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The Art of Wine | By Allison Williams


WAGRAM – Jim McClanathan is part science geek, part artist. A single drop, actually a drop of a drop, will be the secret ingredient to the newest wine at Cypress Bend Vineyards. For the past few months, McClanathan (pictured top right) has been measuring, testing, tasting and sniffing small batches of wine flavored with chocolate, but if the experiment works, Cypress Bend Vineyards will have its first chocolate wine on a large scale. It takes the brain of a mathematician but the heart of an artist. McClanathan has both. But he never imagined that a degree in biology and a career spent in the lumber industry would serve him well as a winemaker. But here he is by turns vintner, inventor, electrician, mechanic and occasional farmer. He’s a native of Michigan who now ties his livelihood to one of the South’s most storied vines, the muscadine. Rows and rows of flowering grapevines line the driveway of Cypress Bend near the small town of Wagram and the smaller community of Riverton, a hamlet not far from the banks of the Lumber River. The closest city is Laurinburg though Fayetteville is only about 45 minutes away. This land has been handed down to generations of Smiths who have farmed along the banks of the Lumber since 1807, sometimes trying their hand at homemade wine. More than 200 years later, Dan and Tina Smith would turn muscadine wine into a full-fledged business. Cypress Bend wines have claimed 73 medals in just three years, including the coveted Muscadine Cup awarded at the North Carolina State Fair. For McClanathan, as a winemaker, it’s a personal point of pride, but he also considers it a sign of the times that Southern wine is finally earning the respect it deserves. California gets all the glory, but an argument could be made that the South had a 100-year head start in the wine business. President Thomas Jefferson grew grapes at Monticello in Virginia. And by 1840, North Carolina was the leading wine producer in the Union, a distinction it soon lost to Georgia and, eventually, to states farther north and west. From the beginning, oenophiles debated the merits of native grapes vs. vinifera grapes. The scuppernong is the nation’s first cultivated wine grape and native to North Carolina. At the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition of 1904, a North Carolina wine made from scuppernongs won the grand prize for sparkling wines, besting efforts from California and France. Still, muscadine wines were considered inferior, the sticky-sweet stepchild to the more refined vinifera varieties. That was then, this is now. Childress Vineyards of Lexington, owned by NASCAR racing legend Richard Childress, works with both muscadines and viniferas. Duplin Winery, one of the largest producers of muscadine wine in the country, thrives as North Carolina’s oldest vineyard, even after it struggled in the 1980s when the state lost its preferential tax rate for native wines in a Supreme Court ruling. Legislation later appropriated taxes to be utilized for the research and promotion of muscadine wine. Since then, the North Carolina wine industry has grown tremendously. The number of wineries quadrupled in the 2000s, growing from 21 wineries in 2000 to 89 today. North Carolina is also now home to three American Viticultural Areas: Yadkin Valley, Swan Creek and Haw River Valley. And muscadine vineyards are showing that their wines – both dry and sweet – are worthy of the same attention as any chardonnay, cabernet or merlot with the added benefits of resveratrol, a substance in red wine that has been shown to provide health benefits to the heart. A recent analysis at Louisiana State University found that muscadine wine had up to six times the amount of resveratrol than red wine from Spain. At Cypress Bend, the blossoms will soon become great gob stoppers of muscadine grapes. Jim McClanathan sets his calendar to the rhythms of the land – pruning, replanting, vine tying and worrying. He leaves the farming to the Smiths but still, the essence of good wine is a good grape, and he doesn’t rest easy until the harvest is in. The harvest sets off a new chain of events: crushing, pumping and, eventually, bottling. Just 30 minutes after picking, the grapes are crushed. Last year, the Smiths picked roughly 200 tons of grapes from 35 acres of land. They are weighed then poured into a crusher made in Italy. Reading equipment manuals originally written in Italian and translated, sometimes badly, into English was a learning experience but that’s when McClanathan put a background in running lumber mills to good use, streamlining the repetitive process of crushing and straining into a smooth flow. Once the grapes are crushed, the juice is stored in gleaming silver tanks visible from the Cypress Bend tasting room, a charming space overlooking the vineyards, and McClanathan becomes scientist once again as the juice’s sugar content is measured by the “brick.” The magic number is 21 percent, the time when fermentation can begin. Yeast, the secret ingredient, is added. There are hundreds of strains of yeast, each with its own power to affect the flavor or complexity of a particular wine, so winemakers tend to guard their recipes closely. The wine then ferments in the tanks, white at a chilly 60 to 65 degrees, red fermenting on the “must” of the grape, its skin, seeds and pulp. After partial fermentation, the red is pumped back into the press and then back to the tank once again to finish fermentation until time for bottling. All the while, McClanathan is constantly testing and tasting, sniffing and eyeballing his finished product. McClanathan gently swirls a glass as he talks. “Everybody has a good time when they’re drinking a good glass of wine,” he says. “I’m the person who makes them happy.”