RALEIGH — For the first time, fairgoers can sample and buy wines at the N.C. State Fair – though not inside the fairground gates.
Half a dozen wineries are set up inside the Hunt Horse Complex, home to the horse shows across Youth Center Drive from Gate 8.
State agriculture officials acknowledged that North Carolina breweries will likely join the wineries at next year’s fair.
“If we do one, it’s hard not to do the other,” said David Smith, chief deputy commissioner for the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
The N.C. Wine and Grape Council had lobbied agriculture officials for years to be able to offer samples and sell bottles at the N.C. State Fair, an 11-day event that attracts about 1 million people to the fairgrounds and showcases the state’s agricultural products. The industry includes farmers and about 120 wineries that, according to a 2009 study, create an estimated economic impact of $1.28 billion a year.
Citing safety concerns in 2008, N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler refused the wine and grape council’s request because he didn’t want wineries selling bottles of wine on the fairgrounds. Winemakers didn’t see a point to offering samples without the possibility of sales.
State rules prohibit the sale and consumption of alcohol at the fair and ban people from walking around with liquids in glass bottles. While beer and wine can be sold at the horse complex at other times of the year, the rules appear to prohibit such sales during the fair.
Smith counters that the rules are vague and could use a rewrite. In the meantime, he said department officials don’t believe they are running afoul of the sale and consumption ban with one-ounce samples of wine and sales of bottles intended to be taken home.
“We realize it’s a little fuzzy,” Smith said. “We’re not selling beer in cups. We’re not selling wine in glasses. It’s truly a sampling thing.”
Helping out horse shows
A few factors led state officials to finally relent on the wine council’s request. First, the council, which had been housed at the state Commerce Department for many years, came back under the purview of the Agriculture Department last year. Second, the horse shows have been diminishing in recent years and could benefit from more foot traffic at the complex. (In 2006, competitors brought 2,150 horses; this year’s shows featured 1,505.)
It likely also did not hurt that wineries had persuaded agriculture officials in 2009 to let them do samples and sales at the Got to Be N.C. Festival at the fairgrounds in May. That event, although very different and much smaller than the State Fair, allowed officials to see how sales could be handled.
“It is part of our mission to promote North Carolina products,” Smith said. “We solved our logistical issues of how to do the sales.”
Gate 8 and nearby Gate 9 are the two most heavily-trafficked gates during the fair. Last year, 91,459 people bought tickets at Gate 8, and 103,315 bought tickets at Gate 9, off Trinity Road. State officials reasoned that having the wineries at the horse complex would be convenient for the public to buy wine on the way back to their cars.
‘You can talk to people’
On Tuesday afternoon, winemakers were pleased to be there, and fairgoers were happy to see them.
“I’m just glad to see wine at the State Fair. It’s a long time overdue,” said wine and grape council member Ron Taylor, who owns Lu Mil Vineyard in Elizabethtown, 30 miles south of Fayetteville.
While pouring samples Tuesday, Zack Hargett, a co-owner of Rocky River Vineyards, 25 miles east of Charlotte, said, “We’ve always wanted to come up here.”
But he added: “I’d very much like to be inside those gates.”
Other wineries weren’t as concerned about being outside the gates, beyond the crush of the fairgrounds. “We’re not swamped with people,” said Steve Simmons, sales director for Cary’s Chatham Hill Winery. “The nice part is you can talk to people.”
That was a part of the experience that Dave and Trina Worden of Apex really enjoyed while sampling wines Tuesday afternoon. The couple often visit North Carolina wineries on weekdays so that they can have conversations with the winemakers.
“This is great,” Dave Worden said. “I wish they had better advertising or signs. If we hadn’t come in Gate 8, we wouldn’t have known about it.”
Another pleased fairgoer was Kristen Mooney, 25, of Apex.
“I think it’s a great addition,” Mooney said. “If they had a craft beer stand, think about how many more people would show up.”
Some breweries are interested in joining the winemakers next year but are also cautious. Sean Wilson, owner of Fullsteam Brewery in Durham and president of the N.C. Brewers Guild, polled several brewery owners to get their reaction.
“The interest is definitely piqued to not only promote what North Carolina beer is all about but also to sell,” Wilson said. “We’d want to do it the right way. I’d rather make sure the emphasis is on the agricultural aspects of it – so it doesn’t become a generic beer garden.”
Weigl: 919-829-4848; Twitter: @andreaweigl