N.C. grape growers play vital role in state’s wineries

by | May 27, 2021

Wineries across North Carolina have been savoring the spotlight of N.C. Wine Month* during May, but it’s okay if you missed the memo (from highlights in lifestyle magazines, blogs and social media). You may have missed a special event, but there’s certainly no restriction on the best time to enjoy a North Carolina wine.

When you reach for a bottle of wine, you might not think about the agriculture behind it, but it’s worth at least a passing thought. Behind the North Carolina wines you love are many grape growers operating their own vineyards and supplying the wineries.

“A lot of work went into that bottle of wine, and people don’t realize it,” said George Barber who grows grapes for Duplin Winery.

Duplin Winery’s entrance in Rose Hill

Duplin is a good example of a North Carolina winery that sources grapes from independent vineyards. Those vineyards supply about 90 percent of the company’s grapes. Barber is one of 54 growers – all family operations – contracted to grow grapes for Duplin Winery. His White Hall Vineyards operation is in the Lisbon area of Bladen County, and he’s been growing grapes for Duplin Winery since he started a vineyard in 2001. He’s added more vines over the years and now tends about 80 acres. He said it’s allowed him and his wife to have a better life along with their three sons. The vineyard business has helped pay for two sons so far to go to college, with the third likely to follow soon.

“It’s been one of the best relationships we could have ever imagined. They’ve done everything they’ve said they would do, and I’ve done everything they’ve asked me to do,” Barber said. “I’m proud to be associated with Duplin and the Fussell family. They make the best sweet wine in the world.”

Like anyone who grows anything, Barber faces challenges from season to season and year to year. He knows his work is always at the mercy of the weather or something else that could create a problem. Carlos Munguia understands those challenges too. He manages Duplin Winery’s company-run vineyards across four locations in Duplin County. He also runs CML Farms, his own vineyard that contracts with Duplin. Munguia moved from Mexico about 25 years ago, and the letters in his farm name represent his three children.

Carlos Munguia

“Even though every year we pretty much do the same thing, every year brings different challenges. It could be weather, different diseases or insects, or lots of different things,” Munguia said. “Every year we also try to do something to try to improve – whether it’s with labor or equipment or new techniques that may help us.”

The ability to face those challenges and give them the attention they need is a big reason Duplin Winery contracts with families. Those families care for and work their own land and share the product with Duplin.

“My father has always told us, ‘the best fertilizer for a grape vine is the shadow of the owner,’” said Duplin Winery co-owner Dave Fussell. “In 1996, my family started running out of shadows, so we teamed up with our first contracted grower.”

That grower was Carl Baker in the Pink Hill area. From there, the company expanded to the current 54 contracted families.

“Dad was right,” Fussell said. “Their pride and their shadows over each vine, produce delicious grapes that have helped Duplin grow into one of the bestselling wines in America.”

Whether it’s muscadines that Duplin uses in eastern North Carolina or European varieties for other wineries further west, the care of grape growers has helped the state’s wineries produce great quality wines. Growers like Barber and Munguia also help create some geographic diversity among grape sources.

“We don’t want to have all our eggs in one basket,” Munguia said. “Especially if we have a weather event like a hurricane or hail, we need to be spread out.”

Munguia operating a grape harvester

Because of Hurricanes and late frost, Duplin Winery has added a bit more geographic diversity with two growers in South Carolina and one grower in each of the states of Mississippi, Georgia and Florida. Those growers outside North Carolina account for about 15 percent of Duplin’s grape tonnage.

Fussell mentioned that Duplin grows, produces and sells about half of all N.C. wines. So, based on his recollection of a state wine industry study, the winery and its contracted growers have about a $700 million impact on North Carolina.

“Our growers are owners that work the vineyards, and their efforts grow better grapes than we could hire people to grow. The incredible grower families we work with play a major roll in that economic impact in North Carolina,” Fussell said.

*Previously, N.C. Wine and Grape Month was September. In 2020, the state began recognizing May as N.C. Wine Month and August as N.C. Grape Month.