Archivist and historian Alexia Jones Helsley developed an interest in North Carolina’s grape-growing and winemaking history while doing research in the western part of the state. She discovered a tradition ripe with success and failure, dreamers and risk-takers.
Archivist and historian Alexia Jones Helsley developed an interest in North Carolina’s grape-growing and winemaking history while doing research in the western part of the state. She discovered a tradition ripe with success and failure, dreamers and risk-takers. Her book, A History of North Carolina Wine: From Scuppernong to Syrah, weaves a narrative that stretches from the early 1700s, when English explorer John Lawson set out to plant a vineyard and make wine on Lawson Creek near New Bern, to 2010, when North Carolina boasted 90 wineries and ranked eighth in the nation in wine production and ninth in grape production.
North Carolina’s wine story relies on the abundance of the native muscadine, Vitis rotundifolia, which includes the scuppernong, the official state fruit. Colonists found scuppernongs growing wild along the coast. Legends proclaim the Mother Vine on Roanoke Island the oldest scuppernong vine in the state. Duplin Winery, North Carolina’s oldest operating winery, founded in 1976 in Rose Hill, produces more than 1 million gallons a year of sweet muscadine wine.
Despite the state’s reliance on native grapes, many envisioned European grape cultivars, Vitis vinifera, such as chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, growing in Southern soil. But the temperate climate, with warm summer nights and late spring frosts, doomed early attempts. In 1972, Jack Kroustalis defied naysayers, established Westbend Vineyards in Lewisville, and produced North Carolina’s first Vitis vinifera wine. Today, growers in the western and Piedmont regions continue to plant more vinifera varieties, while the native muscadine still reigns in the east.
Helsley traces the highs and lows of North Carolina’s wine story: the antebellum development stages when vineyards accompanied most plantations, and the Civil War years when the Confederacy believed transporting and manufacturing spirits took costly cargo space and grain; the height of the industry’s postbellum rebirth in 1900 when 25 wineries operated across the state, and the day North Carolina decided to adopt Prohibition in 1909 when many believed temperance would cure society’s troubles. Historical black-and-white photos add detail throughout, and 16 pages of contemporary color photos depict the vibrant grape and wine industry that now exists as a testament to the dreamers and risk-takers of the past.
The History Press. 2010, 126 pages, paperback, $19.99.