Wine in the South

Wine In The South - Vinifera

For the longest time, talk of Southern-grown grapes and Southern-vinified wines elicited dismissals from oenophiles. Some impressions were fueled by insecurity of the we-can’t-compare-to-California sort. Others were fueled by bad wine.

Southern wines, made from vinifera grapes, are improving. Markedly. “If you haven’t had a Southern wine in a few years,” says Barbara Ensrud, author of American Vineyards, “you haven’t had a Southern wine.”

In the interviews that follow, you will meet vignerons from Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia. In varying degrees they advocate that Southerners should not only eat local, they should drink local. As chefs and home cooks alike embrace the tenets of the farm-to-fork gospel, some Southerners are beginning to question the prevailing food and wine pairings of locally grown greens and locally raised pork alongside West Coast and Old World wines.

On the other end of the native versus vinifera wine divide, you will meet grape growers and wine makers who pledge their troth to wines made from muscadine, the South’s native grape. The South, of course, has a long and distinguished tradition of wine making.

Wine In The South - Muscadine

You could make a convincing argument that our wine industry is 100 years older than California’s. And you could back up such bluster with claims to quantity and quality.

By 1840, North Carolina was the leading wine producer in the Union, a distinction that it soon lost to Georgia and, in time, states further north and west. No matter. Southern grown and vinified grapes were, for much of our nation’s history, an accepted standard.

In the two decades leading up to the national adoption of Prohibition, Southern grown muscadine grapes flavored Virginia Dare, the most popular wine sold in America. At the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition of 1904, Paul Garrett’s Special Champagne, a methode champenoise scuppernong, the pride of Medoc Vineyards in North Carolina, won the grand prize for sparkling wines, besting efforts from California and France.

That tradition of making wines from native grapes continues, unabated, today. From extreme southeastern Georgia, to the sandy plains of eastern North Carolina, and elsewhere, muscadine (and the muscadine variety known as scuppernong) remain synonymous with Southern wine making. Of late, an interest in the health-giving properties of the compound resveratrol, present in muscadines, has caused a spike in sales among a new cadre of consumers


Funding for these oral histories was provided, in part, by North Carolina Tourism.

Interviews

Barboursville Vineyards & Palladio Restaurant - Melissa Close - Wine in the South

Barboursville Vineyards & Palladio Restaurant

In the 1970s Gianni Zonin, a sixth-generation Italian winemaker, visited Virginia and decided to plant a vineyard. Most people thought he was crazy and advised that he plant tobacco, instead. But Zonin persisted, recognizing his homeland in the Virginia landscape.

Biltmore Estate Winery - Jerry Douglasa - Wine in the South

Biltmore Estate

Jerry Douglas works for Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. His responsibilities include the wine company, the for-your-home business, and marketing and sales for the Inn and for Biltmore House and Gardens.

Chesser Island Winery - Tracy Chesser - Wine In The South

Chesser Island Winery

Tracy Chesser is an attorney by vocation. Like his forebears, he lives on the edge of the great Okefenokee Swamp, in extreme southeastern Georgia. His great-great grandfather settled in the area in the mid-1800s. His grandfather built a home in the swamp on what is now called Chesser Island. Wine labels from Cheese Island Winery boast an artist’s rendering of that home.

Dulpin Winery - David Fussell - Wine in the South

Dulpin Winery

David Fussell Sr., a school principal, was looking for a way to supplement his income when he heard about the price that Muscadine grapes were fetching in New York. He planted his first Muscadine vines in 1968. But in the 1970s, the price for grapes fell. Needing an outlet for his fruit, David decided to make wine.

Garden Gate Vineyards - Bo & Sonya Whitaker, owners - Wine in the South

Garden Gate Vineyards

In the hot North Carolina summers of Bo Whitaker’s youth, when the blueberries were ripe and ready for picking, his grandfather would make blueberry wine. For North Carolinians of Bo’s generation, this story is not unusual—except for the fact that his grandfather didn’t just make wine.

Hinnant Family Vineyards - Willard Hinnant and Bob Hinnant - Wine in the South

Hinnant Family Vineyards

Willard Hinnant, a dentist by trade, grew up on a farm in Pine Level, North Carolina. When he inherited the family land, the price for tobacco was low, and he needed another way for the farm to maintain an income.

Horton Vineyards - Dennis Horton, owner - Wine in the South

Horton Vineyards

Hermann, Missouri, is home to Stone Hill Winery, once the second-largest winery in the country. It’s also home to Dennis Horton. He was born there in 1945 and grew up hearing about the official grape of the State of Missouri, the Norton. As an adult, Horton developed a passion for winemaking and kept vines in his backyard.

Monticello - Gabriele Rausse - Wine in the South

Monticello

Gabriele Rausse came to Virginia in 1976 at the behest of his fellow countryman, Gianni Zonin, who needed a winemaker for his newest venture, Barboursville Vineyards. After a handful of years there, Gabriele left Baboursville to help establish Simeon Vineyards (currently Jefferson Vineyards), just a stone’s throw from Monticello. In 1984, while working at Simeon, he grafted the vines that were used to resurrect Thomas Jefferson’s beloved vineyard.

Oakencroft Vineyard & Winery - Felicia Warburg Rogan - Wine in the South

Oakencroft Vineyard & Winery

Felicia Warburg Rogan is widely considered the First Lady of Virginia Wine. In 1976 she relocated from New York to Virginia to marry John B. Rogan, a real estate developer and cattle rancher in Charlottesville. She befriended Lucy Morton, a noted viticulturist, and in 1983 her husband’s Oakencroft Farm became Oakencroft Vineyard and Winery.

Pearmund Cellars - Chris Pearmund - Wine in the South

Pearmund Cellars

Chris Pearmund is a Renaissance man. He has enjoyed careers in the military, in marine biology, and in sporting goods. But it was working in restaurants that lighted his passion for wine. And it was after a stint as a restaurateur in Washington, DC, that he changed paths once again and decided to become a winemaker.

Persimmon Creek Vineyards - Mary Ann Hardman - Wine In The South

Persimmon Creek Vineyards

Persimmon Creek, under the direction of Mary Ann Hardman and her husband Sonny Hardman, a pathologist, is perched at 2,100 feet, in the mountains of northeastern Georgia, not far from the Tallulah River Gorge. Their intent was to grow vinifera grapes in a region where moonshine had long been the favored alcoholic tipple.

RagApple Lassie Vineyards - Lenna Hobson - Wine in the South

RagApple Lassie Vineyards

Frank Hobson is a third-generation farmer. His family has raised various row crops, including tobacco, on the same land in Booneville, North Carolina, for a century. In 1995 he married, adding a new member to the family, his second wife, Lenna. And in an effort to insure that his family’s land remained agricultural, he added a new crop: grapes.

Still Pond Winery - Charlie Cowart - Wine in the South

Still Pond Winery

West of the city of Albany, in southwestern Georgia, not far from the Alabama line, three generations of Cowart men have grown grapes, first for fresh, eating grapes, now for wine. Charlie Cowart, the eldest of the three, managed a cattle farm and was the first to ponder the possibilities of wine, when he planted 50 acres of muscadines in the 1970s. His son, Charles, leveraged that dream when, in 2003, he began making his own lime of Still Pond wine from Cowart-grown grapes.

Tilford Winery & Farms - Robert Taylor - Wine in the South

Tilford Winery & Farms

Tilford Winery in the central Georgia town of Kathleen, is named in honor of Tilford Taylor, the father of proprietor Robert Taylor. The winery – as well as some of the grape arbors – is set behind Robert’s white clapboard home, in a suburban neighborhood. Robert, who works a full-time job at the Warner Robbins Air Force Base, believes his operation is the only one in Georgia owned and operated by an African American.

Westbend Vineyards - Lillian Kroustalis - Wine in the South

Westbend Vineyards

Jack Kroustalis, who had a career in the food equipment business, and his wife, Lillian, became interested in growing grapes after traveling to other vineyards around the country and the world. In 1972 they acquired some land near the west bend of the Yadkin River and planted a handful of European varietals: Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Kroustalises were the first to plant vinifera grapes in the Yadkin Valley.