Sweet Muscadine

October 2012
Written By: 
Paul Grimshaw
Photographs by: 
Christopher Shane

This marvelous and miraculous grape calls the South home




There aren’t a lot of wineries in the Lowcountry and coastal regions of the Carolinas, or in the South, period. Of the estimated 6,300 wineries in the United States, there are fewer than 10 in South Carolina that actually grow grapes used in the production of their wines. Many so-called wineries in the South are little more than retail outlets for private-label marketing of someone else’s product or make wine only from imported grapes and grape concentrate (juice). This seems to be especially true in the South where growing conditions make it rough on finicky grapes. But there is one grape that likes it rough. That is the mighty muscadine, and it’s right at home here on the Grand Strand.

Our hotter, humid weather is problematic for growing French hybrid grapes, which produce the most popular wine varieties—Cabernets, Chardonnays, Merlots and others. But the muscadine, native to the southeastern U.S., thrives on the coastal plain. Lucky for us, it’s reported to contain six to eight times the polyphenols and antioxidants (the good stuff) of any other grape, red or white. Being healthy never tasted so good.

Two local growers and entrepreneurs have converted generations of tobacco farming know-how into businesses that capitalize on this large, plump grape that grows wild in fields or thrives in vineyards under watchful eyes. These local vintners, Greg Hyman of Hyman Vineyards in Conway and Vicki Weigle of La Belle Amie Vineyard in Little River, have introduced muscadine wine to countless locals and visitors, promoting this unique flavor of the south. But the wine’s growing popularity goes beyond its sweet, fruity flavor. It’s also the grape’s potential health benefits that are putting the muscadine on the map.

Some claim that the muscadine is the super fruit you haven’t heard of. In fact, our difficult growing conditions create fungi and bacteria that thrive in the heat and humidity, creating a compound in the vine and grape called Resveratrol. It's the very thing that gives the muscadine its touted medicinal powers. Resveratrol, which is particularly abundant in the muscadine’s thick skin (but also found throughout the grape and seeds), is just one of many phytochemicals that thrive under our tough environmental pressures.

La Belle Amie Vineyards and Hyman Vineyards grow and harvest these native grapes and use them in making their wines of many varieties, along with a few other products that may come as a surprise. La Belle Amie Vineyards focuses on its Twisted Sisters label muscadine wines, along with vineyard tours, live music festivals and wine tastings in its large gift shop. Hyman Vineyards is all about production and diversity, selling its wines and muscadine-based products online and at local and regional Farmer’s Markets. Hyman moves beyond just making wines to also produce muscadine grape juice, jams, jellies, oil, soaps, barbecue sauce, vinaigrette dressing, pharmaceutical-grade supplements—even muscadine-enriched cosmetics.

Separating hyperbole from reality requires matching the claims by the owners of these vineyards with experts in the scientific community. While it’s early on in human trials and peer-reviewed studies, it seems these local grape growers may just be on to something. Is a daily glass or two of muscadine wine just what the doctor ordered? In search of an answer, you might start by visiting the extreme edges of Horry County to find the mighty muscadine and its entrepreneurial growers.

Hyman Vineyards
Most of us will never find an occasion to drive down Old Bucksville Road, off S.C. 707 six miles south of Conway—it’s way off the beaten path. But if you do, you’ll drive by Hyman Vineyards, where farmer and businessman Greg Hyman grows, on 10-acres, three varieties of the 300-plus known in the muscadine grape family.

A small, snow-white cat freely roams the Conway vineyard, but on this day he lay curled up under a giant Live Oak and couldn’t be bothered as we drove past on the driveway leading to the farm. This farm’s acreage was once filled with tobacco plants, but is now filled with health-affirming muscadine grape vines, fat and heavily laden with grapes approaching harvest time. Owner Greg Hyman can usually be found here tending his vines.

“I started this venture in 2005,” said Hyman, a former generational tobacco farmer who once sat as the top dog at the South Carolina Tobacco Grower’s Association and who is a past president of the Conway Chamber of Commerce. “I was a lifelong tobacco farmer, but I quit in ‘97 to do other things,” he said. When asked how South Carolina’s wine industry stacked up against the rest, he seemed reflective.

“I wish we could compete with the big boys,” said Hyman. “It would be good for the state. The California wine industry pays more in taxes than our entire South Carolina state budget. But South Carolina is not conducive to growing French hybrids,” he said, though he acknowledges that regions of the upstate can and do produce those varieties and that North Carolina actually has a “wine country” region.

“The muscadine is the only grape you can grow economically [here]. They’ve evolved over the centuries to become used to this weather, which introduces more fungi and environmental pressure, more disease—so these grapes have developed an immunity to things that affect other grapes.” It’s this “immunity” that gives the muscadine its supposed medicinal power in the form of Resveratrol, among other nutrients.

What is Resveratrol?
Here’s the scientific gobbledey-gook condensed: Resveratrol is a Stilbenoid naturally formed in heartwoods such as grapevines when attacked by the pathogens Hyman suggests are out there. This natural phenol is undergoing extensive study for its medicinal value. Reports of the positive influence of Resveratrol on lowering blood sugar, its anti-inflammatory properties, and its cardiovascular support have prompted more frequent and larger studies by universities and research laboratories around the world.

If wine is good for you—and many experts say that is the case—then muscadine wine is even better because of its greater concentrations of not just Resveratrol, but ellagic acid, antioxidants (anti-mutagenics), and perhaps even the alcohol itself. Curiously, the muscadine has 20 pairs of chromosomes, while most grape varieties have just 19.

Some of the Resveratrol is left over in the wine and juice-making process. These leftovers, called pomace, were discarded as waste in the past. Hyman is part of a growing industry targeting this waste pomace for nutraceutical and cosmaceutical use. At a plant in Florence, Hyman’s harvested grapes are turned into a dizzying variety of products good for the heart, soul and spirit. “We make jams, jellies, sauces, vinaigrettes, [supplements], cosmaceuticals (skin creams), grape juice and, of course, wine,” said Hyman, while walking over to a trellis holding up one of thousands of muscadine grape vines in his vineyard.

Miles of thin black tubing runs a few inches off the ground just under the vines and is the lifeblood of the commercial muscadine vineyard. “This is how we water them,” said Hyman. “Drip, drip, drip—it’s like spoon feeding a baby. We give them just enough, but not too much water—it’s also how we fertilize the vine.” He points to the almost-ready-for-harvest grapes and knows when they’ve had just enough Carolina sunshine, magically sensing the approaching fall.

“An immature grape will shine—there’s a luster,” said Hyman. “But when they turn dull, they’re ripe and ready to harvest.” Hyman used to harvest by hand, but now a specialized piece of machinery gently shakes the vine, loosening the ripe grapes which then fall into a catcher.

A short-lived experiment in running a vineyard gift shop, closed less than a year after opening, taught Hyman to do what he does best—farm. He sells his products online at  www.hymanvineyards.com and locally each Saturday at the Conway Farmer’s Market, Fridays at the North Myrtle Beach Farmer’s Market, and Saturdays at the Market Common Farmer’s Market in Myrtle Beach. Hyman Vineyard Products are also for sale Monday through Saturday at the Pee Dee State Farmer’s Market in Florence, as well as at a few convenience stores along the I-95 corridor, the Rice Museum in Georgetown and at Boone Hall Farms in Charleston.

As the day waned, it became clear that Hyman had things to do. There was still one more stop ahead on this wine tour of the Grand Strand. Walking by the cat, who flipped his tail just once, it was time to go.

La Belle Amie Vineyard
On S.C. 90 near the Little River and North Myrtle Beach city lines, La Belle Amie Vineyard, open to the public since 2000, is a park-like vineyard with gift shop and event grounds that has admirers stopping by to take in the view (if not to imbibe just a little). This is thanks to visionary owner Vicki Weigle, a dedicated staff, and a loyal gaggle of volunteers—many who get paid in wine.

“This farm has been in the Bellamy family for more than 100 years,” said Weigle on the afternoon I visited. We sit at one of a dozen picnic tables placed throughout the lightly manicured, inviting grounds. Bella, the official mascot, a full-blooded border collie, desperately wants to play fetch, even though her joints are a little stiff.  She gives up momentarily and looks wistfully down the hill, wondering where everybody is on this quiet afternoon.

A natural amphitheatre stirs to life once or twice a month on festival days, when several hundred, sometimes up to a thousand, wine and music lovers arrive en masse with folding chairs and blankets. They sit on the hill looking down toward a permanent stage, while some barefooted fans dance on the grass in front of whatever band may be performing. Some form of live entertainment (solo, duo or full band) may be heard nearly every Saturday, weather permitting. Bella and Weigle take a moment to relax in the shade around lunchtime. Hot dogs are cooked on an outdoor grill and offered for sale along with cheese plates, cold beer, soft drinks and, of course, wine.

“My mother was born and raised on this farm,” continued Weigle. “It was originally 600 acres, mostly tobacco. My mother had eight brothers and sisters, so you divide nine into 600, the farms become very small. Here I have about 40 acres—I like to think the best 40 acres. Not only is it the prettiest, it’s where the original Bellamy family home stood—just over there on the other side of those grape vines.” Weigle looks over her shoulder and points toward the vineyards, where Muscadine grapes grow in the hot summer sun. “We named the vineyard in honor of my mother, whose maiden name was Bellamy. La Belle Amie, in French, means “the beautiful friend.”  

“My mother had returned to the farm to care for her brother, and after he passed away she did not want to leave. We teased her and called her Scarlet. This was her Tara. At 86 years old she was my uncle’s caretaker. I wanted her to live where she wanted to live, so I kicked off my corporate-world high heels, traded in my Cadillac for a truck, and moved here from Houston, Texas, to become a farmer.”

Weigle struggled with how to make the old farm work. She had an epiphany late one night that set the stage for her move in 1993. “My ‘Ah-ha!’ moment came when I was still living in Houston. I knew I would be needing some income and I was trying to figure out what I, this city slicker, could do. So in the middle of night I sat up in bed and thought ‘I’ll do my homework, plant a vineyard, and live there with Mom.’ I knew I couldn’t grow Chardonnays, Cabernets and Merlots because of [the climate], but I began thinking back to the wines my grandfather and Uncle Gifford made on this farm. My grandfather had dug up some wild grapevines he found in the woods, planted them by the house—they’re still there today, more than 100 years old—and he and Uncle Gifford made wine from those wild grapes, and in some years it was said to be really good. So I figured if they could do it from wild grapes out of the woods, certainly I could find a variety to plant here and make good wine.”

Through difficult starts filled with hurricanes and heartaches, Weigle persevered. And now, nearly 20 years later, she has made a viable business selling wine from the gift shop, 60 percent of which is Twisted Sisters muscadine wine. “We were told it couldn’t be done, but we did it,” she said. “People from Ohio, New York, up north, really love the muscadine. It reminds them of their native American grape—the Niagara, the Concord.”

La Belle Amie wines also include French varietals, blushes, reds and whites, all with ridiculously fun names such as “Poor Bastard,”  “Cabana Boy,” “Island Mama,” “Sweet Carolina Girl” and “Sugar Daddy,” among the creative monikers.

Wine tasting inside the gift shop is a big draw for visitors and returning locals. It gives a chance for both the novice and the connoisseur to taste the vineyard’s wines and learn about them in a fun and relaxed setting, one sip at a time. “I tell people who sometimes look very nervous and intimidated walking up to the tasting bar that they should have fun tasting wine. And that there’s only two things they need to know—that they like it or they don’t like it. Anything else they learn is a bonus. When we changed our label from La Belle Amie Vineyard to Twisted Sisters we saw big increases in sales. When you see ‘Twisted Sisters’ on the shelf, you either know one, are one, or are married to one. It has market appeal.”

La Belle Amie’s wines are produced off-site and their grape harvest is supplemented by regional growers. “We have around 10 additional former tobacco farmers who plant and grow grapes for us,” continued Weigle. “We mix their grapes with our own and produce all the wines we bottle, label and sell. It takes three years for your first harvest, and five to seven for maximum production. We first planted in 1995. In 1996, we had two hurricanes that devastated the vineyards. In 1997, we managed a small harvest and enough grapes to produce 60 bottles of wine. In 1998, we had two more hurricanes in August—the month before we harvest. In 1999, Hurricane Floyd dumped 24 inches of rain and the posts floated out of the ground. The trellises collapsed and we lost another harvest.”

Weigle was in tough straits, but found a way to see her dream continue. “I needed some cash, and what I decided to do was go to France, find the Bellamy Vineyards there—our family were French Huguenots and we knew exactly where they came from. So we found them, just below Provence, near the Mediterranean. We claimed these French Bellamys as our own, hired them to bottle their wine under our La Belle Amie label, and we did— and the wines were wonderful. I sent a 40-foot container to Charleston, and when I opened this gift shop in January 2000, it was all with my French cousin’s wines.”

La Belle Amie Vineyard flourished and grew over the next four to five years while their own muscadine harvest finally started producing. Weigle knows of the taste appeal of the sweet muscadine, but is just as impressed with its health claims. “The growing conditions of the muscadine has caused them to have these high concentrations of Resveratrol, polyphenols and the antioxidants that we know are so good for us,” she said. “All that good stuff that is in the grapes naturally stays in during the wine-making process, and is even enhanced by it. The wine is better for you than the juice—in moderation, of course. I drink muscadine wine every day.”

Visit the Vineyard:
La Belle Amie Vineyard is open to the public Monday through Saturday, year round, and offers wine tastings, live music every Saturday (weather permitting), monthly festivals and tours. Find out more at www.labelleamie.com.

La Belle Amie’s Spiced Wine

  •     1 bag of La Belle Amie’s mulling spices
  •     64 ounces of Ocean Spray cranberry juice cocktail
  •     1 bottle of Twisted Sisters Merlot

In any kind of pot, mix the package of mulling spices and the cranberry juice cocktail. Heat on low until the mulling spice has dissolved. Then: For a full-bodied, hot drink add one bottle of Poor Bastard Merlot and heat (but DO NOT boil). Serve in a mug, cup, or wine glass. Any leftovers may be refrigerated for up to two weeks. For instant pleasure in the winter, heat in a mug in the microwave.