The concept of thriving vineyards in the Midlands is not as far-fetched as it may seem. Although wine connoisseurs currently depend on California and Oregon wineries for those made in the United States, South Carolina’s wine history is much older. This concept of vast vineyards and inventories of great wine in the Palmetto State intrigued Dr. David Shields, Carolina distinguished professor in English at the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of South Carolina. In fact, in 2009 he published Pioneering American Wine, a book that observes the history of grapes grown in this region. Why grapes? One fruit dominating the state is the native muscadine. In studying grapes, David found that one name consistently emerged: Nicholas Herbemont.
Herbemont was a viticulturist (grape grower) in the late 1700s and early 1800s. He died in 1839, 21 years before the Civil War. The timing is important as the land in and around Columbia had not yet been ravaged by war. As the first instructor of French at the then-named College of South Carolina, Herbemont was also the first to attempt growing more than 200 varieties of European grapes in South Carolina for the production of fine wines. His experimentation with methods of growing, pruning, procession, and fermentation used in his native France led to the country’s most important book on the art of producing potable vintage. This side career as a viticulturist and vintner (wine maker) occurred within the city block of these downtown streets: Gervais, Pickens, Lady, and Bull.
While hybrid grape cultivation in South Carolina is hindered by such problems as Pierce’s disease, black rot, and a root insect, Herbemont worked to battle these problems and sent his cuttings all over the United States. He persevered even after only nine of the 200 varieties of cuttings survived. Historic Columbia, which found surviving Herbemont root stock in Texas and is propagating it at the Robert Mills’ gardens, shares this on its website: “The hybrid grape that he embraced was a cross between a Native borquiniana and a European vinefera, and had the refined flavor of the latter and the disease resistance of the Native.”
Herbemont even fought to establish the Sandhills area as a wine community, according to David. Vineyards grown from “Herbemont root stock” cropped up all over South Carolina. Farmers made, drank, and sold wine made from his grapes, mainly what are referred to as the Herbemont rosé grape and the Lenoir red grape. David says he tasted ripe Herbemont grapes recently and proclaimed them “wonderfully sweet.”
After the war and years of Reconstruction, aspiring viticulturists and vintners hoping to carry on Herbemont’s legacy focused attentions on survival and rebuilding. Vineyards and wineries, meanwhile, sprang up rapidly in the relatively new lands of California and Oregon.
David says it is not implausible that “South Carolina could revive the world of Herbemont.” He adds, “[Grape growers and wine makers] don’t need to replicate the same wine as everyone else, but if it could have an intrinsically different flavor and a distinct local impression, it would be worth it.” Plus, he points out that new technology has advanced growing and making methods beyond what Herbemont might have imagined.
Just in the past decade, two local wineries have emerged: The Winery Mercer House in Lexington and Enoree River Vineyards & Winery in Newberry. American Winery Guide cites a total of 17 wineries in South Carolina, many on the Coast or in the Upstate.
A golf cart ride through five vineyards, past three ponds and a fern grotto, and beside fruit orchards suggests much about Shannon Mercer, owner of and farmer at The Winery Mercer House. He has a love affair with the many acres on which he has lived and worked for 25 years. “Nature takes care of me, and I take care of it,” says Shannon. “It’s a symbiotic relationship.”
After a successful career as a professional photographer, he decided to use the 12 acres of land to cultivate the native muscadine grapes that thrive in hot, humid weather. He wanted to be both a wine grower and a wine maker, which classifies his product as “estate” wine. He planted all five vineyards in 2007 and that same year made his first batch of wine. By October 2014, his winery donned both federal and state licenses. Shannon’s Certified S.C. Grown vineyards are each named with significance. Hattie, Malet, and Sally Mae were beloved dogs; Adele is after his mother; and Neal Anne is a combination of two middle names: his and Kim’s, his wife. He sometimes names wines with these vineyard names in mind, such as the best-selling Neal Anne wine.
Although he does not grow European grapes, he does cultivate more than 50 varieties of muscadines in distinct vineyards of varying soil, topography, and micro-climates. The growing process to which Shannon adheres is called field blending. The 1,200 or so vines across the five vineyards provide an early, mid, and late harvest –– around 14 weeks of picking. Each year yields a different volume, but also diversity in taste as a result of the numerous flavors from 50 varieties. He learned to make wine through trial, error, and a lot of research about American techniques.
Shannon says that muscadines often get a bad rap as our native grape compared to the noble European grape. Plus, he says that many assume all muscadine wine is excessively sweet. “Not true,” he insists. To prove this fact, he often makes 20 different styles of wine from lighter whites to ambers to deep reds. Some are mildly sweet, while others are on brute dry. He has even made “country wine” from fruit such as blueberries, strawberries, plums, and peaches grown on the property, as well as tea wine out of native tea grown on South Carolina’s coast.
Because of the extreme nutritional benefits of muscadine grapes, Shannon has also experimented with an ancient Italian sauce (Saba) made from the skins that pre-dates balsalmic, cold-pressed grapeseed oil, and capsulated grapeseed extract, all of which he hopes to make available to the public in the future.
In order to educate patrons about Mercer wines, he turned his portrait photography studio, with varying textured walls that served as backdrops, into a wine tasting studio. Vine and Wine tours on the golf cart around the whole property include plenty of fascinating viticulture and vintner knowledge, or enology. Mercer’s August 2017 solar eclipse event, “The Grape Eclipse,” complete with a special 2007 vintage and T-shirts, sold out to 400 people. Shannon says although he has a weekly presence at Saturday’s Soda City, travelers from primarily outside the state show up for $10 wine tastings that take place every afternoon, Wednesday through Sunday. Wine varies in cost from around $15 a bottle to as much as $120 a bottle. Shannon also sells portable, single-serve wine pouches from $5 to $20 each.
Sporting a Certified S.C. Grown hat, Shannon looks over his vineyards and admits he loves it all. Wine is an artistic interest he has pursued with passion, arising as early as 2 a.m. seven days a week to attend to a multitude of needs. “But this is paradise to me,” he says, describing South Carolina’s state insect, the praying mantis, peering from vines while he picks grapes or the tree frogs serenading him. “Wine occurs in nature, without any human intervention, and right here surrounded by nature is where I want to be.”
Interest to Income
Laura and Richard LaBarre spent years roaming countrysides in search of small, obscure wineries until they came to the realization that they needed to start their own. Enoree River Vineyards & Winery is the result of more than 10 years of getting dirty and grape-juice stained. The couple’s 50-50 partnership means he is the viticulturist while she is the vintner.
“We’re now at a place that we feel very comfortable doing what we’re doing, and we have a good income from it,” says Richard.
He was a self-employed businessman, while Laura teaches at Mid-Carolina High School in Prosperity. They own 18 acres, with eight devoted to vineyards hosting at least 1,000 vines in two varieties. They grow a white and a red muscadine grape but recently found in Texas a cutting of the Lenoir grape, also referred to as Black Spanish. “The vineyard/winery in Texas survived prohibition,” explains Richard, “and so far, the Black Spanish is doing very well. We made 100 gallons of juice from it this year.”
After that juice ferments, Laura will make the wine. Muscadines are picked for about three weeks in September. The couple has about nine different wines at any given time: pure muscadine wines, two fruit wines, and some wines made from grapes grown on the West Coast. Richard, too, says that muscadines are misunderstood, and he points to research indicating that explorer Sir Walter Raleigh plausibly drank muscadine wine. He adds that native Southerners take more readily to muscadine wines because aromas and flavors are familiar. For others from around the globe who visit Enoree, the experience is new and interesting. And, just like at Mercer House, muscadine wines here range from sweet to dry.
The couple learned to grow grapes and make wine by observation. “We traveled off the beaten path and talked to growers and makers. I certainly have more respect for farmers now. We just jumped in with both feet and started doing it!”
The LaBarres are also grateful to owners of Carolina Vineyards Winery in Barefoot Landing, which encouraged and assisted them. Enoree started with a small 6-gallon container. Now the winery features a fermentation operation three-quarters of the way underground and a wine-tasting room upstairs.
Current wines include Bless Her Heart (Ruby Cabernet), Carlos Muscadine, Blackberry, and a slightly oaked Malbec. Prices are typically around $15 per bottle.
Richard says it is the relational aspects of the business that he loves. “I’m basically just a fancy bartender when people come for wine tastings, but I love sharing about the wine and have great conversations with visitors.” While November through February is the slow period in the growth process for the grapes, increasingly the wine tasting business is steady year-round. The grapevine’s energy recesses into the root system in November, and the vine essentially goes to sleep until it is awakened again in early March with pruning so that new growth can occur.
His eclipse event attracted more than 300, while a Harvest Festival this past October drew a large crowd as well. Recently, they even built a pergola to accommodate weddings and other events.
Having a winery has not kept Laura and Richard from still enjoying their shared pastime of seeking out obscure vineyards. This past summer, they visited wineries in the Yadkin Valley, North Carolina, and they hope to fit in a trip to Europe soon.
Even though the LaBarres have turned their pastime into profits, their real joy is in the landscape. At the end of the day, after the wine tasters are gone, they love to sit and look over the vineyard and property.
“I spent most of my adult life in town with neighbors 2 feet away, and I couldn’t really see the stars,” says Richard. “Now I have cows as my neighbors, and I can definitely see the stars. If we stop enjoying what we do, we will get out of this business. But right now, we enjoy this.”