Lincoln County’s WoodMill Winery develops fans in China

Larry Cagle Jr. was 44 when he started growing muscadine grapes and making his own wine.

It was 2006, and the hobby was just a side gig, a long-shot attempt to help his father, Larry Cagle Sr., find a fraction of relief from the deteriorating heart condition and arthritis that had plagued him for decades.

Fast-forward eight years: Cagle has left his well-paying job as a researcher for the Charlotte-based Electric Power Research Institute to start and run WoodMill Winery, located on 52 acres of rolling hills and carefully groomed vines in Vale, about 50 miles northwest of uptown Charlotte.

He and his staff of 24 host daily tastings, more than 50 weddings a year and five annual festivals, including a family favorite: the “Grape Stomp.”

WoodMill sells blueberry, blackberry and muscadine wines and produces 65,000 bottles a year. They’re distributed to 115 retail locations, from independent gas stations to big-box giants including Harris Teeter and Lowes Foods.

Most recently, Cagle’s WoodMill has become one of a handful of North Carolina’s 130 wineries to take on exporting.

“I never expected this growth,” said Cagle, now 51. “And when the guy from China knocked on my door and wanted to buy my wine, I was about to die right there.”

Native grape’s benefits

Grape-growers and wine-makers are important players often overlooked in North Carolina’s economy, said Kelly McIver, international marketing specialist for wine with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services.

The number of North Carolina wineries has more than quadrupled – from around 25 to 130 – in two decades. The wineries range from boutique operations that sell only to visiting customers, to large-scale operations such as the Biltmore Estate Wine Company, which produces hundreds of thousands of cases and ships around the nation.

It’s a $1.28 billion industry that supports nearly 7,600 jobs in the state, according to the most recent economic impact study conducted by the department in 2009.

The growing footprint is still a far cry from that of California – “Some of the big companies (there) spill more out of their tanks than I can make in a year,” said Chuck Johnson, president of the North Carolina Winegrowers Association and owner of two wineries outside Winston-Salem – but North Carolina does have some advantages.

One advantage is being home to muscadine grapes, a Southeastern fruit that has a high concentration of resveratrol, an antioxidant believed to help prevent damage to blood vessels and reduce bad cholesterol and blood clots, according to the Mayo Clinic’s website.

It was that benefit that brought a Chinese buyer to Cagle’s doorstep.

Fast sales lead to full-time job

Cagle’s dad qualified for disability at age 35. He was too proud to take it, but the arthritis he struggled with was a daily reality for the family.

He couldn’t keep a job. “He couldn’t mash a button on a remote control without cringing,” Cagle said.

When the pain grew so great that he could barely sleep, Cagle Sr.’s doctor suggested he drink a glass of red wine every night before bed.

“But my father, being a Southern boy, grew up drinking sweet tea, Coke and Pepsi,” said Cagle Jr., who watched as his dad turned up his nose at every red wine he tried.

Then he tried a muscadine wine – sweeter and more fruity than most – and he liked it.

So Cagle Jr., who already had muscadines growing on his property, decided to make his own. After four years of experimentation and daily doses for his father, Cagle saw a miraculous transformation: The 64-year-old man who couldn’t cut a cube steak with a fork was pruning vines and riding a tractor.

Cagle Jr. then decided to bottle his wine to sell. He constructed a 7,000-square-foot structure with shingles and a metal roof. The bank loaned him $250,000 on the condition that he match it with retirement funds.

Cagle hoped to sell 5,000 bottles that first year. Within six months, he sold 12,000.

Then he knew: This side hobby needed to become his full-time job.

WoodMill goes international

Unlike many other wineries that focus on “the flavors, the bouquet,” Cagle said, his WoodMill Winery site emphasizes the impetus for it: Cagle Sr.’s transformation.

And it’s that online narrative that brought China to Lincoln County.

Many European countries have been producing wine for thousands of years and have little interest in wine from North Carolina, said McIver of the Department of Agriculture.

But China’s culture “is to rejuvenate and renew” with teas, vitamins and natural remedies, said McIver of the Department of Agriculture. (For example, she added, when the state is taking Chinese buyers around to local businesses, there’s one place they always want to stop at: a GNC store.)

Currently, the North Carolina departments of agriculture and commerce both have offices over there, and while there have long been relationships exporting poultry, pork, tobacco and processed goods to the Chinese market, McIver said China’s growing middle class, with more disposable income, is ripe for North Carolina’s wine industry as well.

Cagle has had five groups of potential clients visit from China so far: one from Shanghai, two from Beijing and two from Hong Kong.

The buyer from Shanghai placed a modest order for 105 cases of wine, or about 1,260 bottles, Cagle said. After filling out the paperwork, Cagle took it to a Gastonia company he knew sent goods to India to have the owner proof it for rookie exporting mistakes.

Then he constructed the wooden containers he shipped the wine in.

Cagle waited with anticipation for word of their arrival. Two weeks ago, he heard: The Shanghai buyer wants to be the exclusive importer of WoodMill wine in that region of Asia.

“I want to entertain the idea,” Cagle said. “Huge potential.”