As perfectly pop-able muscadine grapes are poured into four half-barrels for this year’s annual Grape Stomp, Nadia Hetzel laughs. “Don’t worry, we don’t actually use these berries to make our
As perfectly pop-able muscadine grapes are poured into four half-barrels for this year’s annual Grape Stomp, Nadia Hetzel laughs. “Don’t worry, we don’t actually use these berries to make our wine!”
Hetzel is the official winemaker at Cypress Bend Vineyards in the Scotland County town of Wagram, and soon, she’ll judge four barefoot participants as they take their places knee-deep in the barrels and prepare to compete in the age-old art of “punching down” the grapes.
Grape stomping, a surprisingly gentle method of breaking up grapes to release their juices, isn’t practiced much anymore. But the annual Cypress Bend tradition gives people a good reason to come to the vineyard, learn more about the winemaking process, and “laugh themselves silly,” Hetzel says.
North Carolina winemakers like Hetzel take pride in their process, and many are happy to invite guests in — not just for a tasting, but also for a behind-the-scenes look at how their grapes go from ripe, juicy globes to the drink of the gods.
The grape stomp is just one of participants’ favorite events at Cypress Bend’s annual Harvest Festival. There’s also the opportunity to hop on a tractor-pulled trailer for a tour through the vineyard’s 35 acres of muscadine grapes.
“You can see our red variety, Noble, plus the two whites, Carlos and Magnolia. We use them in varying quantities to make blends and to produce very dry versions of the wines,” Hetzel says. “On the tour, you’ll learn more about the different ripening stages and some background on how the grapes are harvested.” Because of the vineyard’s unique climate, bottled wines have specific aromatics, like sea salt, tobacco notes, or raspberries and pineapples. “It’s really interesting to dive deeper into the vineyard and the fruit.”
While you’re visiting, ask the tasting room manager to point you in the direction of the Lumber River, about a half-mile from the vineyard. Walking toward the river, keep your eyes peeled for the vineyard’s picturesque, logo-inspiring scene. “It’s hard to miss that beautiful cypress tree bending out over the river,” Hetzel says.
Three miles from the Atlantic, ocean breezes mitigate summer’s stifling heat, and water drains quickly from sandy soils. “All that maritime influence comes together to make a high-quality wine,” says John Wright, whose family settled in Currituck in the mid-1800s.
Today, the Wrights’ 300-acre farm includes Sanctuary Vineyards, a winery that produces more than 7,000 cases of wine seasonally. All year-round, those vineyards are open for guests to come visit. But if you’re up for an adventure, come by boat.
On the Vineyard Voyage expedition, which runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day, guests hop aboard a skiff in the Outer Banks community of Duck, where a captain escorts them across the Currituck Sound to the 30-acre Sanctuary Vineyards. “Be prepared for a little splashing!” Wright says. People are surprised by how big the Currituck is. It has a sense of open water — not like a river cruise. “The water can white-cap, and you can feel the wind rushing across the bow.”
Upon your arrival, rest your sea legs with a ride on an open-air, 4×4 safari truck from the docks to the winery. “You’ll learn about the vineyards and get to see the production area,” Wright says. “We start making the wine around the second week of August, but in other times you can see the grapes being processed, moved from barrel to tank, and bottled.”
Then comes the really fun part. Cooled by those same breezes that make Sanctuary Vineyards’ such a success, enjoy the fruits of their labor with an outdoor tasting under a shady tent. “When it comes to North Carolina wines, many people don’t know what to expect,” Wright says. “We specialize in dry wines. Our white wines are aged in steel, so they’re crisp, and our reds are aged in French oak barrels, which smooths the tannins and makes the wine round to your palate.”
In 1972, David and Dan Fussell had no intention of becoming winemakers. But they did like the idea of growing North Carolina’s native muscadine and selling their harvest to “a big New York winery,” recounts Duplin Winery’s general manager Morgan Jackson. “Unfortunately, the bottom dropped out, and those two country boys were left with nothing to do with all those grapes.”
Those boys’ misfortune led to an entrepreneurial venture with legs. “Back in the ’70s, we were labeled the ‘factory of liquid sin,’” she says. “We’ve grown into the largest winery in the Southeast, contracting about 1,400 acres of grapes.”
Many people haven’t had the opportunity to taste a muscadine grape straight off the vine, Jackson says. But this September, at Duplin Winery’s week-long Harvest Festival, participants will get their fill.
This year’s 44th annual festival will provide an intimate setting where small groups can experience the heritage of the muscadine grape. “We’ll have private tastings out in our vineyards here at Rose Hill, and we’ll let you pick your own grapes and learn the best way to eat a muscadine,” Jackson says.
Dave and Jonathan Fussell, the next generation of winemakers, will be in attendance — along with the vineyard manager and winemaker — to release Duplin Winery’s new Christmas wines. “Our Harvest festivalgoers will be the first folks to taste those wines, in the vineyards where the wine’s grapes were grown,” Jacksons says.
After a tasting, guests will be treated to a private lunch from Duplin Winery’s Bistro Restaurant. “And then people can spend some time out on the vineyards,” Jackson says. “We’ll have fun events, like an opportunity to participate in your own mini grape stomp, a cornhole tournament, and light entertainment.”
Maybe the best part? “You can sample our famous grape hull pie, made from the skins and hulls of muscadine grapes. We harvest our grapes for the pie one time each year, and this is it.”