“When I’m in a vineyard with my hands on the vines, I feel like I’m communicating with nature,” says Chuck Blethen, proprietor of Jewel of the Blue Ridge Vineyard in Madison County. “I know it sounds crazy, but the grapevines talk to me.”
Formerly, Blethen traveled extensively overseas for business, but on his days off, you’d find him in a distant vineyard lending a hand. Blethen hopes to populate the hills of Western North Carolina with grapevines the way they inform the rural landscapes of France and Italy.
“We have wonderful soil, the rain is great, and there are 60 or so varieties of grapes that are cold-hardy,” Blethen explains. The North Carolina farmers he met were skeptical about any muscadine (also called scuppernong) grapes surviving winter, but Blethen believes he knows better. “I raised grapes in Minnesota, where it’s 40 below in January,” he boasts.
Still, sweet muscadines have proven stronger growers in warmer climates, including just down the mountain in South Carolina. A memorable passage by Rebecca Bearden in the Southeast Farm Press blog praises the muscadine’s unbeatable flavor profile: “This intoxicating grape is God’s way of reminding your taste buds that they are alive and well and have important work to do.”
But even in the best of climates, growing grapes is no easy task. The setup costs run $5,000-$10,000 per acre, depending on how much work you do yourself. Then you wait five to seven years before harvesting your first crop. Harvesting is a painstaking process; the steep slopes require each bunch to be picked by hand, and they don’t all ripen at once.
To keep costs down, Blethen and wife Jeannie installed the electric bear fence themselves.
Finally, this fall, the Blethens are celebrating the very first harvest of their native, cold-hardy, carefully propagated and trademarked Katuah Muscadine™ grapes, a goal long in the making.
“We bought this 20 acres because it had a large south-facing slope, which is ideal for a vineyard,” Blethen says.
Although he has finally interested local farmers in growing cold-hardy grapes, they are typically conservative in their approach, experimenting with only a few rows. But he’s attracted some landowners more willing to take the plunge: those who have inherited the family farm. Often they are professionals living in nearby cities. They don’t want to sell the family’s land, and they can afford to invest in it without the need for an immediate profit.
“I refer to muscadines as a ‘heritage crop,'” says Blethen. It’s a term heard a lot these days in the sustainable-food movement, but he puts it in context: “Once you get them going, for the next 50 or 100 years, you’ve got a crop. The goal is to produce something of value for your children or grandchildren.”
The Blethens, who are also winemakers, plan to eventually produce grape juice with their own new “baby.” Currently they sell Katuah Muscadine™ seedlings, hold seasonal training workshops, and offer consulting services and public tours.
Chuck has even published a book, The Wine Etiquette Guide. Its subtitle, besides showing his sense of humor, reveals his almost missionary zeal to bring the grape back to the people, especially the people of Western North Carolina. It reads: “Your Defense Against Wine Snobbery.”
Vineyard tours run through October 15. Jeweloftheblueridge.com