The Swannanoa Journal: Native Mountain Grapes

In partnership with Warren Wilson College’s Environmental Leadership Center, Xpress presents The Swannanoa Journal, short audio essays on regional environmental sustainability issues, written and recorded by WWC students. In this edition, Kyle Duncan McNeil talks about the cold-hardy, NC-native Muscadine grape.

If you ask some of the old-timers, they’ll tell you. Ask them to show you, and they might even take you to that spot behind their house, by the river, where the native Muscadine grape grows wildly. In a place where the local farmers will tell you that its too high altitude and too cold weather for the Muscadine to grow … Chuck Blethen says otherwise.

Chuck Blethen, a grape grower of Madison County, North Carolina, spreads the word of his recent discovery of the cold-hardy Muscadine grape, native to the Appalachian Mountains. Although Muscadines usually grow in lower climates with more humidity and hotter weather, Blethen believes that this native grape can be cultivated and used as a crop for many local farmers and growers. It seems that this wild grape has adapted to these mountains and to the obstacles that would typically make it nearly impossible for Muscadines to grow and be cultivated. Blethen says, “This came as huge news to the viticulture world. No one suspected that Muscadines could survive the cold weather at these altitudes.”

I wanted to know more about this native grape, so I spoke to some people on Warren Wilson’s Campus who were connected to the grape. First, I spoke with Jay Bost, a professor of Environmental Studies. Bost called it a “Cinderella Crop,” something that has existed around us for centuries, but has yet become commercialized or grown and sold as a mainstream crop.

Todd Elliot, a student at Warren Wilson, grew up raising and harvesting grapes in Rutherford County, North Carolina. Elliot even grew up raising Muscadines, however, they weren’t the high altitude cold-hardy ones that have been growing wildly 3,000 feet higher. When talking about Muscadines, Elliot said, “People who don’t like them will say they taste like leather on the outside.”

As I spoke with Bost and Elliot, I couldn’t help but think of my love for wine. And even for a moment, I saw my grandma standing at the grey granite kitchen counter, pouring herself another glass of some red. So I figured that this was my minds way of telling me to ask whether or not these cold-hardy native grapes (Muscadines from around here) could be used to make wine. Elliot told us that although they could potentially be used to make wine, he did not know of any commercially run wineries. Buncombe County is home to some private vineyards, but even these independently run operations only sold locally and not nationally or globally.

Down that dirt road, off behind that rusty old sign that reads “No Trespassing,” you can find a grape that has lived here for as long as people have. The locals stress, “It’s not new!” It’s been here for a long time; it’s just a matter of now cultivating it as a main crop to the region. This native grape has a home, and it’s home is here in the mountains of North Carolina. Blethen says, “If all goes as planned, we will have brought to the forefront a native grape in Madison County that is perfect for the mountains—a high-altitude, cold-hardy, disease-resistant grape that can be grown naturally, organically or bio-dynamically.”

Click here for more from the Fall Semester 2011 Swannanoa Journal.


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