On the vine

Ralph and Ann Massenburg recently opened Lighthouse Winery and Vineyards on Sniders Highway near Walterboro.

WALTERBORO — Growing up as a teen-ager, Ralph Massenburg’s father often wanted him to drink Wild Turkey bourbon whiskey with him when he got home from school.

Massenburg didn’t get along with his father, so he wouldn’t drink just to get back at him.

Because of that, Massenburg never tasted alcohol until he was 27. That’s when friends poured beer on him while tailgating at a college baseball game. He enjoyed the fun, just not the taste of beer.

Over the past 40 years, he’s had an occasional beer or cocktail, but he’s never acquired a taste for alcohol of any kind.

“I have never been drunk,” he said.

Now he and Ann, his wife of seven years, have embarked on a vineyard venture, Lighthouse Winery and Vineyards, producing wine by the case with plans to expand.

“‘How ... did you get into the wine business and not like alcohol?’” he remembers a friend asking him recently.

It all started on a cattle farm in Colleton County.

In 2003, Massenburg, who also owns a construction business, was raising 30 brood cows on a 122-acre farm off Cavanaugh Road.

“I just decided I wanted to grow some grapes,” he said.

So, he bought 265 muscadine plants from a vendor in Georgia and planted just under an acre in February 2003.

Any grapes grown the first year were discarded to help the plants mature properly, but in 2004 he harvested enough to make a couple of cases of wine the next spring.

He took the grapes to his Folly Beach home, bought a device to pop them open so the juice poured out, added yeast, water and sugar and then worked through the fermentation and aging process before bottling the wine the following April.

In 2007, he sold the farm with the understanding that he wanted to harvest the grapes that fall. The new landowner, however, decided to keep the grapes. So Massenburg had to start over.

He decided to plant a little over an acre on some property in nearby Hendersonville owned by his daughter, Renee.

By 2009, he was ready to make another batch.

“The first wine we made was great,” he said.

The second batch didn’t come out so well.

“I told him not to even wash out the bottle. Just throw it all away, it tasted so bad,” Ann Massenburg said.

“I think it caught air,” her husband said. “That just shows you it’s not always right.”

They eventually made four or five cases of wine, giving it away to friends and family and selling off grapes through a pick-and-buy service.

“I think people ate more than they picked though,” Ralph Massenburg said with a laugh.

By 2012, they were able to make 880 cases under three labels: Ella Teresa, a sweet red dessert wine named after Ralph’s mother; Ace Basin, a semi-dry white wine named after a section of Colleton County; and Bessie, a semi-sweet white wine named after his grandmother.

Two others will be added in the spring: Edisto, a semi-dry red wine named after the Edisto River; and Auntie Belle, a blend not named after anyone.

In 2011, they bought a 62-acre old farm with a three-bedroom house flanked by a tall magnolia tree and a five-acre pecan grove in the back, off Sniders Highway just west of Walterboro.

The couple planted 6.5 acres of muscadine grapes. The first harvest came off last year and will be bottled in April after going through the aging process over the winter. They expect about 400 cases to be squeezed out of last year’s harvest.

They cautiously opened just before Christmas, with no advertising except a sign on the road in front of the vineyard that went from “Opening soon” to “Finally opening on 12-12-12.”

They didn’t know what to expect so they kept it low-key, but the turnout on the Friday before Christmas proved to be a great launching point for the tastings, gifts and wines they offer Wednesday through Saturday each week.

Because of the demand for weddings and other events on the site, they plan to build a 200-seat event hall for weddings, banquets and such in April behind a 34-foot lighthouse and a small gazebo on the property’s edge next to the vineyard.

In June, they will add an 8,400-square-foot structure beside the event hall. There, the wine will be made in the back and tours will be allowed, and the front part will be used for tastings and a gift shop.

The main house will be turned into a honeymoon suite, and the Massenburgs, who stay there now when the vineyard is open, plan to build a 1,600-square-foot cabin on the property for their own use.

A grape-stomping and harvesting festival could eventually take place in August, much like the one at Irvin-House Vineyards on Wadmalaw Island.

In addition to Massenburg Construction Co., which Ralph still owns but his son, Ralph III, operates, they own Froggy’s Car Wash, North Main Street Self Storage and R&R Ice, all in Summerville.

“I want to sell all of it and devote my full time to this,” Ralph Massenburg said.

“I love this,” his wife said. “This is a like a party all the time.”

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.