Charles Cowart Jr. grew up on a 12,000-acre cattle farm his father managed in Calhoun County, Georgia. Farm workers there grew corn and other grains for silage but had little to do during the winter. So his father planted muscadine grapes, which they would prune and maintain during the coldest months, when the vines were dormant.
The senior Cowart purchased the vineyard in the mid-1970s and grew it into a business producing table grapes and grape juice. Now that 180-acre “make do” for the winter is a third-generation family business that produces 150,000 gallons of grape juice a year.
Most of the juice is processed and sold. However, Cowart and his son, Charlie, keep 30,000 gallons to produce some of the Southeast’s most celebrated muscadine grape-based wines. With 132 awards to date, they are labeled under the family brand: Still Pond Vineyards and Winery.
The Cowarts, looking for ways to add value to their product, decided to open a craft distillery. They turned to Debbie Finney, area director of the Albany office of the University of Georgia SBDC, for help in securing financing and a line of credit to launch their new business.
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“We still sell juice to wineries, and most of our customers sell in high-traffic tourist areas,” says Cowart. “When the economic crunch hit, they saw fewer tourists, and we saw a steady decline in what our juice customers were able to buy from us.”
While they were looking at ways to become more self-sustaining, they noticed the trend in new craft breweries.
“We prefer taking our grapes from the field to a finished product, so it made sense to see if we could make a distillery work here rather than cut back on production. We started working on this idea about 2010, and by 2012 we were looking at how we were going to pay for it.”
They decided to apply for a USDA Value Added Producer Grant and went to Finney, who had assisted them with other projects. The project’s size and the lack of comparable distillery models they needed to help develop realistic financial projections were challenging.
“The Cowarts were already successfully producing a value-added product in the winery. You could see the potential for adding another business,” says Finney. “We put together all the pieces that showed how the distillery would work and how they would use more of their wine in the product.”
With Finney’s help, Cowart developed projections and a loan proposal and was awarded the highly competitive grant.
“Debbie helped us quite a bit, putting together all the forms and numbers our grant writers would need to make our distillery feasible,” says Cowart. “We looked for hours at the numbers, looking at all possibilities and what we did and did not need to do. She showed us it’s important to know what you’re doing before you get too far into it.”
Still Pond Distillery opened in 2014 as the only farm winery and distillery in the Southeast. Nineteen new products have been added to the Still Pond brand: nine distilled spirits, six fortified wines and four meads. Full-time employment now stands at nine, and sales of the distilled spirits are boosting their wine sales.
“Last year we used about 40 percent of the grapes we grew,” says Cowart. “This year we’ll use about 50 percent. Our production out of our new facility will yield us more gross income than the vines in our fields. We want to be as self-sufficient as we can.”
Finney sees a bright future for Still Pond.
“The Cowarts built this business and know it. They have a good vision. And like all successful business owners, they are always planning and working on their business.”
“As far as I’m concerned, the SBDC has done us a fabulous job,” says Cowart. “Debbie Finney is quite an asset to that office. She has been quite a blessing for us.”