Making muscadine wine may sound like a complicated, mysterious process; but a local muscadine wine master shares his secrets and makes it easy.
Editor's note: Scroll to end of story for Hector's Muscadine Wine recipe.
In 1999, Hector Buitrago and Michele Lamassomme were not thinking about becoming blueberry and muscadine grape farmers — much less muscadine wine masters.
In fact, the day a friend telephoned about twenty-five acres of undeveloped land for sale in Greene County, Hector was an attorney and management officer for the Environmental Protection Agency in Atlanta, and Michele was assistant to the chief operating officer of the Coca-Cola Company. They were city dwellers, but they had a dream to own a small farm — not to grow crops, but to have a place to escape from their fast-paced city life. Their dream was to spend quality time with their three daughters and to enjoy the great outdoors that Hector dedicated his life’s work to protect.
The call of a throwaway homestead and woebegone barn
That was 15 years ago. Then, the land was rough and unattended. And a dilapidated old barn, built in 1948, cried out for love even in its ruined state. Where others may have seen a throwaway homestead, Hector and Michele saw a green space waiting to be loved, and a special quaintness in the woebegone, near collapsing structure. To them, the old barn offered a scenic, yet poignant, view of disappearing rural America. Though leaning and too compromised to use, Hector and Michele loved its lofty, rough-hewn timbers, rusting hardware, and beautiful antique tin roofing tiles. While others might have burned it down, the couple considered the barn a grand old lady. They let her stand, untouched, to serve as an artful backdrop for family picnics, get-togethers and adventure walks with their three daughters, Andrea, Laura, and Catalina, and their little dog, Luna.
Ten years came and went. The family enjoyed their retreat. And the old barn sagged and
creaked, and its metal roof tiles flapped and leaked in windy thunderstorms. But it did not fall down — as if determined to allow Hector and Michele and the girls time to treasure her as an old diamond in the rough.
The girls grew up and graduated from the University of Georgia. Hector retired and in 2014, had the happenstance to meet Dr. Scott Nesmith, director of agriculture at UGA. They spoke of research results on blueberries and muscadines genetically engineered for growing conditions in central Georgia. Hector was intrigued.
Saving the soul of a diamond in the rough
Three thousand, two hundred blueberry bushes and thirty-six muscadine vines later, Hector and Michelle are owners/operators of Hemi Blueberry Farm. Back in 2014, when the new operation needed a barn and living quarters, the old barn offered herself as a unique solution. Hector and Michele lovingly dismantled the ancient structure. They used its wide-plank boards still carrying long-ago faded paint, its wooden posts, hardware and 75-year-old tin roof tiles to build a new barn blessed with the soul of the old.
But this is not a story about the barn. Nor is it about succulent blueberries the Buitragos grow and sell. This story is about a man who dreamed of organic farming, growing a southern grape called “muscadines,” and learning to make exceptional dry and rose’ muscadine wine. The muscadine, a native grape species recognized as Georgia’s official grape, thrives in the state’s heat, humidity and red acidic clay. Some varieties are sweet, others slightly tart. And as important to Héctor, his varieties are virtually pest free.
Growing grapes and making muscadine wine
“To grow a muscadine vine is relatively easy,” Hector says; “just mix compost into our dense, red clay when planting. Each year thereafter, just before spring, add 10-8-8 Ison’s fertilizer.” He notes that before highway departments used herbicides, wild muscadines grew abundantly along rural roadside rights of way with no care except what nature rendered.
“Once planted, expect a few grapes after year one. More in year two. An abundant crop in year three,” Hector explains. “Harvest is late August through mid-September. Each year, expect one mature vine to produce 100 to 200 pounds of grapes. We grow our muscadines on trestles to keep the vines off the ground, clean and virtually pest free. I trim my vines annually to control growth.”
Michelle adds, “We currently have thirty-six vines and sell four varieties of muscadines: Black Jumbo - sweet and large; Black Beauty - sweet and medium; Bronze Magnolia Scuppernong - sweet and large; and Bronze Old Fashioned - small and acidic. These offer good choices for rose’ and white wines.” While Hector does not sell his wine, he recently shared with Lakelife Magazine his recipe and tips for success.
Making muscadine wine with a master
If you have never made wine, you may think it is a complicated, even mysterious, process. But when asked about the difficulty, Hector smiles. “No. The right grape, basic equipment, a few supplies, and a strict regimen is all it takes. The secret to success is patience. It takes sixty days. Each step, though simple, must be properly executed — no shortcuts, no rushes, no delays.”
Only a few basic, but important, ingredients are needed to make muscadine wine. Hector recommends Lavin type KIV-1116 yeast, LD Carlson yeast nutrient, LD Carlson pectin enzyme to pectin haze, calcium carbonate powder, and Campden tablets. For a beginner, he recommends only six equipment purchases: 5-gallon glass carboy recipients, 5-gallon glass fermenters, hydrometer, siphon hose, airlocks, and a net to crush grapes. A local supplier is Courson’s Winery in Sparta. Hector encourages those interested in winemaking to contact him for additional information.
A special story note
During the Covid-19 shelter-in-place phase, I conducted all interviews for this story by telephone and email. But for our final interview, I wanted a fantasy. We met on Zoom. As prearranged, Hector and Michele sat on their patio at a table built with wood from the old, demolished barn. They looked across the lawn to where the 75-year-old lady once stood, then gazed further still to where their beloved vineyard was growing. I sat on my dock at Lake Oconee, listened to tree frogs sing their staccato song, and delighted in the beauty of the sky.
It was sunset when Hector broke the seal on a richly colored bottle of rose’ and a sparkling bottle of his favorite white wine. Michele sliced cheese and covered crackers as he filled their glasses. I did the same on my dock. As the sun dissolved into the lake, and the quietness of twilight slipped from lake to farm, evening wrapped gently around us all. Space and time stood still. And for a moment, the troubles of our pandemic world were pushed far away. Michele and I clicked our glasses together through the computer screen and raised them to salute the man who dreamed and made his dreams come true. Then we sipped and savored Hector’s muscadine wine.
Contact Hector and Michele at 770-403-7018 or 404-535-4207; visit Hemi Blueberry Farm at 1861 Bramlett Road, Greensboro, or online at hemiblueberryfarm.com.
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This story, written by Judi Martha Collins, appeared in the July-August 2021 issue of Lakelife.