For 50 years now, the Paulk family has been a pillar in the muscadine industry, thanks in large part to Papa Jacob, who planted his first muscadine vine in 1970. His sons, Gary and JW, Jr., continue the legacy of growing and selling fresh muscadines (as well as blackberries and strawberries) to grocery stores and farmers’ markets around the country. Chris (Gary’s son & Jacob’s grandson) focuses on the value-added side of the business, by producing powders and concentrates for the dietary supplement industry, juices and jellies for gourmet food stores, and most recently, muscadine and fruit wines.
If you’ve read our blog about Papa Jacob, you’ll know he was always very forward-thinking; Chris inherited his innovative spirit, which is why Papa Jacob invited Chris to come home and start making value-added muscadine products in 2002. After selling truckloads of fresh muscadines and tankers of muscadine juice to other wineries for decades, Chris approached Papa Jacob in 2016 about his latest idea: making muscadine wines. Papa Jacob agreed that this was the logical next step and gave his blessing for Chris to start the wine-making process, even signing the first license as one of the owners.
His love for muscadines and interest in winemaking actually led Chris to take an online wine-making class from US Davis 2010 – long before virtual school became the norm! As a matter of fact, one reason Paulk Vineyards didn’t have a winery sooner is because of a lack of technology. For quite a long time, GPS would lead you close to Paulk Vineyards, but usually no one could find us, and their cell phones had no reception, so they couldn’t call to ask directions! Fortunately, technology continues to evolve, and now, more than 10 years after Chris took that class, Google Maps knows exactly where we are. We even have an open wifi network so our visitors can post pictures to their Instagram stories!
Starting a winery opened us up to an entirely different industry – hospitality and tourism. We soon found ourselves entertaining and serving crowds every weekend, especially when we invited local musicians to perform. It made us happy to know that we were providing an opportunity for people to gather and visit with each other in our community.
Before opening our Tasting Room, our family already enjoyed visiting other wineries while on vacation. Once we opened, participating in wine and food festivals around the state soon became one of our favorite marketing tools! We noticed that, of course, larger cities seemed to be the epicenters for these festivals, and while there are other types of festivals that go on around our area, there is no wine festival nearby. In fact, since most wineries in Georgia are located much farther north, a lot people don’t even realize that there are wineries in south Georgia.
Wineries in north Georgia are located closer to each other, making it relatively easy to visit multiple wineries in a day trip or weekend getaway. In south Georgia, it’s difficult to find two wineries within 1-2 hours of each other. Since Paulk Vineyards is centrally located in the southern portion of our state, we thought it would be the perfect spot to host a festival to celebrate the wine industry of south Georgia and bring together customers and wineries who otherwise may have never known about each other. In the process, it would benefit our own community here in Irwin County, providing tax revenue and the opportunity for friends and family to enjoy something new together without traveling far from home.
The idea for the South Georgia Wine Festival was born from a desire to see our friends and neighbors in our local community enjoy great wines from all over south Georgia. We love the idea of partnering with others in our industry to bring people together, thus accomplishing more than any of us could alone. It’s said that, “A rising tide lifts all boats” (JFK, 1963), so in an effort to help lift up the boats in the wine industry in south Georgia, we created the South Georgia Wine Festival to be a rising tide.
“A rising tide lifts all boats” (JFK, 1963)
Our first annual South Georgia Wine Festival took place on March 14, 2020, a day before Disney World shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The week before the event was maddening, with all of us wondering what to do. Do we continue on with the event? Do we cancel? We had multiple phone calls, emails, and direct messages from vendors and ticket holders asking what we were planning. We had no idea what the right answer was. Ultimately, we decided that we had put too much in to back down at the last minute, and the show went on. We ended up hosting six other wineries and selling over 300 tickets for wine tastings, while many more people attended for the artisan market and food trucks!
At that time, while the pandemic was full-force in many areas of the country, and even in the state of Georgia, our rural area was affected very little. We felt safe to continue, providing lots of hand sanitizer and encouraging social distancing as much as possible. Of course, throughout 2020 and even into 2021, Covid-19 has affected our friends and families much more than it did at that time, from losing loved ones and dealing with virtual school to struggling to make ends meet or wondering how much longer your business will be able to keep going.
We have learned the dangers of Covid-19 are very real, but we have also learned that the effects of the pandemic on our society are just as great. Never again will any of us take for granted hugging a loved one or even a smile from a stranger. The isolation we have all felt over the past year will most certainly have a lasting impact on us all. Gathering to celebrate any occasion is now in itself something to be celebrated. So, that is what we will do on March 13, 2021.
Plans are underway for South Georgia Wine Festival 2021! We are making some changes this year, based on what we learned last year and on CDC guidelines for hosting events. Tickets will be purchased for specific time slots throughout the day, so that we can limit the number of people indoors for wine tastings at any given time. Only the participating wineries will be located inside; all other activities, artisan market, live music, and food trucks will be outside. Temperatures and health checks will be taken before anyone is allowed inside, and we will have plenty of hand sanitizer available.
Our hope is that South Georgia Wine Festival will always bring people together to celebrate the many different wines produced in south Georgia, as well as to support those wineries. We have been asked, “Why would you invite your competition to come share their wines with your customers? What if your customers decide they like someone else’s wine better?” Our answer is that we genuinely want our customers to drink what they like and to enjoy the experience of tasting new wines. No two wineries or even wines are just alike, and that is certainly true with wines produced here in south Georgia. Our unique wineries have created high-quality wines from so many different varieties of grapes and fruits, everyone should find a wine that they enjoy drinking, even if they end up at the wine slushy machine!
Bear in mind also, that every winery, food truck, musician, and vendor that sets up at South Georgia Wine Festival is a small, family-owned business who is working hard at something they love to create something they hope you’ll enjoy, so that they can support their own families. If we want small businesses to continue to operate and be there whenever we need them, then we also need to support those businesses even during the times we might not.
Thank you for supporting our small, family-owned business, and we’re happy to introduce you to some others!