Of Texas and Muscadine Wine (plus a recipe)

Kathleen Rice Adams header

In the Old West, folks couldn’t just walk into a liquor store and pick up a bottle of their favorite hooch. Some saloons and general stores sold wine and spirits by the bottle or jug, but a goodly number of people — especially those who lived on remote homesteads — fermented or distilled their own. Homemade wine was common all over the South and West, where pulpy fruits and weeds like dandelions grew in profusion.

P&P RECIPES LOGOWild muscadine and scuppernong grapes provided the base for many southern home-brews. The two varieties differ primarily in color: Muscadines are dark, from deep cherry-red to almost black; scuppernongs are green to bronze to almost white. Both are highly acidic. Failure to wear gloves while picking or mashing can leave a rash on the skin. However, the high acid content, coupled with prodigious fruit production, makes muscadines and scuppernongs excellent candidates for fermentation.

Although the muscadines and scuppernongs used in contemporary artisanal wines are cultivated like any other crop, the wild foundation stock behaved — and still behaves — much like kudzu, overgrowing everything in its path. To say the grapes are aggressive and abundant would be an understatement. The landscaping around my home can attest to that.

wild muscadine grapes (photo by Bob Peterson)

wild muscadine grapes (photo by Bob Peterson)

In fact, according to local lore, the people who owned this house in the 1920s made good use of wild muscadine grapes. They had to be sneaky about their “hobby,” though, because during Prohibition revenuers were everywhere. Reportedly, the covert libation operation was discovered when a driver lost control of his car and collided with a hastily erected addition to the house, which dutifully collapsed. Vats and vats of muscadine wine spilled into the street. I’m not sure how that worked out for the brewers, but since they were prominent citizens, I doubt anyone got in too much trouble.

The homeowners rebuilt the addition with a good deal more attention to sturdiness. I use it as an honest-to-goodness living room (as opposed to the formal living room at the front of the house) and call it “the wine cellar.”

Muscadine wine comes to the rescue of the hero in “Making Peace,” one of two short novellas in The Dumont Brand. Heroine Maggie Fannin mixes quinine with her homemade wine to treat the malaria hero Bennett Collier picked up while tramping through swamps during the Civil War.

****

The Dumont BrandHer back to him, the woman stood at a rough-hewn table against the wall on the opposite side of the hearth. Sunlight leaked through chinks in the mortar between the split logs, gleaming along a russet braid that traced a stiff backbone. A faded calico dress hung loose on a frame without softness or curves.

She turned and caught his stare in eyes the color of warm cognac. A soldier’s eyes: resigned, yet defiant; determined to go down fighting.

Levering up onto stiff arms, he braced his palms on the floor.

The woman knelt and shoved a tin cup forward. “Drink.”

His gaze dropped to the vessel for only a moment before returning to those fascinating eyes.

Her lips and brows pinched. “Drink or I’ll pour it down your throat. I didn’t nurse you through three days of the ague just to turn around and poison you.”

The rustic music he’d heard earlier underlay the sharp words. Holding her gaze, he shifted his weight, took the cup, and drew it to his lips. The sweet wine almost hid a familiar bitterness. “You found the quinine.”

Quinine—more precious than gold to any soldier who’d spent too much time in the swamps. He’d stolen the near-empty bottle. The righteous Bennett Collier, a common thief. “You went through my saddlebags.”

“I didn’t take nothin’ else. I swear it.”

He hadn’t meant the statement as an accusation. “Nothing in there worth taking.” Except the bundle of letters from his father. I miss you, son. Keep yourself alive and come home. Three years too late. He nearly choked trying to clear his throat.

He tossed back the rest of the wine. The bitter drug sharpened a pain in his chest; the sweet wine, a bitter memory. “Muscadine.”

****

Today, most home-brewers use commercial yeast and add pectic enzyme. The latter clarifies the wine and draws more color from the grapes. Typically, those who ferment wine at home also add Campden tablets (potassium or sodium metabisulfite) to kill bacteria and inhibit the growth of wild yeast.

None of those ingredients would have been available in Maggie’s rundown shack on the mainland across the bay from Galveston, so her recipe might have looked something like the one below, which I found written in tidy cursive on a yellowed slip of paper tucked into one of my grandmother’s books. I have no idea how old the recipe is or from whence it came. The comments in parentheses are mine.

Muscadine Wine

(makes 5 gallons)

5-gallon bucket very ripe (soft and starting to shrivel) muscadine grapes

12 lbs. white sugar

Spring water (or any water without chlorine)

  1. Rinse grapes. (If the grapes have been sprayed with pesticides, wash them. Otherwise just rinse. Wild yeast on the grapes’ skins and in the air, combined with sugar, causes fermentation.)
  1. Mash grapes in large (glazed ceramic) crock. (The vessel should be large enough to hold the mashed grapes and the sugar with a couple of inches of “head space” between the top of the liquid and the lip of the crock.)
  1. Add sugar. Give mash a good stirring.
  1. Cover crock with thick cheesecloth (or use a T-shirt). Tie string around lip (to hold the cheesecloth). Set in warm place.
  1. Give mash good stirring every day until stops bubbling. (The amount of yeast in the environment will determine when the mixture starts bubbling and how long the activity lasts.)
  1. Strain juice into clean (glazed ceramic) crock or churn. Add spring water to make five gallons. (Again, leave head space between liquid and rim.)
  1. Cover crock. Set in cool cellar or barn. Let sit six weeks. Strain into jars. (Knowing my grandmother, “jars” meant Mason jars. That’s how my grandfather bottled his moonshine. I’d use wine bottles, but what do I know?) Screw on lids, loose for a few days. Tighten lids, let sit six months in cellar or barn.

 

Muscadine wine

muscadine wine

I can’t vouch for the recipe because I’ve never tried it. Use at your own risk.

Home-brewing has become a bona fide trend over the past several years, so recipes and equipment for making beer, wine, and mead are everywhere. If you’d like to attempt a more modern approach to muscadine wine-making, you may want to visit this link (from Louisiana) or this one (from Kentucky).

Be aware: Unlike in 19th-century America, today’s federal government and all U.S. states have laws governing the production of alcoholic beverages for personal consumption. According to the federal Internal Revenue Code, home-brewers may produce 200 gallons of beer or wine per calendar year if there are two or more adults residing in the household; 100 gallons per calendar year if there is only one adult residing in the household. If they produce more, they must pay federal taxes on the overage.

State regulations vary widely. In Texas, for example, the head of a household or an unmarried adult living alone may produce 200 gallons of wine, ale, malt liquor, or beer per year. Those who wish to produce more — or do so “accidentally” — not only owe state taxes in addition to federal tax, but also must acquire a license.

 

Kathleen Rice Adams
A Texan to the bone, award-winning author Kathleen Rice Adams spends her days chasing news stories and her nights and weekends shooting it out with Wild West desperados. Leave the upstanding, law-abiding heroes to other folks. In Kathleen's tales, even the good guys wear black hats.

Her short story “The Second-Best Ranger in Texas” won the Peacemaker Award for Best Western Short Fiction. Her novel Prodigal Gun won the EPIC Award for Historical Romance and is the only western historical romance ever to final for a Peacemaker in a book-length category.

Visit her at the Hole in the Web Gang's hideout, KathleenRiceAdams.com. Or, connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. Her Amazon author page is here.

21 Comments

  1. Kathleen, this was really interesting and I loved the excerpt of your story. You painted such a vivid picture in a few short paragraphs.

    I never heard of scuppernong grapes. What a name. I’ve never made wine, but 12 pounds of sugar sure does seem like a lot. I loved that they stored their wine in mason jars.

    1. Thank you, Margaret! Those two stories mean a lot to me. 🙂

      Scuppernong grapes are all over the Southeast, especially the Carolinas. The wine made from scuppernongs and muscadines is very sweet — almost a dessert wine.

      My grandmother stored EVERYTHING in Mason jars! 😀

  2. This is very interesting. I don’t know if I would want to make my own wine. I like the convenience of going to the store and just grabbing a bottle of my favorite. But I would be curious to try homemade wine.

    1. I’ve had homemade wine made by other people, and it’s actually pretty good stuff! I’m with you, though: I like the convenience of the liquor store. 🙂

  3. Good morning! Thanks for the recipe, although muscadine grapes don’t grow wild in these parts. And the stories in The Dumont Brans are fabulous!

    1. Thank you, Tracy! I can ship you 18 or 20 cases of muscadines, if you like. I’ll never miss ’em, I promise you. 😀

  4. I love a good homemade wine. Not sure I will ever try to make it myself, but it doesn’t sound too hard. Fun post – especially about the history of the addition to your house. 🙂

    1. I was surprised wine-making doesn’t require more ingredients or effort than it does. Some people go through all kinds of machinations to produce home-brewed concoctions, but it sounds to me like the fewer ingredients, the better. 🙂

      I’m glad you enjoyed the story about my house! It’s got a fascinating history — not all of it quite that spectacular. 😉

  5. when i moved from TN to VT they didnt have a clue what a muscadine was,,i didnt take them the wine but I took them some jelly and they loved it,,i remember going to the vineyards and just sitting on the ground and eating Muscadines and scuppernong right off the vines until we couldnt eat another bite,,ive had the wine and it is awesome,,have to know how to make it for it to taste right

    1. Vickie, I’ll bet moving from TN to VT was a huge culture shock. I used to help my grandmother make muscadine jelly, and that was always so much fun. Of course, my grandmother made everything fun, but the bonus with the jelly was that we got to eat it. 😉

  6. ALways enjoy the information you post. Thanks.

    1. Thank you, Kim! You’re always so kind to stop by and keep us company. The fillies love you! 🙂

  7. I love wine but I think I’ll leave it to the experts lol.

  8. Very interesting! So much new information! My grandfather used to make his own wine from many different things. Dandylions, cherries, rhubarb, gooseberries and I don’t remember what else.

    1. I’ve never had dandelion wine, but I hear it’s really good. Who knew? My grandparent never let anything go to waste. If it grew and wasn’t poisonous, it became food of some kind. 😀 I wish I had that kind of cooking talent.

  9. Fascinating post Kathleen! I’ve always been a bit fearful of making something that sits around for months –canning or wine or beer. I think I’m afraid whatever I make will get a spore or germ in the mix and go bad and make someone sick. Or the bottles would explode LOL. I’m a city girl when it comes to stuff like that…I’d really enjoy witnessing the entire process first hand to understand how one can keep it SAFE!

  10. Kathleen, loved the post and loved the excerpt. My dear husband made wine one year. I must say his muscadine wine was not a great success. He decided her preferred to buy ours. I used some of the grapes for jelly and entered that in the State Fair. I like canning better than I like wine making. Now, though, we’ve moved into town and harvest our food at WalMart and Kroger. LOL

  11. Better late than never, I say! I have always wanted to make my own wine just to see what would happen. Used to have a friend whose husband made his own wine and beer. It really tasted awful, but we all pretended it was good because he was so proud of it. LOL And a house with history! I love it! Also, you know how I love your Dumonts…they are so unusual and fun to read about.

  12. Kathleen – Thanks, for the excerpt & grape recipe. No way I’m I going to make wine….doesn’t turn out for me. I’ll buy mine at the store. Your reader.

  13. I made muscadine wine one year almost 40 years ago. It wasn’t too difficult and tasted OK. I really haven’t had the time to try it since. After squeezing the juice from the wine, I just covered the crock with cheese cloth and let it ferment .
    My mother had a cousin that made dandelion wine and a friend who made cherry cordial. Unfortunately, I was never old enough to try them.

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