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Sweet Grapes

The Fussell family and sweet wine fans have turned Duplin Winery into the biggest muscadine operation in America. Its impact on agriculture is pretty big, as well.

By Jamie Cole | Photos By Jamie Cole

 Jonathan Fussell (left), with his older brother David.

Jonathan Fussell (left), with his older brother David.

If muscadine grapes could talk, they might sound a little bit like the Fussell brothers of Rose Hill, N.C.

The native Southern grapes would definitely have an accent, for instance. Like the Fussells, they would be honest about hard times. And they might be a little bit defensive. See, the muscadine is the Rodney Dangerfield of grapes. It gets no respect.

Taken on its own merits, it’s hard to imagine why the mighty muscadine—also known as the scuppernong—needs a defense. It’s a tough grape. The fruit itself is twice as big as that of the European varieties more common in wine culture (pinot, cabernet, chardonnay, etc.), and though all grapes contain high levels of resveratrol, the anti-oxidant, in their skins, some studies have shown muscadines to contain 6 to 10 times more than other varieties. The thick-skinned grape has evolved and thrived in the Southeast; in fact, the oldest surviving grapevine in North America, the 400-year-old “Mother Vine,” resides in North Carolina and is, naturally, a scuppernong.

Still, some folks look down their upturned noses at sweet wines. “The industry in California has done a good job of promoting dry wine as the sophisticated thing to drink,” says Jonathan Fussell, who with his older brother David took over the family business, Duplin Winery (www.duplinwinery.com), from their father, David Sr., several years ago. “We sort of use that lack of respect as motivation for what we do,” David says.

The Fussells earned their thick skins through some lean times. When David Sr. left the education profession in the late 1960s to farm—something he had always wanted to do—he started out, like many of his neighbors in Duplin County, in the hog business.

One neighbor who started around the same time, Wendell Murphy, went on to earn his fortune with Murphy Family Farms, part of the Smithfield Foods empire. On the Fussell place, though, things turned out just a little differently. “Back then,” says Jonathan, “your hog house and lagoon weren’t separate. So one day Dad is cleaning out the hog house, and he falls into the lagoon.” That was enough to sour David Sr. on the hog business. “So Dad says, ‘I gotta do something different,’ ” Jonathan recalls.

Enter the sweet muscadine.

If the grower is good and Mother Nature is kind, he can get 8 tons per acre from muscadine vines.

If the grower is good and Mother Nature is kind, he can get 8 tons per acre from muscadine vines.

David Sr. and his brother Daniel planted 10 acres of grapes in 1972, planning to sell the fruit to a winery in New York state at a nice return. “They were gonna get $350 a ton, which was a pretty good price,” says David. The vines take about 4 years to mature, though, and by the time the elder Fussell brothers were ready to sell, supply had outpaced demand, and the price dropped to $125 a ton. Flush with grapes but having no viable cash market for them, David Sr. and Daniel started making wine themselves.

Duplin made its early impact in the industry selling a wine that was popular “thanks to a low price point,” Jonathan says. At the time, wine made in North Carolina wasn’t taxed, while wine imported from out of state was. That helped Duplin sell its low-cost wine to the tune of about 40,000 cases a year. In the mid-1980s, when the state tax law changed and Duplin couldn’t beat larger competitors on price, they lost their distribution. Sales plummeted to 3,000 cases. David Sr. went back to teaching, and the family carried on for several years selling 5,000 cases or so a year. David joined the business in 1991, Jonathan in 1998, and both were steeped in the wine trade. “Mom and Dad couldn’t afford day care, so the winery was where we spent our days,” says David. The younger Fussell brothers knew the family could make a high-quality product, and wanted to get their wines in front of more people.

David eventually took over the production and farming side of the business, while Jonathan entered to focus on image. “We started doing dinner shows, tastings . . . things to get people to the winery,” Jonathan says. Then came the studies in the late ’90s trumpeting red wine’s health benefits. For consumers who preferred a sweet, easy drink to the acquired taste for dry wine, the muscadine and its resveratrol-rich skin was primed to serve the market, and so was Duplin Winery.

“Dad really made the most of it,” says Jonathan, noting that while they’re restricted by law from advertising the health benefits of muscadine, David Sr. took the story to news outlets. Between 1995 and 2000, case sales tripled, and press savvy combined with word of mouth helped the business soar. “Our sales just sky-rocketed,” says David.

The timing turned out to be perfect for some growers of another staple of North Carolina agriculture. Just as muscadine started to take off, tobacco faced an uncertain future in the wake of the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement. As tobacco farmers were encouraged to look for other income sources from the small acreage used for the leaf, muscadine emerged as a viable alternative.

“A lot of the growers we have, the majority were tobacco growers. Their fathers and grandfathers were tobacco growers,” says David. The Fussell family fashioned a growing agreement based in part on typical poultry and hog contracts—“we just kinda changed the wording a little bit,” says David—and today 47 families grow grapes for Duplin.

“If the grower is good and Mother Nature is kind, he can get 8 tons per acre from muscadine vines,” says David. At around $500 per ton, the gross return per acre is close to that of tobacco, with lower production costs as well. “I think we’ve helped save a handful of family farms by getting into business with them, and of course they’ve helped us, too, by providing us with really good, delicious grapes,” says David.

10% of cases sold go out the door at the retail store.

10% of cases sold go out the door at the retail store.

Today, the Duplin enterprise is two businesses: Duplin Winery, the production and distribution arm that David runs, and Duplin Wine Family, managed by Jonathan. The latter includes the Rose Hill visitors’ center that welcomes 100,000 people a year for tours, tastings and events. Just like the old days, multiple family members work for the winery and contribute to its success.

Jonathan says 10% of overall cases sold each year go out the front door of the visitors’ center, and while that’s significant enough, the impact of the agritourism business goes way beyond sales. Visitors get to sample up to a dozen of Duplin’s 30 muscadine wines, sparkling wines and beverages in a tasting. “In my opinion, the single most important thing is getting people to come to your place, sample your product and see what you do,” says Jonathan.

That plan, along with the well-publicized health benefits and simple drinkability of muscadine wine, has led to distribution in 11 states in retail outlets like Wal-Mart, Food Lion, Ingles and Bi-Lo. Pretty impressive, especially since David Sr.—who is still involved in the business—remembers the days when he drove loads of wine to distributors in converted hog trailers.

Sounds like a far cry from the massive wine impresarios on the West Coast that Duplin now, however improbably, finds as competitors. In 2009, Duplin was the only East Coast winery to be named a “Hot Brand” by beverage industry magazine Market Watch, and one of only three outside of California on the prestigious list. Go to wine country in California, and “there you talk to some mighty fancy people,” says David. “Over here, we’re just as country as they come, and we have been blessed to have these grapes growing here naturally.”

Retailers across the country sold more than 330,000 cases of Duplin’s sweet vino last year. Those are Napa-level numbers. So take that, cabernet. David says he “never dreamed” he’d see his family business on a list with the Gallos and the Mondavis, but concedes, “We do make some of the best sweet wines in the whole wide world.” Critics agree. Duplin’s Hatteras Red and Scuppernong White are multiple award winners. More importantly, sweet wine is trending upward, and even the California wine families are taking notice, producing their own “moscato” vintages.

Pretty sweet indeed. And definitely worthy of some respect.

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