Alcohol seen as lure to Caldwell County tourism

Apr. 09, 2013 @ 09:28 AM

It was not so long ago when Lenoir, like the rest of Caldwell County, prohibited alcohol sales in restaurants and other establishments.

But attitudes in the city largely have changed. And now, a few downtown alochol producers — a winery, a microbrewery and a distillery — are emerging as centerpieces in a plan for spurring tourism growth. The plan targets what some call an emerging market of “alcohol tourism” in North Carolina.

“It’s definitely a growing industry,” Matthew Underwood, a member of the Lenoir Tourism Development Authority.

A move by the tourism board — which uses a share of occupancy taxes to promote city attractions — to elevate the exposure of producers here could draw more visitors to Lenoir, in whose familiar downtown restaurants, cafes and bars Underwood and others see “the same people ... all the time.”

On a recent visit to Howard Brewing Company, which opened downtown in December, the potential boost such producers could bring to the local economy was apparent to Underwood, who recalled meeting visitors from Asheville, Charlotte and Wilkesboro.

“Breweries and wineries,” in addition to distilleries, “have a draw,” he said.

Anti-alcohol sentiment in Lenoir can be traced at least to the mid-1880s founding of Davenport College by Methodist church leaders in Lenoir, said Mike Gibbons, the chairman of the Caldwell Heritage Museum. At the urging of church leaders, Caldwell County passed legislation prohibiting alcohol sales within one mile of the campus. At the time, that radius took in all of Lenoir.

John Hawkins, the director of the museum, recalls a certain “resentment” between “dry” and “wet” forces on the role of alcohol when he was growing up in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Sentiments in Lenoir shifted by the early 1970s, when city voters approved permitting beer and wine sales in certain stores. That vote was followed by another permitting “brown-bagging,” which allowed people to bring their own alcohol to a restaurant. Voters eventually approved opening an ABC store later that decade. And in the late 1990s, Lenoir voters approved letting restaurants carry liquor.

The state Division of Tourism in recent years has taken a “very aggressive” approach to promoting alcohol producers to bolster its tourism and hospitality industries, said Stephanie Oxford, a part of a committee formed by the Lenoir’s advisory board to promote the city’s alcohol producers. This year the Division of Tourism declared April as “North Carolina Beer Month,” and among the towns and cities featured on the division’s website, visitnc.com, is Asheville, whose craft breweries for the past four years have ranked first or tied for first in the “Beer City USA” online poll run by the website examiner.com.

Oxford, who grew up near wine country in Sacramento, Calif., recently was selected by Lenoir’s tourism advisory board to work with other tourism agencies to promote events and use social media outlets, such as Facebook, to promote the city’s three alcohol producers.

“When you live in a small town like this, people aren’t going to come here just to spend the weekend ... unless there’s a reason,” Oxford said.

The Carolina Mist Winery’s sweet wines, ranging from peach chardonnays and apple gewurztraminers to other light-fruit flavors of rieslings and pinot grigios, have helped draw visitors to town over the past four years.

Still, co-owner Carolyn Campbell, who runs the winery with her husband, Edward, said, “we could have more” business “if the city would advertise for us.”

The support of local customers has largely fueled the growth of brandy maker Carolina Distillery, master distiller Chris Hollifield said. 

“They’re a big reason why we’ve been able to do as much as we have,” Hollifield, who also runs Dragon’s Den Tattoo Co. in Granite Falls.

Carolina Distillery has produced and distributed its two brandies, Carolina Heritage, since 2009 from a recipe handed down from Hollifield’s great-grandfather. It now ships across the Southeast and as far away as Alaska.

But on the vacant, partially renovated main floor of a vacant 40,000-square-foot building at 1001 West Avenue, the scent of fresh wood alludes to larger plans by Hollifield and others who help run the Carolina Distillery to build a restaurant and reception area in the next two years.

In the basement of that building, Jason Howard of Howard Brewing Company is putting the finishing touches on a beer he made from a recipe dating to the late 1700s that was discovered last summer at Fort Defiance, the historic house of Revolutionary War Gen. William Lenoir. Howard, whose taproom in what feels like the basement of a Prohibition-era speakeasy, said business has remained brisk.

“We’re sending beer out all over the place,” including to bars and stores from Charlotte to Wilkesboro, said owner Jason Howard. “I can’t keep up right now.”