I arrived at Jack and Estelle Wilson’s house on Roanoke Island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks with a retinue of cousins, refugees from a family wedding in nearby Manteo. I was there to see the Mother Vine, reportedly the oldest cultivated grapevine in North America. My cousins were there to witness their wine writer relative in action and to get out of the way of my sister, the mother of the bride, as she fretted over last-minute arrangements. The Wilsons were gracious and indulgent hosts.
The Mother Vine is no ordinary front-yard shrub. According to Troy Kickler of the North Carolina History Project, it could be more than 400 years old, planted by Croatan Indians or perhaps by settlers of the Lost Colony in the 1580s, the first English outpost in North America, a short distance away. The site it occupies is mentioned in a land grant from the 1720s, and the vine itself appears — already legendary for its size and age — in newspaper accounts from the mid-1800s and in photographs from around the turn of the last century.
Today it occupies about a third of the Wilsons’ front yard, sprawled over a 6-foot-high trellis made primarily of black locust wood, much of it in place before Jack and Estelle bought the property and built their house in the late 1950s.
Most people have azaleas. The Wilsons have what may very well be the world’s oldest scuppernong vine.
Despite its historical novelty, the vine has a startlingly modern-day story, having survived a near-death experience at the hands of technology and rebounded to thrive.
We scampered underneath the vine trellis as Jack and his son, John Wilson IV, told us the tale of their family’s stewardship of the vine: how they trimmed it back from its acre-plus spread to make room for the house, and how Jack planted a hedge along Mother Vineyard Road to hide the vine from the prying eyes of tourists, some of whom would linger uninvited to take in the view of Roanoke Sound from the Wilsons’ back patio.
In the spring of 2010, Jack noticed that leaves on the west edge of the vine, nearest Mother Vineyard Road, were dying. A subcontractor for Dominion Power had sprayed an industrial herbicide along the road to keep brush away from power lines and had inadvertently sprayed the Mother Vine. Jack called in specialists from North Carolina State University and the University of Virginia for help. They advised a radical approach: trimming the vine ahead of the poison while fertilizing it heavily to boost its immunity to the chemical. Those efforts worked.
The Mother Vine emerged from its ordeal stronger than before. The university specialists recommended letting the vine grow again as a way of strengthening its roots. The Wilsons have expanded the trellis and plan to let the vine grow back through their front yard.
“It has been fertilized and tended, and more done to it in the last few years than in the 60 years before,” Jack said.
His son, John IV, said the family has arranged for the property to be given to the Outer Banks Conservationists, a group the family founded years ago to keep the Currituck Beach Lighthouse in Corolla, N.C., preserved and open to the public. The conservancy will assume stewardship of the vine after the death of his parents, he said.
Luckily, that might be a while. Jack, 88, and Estelle, 84, look as hale and hearty as the vine they proudly tend in their front yard. Jack eats the grapes from the Mother Vine. They are scuppernong, of the muscadine variety, with about 10 times the healthful resveratrol of European wine grapes.
There were no grapes from 2013 left when I visited. The Wilsons allow their neighbors to pick and enjoy each harvest. Others also benefit from the vine: Duplin Winery, farther south in North Carolina, makes wine from a vineyard planted with cuttings from the Mother Vine, and a company makes nutritional supplements from byproducts of the wine production. John gave me two bottles of Duplin’s Mothervine wine, with a warning.
“Best to freeze it really cold, then pour it over vanilla ice cream,” he said. “It’s very, very sweet.”
When I opened the bottle a week later at home, there was no need for ice cream. The wine was rather good: sweet, yes, but balanced with acidity. It displayed the “foxy” flavor of a native American grape, the very flavor that the Lost Colony settlers would have tasted when they ate the grapes they found on Roanoke Island.
The island was “so full of grapes . . . that I think in all the world the like abundance is not to be found,” one of the earliest settlers of the Lost Colony wrote of his discoveries in 1584. As I tasted the Mother Vine wine, I sensed a continent before me, raw and unexplored, its promise of wealth, adventure and freedom reflected in my glass.