By Jonathan Austin
Yancey County News
A man who has made wines and viticulture an important focus in his life
says that our Appalachian mountains are ripe for growing one of the most
popular and beneficial grapes in the world.
600-million-year-old Appalachian Mountains provide us with a unique
grape-growing environment,” says Chuck Blethen, a popular speaker on
wines and winemaking and the author of “The Wine Etiquette Guide -
Defense Against Wine Snobbery.”
When Blethen and his wife moved to
Madison County he says he looked around and was amazed at the amount of
south-facing slopes that would be perfect for growing grapes.
of the local farmers claimed that the weather is too cold or the
altitude is too high to grow grapes in this region,” Blethen has
written. But he countered: “Grapes will grow at high altitudes - like
the grapes growing in the French, Swiss, Austrian, Italian and German
Alps at 5,000-8,000 feet. One vineyard in Argentina is producing
fantastic grapes (and wine) at 9,800 feet! The secret is to select the
right grape to grow in these conditions.”
Others have seen the
potential in the soils of the Tar Heel state, going back to the 1500s,
when French explorer and navigator Giovanni de Verrazano discovered
muscadine grapes growing in the Cape Fear River Valley. According to the
North Carolina Department of Commerce, Thomas Jefferson noted North
Carolina taking the lead with wine culture in the 1800s, estimating its
“wine would be distinguished on the best tables in Europe, for its fine
aroma, and chrystalline transparence.”
The 1840 Federal Census listed
the state as the number-one wine producer in the U.S.; it remained one
of the highest-ranked until Prohibition in the early 1900s.
last two decades, grape growing has returned, exploding in the piedmont
of the state, but fear of failure due to elevation and temperature seems
to have kept mountain farmers wary of investing their property and
time in grapes.
Blethen, now the executive director of the Southern
Appalachian Viticulture Institute (SAVI), says the cold hardy variety of
muscadine eliminates those doubts, though he admits the soil needs
treatment and disease must be controlled for our hills to become
plentiful with vineyards.
According to SAVI, “Most of the soils in
the mountain counties of North Carolina are residual soils from 600
million years of weathering granite. These soils tend to be low pH, high
in aluminum ions, and be either hard-pan red clays or extremely rocky
residual soils. ‘Rich soils,’ those dark soils with lots of humus, tend
to occur in bottom land and are not particularly good for grapes because
the low lands are also where cold air accumulates and causes frost
damage to vines. The best farm sites for grapes are on the south or
southeast facing slopes – not on the bottom of the valleys or on the top
of the mountains,” he says.
And if the right grape is grown, SAVI
says “the mountains of Western North Carolina represent an ideal
location for propagation of vineyards and wineries. The job creation
possibility is large and the potential for agri-tourism income and tax
revenue for the state is significant.”
Adam McCurry, an agriculture
technician with the Yancey County Extension Service, said the agency
can’t recommend growing muscadine “until its been proven,” but added: “I
hope (Blethen) does great with it. He seems to have his ducks in a row.
He seems to be the type of person who can do it, if anyone can.”
diversification in agriculture is what will spell the future for Yancey
and other counties that once were heavily supported by the tobacco
crop. “It’s going to take a multi-versed plan to replace tobacco,”
McCurry said. “If this is part of it, fantastic.”
Blethen has put his
money where his mouth is. “I began propagating the wild mountain
muscadines using a little-known viticulture technique called greenwood
cuttings,” where the vine is cut in June and the cutting grown in
temperature controlled greenhouses. “It worked.We sold some of our
propagated grapevines to local farmers who wanted to see if they could
successfully grow them at their respective altitudes, too. If they
survive this coming winter, these farmers plan to start serious acreages
of the wild mountain muscadine.”
Blethen put in two 200 foot rows of
muscadine at his Marshall home in 2009. “If all goes as planned, we
will have brought to the forefront a native grape ... that is perfect
for the mountains - a high-altitude, cold-hardy, disease-resistant grape
that can be grown naturally, organically or bio-dynamically. The
potential for a wide range of products is exciting - juice, wine, grape
seed oil, preserves, pies, table fruit, raisins, balsamic vinegar and
other value-added products,” he said.
“The unique thing we have going
here is native, cold-hardy muscadine that we are propagating in our
greenhouse. These are disease resistant; perfect for organic farms.”
bonus is that muscadine vines produce many more grapes than other
traditional European variety. “Most of the other grapes you plant, you
put in 450-500 vines per acre,” he said. “Out of that acre you typically
get 3.5 to 4.5 tons per acre. But with muscadine, you only plant 200
vines per acre, and you typically get 8 to 18 tons per acre.”
biggest benefit may be what is inside the grapes and the leaves. That’s
where scientists have found resveratrol, a chemical produced naturally
by the plant when under attack by pathogens such as bacteria or fungi.
researchers recently reported in the journal Diabetes that low-birth
weight baby mice fed diets rich in resveratrol were significantly less
likely to develop metabolic syndrome, a condition marked by insulin
resistance, high blood pressure and cholesterol, and excess belly fat.
The condition is a well known risk factor for type 2 diabetes.
to Blethen and several highly regarded online sources, muscadines have
40 times the amount of resveratrol as other red grapes. Anti-cancer,
anti-inflammatory, lower blood sugar and other beneficial cardiovascular
effects of resveratrol have been reported, though most of these results
have yet to be replicated in humans.
“It’s definitely a very healthy
fruit,” said John McIntyre, who works with muscadine growers at the
Duplin County Agriculture Extension office.
“Here in Duplin we have a
group creating a muscadine smoothie” that they hope to get on the
market in the near future. Not only does the smoothie have the
resveratrol, he said, but a 15.2 ounce serving contains 16 grams of
“Resveratrol and other oxidents are going to be in the seed
and skin” of the grape, McIntyre said, “but the highest levels are going
to be in the leaf. An area of interest might be in drying the leaves,
grinding them up and incorporating them into a food product. That could
really boost the oxidants,” he said. “I think there’s still a lot to be
uncovered out there about muscadine.”
Research here in North Carolina
suggests that the muscadine contains oxidents that might be weapons in
the fight against a variety of cancers.
Dr. E. Ann Tallant and Dr.
Patricia E. Gallagher, researchers at Wake Forest, have published a
study suggesting that “extracts from muscadine grape seeds and
muscadine grape skins inhibit the growth of human lung, colon, prostate,
breast, skin, brain and leukemia cells in vitro, suggesting that
further studies are warranted to investigate their potential use in the
prevention or treatment of cancer.”
So there are a variety of markets
for muscadine-based products. Which brings us back to one simple
question: Can muscadine grapes be a sustainable crop in Yancey?
Blethen is upbeat, saying his vines survived the last three winters with temperatures in the single digits.
been growing here for thousands of years, in the mountain counties,”
Blethen said. “It takes four to five years to get production, but if you
maintain the vines, they will produce for 150 years.”
emphatic: “Once you get the vineyard established, it can be something of
value that you will be able to pass on to your children and