Grape harvest in West Virginia begins this week. It’s also the perfect time — with autumn just around the corner — for tourists and residents to begin making plans for weekend travel to enjoy the beautiful fall foliage and seasonal colors the state is renowned for.

Many of those plans might include travel along a “West Virginia Wine Trail” — if one existed.

Instead, the growth of farm vineyards and winery businesses across the Mountain State in recent years might unintentionally be one of West Virginia’s best-kept secrets.

Wine trails are groups of wineries located within close proximity to each other that engage in cross-promotion designed to benefit all of them.

By offering passports, access to special events, discounts and other incentives, wine trails encourage guests to visit more than one vineyard in a single outing, comparing wines sampled at each and learning the different techniques each winemaker uses.

Those same visitors will often visit local restaurants, hotels, bed and breakfasts, and local attractions — contributing to the economic development of the area.

Depending on who you ask in state government, the number of farm vineyards here ranges anywhere from 15 to 27. The West Virginia Department of Agriculture website lists 20 wineries on its website. The West Virginia Tourism website lists 15 wineries on its website. The West Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Administration lists 27 active farm wineries.

Doug Arbogast, an assistant professor and rural tourism specialist with the West Virginia University Extension Service, says developing a wine trail in the state is essential to the state’s economic development.

“This is something we’ve looked into, but no one has taken a lead on this. Many of the state’s winery lists are out of date,” Arbogast said.

Last year, the WVU College of Business and Economics conducted a study on establishing a wine trail in West Virginia, much like the Napa Valley in California or Kentucky’s distillery tours. Arbogast noted that the states with winery, distillery and brewery trails enjoy a tourism boost that extends to the communities surrounding the spirits businesses.

“Beds and breakfasts, hotels and restaurants prosper too. It’s a win-win situation,” he said but added that finding a person or agency to spearhead the effort is lacking.

“Most all wineries that have tasting rooms and gift shops want to be on some kind of trail. Many wineries are not located near main roads or towns. It requires signage — and that has been the holdup. The wineries need help from the Department of Highways and the state [Division of Tourism] for funding. A study needs to be done for the location of said signs and work to begin,” said Jerry Deal, owner of Forks of Cheat Winery and Distillery in Morgantown, who also heads a “very loosely connected” group of winery owners in the state.

Jane Bostic, a heritage marketing specialist with the Division of Tourism, said the agency is interested in developing a wine trail but that it requires local tourism groups to get involved.

“Our lists are only as good as the information people send to us. We reach out to the local convention and visitors bureaus. I don’t know how to get a more complete list. Some of the convention and visitors bureaus are great; others, not so much,” Bostic said.

Likewise, Teresa Halloran, a marketing specialist with the Department of Agriculture, wants to have “spirits trails” developed throughout the state. She pointed out that in addition to wineries, the state has had a surge in distillery and brewery businesses.

“Our wineries list is not real up to date. The West Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Administration probably has the best list,” Halloran said.

She attributes the growth in the farm winery business to several factors.

“I think people are drinking more wine, is why the industry is growing. If you go to the Kroger Ashton Place, you’ll see how large their wine section is. People are realizing the health benefits of drinking wine, and I think restaurants are seeing a surge in wine consumption too. We have such a wide array of wineries in the state,” Halloran said.

“We are really working with the Division of Tourism to set up a tasting trail in different parts of the state, so people can have a weekend getaway and stay in bed and breakfasts. Developing spirits trails is a win-win situation for everyone,” she added.

Amy Shuler Goodwin, deputy secretary of commerce and commissioner of tourism, said she is in favor of putting resources into the development of wine trails and spirits trails in the state.

“The wine and spirits industry has really blossomed in West Virginia in recent years. I think it’s a response to the increasing popularity of agritourism in the region and country as a whole.

Nowadays, travelers don’t just visit a place — they immerse themselves in the culture. And that entails experiencing the local flavors and farm-fresh offerings of the place they are visiting. With the wineries, not only is their product pleasing to the palate, there is also a fun educational aspect. Guests can tour a vineyard and see how the grapes are grown and processed, and then stick around for a tasting,” Goodwin said.

AmericasWineTrails.com has identified 277 wine trails across the United States, many of them in neighboring states: Virginia has 20 wine trails, Pennsylvania has 12, Maryland has seven, Ohio has six, and Kentucky has two.

(c)2014 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

Photo Credit: Virginia does a better job of marketing its wineries than nearby West Virginia. Flickr