For winemakers in North Carolina, the NC Fine Wines Competition is their Olympics. Each spring, experienced and esteemed sommeliers from across the state take their spots at the judges’ table at Winston-Salem’s Millennium Center in pursuit of identifying North Carolina Vinifera and hybrid varietal wines that fit the gold standard.
Bottles are opened, expertly poured, and presented to the taster in a particular order for judging. When it comes to the execution of the competition, strict attention to detail is critical. And that’s where students from the Department of Marketing, Entrepreneurship, Hospitality and Tourism (MEHT) at UNC Greensboro’s Bryan School of Business and Economics come in.
Working with officials from the Fine Wines of NC, 10 students from Dr. Erick Byrd’s Event Management course spent three days at Millennium Center pulling, pouring, labeling, and presenting more than 140 bottles of wine to competition judges.
“For a project like this, you must have the energy and intentionality to make sure the judges have an exceptional experience. Students had to be as intentional with wine No. 1 as they were with No. 140,” Byrd said.
With the help of the Bryan School, gold medals were awarded, and wineries were honored at an eventual April 15 gala. All the while, Bryan students gained hands-on experience hosting an event for the North Carolina wine industry, one of the state’s fastest-growing industries.
A PARTNERSHIP IS BORN
Though the NC Fine Wines Gala is one of the most recent partnerships between the Bryan School and the North Carolina wine industry, the relationship itself dates back to 2008 when Bryan School executive-in-residence Samuel Troy identified wineries as a growing market in the state. With the disappearance of tobacco farms across the state at the time, farmers needed a high-value replacement crop.
“I discovered that if you just grew grapes, that would not be a high-value crop. If you grew the grapes and made wine for someone else, you would make a little more money. But, if you grew grapes, made wine, and then sold it, you had a high-value crop,” Troy said.
Research at the Bryan School began with the simple act of listening to winery owners’ needs and conducting a business assessment. Their discovery? Yes, grapes were being grown and wine was being made, but farmers weren’t optimizing profit opportunities. This is where the Bryan School found its niche. Institutions are out there to help the wineries grow the grapes and make the wine, but no one was out there to help them make money. If wineries make money, the industry will thrive, if they don’t, the industry will wither on the vine.
“In addition, we try to educate the wineries that they are not only in the wine business but are part of the agritourism industry as well,” Troy said. “The better job they do creating more of an experience for their guests the better their chance for success.”
In 2011, the Bryan School absorbed UNCG’s hospitality and tourism department, providing the perfect opportunity for students to gain hands-on experience working with the industry.
In the summer of 2011, Byrd employed five undergraduate students to travel to 20 different wineries around the state and conduct an NC Wine Tourism study. Like before, the study concluded that while some wineries delivered a more sophisticated tasting experience, others lacked the resources to do so.
“You have some wineries with scenic outdoor spaces, but then you had some that were just pouring wine into plastic cups,” Byrd said.
Both undergraduate and graduate students from the MEHT department have continued going out to tasting rooms, conducting research and publishing papers as the industry expanded. With each paper that is published, the Bryan School’s reputation as a positive force in the developing wine industry continues to grow.
Bryan School leaders at the NC Fine Wines Gala on April 15, 2023.
A business plan published in 2013 for Raffaldini Vineyards put the Bryan School on the North Carolina wine map when it was selected as the winner of the 2014 Small Business Institute’s Project of the Year. When NC Fine Wines began toying with the idea of a competition and gala about seven years ago, the organization’s leaders approached Byrd with the idea of incorporating Bryan School students. For the first three years, students in his event planning course were offered the opportunity to assist with the competition and gala. When the Bryan School program added a wine appreciation course, those students assisted as well.
“It’s these hands-on experiences students get from this event that really make all the difference. I can sit and lecture all day long, but nothing compares to what’s learned when you put them in a situation where they have to think on their feet,” Byrd said.
The NC Fine Wines Gala at Winston-Salem’s Millennium Center on April 15, 2023
The Bryan School and students from Byrd’s course were honored in a video played at this year’s NC Fine Wines Competition — a testament to the longevity of the partnership.
“We’re able to call on industry experts constantly to help with our students because they know we have stuck around through thick and thin. They know the Bryan School isn’t looking for a quick payday — we are dedicated to helping this industry expand,” Byrd said.
As for the partnership’s future? Byrd and Troy both said they plan to keep the Bryan School involved in NC Fine Wines as it continues to flourish.
“Don’t you love it when a plan comes together and something that was just a seed of an idea 15 years ago grows into a whole field of opportunity? It’s inspiring to me,” Troy said.