said they are still improving practices, events and wines. In a few short years, they have brought quality of wines to the levels of winning a gold medal for one wine in a national competition and last year, two of their wines took bronze awards in a San Francisco, California competition.
In 2016, the vineyard owners were awarded a $160,000 USDA Value Added Production Grant (VAPG) to support grape processing and to conduct marketing. While they must match the grant funds dollar-for-dollar, Jerry Culver said it has made a tremendous difference in being able to move forward with their vision.
Both Culvers admitted that even with all the research done and out-of-state consultation sought, it’s been a risk. (Jerry’s degree from Auburn is in accounting, and he’s worked for 28 years for the IRS and later as a crime consultant.) While the higher elevations of northern Georgia have supported much grape and wine production, the Culvers noted that the industry is still in start-up phase in their region. They are capitalizing on that void.
Because of the small acreage of land owned, the Culvers see growth coming in two ways: Building a larger event room and/or processing grapes for other growers in the region. In recent years, grape farming has picked up in interest. Often those farmers have no place to process their harvests. “We could purchase grapes and build another wine processing area.” He described a couple of business models under which that might happen.
Marketing of current product is always foremost in the minds of the couple. They have considered retail outlets and restaurants. “We advertise through our website, local papers and those of a three to four county area,” said Sherry Culver. It’s expensive and time consuming, she added.
As an added note to the history and science of the Little Vine Vineyard story: Jerry Culver said that grape production and wine making began in the area in the late 1800s at the experienced hands of Hungarian immigrants. It was hugely successful, he said, with the owners building the largest hotel (at that time) east of the Mississippi. Today because of the varietal limitation in his region, he said he continues to research – and perhaps to use – the variety of grape they planted so successfully, Kadarka, also known as Gamza.
About USDA VAPG
VAPG funding has been offered by the USDA periodically since the early 2000s. To be considered, projects must show how products are differentiated in specific ways from commodity crops. Typically, projects must also show how they may deliver greater returns to producers.
Independent producers, farmer or rancher cooperatives, agriculture producer groups and producer-owned business ventures, including non-profit organizations may apply. In previous cycles, applicants were required to be producers of the raw commodity who will maintain ownership of that commodity through the process of creating a value added product. Grants have been available for planning projects (such as marketing and business plans and feasibility studies) and working capital projects (which might include wages or packaging supplies).
Ag Marketing Resource Center (AgMRC) Assistance
Producers and ranchers, cooperatives and other agricultural businesses can find a wide-ranging set of tools and information to help them in pursuing VAPG funding at the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center (AgMRC). On a variety of value added topics and across products, AgMRC is a rich resource for agricultural businesses, from startup to advanced growth stages.
Directories for state and federal resources, specialty crop information, legal guidance, assessment and spreadsheet tools and other types of business training are available.