HOPE MILLS – Donnie Spell doesn’t buy his wine from the store. He makes his own – the old-fashioned way.
Just around the corner, Charlie Moreton is brewing up a batch of homemade beer in his garage.
These backyard brewmasters call it a craft. There’s personality in these pints of beer and barrels of wine that can’t be found in any store.
And if there’s one thing that can be said about Spell, he’s certainly not short on personality. He is often characterized by those who know him as a “character” who doesn’t have a serious bone in his body. But when it comes to making wine, Spell takes on a whole new attitude. He uses a recipe handed down from his grandfather and admits to tasting a bit of Grandpa’s persimmon wine when he was only 8 years old. Today, there are those who can’t get enough of Spell’s grape concoctions.
“When it comes to wine, I do it right,” he says. He bottles it in Mason jars, bought when they go on sale and later given away to family and friends. His Spellmonte brand labels, printed locally by Williams Printing Company on Bragg Boulevard, are about as commercial as his wine gets. Spell doesn’t use special products or instruments.
“I don’t even use yeast,” he says. “I’ve been making grape wine since before anybody even thought of using yeast.”
Spell usually makes about 120 to 140 gallons a year. He uses wooden barrels and makes three varieties – white, red and “real dark” wine, his strongest and most popular wine. Spell starts by harvesting and cleaning Scuppernong grapes and smashing them with an old-fashioned block ice crusher. His grandpa’s recipe tells the rest of the story:
“Melt 10 pounds of sugar with hot water (least amount of water you can get away with – less water the stronger the taste of the grapes) per five gallon bucket of grapes,” reads the instructions handed down for two generations. “At two weeks, taste wine to see if you need more sugar. Wine should be fermented and ready to drink in six to eight weeks.”
For years, Spell ran his own paving business. He recently sold the business but still wears an old ball cap that proclaims, “We Lay Hot Stuff.” Now, he spends time brewing batches of homemade wine inside the old-fashioned country store on his farm near Hope Mills.
It’s not far to The Church of the Apostles in the heart of Hope Mills where the Rev. Dan Alger is pastor. He’s also an amateur beer maker. With the help of a kit, a couple of buckets and a home kegging system, Alger can enjoy a cold glass of beer almost anytime. Instead of bottling his brew, Alger modified a chest freezer into a beer cooler. He uses the small torpedo-shaped kegs sometimes used for soda.
“It’s kind of an art for people who are better at it than I am,” he said. “There’s something fun about it, to make it and sit around and drink it with your friends.”
Alger has even inspired some of his parishioners. Charlie Moreton began to dabble and before he knew it, he was developing his own recipes. Next, he plans to grow his own hops.
Jason Vincent already has. He and Troy Sacquety brew up batches of homemade beer in Sacquety’s garage in the Kinwood neighborhood. Both men work on Fort Bragg, but they met through a beer forum online. Now, they have fun experimenting with the thousands of variations that go into beer making – changes in temperature, time and types of hops and yeasts. They get help from Julie Baggett, brewmaster at Huske Hardware House Restaurant. Huske and Mash House are two Fayetteville breweries and restaurants that make their own beer onsite. Vincent and Sacquety say they enjoy trying different kinds of beer, beer they would have a hard time finding in local shops.
“The beer is good, it really is,” Moreton says. “What you brew is going to be a premium beer, not watered down and processed.
“The thing is you actually learn the whole science behind it. It’s informative, educational – everyone should do it. Everyone used to do it.”
In the years before Prohibition, each region of North Carolina had its own premier wine and beer makers. North Carolina is the home of our nation’s first cultivated grape. The first recorded account of these grapes occurs in the logbook of Giovanni de Verrazano, French explorer and navigator, who, in 1524, discovered them in the Cape Fear River Valley. Sir Walter Raleigh’s explorers wrote in 1584 that the coast of North Carolina was “so full of grapes as the very beating and surge of the sea overflowed them … in all the world, the like abundance is not to be found.”
The Scuppernong, part of the muscadine grape family, is native to southern states but only North Carolina claims the original native Scuppernong as its own. According to published sources, Sir Raleigh’s colony is credited with discovering the famed Scuppernong “mother vine” on Roanoke Island and introducing it elsewhere. During the 17th and 18th centuries, cuttings of the mother vine were placed into production around a small town called Scuppernong in Washington County and along the Cape Fear River east of Fayetteville.
Today, muscadines are thriving again as vineyards spread across southeastern North Carolina. They have become big business for wineries such as Duplin, the oldest and largest in North Carolina. But still, backyard brewers like Donnie Spell continue to make their own, a ritual every harvest. Spell says he is teaching his nephew, Joseph Spell, how to make the wine to keep the family tradition going.
“Drinking wine is good for you if you do it in moderation,” says Spell. “It is healthy. If you don’t believe it, ask the doctor.”