North Carolina Wine History
North Carolina is the home to our nation's first cultivated wine grape -- the Scuppernong.
Although muscadines thrive in the piedmont and coastal plain of all southeastern states, only
North Carolina claims the original native Scuppernong as its own. The Scuppernong is a bronze
muscadine and the official state fruit of North Carolina.
The first recorded account of these grapes occurs in the log book
of Giovanni de Verrazano, French explorer and navigator, who discovered
them in 1524 in the Cape Fear River Valley. He wrote that he saw,
"Many vines growing naturally there that without doubt would yield excellent wines."
North Carolina's first commercial winery, Medoc Vineyard, was founded in 1835 by Sidney Weller. Medoc was located in the community of Brinkleyville in Halifax County. Weller had twelve acres of white and black muscadines. He reported in 1853 that Medoc produced 60 barrels of wine annually. The wine was distributed throughout the eastern United States and sold for $1-6 per gallon. Weller even produced a champagne out of scuppernong grapes.
Winemaking in North Carolina thrived and before the Civil War, there were 25 wineries located in such places as Tokay, Medoc, Cognac, Niagara, Vina Vista, and Catawba. The war sent many vintners heading North and disrupted wine making in the South.
After the war, winemaking again returned to the state and grapes flowed into wineries at Castle Hayne, Conover, Eagle Springs, Gibson, Littleton, Louisburg, Manteo, Murphy, Peachland, Pettigrew State Park, Holly Ridge, Samarcand, Tryon, Warrenton, Willard, Edenton and Icard.
North Carolina’s Prosperous Winemakers
Paul Garrett, born in Edgecombe County in 1863, became North Carolina's most famous and prosperous wine maker. In 1865 his father, Francis Marion Garrett, and wealthy uncle, Charles Garrett, purchased the Medoc Vineyard located in Halifax County. In 1900 at age 37, Paul Garrett struck out on his own, following sales commission disputes with new owners, and established his own winery at Littleton. During the next 16 years Paul Garrett built a nationwide wine empire by outbidding other wineries for Scuppernong grapes, buying everything he could find.
Garrett developed a new label "Virginia Dare" and began promoting American wines for Americans. Virginia Dare white and red became the nation’s leading selling wine. It won the grand prize in the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition in 1904. According to the sixth federal census, North Carolina was the leading wine producing state in the U.S.
When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Garrett was the only vintner ready again to sell wine. Virginia Dare red and white immediately went on sale in every wet state. Garrett also launched the first singing commercial ever broadcast for wine, "Say it again....Virginia Dare."
In 1950, ten farmers in Onslow County planted 25 acres of scuppernong grapes based upon a promise of a market when production started by an out-of-state winery. In 1955, when these grapes came into full production, the out-of-state winery would not buy them at any price.
Raymond A. Hartsfield, one of the growers, decided to build a winery to furnish a local market for grapes. The winery was named Onslow Wine Cellars and sold under the "Onslow" label. The demand for scuppernong wine was rising in the northern wet states. Hartsfield and a few growers began enlarging their vineyards.
In 1961, this growth was further spurred when Richard Wine Cellars in Virginia offered North Carolina farmers 5-year contracts to grow muscadines at $200 per ton and provided vines to plant. A vineyard planting boom began. As plantings increased it became evident that research was needed to support this growing industry.
Senator Carl Vitners of Onslow County introduced legislation in 1965 which appropriated $166,000 for grape and wine research and grower education. Dr. Bill Nesbitt, of N.C. State University, started breeding new muscadine varieties suited for wine making and testing bunch grapes suited for North Carolina climates. Dr. Dan Carroll set up an experimental winery in NCSU's Food Science Department to improve processing techniques and recipes for muscadine wine.
The Industry Begins to Flourish
By 1968, when Raymond Hartsfield sold his winery to Richard Wine Cellars, North Carolina had no wineries. In order to stimulate the development of new wineries, the state legislature in 1972 reduced the annual winery license fee from $1,000 to $100 and cut the state tax on native table wine from 60 cents per gallon to 5 cents per gallon. This spawned several new economic developments:
North Carolina’s Modern Wine History
In June 1985, the state lost its preferential tax rate for native wines due to the Supreme Court ruling in the Bacchus Case. North Carolina wine products were returned to the higher state excise tax rates that were being collected on wines produced out of state. The effect of this ruling greatly hindered the growth and competitiveness of our wineries.
As a result, legislature established the North Carolina Grape Council in 1986. The Grape Council was charged with stimulating the expansion of North Carolina's grape and wine industry by funding research studies and marketing/promotional efforts. In 1987, the council successfully lobbied for legislation that appropriated the majority of the state excise tax collected from wines bottled in North Carolina to the council to be utilized to fund research and promotion.
The North Carolina wine industry has grown tremendously since the 1990s. The number of wineries has grown five fold in the past decade, from 21 wineries in 2000 to more than 100 today. North Carolina's wine and grape industry generates an economic impact of more than $1 billion, and is also home to three American Viticultural Areas (AVA's): Yadkin Valley, Swan Creek, and Haw River Valley.
Yadkin Valley, North Carolina’s first AVA in 2003, is located in the northwest part of the state and bordered to the west by the Blue Ridge Mountains. This true river valley contains the highest concentration of wineries. Swan Creek was established in 2008, includes five wineries, and is also located in the northwest within the Yadkin Valley. Haw River Valley is the third and newest AVA established in 2009. It is located in central North Carolina and includes six wineries.
In 2005, the council moved from the N.C. Department of Agriculture to the Department of Commerce's Division of Tourism, Film & Sports Development. Recent legislation has reformed the council into muscadine and vinifera committees, and refocused efforts to promote winery tourism across the state with funding through the state's general fund. See the list of committee members. In 2012, the council was transferred back to the Department of Agriculture.
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