It helps that Larry Woodham grows only native Muscadine grapes, which, through their millennia in the region, have developed natural immunities to insect-borne diseases such as Pierce’s Disease. With deep black soil full of phosphates (also a natural fertilizer), Woodham sees no need to use technological cheats. “Mother Earth sits at our table,” he says, and there’s a reason the Spanish named this place the Land of Flowers. “You can put a broomstick in and it would grow.” To throw that away for the sake of what seems popular or profitable is a betrayal to both the land and the craft. It’s more time-intensive at harvest—Muscadine grapes grow individually as opposed to in clusters and must be handpicked one at a time as each reaches full ripeness—but the husband-and-wife team are out in the fields for hours a day plucking grapes one after the other and plopping them into five-gallon buckets to haul back for production. The Woodhams will make five or six passes for each plant, each day pulling only the grapes that are ripe until the harvest is done.

“A real American winery, no matter what state it’s in, will have four words on its bottle. Grown, produced, vinted and bottled.” — Larry Woodham, Bunker Hill Winery

According to Woodham, there are two types of wines being produced in the country today: real wine crafted at real American wineries and so-called wine manufactured out of wine “factories.” Before it was a billion dollar industry, he says, winemaking served a simple but pure purpose—to preserve the year’s harvest and project that success into the future—and winemakers were inextricably tied to the land as each bottle was tied to that harvest. “That’s the heritage of winemaking—the love and passion,” says Woodham, “and that’s what we should be all about.” At Bunker Hill Vineyard and Winery, Woodham and wife Lenora return to the old traditions, creating an environmentally conscious winery where the winemakers keep watch at every step from vine to bottle. The trick is simple, says Woodham, for those who want to know the difference: read the label. 

Photo 1

Moving through crowded racks and shelves weighed down with harvest buckets and glass carboys, the production room opens to a Spartan setup dominated by a three-compartment sink, a manual crusher and a red crane. Carrying the literal fruits of their labor to the sink, the pair go about washing and grading the lot, checking for ripeness and the health of the fruit. Most will pass muster, and the ones that don’t are not discarded, but rather saved for future fertilizer. The fruits that look ready for winemaking go into the crusher, a simple hand-cranked machine with some nasty teeth made for gnashing. An electric model may be quicker, but it wouldn’t be as green and as Woodham puts it: “Our arms ain’t broke.” Working the crusher, they apply just enough pressure to break the skins, which provide a natural barrier to fermentation. The mass slides out the bottom into another five-gallon bucket—skins and all. The flesh of the fruit may be where the sugars and carbs are, says Woodham, but the skin is full of the good stuff—vitamins and minerals and antioxidants—and gives the wine its color. Using the red crane—also manual—the crushed fruit ready for fermentation is transferred to glass carboys for aging. Glass can be cleaned and reused and repurposed—recycled if broken—and lowers the vineyard’s carbon footprint. And if they want that oak profile in the wine, just throw a limb or a few chips into the carboy with no need to fell an entire tree.

With the harvest in the carboys, the Woodhams head off with their prize to the wine cave. Built by Woodham, the cavernous construction adheres to the same green philosophy as the rest of the vineyard, with lumpen mounds of insulation covering the ceiling like rounded stalactites and keeping everything a cool even temperature. “Refrigeration is artificial,” says Woodham, by way of explanation. On every side and rising to the ceiling, carboys line the great wooden shelves, the wine inside aging and fermenting and settling. All Bunker Hill wines are unfiltered, meaning the wine goes from the crusher to the carboy to the bottle without any forced filtration to separate solid bits of fruit or fermentation byproduct. Instead, the carboys are “racked” on the shelves for at least a year, harnessing gravity’s slow and unceasing pull to bring all of the unwanted particulates and seeds and skins to the bottom. A few times a year, the Woodhams will pull the carboy and dispose of the accumulated mass while pouring the liquid into another carboy to be racked again. As a result of the Woodhams’ dedication to natural winemaking, each carboy of wine boasts its own distinct color profile, a reflection of the particular plants that make up that particular wine.

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“Every wine bottle we’ve ever used since we opened seven years ago has been recycled and repurposed,” says Woodham. Customers are encouraged to return any and all bottles to Bunker Hill after the wine has been consumed, and they’ll take any else as well. The bottles are labeled and sealed with wax, not plastic, because it will bond to the glass and provide the seal that aging, unfiltered wines need. On the shelves, the bottles are a motley crew of all shapes and sizes, but Woodham only cares about what’s inside.

He tells the story of a trip he and Lenora took to a winery up in northern Florida, where an 80 year old man had been growing Muscadine grapes since he was 20, making unfiltered wine and keeping meticulous records to document the aging effects. They sampled wine aged more than 50 years. “He did it,” blurts Woodham. “He captured the harvest of 50 years ago in his neck of the woods.” He brings down a bottle and holds it almost reverentially. “These are time machines,” he says. “They truly are.”