Duplin Winery

Written By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

Although Tar Heels were national leaders in wine making before the Civil War and once again during the early 1900s, few modern-day Americans—and even native Tar Heels—have regarded the state as a leader in grape and wine production. North Carolina is known mainly today for championship college basketball and tourist attractions and its tobacco and pork industries.  Over the past two decades, however, wineries have been started across the state.  Yet Duplin Winery in Rose Hill has been the major link between the days of state and local Prohibition and the current revival in North Carolina viticulture and serves as a harbinger for the medicinal uses of the muscadine.

During the late 1960s, North Carolina had no wineries, but it did have grape farmers, who sold their crops to out-of-state wineries, such as Canandaigua Wines in upstate New York.  In the early 1970s, Tar Heels established wineries once again, and Duplin Winery was among them. 

In 1972, David and Dan Fussell started Duplin Wine Cellars, Inc. out of necessity.  In that year, grape prices dropped dramatically and farmers endured hard times.  In particular, the Fussell brothers and a few other grape growers started a winery to make money so that they might keep their farms. State Senator Harold Hardison of Deep Run helped start the winery by circumventing the Rose Hill Town Board and pushing through legislation that gave the Fussells a permit to start a winery.  Knowing very little—if anything—about being vintners, the brothers consulted with other winemakers, especially those with the defunct Deerfield Winery near Edenton, North Carolina. To help struggling grape farmers, Hardison meanwhile championed a preferential tax: $.05 per gallon for North Carolina wines and $.87 for out-of-state wines.

Hardison’s legislation helped Duplin Winery grow during its first years, but times were never easy.  In 1975, the Fussell family bottled its first wine (without a crusher, they stomped grapes).  In 1976, they produced approximately 35,000 gallons, and in 1981, the wine cellar opened a new processing plant.  Although the preferential tax increased the sale of Duplin wines in North Carolina, other states’ legislation and regulation discouraged the purchase of Duplin wines; essentially the Tar Heel State provided the only market.  In hopes of increasing sales and resuscitating the prominence of the state’s antebellum viticulture, the Fussells had started planning to open a large wine store in a high-traffic area. 

Although Duplin Wine Cellars sold 47,000 cases in 1984 and its wines earned awards as far away as Spain, a combination of problems plagued the winery during the 1980s.  For one, marketing reports indicated that Duplin needed to be more aggressive in marketing its products and that its distributors promoted other wines more aggressively, so Duplin Winery started marketing their product with a variety of labels.  The biggest difficulty, however, was adapting after the change in the preferential tax status. While legislators and the courts contemplated the change during the early 1980s, David Fussell asked state officials to reconsider, for it was unfair, he argued, for the General Assembly or the courts to change the tax when wineries in other states benefited from similar legislation; he also criticized the suggested retroactive tax on commercial vintners.  The result, he feared, would be bankruptcy and the death of a slowly but surely reviving Tar Heel viticulture. When the courts declared the preferential tax unconstitutional in 1985, wine sales dropped precipitously (only 10,698 gallons in 1986), and Duplin Winery almost lost its only market.  After the tax change made sales a matter of urgency, Southland Estate Winery finally opened adjacent to I-95 in Johnston County in 1987 and showcased an Old South ambiance to attract customers.  But the store always struggled to make a profit, and its bankruptcy in 1991 almost meant the financial death of Duplin Winery (throughout the late 1980s the winery had invested in Southland).

All the hard work paid off in the 1990s, however.  Slight improvement was made during the early 1990s, but Duplin still did not have a profitable year until 1995—the year scientists discovered that wine drinking in moderation prevented heart attacks and strokes.  Of all grapes, the muscadine contained the highest level of resveratrol—the substance in red wines that produces a variety of health benefits (for instance, Duplin’s Scuppernong Blush contains 74.45 Resveratrol Parts Per Million, according to a Campbell University study, and a Bordeaux from France 28.0 PPM.)  As a result, Duplin sales have increased from approximately 15,000 cases in 1995 to nearly 175,000 in 2005. 

The long awaited success of Duplin Winery has confirmed David Fussell’s conviction that past financial and personal struggles have been for a divine purpose to help allay and alleviate Americans’ health problems.  Throughout the winery, for example, Christian symbols and Scripture verses remind visitors that Duplin Winery is a quintessential example of the intersection of faith and business.  (As a young man, David Fussell in particular contemplated becoming a cleric; he did become a Methodist lay minister and principal of a local Christian school.)  When it would have been reasonable (and possibly advisable) to quit during the 1980s, the Fussells’ faith in their product and belief in an imminent and improved future reflected a deeper, Christian faith that helped them overcome what seemed insurmountable.

Despite the health benefits of the muscadine, government regulation hampers exponential growth in sales.  The winery, for instance, is forbidden to sell directly to grocery stores and therefore must use the services of a middleman called a distributor; the cost of his services is passed to the consumer.  Additionally, billing in the alcohol industry is outlawed; the distributor, therefore, buys from the wine producer and then is paid on delivery.  This process discourages potential buyers—especially proprietorships.  Even in supermarket chains customers can never use coupons, for regulation prevents wineries from distributing them.  Government regulation further limits profits by preventing the winery from advertising the benefits of muscadine consumption in moderation and by controlling advertising in general.  ABC regulations are different in each state yet they abound in every state.  An alcohol beverage control board must approve the sale of any new alcoholic beverage, and has many opportunities to reject a product—even if only the label is considered dissatisfactory.  Once approved, wineries must ensure that each state’s laws regulating their businesses are never violated. 

Since the winery’s beginning, its enterprising founders and their families have assumed a humanitarian mission that stems from a sense of fulfilling a divine calling.  The winery’s existence produces several implicit benefits that nevertheless should be elucidated.  As mentioned, the winery’s founding rescued many farmers from financial ruin and ensured that they and their families survived hard times.  Through the years the winery has provided livelihoods not only for those at the winery but also for grape farmers.  Duplin management has attempted through the years to pay employees above average salaries and generously offered advice when consulted by budding commercial vintners.  As a result of its administration’s and employees’ strong communal ties, Duplin Winery has contributed mostly to local charities and organizations and gives frequently to needy individuals.  Such explicit charity is exemplified, for example, by giving scholarships so that students can attend Harralls Christian Academy in Sampson County and by donating to the Trinity Preschool in Rose Hill. 

Possibly the principal humanitarian benefit resulting from Duplin Winery may be Resveratrol, Inc.  In 1997, David Fussell started the company to make dietary supplements and skin creams derived from muscadine seed.  In particular, the company sells NutraGrape—capsules containing crushed muscadine seeds, which contain the highest levels of natural antioxidants and are being used to lower cholesterol rates.  With people becoming more health-conscious, Fussell hopes that the benefits of the muscadine will increase its demand in beverage and capsule form and thereby revive North Carolina grape farmers’ former glory.