The South's Biggest Winery: Jonathan Fussell of Duplin Winery
The rise and fall and rise and fall and then spectacular rise of North Carolina’s Duplin Winery is representative of southern wine. Started in 1968, Duplin was one of the many contract sellers to New York’s Canandaigua Winery until that market collapsed. Having acres of fruit and nowhere to sell it, brothers David and Dan Fussell (along with their father Big D) opened Duplin in what was then a dry county. Through sibling spats, buyouts, the 1980s farm crisis, and just about every other challenge, Duplin persevered. Their first vintage was sold in mason jars, but now they are by far the South’s largest winery.
Now ran by Dave’s sons Dave Junior and Jonathan, Duplin has locations in North Carolina, South Carolina, and soon one in Florida. We were thrilled to sit down with Jonathan to discuss Duplin, including how to pronounce Duplin, the history of the winery, his wine journey, and what his retirement plans are. Jonathan was very open and honest with us about the ups and downs of the business, and he is likewise fully aware just how lucky he was to be born into the wine business.
North Carolina wine was built upon the most well-known muscadine grape, Scuppernong. The North Carolina wine industry was booming until Prohibition, with one of the best-selling wines in the country being Garret and Company’s Virginia Dare. (Francis Ford Coppola now makes wines under the Virginia Dare name, but it has no connection with North Carolina or Scuppernong). Now home to over 200 vineyards, featuring vinifera, hybrids, and muscadine, North Carolina is a huge state best described as three wine regions (coastal, central, and western) rather than containing a cohesive wine identity. We will be going back to North Carolina a lot over the next several months, as exciting things are happening there.
As always, the interview is edited for clarity and flow.
Ok, settle this now, because I have heard it both ways. Is it DUP-lin or DOOP-lin?
Glad to have that settled. Here in the Midwest, we would just say DUP-lin. How did you come to name the winery Duplin?
Let me give a little history about it. The Carolinas, as you probably are aware were named after King Charles (Editor’s Note: That’s Charles I of England, known for being the king who lost his head to Oliver Cromwell and the Reformation. Carolus is Latin for Charles.) And he gave a lot of land to Lord Dupplin. And Lord Dupplin gave a lot of it to other families, and one of them was the Kenans, who are still one of the largest landowners in Duplin County. Legend is Lord Dupplin came here, but there’s no documentation.
In 1974, my parents were growing wine for Canandaigua up in New York when the price of grapes drops from $350 a ton to $125. There were 70 growers in eastern North and South Carolina growing for them, and now they are trying to figure out what to do, so everyone met to decide who's going to open up a winery so they could buy each other’s grapes. My father and uncle decided to open up a winery, but both our county and town were dry. My father thought if we named the winery after the county, maybe we could get some local support. That didn't work out, but that was his thought process (laughs).
Ed: The fallout of the corporatization of big players in the New York wine industry such as Canandaigua and Taylor was discussed extensively in our interview with former New York Wine and Grape Foundation President Jim Tresize.
Your father and uncle then went into business together. How were those early years?
My uncle, who has since passed away, was the oldest, but they were very close in age. It was very difficult for them to work together and in 1979 they got into a big argument and decided that one of them had to leave the company. My dad agreed to leave, but day of closing when my uncle was going to buy out my dad, my uncle changed his mind and he decided to sell. My father mortgaged his home to buy my uncle out. My uncle later did get stock in the company when my granddaddy died, and still served on the board, but I only got to work with him when he would come in to help on special occasions.
I did work with my father and grandfather every single day until my father retired and my grandfather stayed to the day he died. My grandfather was our official greeter before places had greeters and would shake everyone’s hand and hug them.
I recently spoke with Jim Tresize, formerly head of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation for years. He also dealt with the bottom falling out of the market up there in the mid-1970s-early 1980s. He would call Duplin a winery born out of failure, because the market crashed and you guys had no other options, so you start selling wine.
My father didn't even believe in drinking wine. He was a lay minister and was the assistant headmaster of our Christian-based school. Once he started the winery, he wasn’t invited back to preach anywhere and was pretty much told his services were no longer needed at the school. It was a struggle for him, but he always believed it was the right thing. My uncle and father were the foundation, and they built everything we had to allow my brother and I to be able to grow the company. Without their struggles, we wouldn’t be here today.
Tell me about your wine journey and how you came to join the family business.
`I've only had one other job my entire life, between high school and college when my father made me go off and work somewhere else to see what that experience was all about. As I went off to college, I had no desire to come back to a small town or live in Rose Hill. At that time, Duplin only had three employees, and we made less than 4000 cases a year. If I didn’t have a scholarship, I would not have been able to go to school.
I was at school at North Carolina-Chapel Hill when I realized I didn't want to live in a bigger town. My car battery died, and I just went to the local NAPA (Auto Parts) store, which was a two mile walk at the end of the day. I said I didn't want to buy any tools, and asked if I could just pay him to drop me with the tools, change the battery and give the tools back. And of course, they couldn’t or wouldn’t do that. Back home, where everyone knew and helped everyone, they would have done that, just charged the battery to my family and helped me out. I realized I missed that.
The other thing was in my junior year, business for us changed. This is when all the scientific research first started coming out around 1992 about red wine being good for your heart. They found red wines were rich in antioxidants, and then around 1996 they found that muscadine wines had ten times more antioxidants than red wines. That news increased our sales 50%, and we went from 4,000 to 6,000 cases in one year. And then it was another 50% increase the next year. My brother was already working for Duplin at this time, and my dad told us he needed help, and asked if I would mind coming back to Duplin. It's probably the best thing to ever happen to me, but at the very beginning, it was a challenge, because I was so young and immature then. I was not a good leader at all. I became the sixth person to work for Duplin, and we currently have 183 employees, though we are around fifty people short right now.
I spoke to Marie Chantal Dalese up at Chateau Chantal in Michigan, who is another second-generation winemaker. She mentioned how much of a transition to leader it is when all the employees have known you since you were twelve.
Just because of my family name, when I was 22, I had two people under me, one of whom, Ann, used to change my diapers, and the other one was Ann’s mother, whom we all called Granny. Ann is still with us, and has been for over 45 years, but she sets her own hours now (laughs). When I came to work at the winery, it was hard for them too, because here I am now in charge of their department. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I needed their help.
When you go from your father who has tremendous control over every single aspect of the business, he was involved in everything. And as he's transitioning to retirement, our company was growing. We saw that neither Dave nor myself could be that heavily involved, and we really had to hire great folks and trust them. And that is still very hard for my father, because he may ask us a question and I may not know the answer, and he thinks I should know every detail. When he retired, we had eight employees, and it was an entirely different business.
Do you own your own acreage or do you buy all your grapes?
We do both. We own a very small portion of our grapes, about 300 acres out of the 1400 that we grow.
I'm cracking up when you say 300 acres is small.
I guess proportionally it is (laughs). We have 300 acres. We have another 1100 acres under contract and seven families growing grapes for us. And then we buy anywhere from 200 to 250 acres worth of grapes that are basically handshake type deals.
So now you're the Canandaigua of North Carolina. And how many cases do you produce a year?
We’ve been very blessed. Last year, we sold 565,000 cases.
Did I read somewhere correctly some days you produce up to 40,000 bottles a day?
Yep, five days a week. We have two bottling lines. I am at our South Carolina winery right now. Here, we bottle them the way I did when I was kid, by hand, so on a good day, 1,000 bottles a day. Our goal here is to produce about 35,000 cases a year. We do it mainly as a showpiece so people can see how it is done, because it's a tourist-based location. At our winery in North Carolina, we have two separate lines there, and will soon start a third. We have one that is sort of just security in case one of them breaks. Our current line bottles around 7,500 bottles an hour, five days a week, around 44 weeks a year. The new bottling line is to allow us to bottle around 10,000 cases a year of sparkling here instead of sending that up to New York like we are doing now. That will start in October or November.
When did your dad begin the slow march to retirement?
Well, he retired three times (laughs). The first time was 2002, and then in 2009 he finally sold out.
I'm going to ask you about your dad a little bit more in a minute. But did you have any other mentor besides your dad?
All family related because that is who I learned from. My grandfather taught me a very valuable lesson of being thankful no matter what. He was one who really engaged the customers, and no matter how busy he was, he would go over and thank the customers. I call it building relationships, and I didn’t realize how important that is and what he did until much later. Now, I try to do my office work in the morning, work the retail floor door in the early afternoon, and then until we close, I like to go out on our patio, and go from table to table, find out where our guests are from and just thank them. That's my favorite part of the day, and I learned that from my grandfather.
My older brother is my next mentor because he taught me how to be a good father and work at the same time. I got to watch him and that that helped me be the father I am.
What's the biggest lesson your father taught you?
Being nice to people and being grateful for them.
Let's talk about these 565,000 cases, what percentage do you sell in the tasting room? What percentage do you sell in grocery stores? What percentage do you sell shipping?
Obviously, last year is going to be different than this year and every other year because we were closed for several months of the year due to COVID. Usually, around 80-85% is wholesale, and the rest retail and online. Online used to be an insignificant proportion of that 15% until COVID. We were growing every year in double digits, but it was still small, around 5%. Last year, online sales grew 1200%. This year, we are a little less than last year, but the growth is still crazy. I think we are going to be around 75% in stores this year, with the rest online and here.
There is a port on your list, but no other fortified wines. Is that going to change anytime soon?
When I was a little boy, we used to make brandy because we couldn't sell enough wine and we would distill it to make brandy. We had to sell brandy through the ABC stores in North Carolina. We didn't have the marketing dollars to promote it. We started taking that brandy and mixing them back in with some juice to make port and sherries. But in a good year, we make 300 cases, so it is a very small part of our sales.
Is a line of distilled spirits in your future?
We have been looking into it. We explored it a while back because we have so much, for lack of a better term, waste, leftover from our products we would love to be able to use it. One of the projects that we want to do is either have a distillery that tourists could see. Not everyone drinks wine.
Ed: The “waste” Jonathan is referring to are the seeds, skin, and pulp a winery is left with after crush. Many wineries with distilling capabilities will make spirits such as grappa from it.
I'm so interested in this is because I just talked with Jim Eddings at Perdido in Alabama. He stated to me his belief that muscadines are the superior brandy grape, and he will be selling some starting next year. Distilleries weren’t really a thing outside a few small regions 10 years ago, but craft distilleries are everywhere now.
There's a venue in Georgia called Still Pond, and they make a tremendous vodka out of muscadine grapes. We are definitely looking at this.
I saw a quote from Duplin, unattributed but I assume made by your father, from around 1982, saying Scuppernong accounts for half of your sales? What is it now?
Less than 7%. We used to sell more white wine than we did red up until about 1992, and all the “red wine is good for your heart” articles came out. We just released what we call Mother Vine Reserve Scuppernong, where we took clippings from our Mother Vine and made a vineyard. We just released that for $45 a bottle and have sold a lot of it. Scuppernong is such a small part of our sales now, and not even our best-selling white anymore. That is Sweet, which is a blend of Carlos, Magnolia, and Scuppernong together.
That brings me to my next question. One thing I noticed is that you do a lot of single varietal muscadines, like Carlos and Magnolia. I don't normally see those, as they tend to be blends, and some of them will have five or six different grapes. Why do you still do that?
I will give you the two most important reasons right now and then I'll talk about business. Carlos is my brother's favorite wine, and Magnolia is my mom’s favorite, so we will never stop making those. We've just always been making those pretty much my entire life. We have such a large base that buys those two, a lot more Magnolia than Carlos. Carlos is one of our least selling wines, and Magnolia is in our top 15, which may not seem like much, but we make around 45 different wines.
You're kind of a second and a half generation winemaker because your grandfather was part of the winery, but he wasn't completely in it like your dad was. You already mentioned some of the challenges, but when you're taking over, you're looking at this with a fresh set of eyes. And no matter what, you're going to see things that need to be changed. How was that transition?
There is a lot of that with a family business. My older brother is nine years older than me. I could see differences between him and me in the aggressiveness in our business style. But when you have someone who has been successful like my father, and now they have their child coming in to work with them, there is a friction there. You had to ask how much we wanted to grow with our sales going crazy like they were. And now, you got a younger brother with you, who is your partner, who is wanting to go-go-go.
To give you a bit of foundation, we grew very quickly from 1976-82. To do that, my father poured a lot of money into the business. And then the market changed, and we were paying interest rates of 17%, and we pretty much lost everything. My grandfather was making the interest payments to keep us afloat. We lost our home, and I was so young, I didn’t realize it.
But that changed my father’s attitude towards risk taking to where if we don't have cash to do it, we’re not going to do it. But that become great in 2007, 2008, where a lot of folks are laying people off, and we could tell our employees we have enough money to be able to pay you for two years even if we don’t sell another bottle of wine. So that attitude of his gave us a solid foundation.
Also, in my twenties, I did not see all the things it takes to be able to grow. For example, we're building right now a $15 million project in Florida. To do that, we have to spend about $6 million in North Carolina and you need the base to be able to support that. When you're younger, you really don't understand that; you just see this as an opportunity we need to go forward.
There is also the temptation to go into hybrids or other types of grapes. One of the things my father always told us is to stick with what we are good with. There are thousands of wineries that produce Cabernets and Merlots, but there's only a few that produce muscadines. Well, back in 2001, I saw an opportunity with all these California wineries selling $70 bottles. So, I said, “Hey, I'm gonna just go out there and buy some tanker loads of wine and bring it back and bottle it and sell it all.” And I couldn’t give it away. Our customer base does not come to us to get that type of wine. They come to us for something different. My father didn't want to become automated, as far as computers and inventory management, but we needed it in order to grow. But there's also times my father told us we shouldn’t do something, and I've done it anyway, and it's cost us. But he was very good for allowing me to learn from my own mistakes.
One of the things I have heard muscadine winemakers say is that non-Southern wineries fail to take into account the preferences of the Southerner. They don’t market wines for Southern cuisine or anything else that's particular to the region.
I really think you've seen the California market change a lot just based on the wine varieties that you see now in the stores. I agree with part of what they say, but there were very few wineries making sweet wines ten years ago. There were a few like Oliver, and a few others. But now you see several California wineries making sweeter wines that we have to compete against. So, I agree somewhat, but the fact that the market is invading our space means they recognize that and are getting better.
What's your winemaking philosophy?
We want to make wine that is unique and different. We do not want to be scared to be able to do anything different. I'm gonna give you a good example. Two years ago, I was walking through Pigeon Forge near Gatlinburg, Tennessee. I kept seeing all these women carrying what I could tell it was a wine box. So, I asked one of them what was in that box. She told me it was cotton candy wine. And I watched that store for a while, and I saw people just walking out of the store with that wine like crazy. So, I bought some and took it back to our winemaker and we got to work on making it. For a good year, we worked on that, and eventually we got what we thought was a good product. We bottled up what we thought was a year’s supply, and we sold out in three weeks just out of our retail room. So, we always need to be trying to something different.
Tell me some misperceptions about North Carolina wine.
A lot of people think good wine is not made in North Carolina. Well, at some point they didn’t think good wine could be made in Napa Valley. North Carolina wine has grown tremendously. There's so many great winemakers out there learning and working with each other. The number of wineries that work together compared to 10 years ago is amazing. I'm proud of what we're doing.
Where do you see North Carolina wine in ten years?
I see the industry continuing to evolve in North Carolina. Some of our wineries are focused on new and different sorts of styles that are unique to their winery. Now, a person can come here and try all sorts of different wines, and it gives our tourists something unique to try.
When it comes to North Carolina wine, you're almost three states, you're the coastal region, you're the central and you're the western, and they're all totally different.
Yes. I think that 20 years ago not only were we different, but people didn’t see the difference as a good thing, but an excuse to say we're better than you. While I'm sure there’s some of that still, it’s not nearly the way it was, there's a lot more collaboration and working together. Now, of course, we all have our opinions, but we are working together so much more.
Tell me about the business environment for wineries in the state. You started a winery in a dry county, and now North Carolina has well over 200 wineries.
If I had only been exposed to North Carolina, I would probably complain more about things. But having been exposed to other states, I will say that we're behind some states and we are ahead of others. I would love for North Carolina to be like Virginia and use all their tax revenue that comes in to be able to market Virginia wines. As far as the permitting process, as far letting us have three different locations and be able to sell at fairs, we are better than many. In South Carolina for example, I have to be fingerprinted every three months and have a background check. To be able to get a wine permit, if there is a fair in Columbia, I have to first pay the festival to get a booth, but then I won’t really know until two weeks before if I get approved. Then I have to go to Columbia to fill out the paperwork and get the police chief to sign off on it, and then it’s sent to the revenue department just to be able to get a permit. It is totally different. It was certainly easier than it was for my dad.
And the university support from North Carolina. How is that?
It is very good. Surry Community College had a fantastic location, and they really do a lot to teach you and get you a job. North Carolina State University is also very helpful, with not only grape growing, but winemaking. University of North Carolina-Greensboro does a tremendous amount with their marketing department, which is known for marketing and tourism. And the last one is here in our county, James Sprunt Community College which has a viticultural program just for muscadine grapes. We're very, very fortunate.
You have already mentioned that your mail sales went up during COVID. But how else did Duplin weather COVID.
I guess like everybody else we were scared to death, because you didn't know what was going to happen. Our retail departments were shut down, which represented 120 of our books. But our online sales were moving like crazy, and we sold more online than our online and retail rooms combined before the pandemic. Our grocery store sales grew 20 to 30%. So, we did well just as far as sales. I am not talking illnesses or anything like that. But really now, with the economy the way it is, at the moment, we can’t operate the way we want to operate. We just don't have enough staff to be able to do that right now. Hopefully, that gets better soon.
Where do you see Duplin in 10 years?
Dave and I are almost on a countdown, but we have a great group of new leaders that are growing in our company, so we're trying to do everything we can to put them in the best possible spot to take our place. We're going to open up a new winery location next year. After that, we might open a few more. Maybe the next generation of leaders will take us to a new level. I just hope they allow me to be able to walk around and drink wine with all the great visitors here.
Let me bring you back to when you got the phone call saying can you come back to Duplin and help. Knowing what you know now, what would you tell your younger self?
Be patient. Be patient. One thing I did not have at that age was patience, I was all “go-go-go”. But doing what you want is a whole lot easier when you bring can other people on board before moving forward.