Most folks who grew up along the twisting county roads of rural Alabama have fond memories of gobbling down sweet scuppernongs until their bellies were about to pop, or spreading muscadine jelly on a hot, buttered biscuit. But few ever considered trying to earn a living from the native vines found growing in backyards and along fence rows. For one Etowah County farmer and former NASA engineer, however, muscadines aren’t just a late-summer treat, they have become the key ingredient in a profitable business.Jahn (pronounced John) Coppey, owner of Wills Creek Vineyards, immigrated to Alabama from Switzerland in 1971, carrying with him generations of experience in caring for and raising grapes. “After I left NASA and completed stints of work in the private sector, the two things that led me to create a vineyard in Alabama were the soil being well suited for growing muscadines, and the encouragement from my wife, Janie, who wanted to return to her Stephens family homestead in Duck Springs, so we could settle in our retirement years when it is too cold in Switzerland,” said Coppey. “I just wanted to continue my family’s tradition of wine making that my grandfather had inherited from previous generations in Switzerland’s Rhone Valley .”Coppey and his wife cultivate muscadine vines for their operation which produces muscadines, jelly, juice, sauce, preserves, wine and even muscadine-scented candles.”We researched all the vineyards in Tennessee, and everyone there said muscadines are what people are looking for,” said Coppey. He and his wife tried different types of grapes such as Niagara, Catawba and other American hybrids, but they didn’t produce as well as the muscadines and were not as resilient to the summer heat. “Muscadines are native to Alabama and are especially hearty for this soil type,” said Coppey. “All we have to do is add lime, but we go easy on fertilizer, letting the vines go down deep to find food for themselves.” Coppey said Japanese beetles can be a problem, but they are usually controlled with one treatment of Sevin. “The muscadine vines have so much foliage, only one spraying is necessary because there are so many leaves that the beetles don’t eat enough to harm the vines,” said Coppey. “We plant the hybrid grapes to serve as decoys for the beetles because they will eat up the weaker hybrids’ leaves first.” Coppey said muscadine vines will often take care of themselves even when neglected.Coppey has five acres of muscadine vines with ongoing expansion for another three acres. He not only uses all the muscadines he grows but also buys grapes from other local growers. “I have a lot of orders to fill, and I buy all the muscadines I can get,” said Coppey. Coppey attributes the high demand for his muscadines to published articles touting the health benefits of the anti-oxidants found in grapes and muscadines. “Many people come here saying their doctor said drinking a glass of wine would provide them health benefits, but they don’t like the dry taste of most wines, they like the sweeter muscadine wine,” said Coppey.According to Coppey, it takes a muscadine farm five years to come to fruition. Coppey’s vineyard has one vine every 20 feet with 10 to 12 feet between rows. He uses a single-wire system for cultivation. The first year, he trains the vine to grow on the wire, and the second year he tends the vine to grow 10 feet down the wire. The next three years involve pruning and care until an adequate supply of muscadines are produced.Coppey said it is easier to compete in the wine and juice market using muscadines because there are so many producers of early-season grapes in other parts of the country. “This is a great opportunity for Alabama farmers to make money,” said Coppey. “We pay growers up to $700 per ton for muscadines.” Coppey said his vineyard has brought in many tourists to the Duck Springs community, which is tucked into a quiet cove of the Cumberland Mountain foothills just west of Interstate 59. “I have people from all over the U.S. sign my guest register because they are curious about the art of wine making, and they want to see first hand how it’s done.”There are about five vineyards scattered across the state with more in process of development. One such venture is White Oak Vineyards, which is owned and operated by Randy Wilson, district soil conservationist for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Calhoun County. According to Wilson, who also serves as vice president of the Alabama Wineries and Grape Growers Association, grape production can be a profitable business for small farmers who have five to 10 acres of fertile land. Wilson, who has a degree in soil science from California Polytechnic State University, said grapes–especially muscadines–grow well in many Alabama soils. However, they produce best in soils with a high water-holding capacity and high organic matter content. Once established, the vines must be pruned annually and sprayed to control insects. At harvest time, both Wilson and Coppey shake the muscadines loose and catch them in long tarps or “stretchers,” which they place beneath the vines.Wilson has created a state-of-the-art vineyard operation that will be open to the public in March 2004. It includes six acres of French hybrid grapes and muscadines as well as a 1,500 square foot processing building and tasting room.”All of my neighbors and the surrounding county have been strongly supportive,” said Wilson. “Vineyards are a boon for the local economy from a tourism aspect as well as for the individual farmer interested in growing and selling grapes.”Coppey and Wilson, as well as other vineyard operators, currently are working to change state laws to make it easier for vineyards to produce and market their products.”By capitalizing on vineyards as an economic boost for the state and creating equitable tax laws, we can open up a profitable market to farmers by allowing vineyard operators to buy grapes from Alabama farmers instead of buying them from Georgia as many do now.”Wilson said many of his neighbors already have started growing grapes to sell to his business. “I’ll buy all they can produce,” said Wilson. “I love farming and being out in the country, and this gives me a chance to make money doing what I love.”For more information about Wills Creek Vineyards and muscadines visit www.muscadine.com or call (256) 538-5452. For White Oak Vineyards, call (256) 238-1092.
Alabama Vineyards – Farmers Squeeze Profits From Native Crop