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Backyard Wine Tour: Duplin Winery, a Sweet Success

There is as much diversity in wine as there is in the people of this world. You can debate the characteristics of a complex red or you can sit back and relax as you sip a crisp, fruity white. Wine intrigues you with its own language. Does it have legs? How is the nose? Do you smell hay or leather?

And wine brings people together. Just ask anyone at Duplin Winery, located at 505 North Sycamore Street in Rose Hill, North Carolina. Duplin is the oldest winery in North Carolina, opened in 1975, and the 36th largest in the country. It is truly a southern winery, using primarily Muscadine grapes which are native to this area. They also source from vineyards in Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Mississippi. The wines at Duplin are mainly sweet, mixed in with “Carlos,” a soft, dry white wine and the “Burgundy,” which is a dry red wine with a fruity aroma.

Sitting down with Jonathan Fussell, co-owner of Duplin Winery, I discovered that there is more to Duplin than sweet wine though. Duplin is a family-owned and operated winery that began as a dream in the early 1970s and truly is an American success story. What started out as a way to make money by selling Muscadine grapes to vineyards in New York ended up being a legacy, as Jonathan says, “to remain a family-owned business offering a quality product and involving future generations in what we do to the extent that they want to be involved.”

Jonathan and his brother, David, manage the winery in two vastly different ways. David, President and CEO of the winery, works with the winemakers to ensure that their product is of the highest standard and stays true to the sweet nature of the Muscadine grapes.

Jonathan, on the other hand, says, “We’re not just a winery. We’re different. We are in the relationship building business. Your visit here has to be fun and relaxing. We want you to feel like part of the family.” That dream, becoming the entertainment destination that his father started, is the one that Jonathan, David, the rest of the family and everyone who helped build the winery, honor every day.

Jonathan is on the marketing and sales side of the business and shared some of what you can expect to find there. They host live music on most weekends, variety shows, a Christmas program and even a grape stomping contest held the first weekend in September with categories like “best technique, most grapes stomped and biggest feet!” Don’t worry, this is a “just for fun” event, those grapes aren’t used in making the wine!

The winery is a maze of rooms—the tasting room, the flight area, the gift shop and the Bistro, all connected with wooden beams and good memories. The food in the Bistro is prepared very well. The portions are big and you get started by having a Muscadine-based spread with homemade crackers. The prices are reasonable and for each menu selection, there is a suggested wine pairing. The homemade pasta salad was wonderful as was our server, Wendy, who has been with Duplin for 25 years.

Wendy explained that the Bistro was once the area where the wine was made. She pointed out the dark stains on the floor where various drains used to be and where grapes were transported on pallets into stainless steel fermenting barrels.

I sensed that training and customer service were two important elements of the winery’s success. Each person with whom I interacted was very knowledgeable about the winery, the history and the wines themselves.

It is also important to Jonathan and his brother to “give back and respect” what their father, grandfather and uncle created. Sitting on the front porch area of the winery, groups of people were coming in and Jonathan greeted them all like old friends. Some came from down the street and some travelled miles to try the wine and food and walk around the town.

“See,” he said, pointing to the arriving guests, “This is a destination winery. There’s a chapel that’s close by and one day, there will be a hotel on the property.” For now, he is content to have people discover Rose Hill and stay in town while they enjoy their Duplin experience.

“We work closely with the local government here to make an economic impact. The better we do; the better Rose Hill will do,” he said.

Jonathan and his family have successfully navigated both government regulations and growing pains. He did, however, share a story about his grandmother that demonstrates how to operate in the “Bible belt” very well.

“The family made a promise to my grandmother that we would never open the winery on Sundays,“ he said. “That’s the family day and she was pretty firm about it. Well, one time, just one time, my church needed a place to have a fundraiser, but it was going to be on Sunday. Since it was for my church, I said I would open and we could have it at Duplin. Well, don’t you know, my phone rang and there was my Aunt Jo on the other end of the line hollering at me and reminding me of my promise to grandma. We’ve never opened on a Sunday since.”

I ended the day at Duplin with Lee, who served flights of wine so I could get a sense of what each had to offer. Although he hasn’t worked at Duplin for very long, Lee knew his wines and was very entertaining. He said he sees Duplin as a great place to work and a place to learn.

I tried Brice Creek, a very popular sweet white with a rich, smooth taste. Then there was Midnight Magnolia, which was clear in color and very pure tasting. The Hatteras Red, their best seller, was sweet and cool. The Moonlight Bliss was another white with only 4 percent of residual sugar and much drier to the taste. The Coastal Shag was full of floral scents and is a dry red wine.

Duplin operates a second location in Myrtle Beach, located at 4650 Highway 17 South. It’s a larger facility and while it does not have a restaurant, you can still enjoy a relaxed atmosphere and wine tastings with that wonderful homemade spread over crackers.

A third location will be located on 70 acres in Panama City, Florida. Jonathan said, “It supports our goal of creating a laid back, comfortable place for people to enjoy wine.” That winery will be a 35,000 square foot building offering gourmet food, live entertainment and Duplin’s famous sweet wine. “We’re going to open in 2022 and we’re excited to be in Florida” Jonathan said.

Jonathan spends more time in the Rose Hill location. “One hundred thousand people a year come here to visit. Seven times that number visit Myrtle Beach. It’s more relaxed here,” he said. “People can feel the difference. They come for dinner or one of our special events shows and they have a good time.”

So, jump in your car, enjoy beauty of the change of seasons and visit Duplin Winery—sit on the porch and enjoy the experience. You’ll be glad you did.


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