The numbers aren’t exactly in Western North Carolina’s favor when it comes to grape cultivation. According to Chuck Blethen of Jewel of the Blue Ridge Vineyard & Greenhouse Nursery, of the 15,000 varieties of grapes in the world, only about 70 grow well in this region. Unlike the California regions of Napa and Sonoma, it gets cold here — and stays cold. In other words, while some of the other thousands of varietals might survive a local winter, too many cool nights and too few hot days mean they wouldn’t thrive, never ripening enough to make good wine.
But that doesn’t keep Blethen from encouraging farmers and home gardeners to get growing. After all, some varieties do flourish here, chiefly an indigenous cold-hardy muscadine called the Katuah muscadine. What’s more, the native grape prospers without chemical fertilizers and pesticides — as it’s resistant to most pests and diseases — making it a good choice for those interested in organics and biodynamics.
Blethen has been propagating and naturally/biodynamically growing the Katuah muscadine for years. And he and his wife, Jeannie, recently became the first growers to successfully breed a cold-hardy scuppernong, a white muscadine variety, which they aptly named the Katuah scuppernong.
Through their teaching vineyard, Blethen shares his wisdom and spreads the grape gospel. He sees grapes as a promising economic opportunity for WNC, citing more than 150 different products that can be made from the fruit.
This year, Jewel of the Blue Ridge is offering on-farm grape growing classes each month through the fall. The workshops run four hours, covering important aspects of cultivating cold-hardy grapes in the mountains such as training and harvesting. Winemaking is also offered.
May’s class will discuss planting, propagation tips, and trellis design and installation. A special session on Thursday, June 22, will focus on disease recognition and treatment. It will move to the Madison County Center of N.C. Cooperative Extension in Marshall, whose specialists are partnering with Blethen to expand the content to also include other small fruits.