A Shared History of Wine
Written By Sharon Fenchak
Wine & Food
A Shared History of Wine
The muscadine grape is native to North Carolina, thriving all across the region’s geography and climate, from the mountains to the piedmont to the coast. Scuppernong, a variety of muscadine, is designated as the official state grape and has long been a favorite ingredient in jams and jellies and wines.
Vitis vinifera, the type of grape associated primarily with winemaking, is not native to North Carolina. It prefers a classic Mediterranean climate of hot days, cooler nights, dry breezes, well-drained soil, and limited rainfall.
How then, did vitis vinifera get started in North Carolina?
It began with Biltmore, America’s largest home and the private estate of George Vanderbilt. More than 100 years ago, Vanderbilt envisioned his estate as a large-scale working farm that would generate produce and revenue to support and sustain itself. Original initiatives included a market garden, a nursery that shipped estate-raised plants around the world, and a dairy operation that eventually became one of the largest in the Southeast. From the Great Depression through the end of World War II, the Biltmore Dairy provided vital economic support for the estate.
In 1960, George Vanderbilt’s grandson William Cecil took over management of Biltmore. As an astute businessman, he immediately looked for diversification opportunities in harmony with the Biltmore brand to help sustain the property. In keeping with his grandfather’s vision of a working agricultural property, he realized that nothing was more appropriate for a French chateau than a vineyard.
Mr. Cecil went to the agricultural extension experts at NC State for assistance with his vineyard project in 1971. He was advised to work with native muscadines that were already growing in the Walled Garden.
After producing wine from these grapes, he was unsatisfied with the results and turned to Cornell University for assistance. They advised that he experiment with French-American hybrid grapes since some American growers in less-favorable climates were having success with them. After harvesting and wine production, however, Mr. Cecil was unsatisfied with the results.
Still convinced that a vineyard was the right move for Biltmore, Mr. Cecil went to the Department of Vitaculture and Enology at the University of California at Davis. Although experts there initially told him that vinifera cultivation was not possible in Western North Carolina, he pushed on, planting the first vinifera grapes on the west side of the estate in 1978. In his book Lady On The Hill, Mr. Cecil notes that“Asheville was about the same latitude as Gibraltar in the Mediterranean, and with an altitude between 2,100 and 2,500 feet, the fields of the estate would enjoy warm days and cool nights in the summer.”
At last, Mr. Cecil was satisfied with the type and quality of the grapes, and the winemaking venture moved ahead. In 1983, the Biltmore Estate Wine Company established and renovation began on the original Dairy structure to convert it into a state-of-the-art winery, which opened to the public in 1985.
Present and Future
In the past three decades, the Biltmore Winery has emerged as the most-visited winery in the nation, winning numerous prestigious awards and points rankings in competition with the finest wines in the world.
In that same time, North Carolina grape growers and winemakers have benefitted from the wine industry knowledge and expertise that developed around Mr. Cecil’s vision for his family’s home. There are now more than 400 vineyards and 100 wineries across the state, and the numbers continue to rise. Some agricultural forecasters have suggested that growing grapes may eventually provide a viable economic alternative to traditional tobacco farming.
In celebration of North Carolina Wine Month, we are also celebrating William Cecil’s determination and dedication to his own dreams of making Biltmore Wines a reality that would support the mission of preserving Biltmore as a privately owned working estate.