New trends lead to new ideas

Cypress Bend Vineyards, Inc., In Wagram, N.C., has developed dry white wines from muscadine grapes in addition to more traditional sweet wines.

“It’s an uphill battle,” says Tina Smith, owner and chief financial officer for Cypress Bend Vineyards, Inc. in Wagram, N.C. “I think we haven’t gone nearly far enough in telling people about it.”

Growers are doing all they can to spread the news about the health benefits of muscadine grapes and the variety of wine that is available.

Scientists with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and Mississippi State University have even more reason to be excited about the muscadine. Research conducted by ARS horticulturist James B. Magee and Mississippi State nutritionist Betty J. Ector predicts that the muscadine will not only be an alternative crop for growers in the Southeast, but a new health food as well.

North Carolina has about 1,700 acres devoted to muscadine vineyards, represented mostly by smaller growers with 10 or 20 acres. About five years ago, acreage began to grow because of new interest in the grape’s health benefits. Continued research has confirmed muscadines have higher concentrations of antioxidant resveratrol. Additionally, a study by the National Institute of Health and the National Cancer Institute indicated that the extract of the skin of muscadine grapes can inhibit the growth of prostate cancer cells in a laboratory.

However, the growth in acreage is now at a standstill due to challenging economic times, but wineries in particular have not stopped promoting the grape. About 95 percent of muscadine production goes to wineries, and out of 100 wineries in North Carolina, approximately 20 are devoted to the muscadine.

Harvest manager Stan Kleiss watches machinery as it gathers grapes.

Getting the word out

As with many lesser-known commodities with limited marketing dollars, the key is to have a plan. The North Carolina Muscadine Grape Association, made up of a small but active group of producers, processors and marketers, has a strategic plan to increase recognition, production, value-added products and, ultimately, sales. Research, education, production, marketing and political action are the key areas of the plan.

While the plan details and assigns goals and activities to different sectors of the industry, most growers, and particularly wineries, are doing all they can to advance. The most effective activities include: lots of tasting, talking, competing, advertising and exploration of ancillary products.

Locally, Cypress Bend holds tastings and a Jazzy Friday event bimonthly with live music that attracts between 300 and 400 people. The 10,000-case winery also competes and advertises regularly, and has received 75 medals for its wine collection.

While the sweet wines are most popular in the South, palates vary across the country. Cypress Bend developed dry versions of muscadine wine, and Smith is working to get the word out.

“We try to get people in just so they can understand it, and we explain to people the muscadine can make a wonderful dry wine, but the fact is the people across the South like it sweet – it sells the best,” Smith says. “But for all other parts of the country, you have a lot of different palates.”

Duplin Winery Vineyard Manager Carlos Mendoza picks muscadines in the 40-acre vineyard in Rose Hill, N.C. Duplin also uses grapes from growers in the Southeast, with about 900 harvesting acres.

Smith held a wine tasting in Washington, D.C., last fall and was greeted with questions like, “Why are people hiding this?”

“They liked the fruit, the dry and the semi-dry,” Smith adds.

Trending sweetness

The biggest player in promoting the muscadine industry credits its growth to the burgeoning desire for sweet wine.

Duplin Winery of Rose Hill, N.C., has averaged between 20 and 30 percent sales growth over the past three years. The company received the Impact Hot Brand Award for each of those years from M. Shanken Communications, Inc., the leading publishing and research firm in the alcohol beverage industry.

To be considered for the honor, Duplin had to have at least 15 percent growth each year, and the minimum volume requirement was 200,000 cases. Also on the winners’ list, the internationally distributed E. & J. Gallo Winery. Duplin’s 335,000-case winery has a 40-acre vineyard and contracts with growers on about 900 acres currently harvesting. The wine is available in 11 states.

“Three years ago, when we won this award for the first time, people were wondering what muscadine wine really is – that it is sweet,” says Christy Farrelly, Duplin’s spokeswoman. “Duplin broke open the sweet market for beverages across the board. So, in terms of being trendsetting, Duplin has certainly opened the industry’s eyes.”

Farrelly adds that the spotlight and continued promotion of its wines is not just for Duplin. Duplin Winery is the exclusive provider of muscadines for all NutraGrape nutraceutical products. NutraGrape is also in Rose Hill, N.C., and is known for its supplements and anti-aging products.

“Duplin is committed to communities. They have helped other wineries become established, helped them grow, converting tobacco farms to vineyards,” she says. “We see over 100,000 people who come in to discover muscadine wine. The awards, the growth and Duplin’s weight in the industry is for all muscadine wineries, because they are showing there is a market for muscadine wines.”

Julian Warren of Warren Farms Vineyard, Pollocksville, N.C., sells grapes from his 18-acre vineyard to a winery, although he is jumping through all the necessary hoops to open a distillery. He says the competition is steep among the state’s wineries, but there are only a handful of distilleries.

“I think the trend is very good right now,” Warren says. “North Carolina is rated well in wine producing. The demand for nutraceuticals is growing as well as the fresh market.”

Fortunately, demand and supply appear to be in sync this season.

Carlos Mendoza, Duplin’s vineyard manager, says this year should yield a healthy crop. Other than the disease potential that muggy weather creates and harvesting during hurricane season, he expects 2011 to be a good year.

Farrelly confirmed that the winery’s processing plant has increased its capacity to receive grapes from growers and has shortened the window for delivery from six weeks to three. Duplin has expanded its capacity for presses, fermentation tanks, grape poppers and cold tank capacity.

“This enables the winery to have grapes closer to the peak of ripeness,” says Farrelly. “They partner with growers to make sure they have what they need to make sure the grapes are harvested at the peak of harvest.”

The rest of the story

Muscadine growers aren’t just relying on wine, juice and fresh market sales to carry them into new expansion. Growing in popularity are supplements made from the leftover muscadine components.

Cypress Bend sells its byproduct – seeds, skin and pomace – to Nature’s Pearl Products of Advance, N.C., which makes nutritional supplements, skin care and personal care products.

A newly released study by Wake Forest health sciences professors in Winston-Salem, N.C., investigated Nature’s Pearl muscadine grape seed and skin extract’s effects on seven types of human cancers. They found the extract inhibited growth for each.

Organic fruit and vegetable grower Ron Cottle of Cottle Strawberry Nursery, Inc. in Faison, N.C., has plans to make frozen muscadines available year-round for companies that make smoothies. He planted a 35-acre vineyard and is expecting his first yield this fall. Working with Whit Jones, a retired extension agent who specializes in muscadines, they’ve developed a cooperative with other growers, bringing the dedicated acreage to 65. Jones serves as president of the North Carolina Muscadine Grape Association.

Cottle says he plans to use the same process he has for blueberries to make the grapes available. He’ll freeze whole grapes and pack them in 30-pound boxes to ship to customers.

“We are growing specific varieties for this, and they are very, very sweet,” says Cottle. “The muscadine will be our flagship, but we will also make them available with strawberries and blueberries. We’ll also market to Popsicle companies, and there will be nothing added to it – the grape is what makes it sweet.”

Cottle grows 700 acres of fruit and vegetables and works with produce from other states and several countries.

“This is something we did off a whim, but everybody is very optimistic,” he says. “It is 100 percent fruit and it tastes phenomenal. We’ve had no one turn their nose up at it, and it’s hard to find something that tastes good and is healthy.”

Jones says the growers are exploring ways to grind up the whole grapes.

“We think we can move more fruit than the fresh market because we can sell this year-round,” he says. “It is a work in progress, but we are trying to promote all muscadine products. We’re hoping our smoothies will get it off the ground, but this would make great pie filling and even baby food.”

Jennifer Paire is a freelance writer based in Canton, Ga.