Let’s say that you inherited a vineyard in North Carolina but had absolutely no idea what you were doing. You might first stroll through the bucolic rows, inspecting the
Let’s say that you inherited a vineyard in North Carolina but had absolutely no idea what you were doing. You might first stroll through the bucolic rows, inspecting the grapes, drinking in the fresh air. Quelle vie! you’d say in perfect French. You’d watch the sun set, marveling at nature’s bounty.
Nature, though, has other plans for your vineyard. You know what loves your grapes as much as you do? Japanese beetles. They munch on your leaves and skeletonize them. Your vines might come down with Pierce’s disease, caused by bacteria that clog the vessels that allow the water to flow. If you don’t prune in the right way, you get fewer grapes, year after year. All of these things sap your vines’ energy, their ability to drink, and their will to make fruit. If you don’t spray, trim, and take care of your plants, your once-beautiful vineyard is a goner within three or four years.
It takes roughly 100 hours of physical, precise work every summer to keep a single acre of grapes producing what a winery needs. It’s work that, for most of us, is invisible. “You rarely see anyone working in a vineyard,” David Bower says, “because they’re out before noon.”
Bower and his colleague Sarah Bowman are walking through a vineyard in Dobson, just around the corner from Surry Community College, where they both work. Bower teaches enology (winemaking), plus wine business and marketing, while Bowman handles viticulture (grape growing). Bowman turns down a row of Traminette grapes. First, she points at the ground, which is less enticing than the vine growing above it but just as important — erosion is another thing that’ll wreck your vineyard. “If you’re not careful,” she says, “your soil is gonna end up in the Yadkin River.”
Bowman shows off some fescue grass that she’s planted underneath the vines. The presence of fescue might lessen the need for herbicides. It could outcompete other weeds. It should help water seep into the soil better, instead of simply running off. Or it could be home to new pests. Regardless, Bowman is giving it a try because the people whom she teaches want to know how to do this hard work sustainably. “Our students want to know how to grow grapes that they feel good about,” she says.
In another row, she puts her hand underneath a carefully manicured cluster of leaves and pulls them back to reveal bunches of green Chambourcin grapes, a hybrid variety that does well in North Carolina’s hot, humid climate. It’s not as susceptible to disease. It’s more forgiving and takes less work. It’s the Goldilocks of vines. Not too vigorous. Not too weak. And it makes a lot of grapes. Some clusters can weigh up to half a pound. “See?” Bowman says proudly. “It’s just loaded with fruit.”
“A grower’s dream,” Bower says.
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These almost five acres belong to the Shelton-Badgett NC Center for Viticulture and Enology, which is the only two-year college degree program with a vineyard and a winery on the Eastern Seaboard. It traces its beginnings back to 1999, when the burgeoning Yadkin Valley winery scene had grown to the point where it needed a trained, able workforce. The first batches of wine at the college were fermented in trash cans.
Eventually, when things got up to speed, Surry Community College helped provide that manpower to the tune of a dozen or so new workers a year, trained in everything from pesticide application to marketing. It’s hard work. Sometimes, projects that start at 4 p.m. don’t finish until 11.
“It’s not easy,” Bower says.
“You can’t sugarcoat things,” Bowman adds. “The seasons and vines aren’t going to wait for you.”
At least the students have good equipment to train with. A large oscillating de-stemmer sits behind the winery. Inside, there’s a bottling line funded by the General Assembly. There are $15,000 tanks that require decidedly unglamorous labor (“Winemaking is 90 percent cleaning,” Bower says). There’s a small sensory lab where glasses of finished wine are passed through an opening in a wall. It’s next to a large room filled with beakers and across the hall from a centrifuge. “If you’re not coupling chemistry with sensory, you’re up a creek real fast,” Bower says.
The lesson that first-year students learn is that winemaking is an intense, expensive, laborious experience because, in a way, they’re fighting nature. North Carolina is traditionally the home of muscadines, a native grape. But bunch grapes are outsiders. To survive, they need a ton of care. To thrive, an owner needs to pour in cash. An initial investment of millions of dollars might not pay off for a decade. It’s not a place to make mistakes.
But Surry Community College is. Make mistakes here, Bowman and Bower tell their students, and you’ll learn before it counts. Experiment here, and you might make something wonderful. And here, you’ll think about not only how to create wine but also how to create something that people will want to drink. At seminars, Bower often says that every single winery needs to have a story to sell its wine. When he’s on the road, telling the story of the program, Bower talks a lot with people who think they know about North Carolina wine. That it’s a little too sweet. That it’s somehow lower quality. No, Bower will say when he goes into shops and restaurants, and he’ll often have the proof in a bottle in his car. You can’t miss him. He’s got a red Volkswagen with “WINE” on the license plate.
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It’s less than a five-minute drive from the vineyard back to the winery on campus. There, Bower and Bowman tell the story of Surry Cellars, the brand name that students use to sell the wine that they make. For everything that Surry Community College has, it doesn’t have a tasting room (give it a decade, Bower hopes). By law, colleges can’t make products that compete with private industry, so there are a lot of restrictions in place on where and how much can be sold. But that hasn’t stopped students from experimenting.
Among the big, tall tanks, Bower pops the top off of a bottle of experimental Surry Labs wine that’s sealed not with a cork or a screw-top, but with a cap. This, he says, is student-made from Regent grapes. It’s fermented using natural, local yeast that appears on everything from wild kudzu flowers to dandelions to rocks. It’s unfiltered, and it contains no preservatives. “As natural as it gets,” Bower says, swirling it around in his glass before taking a taste.
That bottle comes from months of hard work in the hot sun, followed by patience, precision, and preaching. It’s a glass that tells the story of the Yadkin Valley. “If you can make wine here,” Bower says, “you can make it anywhere.”
Learn more about the Shelton-Badgett NC Center for Viticulture and Enology, including where to buy Surry Cellars wines, at ncviticulturecenter.surry.edu.