On a 46-acre farm in North Hall County, with much of the pine woods cleared in favor of rolling green pasture, where cattle graze and beehives produce honey, there is a niche industry brewing, growing ripe in the rows of vines and plants lining the country landscape.
Here, along Bill Wilson Road in Alto, lies Sweet Acre Farms, the first farm winery in the county.
“I bought some land and made a farm,” said owner Matt Vrahiotes.
And if that weren’t unique enough, consider this: You’ll find not a single grape growing on this land.
“We’re going against the grain,” Vrahiotes said. “I’m not going to be your ordinary farmer.”
Instead, Vrahiotes, 30, and his wife, Lindsey, 27, are working to produce fruit wine made, for example, from blackberries, strawberries and blueberries.
“She’s the driving force behind all this,” Vrahiotes said.
While sales of grape wine are robust and lucrative, fruit wine remains a niche in the industry, and one Vrahiotes hopes to exploit.
Since purchasing the property in 2010, Vrahiotes and his wife have delved into making jams and jellies, relishes and candy apples. But ultimately the entrepreneurial couple settled on a winery.
“There’s something very gratifying about making your own alcohol,” Vrahiotes said.
There’s still a ways to go before Sweet Acre Farms becomes operable, with many hurdles left to clear, including receiving the proper business licenses and permits.
But a big step was taken recently when Hall County approved a zoning request for the property, helping to pave the way over the other obstacles.
Vrahiotes grew up a military brat, spending his formative years on a U.S. base in Germany where his father was stationed. Lindsey, meanwhile, grew up locally, living and working on a farm.
The couple are self-taught in the ways of wine-making, with Matt Vrahiotes saying he has read countless books to get an understanding of the endeavor.
“I’m going to learn the hard way,” he said, adding trial and error were crucial to getting it just right.
And getting it just right is no easy task. Fruit wine typically is not as consistent as grape wine, but Vrahiotes said he is confident he’s mastered the process.
The couple currently resides in a small home on the property, which they hope to turn into the wine-making center. They also hope to open a tasting room at the farm, as well as one in the downtown Gainesville square. But this presents a few more obstacles.
The couple would like to sell their fruit wine by the glass at a downtown location, but city alcohol ordinances forbid the practice — businesses selling alcohol must make half their revenue from food sales — and, based on discussions among city leaders, there appears to be no appetite to change this law.
But the challenges faced have only reinforced Vrahiotes’ desire to make the winery work.
“We’re going to help them anyway we can,” said Hall County Commissioner Scott Gibbs, whose district includes the farm.
Unlike grape wine, wherein the growing season is short, Vrahiotes said he can produce fruit wine year-round, and this promises big rewards once the winery opens for business.
Ultimately, Vrahiotes said he wants the winery to reflect the local community. His motto is “country wine for the country kind.”
For more information on Sweet Acre Farms, visit www.sweetacrefarms.com or www.facebook.com/sweetacrefarms.