Unknown vine sprouts small-batch wine

Frances and Bill Porcher (Photo by Hanna Raskin)

Frances Porcher isn’t exactly an avid consumer of her husband’s wine. “I’m a rum drinker,” she confesses. She grows orchids, though, so can relate to the care he’s spent on 125 ambiguous vines flourishing along the banks of Mill Creek.

“I just call it a bunch grape growing on James Island, which is different than muscadine,” says Bill Porcher, 82, who’s now selling his James Island Red at the Seven Star Liquor Store and The Toddy Shop.

Porcher has consulted a few scientists on the question of his grape’s provenance. They’ve all been stumped, except for a man associated with UC-Davis. He identified the grape as Camille, which sounds lovely and French, but doesn’t check out against any standard wine text. The internet’s rife with references to women called Camille growing grapes – including Camille Roederer, who ran the famed Champagne house for four decades, and a nineteenth-century hobbyist with land near Lookout Mountain, Ga. – but there’s apparently no such thing as a vine by that name. Nor is there any online evidence of a viticulturist by the name Porcher recalls, although the fellow did leave behind a cutting that he referred to as “redneck rose.”

So for now, the grape’s a mystery. What Porcher knows is it’s hardy and fast-growing.

“It’s been growing up that oak as long as I can remember,” says Porcher, whose family moved to the former agricultural station three years after he was born. He speculates researchers may have planted the vine as yet another experiment. “There were apple trees, plum trees, pomegranate trees, tangerine trees, all over the property.”

When Porcher in the 1990s decided to build a new garage, he moved the vine, making two cuttings. It never occurred to him to turn the grape into wine until Frances Porcher tasted one. Even if her palate was primed for rum, she recognized the vine’s potential. By 2006, Porcher was bottling.

“I’ve learned that more people like a dry wine, rather than a sweet wine,” says Porcher. He’s also learned a head-stretching amount about sulfites and liquor laws, none of which applied when he messed around with scuppernong wine as a high-schooler.

Although he calls on volunteers for harvesting (“someone who wants to see what it’s like, we can get them to come one time,” Frances Porcher says), Porcher personally handles every other aspect of the one-acre operation. He makes the wine in a small stucco building with a cellar, a remnant of the agricultural station’s heating system. Annual production is about 300 bottles a year.

Since Porcher’s first winemaking sessions were only semi-successful, he’s resigned himself to giving away his oldest bottles to family and friends. But now that he’s comfortable with the methodology, he’s wholesaling the 2013 run for $20 a bottle.

“I would like to get it into a restaurant,” Porcher says. “I tried one restaurant, but when I told him what I was selling it for, he said his crowd’s not that crowd.”

The grapes – whatever they are – will again be ready for harvest around July Fourth, Porcher predicts.