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The Surprising Link Between Tobacco Farms and Wineries

Tobacco and alcohol have a long, intertwined, and complicated relationship. Smoking and drinking are often associated with each other and done together. Still, the shift in public perception towards tobacco health risks over the past years may indicate that a separation is due. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tobacco alone is linked to a higher risk of 12 types of cancers, such as the cancers of the lung, larynx, pancreas, bladder, stomach, and liver, to name a few. Today, nearly nine in ten lung cancer deaths are caused by smoking cigarettes or exposure to secondhand smoke.

However, tobacco and alcohol’s relationship also manifests in a surprising way — the transformation of tobacco farms worldwide into wineries and vineyards. Below, we’ll look at the decline of tobacco farming, the subsequent emergence of winemaking, and how they intersect:

The decline of tobacco farming

One of the factors driving the shift from hectares and acres of tobacco farms into wineries and vineyards is the slow but sure decline of tobacco consumption. In the US alone, tobacco use is declining in line with the industry’s shift away from tobacco products.

This isn’t to say that the winemaking industry is solely responsible, as farmers continue seeking agricultural alternatives. For example, Virginia farmers harvested 15,030 acres of tobacco in 2021 — a mere fraction of its peak of 172,100 acres in 1939. Instead, the fall in tobacco production saw a rise in solar farms across the state, following a decline that preceded the 1964 warning that tobacco smoking causes cancer. In contrast, Virginian counties such as Mecklenburg approved 1,929.85 acres of solar farms in 2022, with applications pending for another 2,324.90 acres. At this rate, we are more likely to see solar farms than tobacco farms across states like Virginia.

Aside from the shift towards other forms of agriculture — be it solar or wine — there is also the internal shift within the tobacco industry. When we consider where nicotine comes from, tobacco farming may have been the sole provider and root cause years ago. These days, however, scientists, researchers, and big tobacco companies have found a solution in synthetic nicotine made from a mix of chemical compounds without involving a single tobacco leaf. These compounds work the same way as traditional tobacco cigarettes, and one can never tell the difference between the two. Alongside growing public health concerns and legislations around the world prohibiting smoking and selling tobacco products, many companies have turned towards synthetic nicotine found in alternative nicotine products such as nicotine gum, pouches, and patches that help with smoking cessation. As a result, tobacco farms slowly become obsolete.

The emergence of winemaking

So, what does this have to do with wines and winemaking? Recall that in a previous post on unusual wine regions, we highlighted Middleburg, Virginia — the oldest wine region in the US — and how English settlers in the 1600s initially settled for easier-to-grow tobacco after failed attempts to plant vineyards. It wasn’t until 1759 diversified the area’s economy and planted native and European grapes, birthing the area’s first vineyards.

The reverse is true: what once were tobacco farms are now being transformed into vineyards. Upon closer look, there may be more wineries that were once tobacco farms than you might think. North Carolina — one of the largest wine-producing states — was once home to its host of tobacco farms until farmers turned towards grapes after the 1998 tobacco master settlement.

California is also a leading state in wine production, making up about 85% of the US wine landscape. This is fascinating, given how, in the 19th century, there was a push to grow tobacco in the state because the climate was conducive for the crop — although that didn’t quite pan out. Instead, most of the tobacco was grown in the Southern United States, including Texas, which had a thriving tobacco culture well before European wine came into the picture. Now, Texas is catching up with viniculture, producing award-winning wines catering to tasters in a rapidly growing tourism and hospitality industry.

Aside from contributing to the proliferation of winemaking and the wine industry in the US, they are unknowingly siding with the shift away from harmful tobacco production that led to decades of public health risks. It is a fervent hope, then, that wineries and vineyards can continue to benefit the US in more ways than we imagine as we head into the future of the industry.

Want to read more? Try these books!

Bursting Bubbles- A Secret History of Champagne and the Rise of the Great Growers Churchill- A Drinking Life- Champagne, Cognac, and Cocktails

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