DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) - “They tell me if you eat enough of them it’ll make you pretty,” John Ward joked. “And I’m only a boxcar load behind.”
Ward considers himself addicted to muscadine grapes, a variety native to the Southeast. The grape’s sweetness, wrapped around a seed and in a tough skin, is markedly different than your average store-bought grape.
Ward’s unassuming vineyard, named Greensward, holds about 40 different types of muscadine grapes. Some are purple and some are yellow; some are football-shaped; some are used as shade for his dogs; some are better for wine making.
The vineyard is a pick-your-own operation: Because the grapes don’t all ripen at the same time, muscadines have resisted mechanized harvesting.
“I’ve always had muscadine vines around me, ever since I was a kid,” said Ward, who is 72 years old and retired. “Some people ask me how I got involved in it. I got backed into it. I wanted to have some grapes to eat. I found there were several varieties, so I planted a few varieties, and found some more. I just kind of grew into it.”
The vineyard is 11 or 12 years old.
Though his vineyard has grown larger than his original intentions, Ward has no interest in it getting any larger. A friend with a large commercial grape business, Ward said, yearned for his simple life.
“Sometimes you can over-advertise,” he said.
Hand-painted signs and accounting in a spiral notebook will do.
“It’s a hobby,” Ward said. “It’s a one-person operation. As far as getting into it for a business to be making lots of money? No. I’m not interested in that. It’s just something I enjoy doing. I get to meet people from every aspect of life, all over the world. I meet people who are local that are interesting that you wouldn’t know about otherwise.”
Word of his vineyard has reached California, Texas and up north.
“A lot are repeat customers,” Ward said. “They just keep coming back and coming back. Friends tell friends.”
A typical day might see 15 customers.
James Cooper has been picking grapes at Ward’s vineyard for three years.
“He’s a good honest man and you don’t always find that these days,” Cooper said.
“You don’t have to fight the crowds, fight the traffic,” said Ricky McCutchen, of Darlington, another repeat customer. “You know how it’s grown. They’re a sign of good dirt.”
Muscadine grapes, which have been cultivated for hundreds of years, were pushed by Clemson University as an alternative to growing tobacco. They’re typically grown for eating rather than wine making.
“European-style grapes have got a 6,000 or 8,000 year head start on wine making over the muscadine grapes,” Ward said. “Muscadine wine is like the new kid on the block.”
Anyway, Ward isn’t much of a wine drinker. To him, eating the grapes is the pinnacle of their cultivation.
“Some of them are good, and the rest of them are marvelous,” he said.
Information from: Morning News, https://www.scnow.com
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