Clarke County — At daybreak, giant machines with blinking lights and fiberglass rods creep down manicured rows of lush vines, tickling cascading stems of ripe muscadines. As the fruit drops into conveyers and shoots into trailer bins, Charley Phillips compares the sight to “strange-looking UFOs.”
“It’s interesting to see the harvesters go through these vineyards picking fruit,” said Phillips, owner of BreckenRidge Farms in Clarke County, the largest muscadine vineyard in the U.S. “Normally, you’d have to go to Napa Valley to see something like this.”
Mounds of the bronze, purple and ruby-colored fruit will be ferried to Defuniak Springs, Fla., where it will be crushed and juiced en route to Duplin Wine Cellars in Rose Hill, N.C., the oldest operating winery in the tarheel state. There, it will be blended and bottled as a premium muscadine wine, such as the award-winning Bald Head Red.
Phillips’ foray into muscadine production was purely accidental. Paul Broadhead had planted 300 acres of muscadines on the 750-acre American Vineyard farm in the late 1980s. Phillips, a commercial Realtor who helped Mattiace Properties develop Lowe’s and Super Wal-Mart in Meridian, was managing Broadhead’s real estate properties, which included the vineyard.
“The vineyard somehow fell under my jurisdiction,” said Phillips, who was also handling recreational timberland and riverfront properties.
Fifteen years ago, little was known about growing muscadines in the South and the process was mostly experimental. On half the acreage, three hardy varieties were planted — Carlos, Noble and Summit — that survived and are being harvested today. Varieties that were not cold weather-tolerant covered the other half. After they died, vegetation swallowed the trellises.
Even though demand for the fruit was slow at first, Phillips eventually fetched up to $450 per ton on the 150 productive acres, with each acre yielding eight to 10 tons of fruit.
“Muscadine wine wasn’t much of a profit center until studies came out a few years ago about red wines containing antioxidants and being good for you,” said Phillips. “Now, the wine market has escalated like the sport of golf.”
By 2002, Phillips had established a new real estate company and moved on to other projects; Broadhead put the farm on the market. Phillips bought it and renamed it BreckenRidge Farms. He worked closely with Mississippi State University crop experts and signed a contract to provide Duplin Wine Cellars up to 900 tons of muscadines at $500 per ton, and anticipates selling $300,000 of fruit during the six-week harvest period that began on Labor Day.
“We lost some product because of the hurricanes this year, but eventually it should be easy for us to bring in a half million, or even $1 million, if I could get the entire 300 acres to maximum production,” said Phillips. “There’s a number of places we could be selling fruit, but we don’t have the quantity yet. It will take about three years to produce grapes off new vines. We’d eventually like to do our own pressing and juicing, but that’s down the road.”
Phillips is mulling the development of a full-fledged winery, bed and breakfast or weekend retreat on the fully fenced property also featuring corn and blueberry crops, landscaped lakes, pastureland and a wildlife area that includes 160 acres of 12-year-old pine trees and 40 acres of hardwood timber.
“We’ve already built a lodge with a wrap-around porch and I’ve thought about hosting quail hunts,” he said. “We already have kennels with bird dogs, and we could accommodate a limited number of guests.”
Travelers can often be found stopped along the countryside, snapping photos of the park-like setting, particularly of whitetail deer grazing along the clover-sprouting rows of muscadines.
“I’ve been to Africa and all over the world, and this property is so unique — there’s such a mystique to it — that I’m building a plantation home here,” said Phillips. “It’s a very nice place to come home to.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.