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Surpassing expectations
Growth surprises Meinhardt Vineyards founders
091613 BIZ MEINHARDT Web 1
Ken Meinhardt II oversees the harvesting of grapes Monday at Meinhardt Vineyards in southern Bulloch County.

        For a second consecutive year, their vineyards have yielded so many muscadines that the Meinhardts will not need to buy grapes from other growers to fulfill the expected demand for hearty red Southern Eagle, peachy Pesca and the rest of the 20 wines they bottle.
        Today is the last day of the first phase of the 2013 grape harvest at Meinhardt Vineyards & Winery. For a week now, workers have frisked the vines and dropped handfuls of plump, bronze-colored grapes into buckets. Today, the picking of these varieties should be complete. The black varieties still need another two weeks or so to mature, said Ken Meinhardt.
        Saturday, between 300 and 400 people visited the winery for the annual Grape Stomp Festival at the winery. Many bared their feet to pound grapes into juice the ancient way. Most sampled wine and cheese, and all were treated to live music from classic-rock band PB&J.
         Of course, a powered wine press crushes grapes for the real wine production. But the stomp is symbolic of a business that is as much about people and occasions as it is about grapes.
        Operating two stores in Savannah as well as the tasting room on the farm and a popular weekend restaurant - while hosting weddings and other social events throughout the year - Meinhardt Vineyards has in some ways outgrown its owners' expectations.
        "I don't know what I expected. I just wanted to do a little, small winery," Meinhardt said. "It's certainly gotten much bigger than I ever anticipated it to be, but if I didn't have my wife and son, I couldn't have done all this, that's for sure."
        With what now seems uncanny timing, Meinhardt sold his Savannah real estate firm and construction company while the housing boom was still underway and moved to Bulloch County to start a farm winery. His wife, Jan, and son, Ken Meinhardt II, also changed careers to work at the vineyard.
        Ken Meinhardt purchased about 105 acres that previously supported cattle and peanuts, and moved there in early 1999. He installed wells and irrigation, and then the Meinhardts planted their first vines, just 2.3 acres, in 2000. At first dependent on buying grapes from other growers to supplement their nascent harvests, they started making wine and opened their tasting room shop in summer 2004.
        When a story about the winery appeared on this page in 2007, the Meinhardts had expanded to 17 acres and were installing more storage tanks to increase their capacity to 27,000 gallons. Today, they maintain about 25 acres of vineyards and have increased storage to around 50,000 gallons.
        The business of distributing to supermarkets, which the Meinhardts had just entered with Sam's Clubs in 2007, soon expanded to include select Walmart Supercenters and the Harvey's supermarket chain. Many convenience stores, independent grocers and package shops, as well as a few restaurants, also carry Meinhardt wines.
        As Ken Meinhardt explains, distribution is direct from the winery to the stores. Retailers are best saturated with the Meinhardt brand within about a 100-mile radius, but their wines can be found throughout Georgia.
        Incidentally, all seven varieties of grapes grown by the Meinhardts are cultivars of the muscadine species native to the southeastern United States. Muscadine juice is the base for all the wines they make, including those flavored with other fruits such as peaches, blueberries and blackberries.

Savannah City Market
        Meinhardt opened as the first farm winery in southeast Georgia. Under state regulations, a farm winery can operate up to five stores in addition to a tasting room on the farm.
        In the past five years, the Meinhardts have opened two stores in Savannah's City Market. The first, called simply Meinhardt Vineyards & Winery Tasting Room, offers an expanded selection of the kinds of things seen at the farm-based shop, such as preserves jellies, relishes, fruit syrups, and of course, Meinhardt wines.
        The second shop, All Things Georgia, sells a wider variety of Georgia-crafted items, such as handmade quilts and walking sticks, in addition to culinary products. Capitalizing on downtown Savannah's tourist traffic, the store ships quilts to buyers as far away as Australia and Europe.

Restaurant & Weddings
        Meanwhile, the original tasting room at the vineyard south of Statesboro fronts for Meinhardt Vineyards' restaurant. Open Friday and Saturday nights only, it serves seafood, steaks, catfish and pasta. Shrimp-and-grits, prime rib and handmade crab cakes are signature items. Reservations are not required, but recommended.
        From the first, the vineyard's picturesque grounds were offered as a setting for weddings and receptions. With Georgia Southern University practically a neighbor, this soon expanded to include student social events.
        Each year the vineyard hosts typically 12-15 weddings, and perhaps a dozen more occasions such as rehearsal dinners, baby showers and birthday parties, said Jan Meinhardt. Six to eight sorority and fraternity events - often formal or semiformal date nights - are planned this fall alone, and spring will bring another round, including parent nights.
        Most of what has been achieved was envisioned in the family's original business model, if more in the field of hopes than expectations.
        "We knew we would be doing the events," Jan Meinhardt said. "I think it has grown faster than we thought it would."

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