*This article originally appeared in ECU Alumni Magazine.
“Grapes are just like people,” says Dave Fussell ’90, owner of Duplin Winery.
Different grapes are suited to different environments, Fussell says. He should know, as he is well-suited to his own environment of family wine-making in eastern North Carolina. After graduating from East Carolina University with a degree in economics, he has flourished in the family business the same way native Muscadine grapes have thrived in this region.
“For three generations, our winery has remained family-owned and family-run, built on the core principles of hard work, integrity, and the uncompromising desire to make America’s best and favorite Muscadine wines,” Fussell says on the winery website.
Muscadine grapes are a sweet variety native to the Southeast that do particularly well in the warm and humid conditions of eastern North Carolina, unlike European varieties that do better in cool and mild temperatures.
“We concentrate on sweet and fruity wines that taste like you’re right under the grapevine eating the grapes,” Fussell said. “Muscadine grapes are good right off the bat, very different than many other wine grapes, which can be bitter to begin with. That’s why you age some of these other wines, and you don’t age ours.”
This grape has provided Duplin Winery with a unique product that has allowed them to weather the ups and down of the business.
Fussell’s father and mother started the winery in the early 1970s, along with help from his grandfather. Both his parents went to ECU to become educators; his father was a principal and his mother taught fourth grade. They started farming on the side by growing grapes for a big wine company from New York because they could sell the grapes at a high price.
While waiting for the newly planted grapes to mature over four years, the price fell so sharply that they would lose money just trying to harvest the grapes.
“My parents said, ‘What in the world are we going to do with 20 acres of grapes?’ So they decided to make the wine themselves.”
After Fussell’s grandfather retired from construction, he loaned them an old building where they could turn the grapes into wine. The first batch of 20 cases came out in 1975.
“We licked the very first labels we stuck on the bottles, and stomped the first grapes with our feet,” Fussell said. “Somehow or another it was drinkable, and they sold it.”
The next year, they made three different kinds of wine. Then the state Department of Commerce said any wine made from grapes grown in North Carolina would get a tax break. So in 1977-78, they started making fortified wines in addition to traditional wine, selling both at reduced prices.
“All of a sudden, we started selling wine like crazy,” Fussell said.
By the 1980s, they had outgrown their original plot, buying more land in 1982 and building a new winery building in 1983. Production was up to 44,000 cases.
“We were growing leaps and bounds,” Fussell commented.
Then in 1984, “some fancy lawyers from New York showed up in little skinny ties,” Fussell recalled. The lawyers said the tax break was unconstitutional because it was not offered to all states. That drove the price back up.
“We couldn’t compete with the big wineries,” Fussell said. Production at the winery went down to 15,000 cases in one year and eventually to 4,000 cases.
“Things went all to pieces. Dad actually lost our house trying to keep the business,” Fussell said. “My dad went back to teaching school, while mom sold off the old wine.”
After he graduated, Fussell’s parents wanted him to be a teacher, but that wasn’t something he wanted to do. He took his mom’s place behind the counter at the winery so she could go back to teaching.
“They fought and fought to keep the place open. It was a struggle,” Fussell said.
Things took a turn for the better in 1995, when 60 Minutes issued a report that drinking a glass of red wine was healthy. People took notice, Fussell said. “People really started migrating down to our wines because the others were too dry for them.”
Campbell and Tufts universities decided to test Duplin’s Muscadine grapes to see if they were as healthy as the European varieties. In fact, the sweet grapes turned out to have seven times the healthy ingredients.
Like people, grapes produce antibodies and antioxidants to fight off diseases, Fussell says. The heat and moisture that make Muscadine grapes so sweet is also a perfect breeding ground for fungus and bacteria, but this hardy grape developed to produce more resistant compounds. Unlike European grapes, where these compounds are mostly found in the skin, Muscadine grapes have them in the seeds and pulp as well.
“The Good Lord had to put extra antioxidants in our grapes to fight off those sicknesses, and that’s what made our grapes so much better for you,” Fussell commented.
In August of 1996, Duplin Winery landed on the front page of the Raleigh News and Observer. The coverage was a major turning point for the business, and growth has been in the double digits each year up to now, Fussell says.
This past year Duplin Winery greeted 92,000 visitors and sold 360,000 cases of wine. The original winery building given by Fussell’s grandfather is now a gift shop and bistro where customers can enjoy samples and tastings. The new fermenting facility has a capacity of 1.6 million gallons.
Duplin Winery makes around forty different varieties of wine, which are sold in up to fourteen states. Grapes are grown on a total of 1,200 acres in North Carolina and other southeastern states like Florida, Mississippi and Georgia, including the original sixty acres in Duplin County. There are about ninety employees at the winery, with forty-eight growers who cultivate the grapes in several states.
“We have been mighty lucky,” Fussell said. “We’ve got a great team. Together we’ve been able to become the 24th largest wine company in the US”
While Fussell says Duplin Winery is still small compared to the number one companies, they’ve made it pretty high on the list; there are over 6,000 wineries in the US, more than one hundred in North Carolina, according to Fussell.
Eighty percent of Duplin Winery grapes are grown in North Carolina.
“We still grow the grapes ourselves, but we focus on the making and selling end here,” Fussell said.
Duplin Winery’s hard work has paid off. The Magnolia variety has been featured in Martha Stewart Living. In 2009, Duplin Winery earned Impact’s Hot Brand Award and Beverage Information Group’s Fast Track Award, given to small wineries that show rapid growth. Duplin Wine is the 20th best selling wine in all Wal-Mart stores, even though it’s only available at Wal-Marts in four states.
Fussell always knew he would return to the winery after college. “It really wasn’t a choice,” he laughed. “I just assumed I’d be coming back here.”
He was about six years old when the winery started. There wasn’t too much playing in the vineyards for the young Dave. Even family TV nights were productive, spent sticking labels on bottles. But Fussell says the hard work was a good lesson that served him well.
“Kids don’t have that opportunity now, it taught me that hard work is good,” he said.
He didn’t always know he wanted to go to ECU. He applied to four different schools, but wanted to go somewhere with friends. He loved going to see the Pirates play in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
“It was thrilling for a little country boy to go to a football game that at the time had 30,000 people,” he remembered.
He fondly recalled his Spanish teacher, Seniorita Buck. “I hated Spanish, but I enjoyed her. She was so nice and patient.”
He lived in Belk dorm for two years before he moved to Kappa Alpha fraternity.
“I have a lot of good memories of the friendships that were made,” he said. “That’s why I enjoy going back to the football games. I try to go to all the games.”
Fussell’s time at East Carolina was full of valuable lessons.
“The number one thing I learned in college, being from a really small town, was how not to be afraid, to have confidence to talk to people out of my element,” he said. “I really learned how to communicate. I learned how to learn. Some classes were very difficult, especially economics classes, figuring out supply and demand models… and some of that has applied here, but not just what I learned, but how I learned to figure things out.”
“What’s great about coming back to East Carolina is meeting folks in other businesses… we have the same issues, only I make wine and they sell gas. There are a lot of hard-working people that graduated from East Carolina, and grown businesses here.”
Fussell serves on the Alumni Association Board of Directors, as well as the board for the College of Human Ecology. He would like to do more, but the wine-making business does not allow for much time away.
Fussell spends a lot of time on the road, meeting with merchants and distributors, as well as designing wine labels. He is working on plans to build a wedding chapel in the vineyard, as well as developing more varieties of wine. Future projects include making sangria and brandy varieties, as well as wines with strawberry, peach, pomegranate, or blueberry flavor.
“We’re really looking into how we can grow within the market,” he said. “I like seeing growth, that’s what energizes me, trying to build something.”
Fussell is most proud of paying everything off as he goes, growing his business small steps at a time. He is also proud of the hard-working team he has built.
“Everybody’s got to sweep the floor when they come in,” Fussell said. “You don’t come in here to get paid the big bucks. We have people that have made the place their place. I’m fortunate to work with so many good people. Together we’ve done things I never would have dreamed of. My wife Angie, my brother Jonathan, and our associates have more to do with our successes than I. It’s them and the ones before, who deserve the credit. I’m proud to be a part of their team and I sincerely appreciate those who support our efforts.”
Fussell’s favorite part of the job is “working with people,” he said. “Working with the folks we have here, the folks who are out in the markets, and hugging customers necks and telling them I appreciate their business. It’s so neat to be in Miami, Florida sitting on an airplane and they see your shirt and say that’s my favorite wine!”