By Melissa Goslin
Tobacco decline hit North Carolina farmers hard. As one of the few crops to thrive in sandy soil, it had been a natural fit for regional farmers since the country was settled. But there was another indigenous crop that caught the eye of Sir Walter Raleigh and his crew… grapes. Raleigh sent Captain Arthur Barlow to explore the east coast of the Carolinas and Barlow wrote back that the Outer Banks were “so full of grapes as the very beating and surge of the sea overflowed with them.”
As farmers struggled to replace the cash-wielding crop of tobacco with something as viable, many turned to the vines already in their backyards. Most farms already had a few thriving vines used to make wines, jams and jellies for family and friends. As popularity grew, more farms expanded their vineyards and began producing commercial wines from the bronze (used for white wines) and black (used for red wines) Muscadine varieties. In 2001, the most common bronze variety, the Scuppernong, was named the North Carolina state fruit.
These eastern North Carolina vineyards and wineries share their love of all Muscadine varieties, most commonly Scuppernong, Carlos, Magnolia and Noble. Whether you want to pick your own grapes and try your hand at the age-old tradition of homemade wine or simply show up and sip the fruits of their labor, these spots won’t disappoint.
Tucked down 71st School Road, Auman Vineyards offers “You Pick” service throughout the season. The vineyard is named for its original owner, Loyd Auman. In 1937, Auman arrived in Fayetteville as an agriculture teacher at Seventy-First High School. After World War II, he returned and in 1968 became the school’s principal. His career was dedicated to education, but much of his heart always belonged to the land.
Auman’s son-in-law Roger McLean tends the vineyard alongside his son Andrew. “Loyd loved to see things grow,” McLean said. Just as Loyd E. Auman Elementary School commemorates Auman’s work in education, so does the vineyard keep alive his love for the land.
McLean and his son have expanded from Auman’s original vines to 250 rows, all growing Muscadine varieties. They've also gone organic, an important factor in encouraging guests to eat straight from the vine.
“It’s the best way to find out which grapes are your favorites,” McLean said.
McLean spends the season pulled up in his easy chair, handing out buckets and helping guests find their way around.
“Our farm is a great way for people to get to know North Carolina. We have a lot of folks, especially military, who come out just for that reason,” McLean said.
Daryl Locklear is no stranger to the Muscadine. Growing up, they used his grandmother’s homemade wine for communion at the church. His father Charlie learned at her side.
“It was always around me,” Locklear said.
As his father neared retirement, Locklear started researching ways to turn the old family place into a thriving business. It quickly became clear that the answer was doing something they’d already been doing for generations. Locklear didn’t want to be at the mercy of an annual crop, which could lose or make money in any given year. He wanted something more stable.
For Locklear, making the wine on-site was an important way to set them apart from other wineries.
“We already knew how to make the wine ourselves. And if you outsource to the same place as everyone else, well, you lose something,” Locklear said.
A computer engineer by day, Locklear takes a scientific, calculated approach to most things. There was a definite learning curve as he shifted from making 10-gallons of wine to producing 500-gallon batches, so he quickly went to work learning from larger wine makers.
“I realized I knew as much or more about Muscadine grapes as they did.” Locklear said.
When he relied on the processes used to make wine from other grape varietals, he lost pigment and gained an aftertaste.
“Homemade wine is all about a little of this, a little of that. It’s harder to finesse on a larger scale, but I learned,” Locklear said.
He took what he needed from the processes used by larger vineyards, but adapted it. His winemaking style is equal parts chemistry and instinct.
“It comes down to one thing. When it’s good, it’s good. And when It’s bad, it’s bad,” Locklear said.
Locklear wines can be purchased locally at Hardin’s Grocery Store in Rockfish or Triangle Wine Company in Southern Pines. However, nothing beats their free on-site tastings or a full glass of their popular semi-sweet Noble wine during Wine Down Friday, held every other weekend in the vineyard.
Lu Mil Vineyard
In Bladen County, the Muscadine grape is not just a crop… it’s an event. Lu Mil Vineyards is home to the NC Grape Festival in October, with food and craft vendors on site. The festival also encourages guests to roll up their pant legs in the annual grape stomp.
“We have a whole collection of Lucille Ball glasses because people associate the stomp with the famous scene of her making wine,” said Lu Mil Marketing Director, Karla Ward.
With nine cabins, a guesthouse and several event locations scattered throughout the fifty-eight acres of grapes, there is always something happening at Lu Mil, from corporate team building events and family reunions to smaller luncheons and showers. Pedal and golf carts encourage guests to get out and explore the land and the Pedal Party is a moving homage to the ingenuity of the Taylor family. The eighteen-person bike is a party on wheels, and it speaks to the innovative, fun-loving family that created it.
Lu Mil is named for Lucille and Miller Taylor, whose son Ron Taylor now owns the vineyard. Along with a passion and appreciation for the land, Taylor inherited a multi-generational legacy of inventing, patenting, manufacturing and selling farm equipment. After the tobacco buy out, the Taylors got out in front of the Muscadine crop boom and invented an East coast vine harvester and pruner, both of which they sell to other vineyards.
The Muscadine grape is famous for its sweet flavor, but as Ward points out, it’s more versatile than that. By knowing when to pick at just the right time, winemakers create wines that appeal to every palate. In honor of their Cumberland County customers, Lu Mil added the semi-dry Old Cumberland to their repertoire.
“Old Cumberland is one for people who think they don’t like Muscadine wines. They think it will be too sweet, but they try it and love it,” Ward said.
In addition to wines, Lu Mil grapes are used in a wide range of jams, jellies and other products. After unsuccessfully searching for a local company to process their fruit under their private label, Taylor started D’Vine Foods to fill the need himself.
“We source fresh fruits and vegetables from local farmers here in North Carolina to make all our products,” Ward said.
Their salsas and relishes are included in the wine tastings and an alcohol-free tasting ensures everyone is included in the fun. In the spirit of invention, Lu Mil wine slushies provide a popular twist on an old favorite. With a “You Pick” section in the back of the vineyard and all day fishing in the stocked pond, Lu Mil encourages families to make a day of it.
“Lucille and Miller would be so proud of their son. He’s made sure their land stayed a working farm, viable and full of joy. His main focus is sharing their love of the land and creating healthy products for others to enjoy,” Ward said.