By Sherry Matthews
ROSE HILL — A forklift laden with white cardboard boxes makes its way across the shiny floor of a production facility in this small eastern Duplin County town. The driver backs up, adjusts his load and moves forward again, positioning the dozens of boxes next to row after row of like products, all emblazoned with the beach-themed insignia synonymous with the Duplin Winery.
One room over, fewer than a dozen workers are overseeing a production line, where empty glass bottles are dumped onto a conveyor belt and channeled through an elaborate maze that sees those bottles filled with wine, corked, labeled, packaged and boxed before being carted to the distribution room.
An hour after the process begins, 7,000 bottles of “cool, sweet and easy” sipping wines, products of Duplin Winery, are ready to be shipped to one of the 13 states that carries one or all of the Fussell family’s 45 or so varieties.
Some might end up just down the road, on Sycamore Street in Rose Hill, at the winery, where it might be served with lunch in the facility’s bistro or sampled by travelers pulling into the facility from Interstate 40. Sometimes, it seems, as many crates of wine head out the door to waiting cars as come in the winery from the production facility.
And that’s just what brothers Dave and Jonathan Fussell want to see as they continue the successful wine business started back in the mid-1970s by their father, David, grandfather, Daniel “Big D” Fussell Sr., and their uncle, Daniel Fussell Jr.
“We have been very, very blessed,” Jonathan Fussell said, pointing out the rich history, and rich heritage, that has made the winery — and the Muscadine grape — a familiar name in eastern North Carolina and beyond.
It is, he pointed out, the oldest winery in the state of North Carolina, a point of pride for the Fussell family, who readily credits all of their success to great customers and blessings from God.
“We have some wonderful, loyal customers who have helped make this family venture a tremendous success. The Lord has richly blessed us … more they we deserve,” said Fussell, who heads up retail operations at Duplin Winery and serves as vice president. Brother Dave is president and CEO, but the two basically swap titles in the other business, Dupline Wine Family.
Those blessings began in the 1970s when the Muscadine grape was considered, Jonathan Fussell said, “a wonder crop.”
A company in New York was paying big money for the North Carolina grapes, and the elder Fussells began growing them for that company. When the price bottomed out a few years later, it was time, the younger Fussell noted, for his father, grandfather and uncle to find a way to salvage their livelihood.
Getting into the wine-making business themselves seemed the logical solution, and that’s just what they did.
“My grandfather contributed the building and my dad and my uncle began making wine right here in Rose Hill, using the grapes we were harvesting.” It was, Fussell said, “a true family operation,” with in-laws, aunts, uncles and grandchildren pitching in to do what they could, be it stomp the grapes or help bottle the wine.
Using a converted hog trailer, the Fussells began to peddle their product to distributors and soon the family and Duplin Winery were making a name for themselves.
“At one time, I can’t remember the year, we made up about 57 percent of all the tax collected for wine in the state. I’m not sure where we are now, but it’s probably still a good number,” Fussell pointed out.
It wasn’t always easy at the winery, however. When the Fussells first began their venture, the town and its citizens didn’t want a winery in their midst and, in fact, the governing board had voted not to allow it. But because there were some 72 families growing grapes in N.C. at the time, all in need of a place to sell their crop, the state intervened.
In 1976, the winery opened for business; one year later bottling began at the Sycamore Street facility. As its popularity increased so did the need to move the bottling operation into its own facility, paving the way for more retail space at the winery, which now features a large tasting room, The Bistro restaurant, where the wines are featured, and an area where clothing and accessories are sold, along with specialty items.
“My dad came up with the idea of opening the Bistro,” Fussell pointed out. “He was trying to give customers a reason to keep coming back to the winery. Offering them a restaurant with great food and providing entertainment through our dinner shows was what he came up with. It has been a real asset and it’s done exactly what he thought it would.”
Coupled with entertainment and food was the Fussell family’s mantra of treating people well. “That’s something that has been instilled in all of us over the years: it’s important to build good relationships, offer people the best and treat them nice, always treat them nice. If you do those things, they’ll keep coming back.”
It didn’t hurt that along with following those powerful rules, the Fussells were providing a sweet tasting wine that was tempting the palates of more and more people every year.
“We had tremendous growth from 1996 through 2011,” Fussell said, admitting that there was a downturn in 2011, when the winery went from double-digit sales to single digits.
“Let’s just say 2012 was our wake-up call, and we answered it with a vengeance. We recognized that we had to put ourselves into making this business a success every day. Doing that and having such good, loyal customers allowed us to build back our success. Today, wow, it’s just amazing how well the business is doing.”
In 2015, the winery produces 1.6 million gallons of wine a year, making it, Fussell noted, the largest winery in the south. More than 100,000 visitors experience the Rose Hill winery and production facility each year, and Duplin wine is distributed in 13 states. The winery is involved in some 210 events a year, 50 of them at the winery and another 160 at venues and festivals across the state.
Their wines are award winning and include such favorites as Black River Red; Magnolia, which was featured in Martha Stewart Living as a favorite summertime wine; Hatteras Red, a North Carolina favorite; and Scuppernong, the oldest wine in America. A new favorite is becoming the Duplin Sangria, which is growing in popularity now.
“We are very proud of our wines,” Fussell said. “We believe our commitment to excellence shines through with every sip.” The winery’s continued success has allowed the Fussell family to take their winery on the road, with plans to open a second facility in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, this summer. The 15,000-square-foot facility, located beside Barefoot Landing, will offer guided wine tours, bottling by hand and retail space.
Fussell said the facility should be able to accommodate some 200-plus guests for guided wine tastings at one time, making it the largest wine-tasting station on the Grand Strand. The location also will include more than 5,000 square feet of retail space featuring Duplin wines, as well as specialty drinks, foods and merchandise.
“We will be bottling about 1,000 bottles per hour by hand at the Myrtle Beach facility, and people will be able to watch it being done,” Fussell pointed out, noting that there would not be a restaurant in the South Carolina facility.
Those taking the tours also will see cooking demonstrations accompanied by a presentation about the early days of the winery when Duplin first sold its wines in mason jars before moving to more traditional wine bottles.
“We want this to be a real attraction, and we think it will be,” Fussell said.
And it will have the Fussell mark of excellence written all over it. “It has taken us a long time to get here but we are excited to be doing this in Myrtle Beach. It’s a dream come true.
“I said it once, but I’ll say it again, we have been very, very blessed, richly so, and my family is very, very thankful.”