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Teetotalling at the fair

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As with any well-crafted play, the N.C. State Fair has its fools and distractions: weight guessers, pig races, tractor pulls. But at the heart of fair is the battle between tradition and innovation. The fair's mission—beyond providing motive and opportunity to eat deep-fried versions of foods we wouldn't otherwise consume in public—is to spotlight models of innovation, stalwarts of tradition and those who successfully blend these two aims.

Every year, the judges name their champions. Rosy-cheeked young farmers sell their prize bovines for enough money to cover (public) college tuition while the runners-up ask whether the top cow is a result of old-school methods or new-school tricks. Ambitious home bakers wave blue ribbons aloft after coaxing new delights from Pillsbury products, while the also-rans wonder what if that new sausage-filled sweet roll recipe they worked up might have been a bridge too far. Someone cashes in after figuring out how to fry Kool-Aid, taking a bite out of the funnel cake market share.

For every agricultural product, every processing idea, there is a contest and a victory lap—every product except North Carolina wine. Yes, winemakers can win awards. But they're not allowed to take their bows at the fair alongside fellow farmers and producers.

You can't sample wine at the fair—not even a taste—because it's not allowed. N.C. Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler decides whether alcohol can be served or sold at the fair, and he has no plans to change the rules prohibiting it, Agriculture Department spokesman Brian Long said earlier this week.

However, wine samples and sales are a very popular aspect of the Got to Be NC Festival, which is sponsored by the state agriculture department and held each May at the state fairgrounds. Vendors at the Got to Be NC Festival have reported increased traffic to their wineries and vineyards, which they attribute to exposure at the event. Newer and smaller, the festival is akin to a mini-fair.

Long said that Troxler's concern about crowd control has made him reluctant to approve wine at the State Fair. "At the Got to Be NC Festival, you're talking about a three-day event, a size that's probably one-tenth of what you draw at the State Fair," Long said. "It's a matter of scale. He thinks there may be greater potential for something to happen when you mix alcohol with the size of the fair."

I can't help but imagine what might have been if I'd been able to sample some of the wines that won this year: the cabernet sauvignon from RayLen Vineyards & Winery in Mocksville, which won Best of Show in the commercial wine competition; McNeill from Cypress Bend Vineyards in Wagram, which was awarded Best of Muscadine. And there were some promising amateur winemakers, including Robert Moncsko of Cary, whose Traiminette won first among white hybrids, and Kristina Street of Apex, who took top honors in the White Native American wine category.

Imagine if a small percentage of the thousands of people who trod through the Got to Be NC pavilion had been able to sip some winning wines. Maybe a North Carolina wine hit would have been born. Maybe some talented state winemakers might have made as much money as the vendors selling fried Kool-Aid. Maybe we would have started a conversation about North Carolina wine for a new generation of wine lovers and for the state's wine industry to grow and improve.

Our state's winemakers and grape growers earn their livings by balancing the innovation and tradition—the same as cattle farmers, sweet potato growers, landscapers and ice cream makers. They deserve the chance to showcase—and profit from—the fruits of their labor the same as everyone else who can sell their wares at the fair. Keeping them out of the State Fair game is an insult to their spirit of tradition and creative innovation.

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