Juiced up

 In 2015-10

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Tom Burgiss is a funny guy, a spry, witty 84-year-old retired pharmacist and poster boy for the magic of a second business career. When I heard he owned a small mountaintop winery that specializes in teaching others how to make wine at home, I phoned to ask if I might come visit some early autumn afternoon. “Absolutely,” he responded. “Come on up to the top of the mountain and we’ll give you some very good wine. But better come soon, though. I’m so old, why, I don’t even buy green bananas anymore.”

Burgiss and his son, Brant, own and operate Thistle Meadow Winery and grapestompers inc., an online home winemaker’s supply firm located off N.C. 18 in Laurel Springs, an unincorporated village in Alleghany County with one post office and 800 residents surrounded by tall mountain slopes covered with Christmas trees. Thirty years ago, Burgiss retired as head pharmacist of a drugstore in Sparta, which is 10 miles northeast of Laurel Springs, and set off to see wider places in the world with his wife, Nancy. He wondered what he might do with the rest of his life. Perhaps the most fateful travel stop turned out to be a condo rented for a month in Victoria, British Columbia, the “garden city” of Vancouver Island.

Tom picks up the tale from here. “The man who rented us the condo welcomed us with a bottle of wine. I happen to love good wine. And this wine was very good — so good I went over just to thank him and ask where we could buy that bottle of wine to take home. Turned out, he’d made it himself — from a kit, no less. I was very impressed.”

He was also eager to see if he could replicate the feat of grape fermentation back home in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Burgiss needed a good retirement hobby to stay busy and keep his mind sharp on his family’s 125-acre homeplace in the pretty vale where he grew up “cutting thistles out of the meadow for my granddaddy because nothing much else would grow here.”

Innovation was in his blood. Tom Burgiss’s grandfather, C.A. Reeves, was a scientific Renaissance mountain man, the 32nd licensed dentist to operate in North Carolina and the first to engineer an electrical dental drill for use in his Sparta practice. The dentist-inventor set up a water wheel that produced DC current, generated off a clutch of old car batteries housed in a nearby shed.

Back home, Burgiss studied the deceptively simple craft of making wine. “It’s a hobby as old as the Bible,” he quips, “tricky but not all that hard to do, just takes lots and lots of practice.” His chief obstacle came from finding high-quality grape juice concentrate, the kind used in better wines. Back in the 1980s, only a handful of commercial vineyards operated in North Carolina, most making wine from native muscadine grapes.

His search led him to a Charlotte company that sold a respectable Alexander grape juice concentrate in tall, cylindrical cans. “To be honest, the first batch of wine was not very good,” he says. “Neither were the second, third and fourth batches. But that’s the thing about winemaking. It takes time and knowledge and experience. Once you start making it, you’re never satisfied. That makes you get better
at it. After about a year, I began to make a pretty good wine.”

So what did he do with all that bad wine? A typical carboy jug used to make home wine produces 30 bottles of wine. “Gave it to people I didn’t like all that much,” he says with a roguish twinkle. “But when I finally got good at making it, we invited friends and neighbors out to the farm for supper to try it. Word spread pretty quick. Things kind of grew quickly from there.”

Initially, Burgiss’ jugs shared space in the farm’s equipment shed with a 1948 Allis-Chalmers tractor and a snowmobile that had to be started with a screwdriver. With demand outpacing his modest production capabilities, he concluded he needed a way to pay for his expensive hobby — and he found an answer right in front of him.

“Winemaking at home was still a pretty new thing in America when we got started in the mid-1980s,” he says. “Finding the right information, grape concentrate and equipment was difficult. By 1992, we were familiar with sources and suppliers and decided that was a business we ought to get into, since almost nobody was doing it at that time.”

“The timing couldn’t have been better,” Brant Burgiss remembers. “The Internet was still new, but homebrewing and winemaking were suddenly growing hobbies in America. There were only a couple of resources online for home winemaking kits and high-quality equipment.”

At that time, Brant was working in a technology-support job in High Point and part time with his dad, refining his own winemaking expertise. He developed a website for grapestompers.com, the clever name for their new winemaking supply company, and started selling  50 different kinds of comprehensive kits. Today, grapestompers.com sells more than 160 different kits (prices range from $75 to $180, depending on grape quality) and boasts a mailing list of more than 10,000 customers in every state and more than 40 countries. The business generates $1 million in revenue annually. Equally impressive, the Burgisses joyfully share their advice and homegrown winemaking expertise with thousands of customers online and in person, including 18 that have established wineries in North Carolina. Nationally, owners of more than 125 wineries have reached out for counsel.

“Not bad for a place that doesn’t even have its own vineyards,” the elder Burgiss says. “Seventy-five percent of those folks are still in business today, making very good wine. I’m proud of that fact.”

Responding to growing demand for their own product, in 1997 they opened a tasting room in the former equipment barn and began selling their wine in distinctive cobalt blue bottles with a label illustrated with a meadow thistle. The 1,500 cases produced annually are sold only through the winery’s tasting room, at festivals and at the Thistle Stop Wine Shop in Kernersville.

Since 1997, they have hosted a wine festival in October, later adding a summer event to showcase their customers’ products. “We’re the only festival in the state where the public votes on their favorite wines —  not judges,” Tom Burgiss says. “One of our missions is to introduce people to different kinds of wine. Home winemakers come from all over the country. We even had one who moved to North Carolina from Texas — just to make wine.”

 

Since their introduction, Thistle Meadow wines have collected awards at various state and regional wine competitions, including Winston-Salem’s Dixie Classic Fair, which attracts entrants from five states. On the first Sunday of this month, the Burgisses expect a record crowd for their shindig. “Could be a thousand if the weather’s good,” says Brant, “half that if it’s not.” Visitors will find an expanded tasting room that features 60-plus different wines ranging from dry whites and reds to blush and dessert wines, bearing colorful names like Roaring Gap White, Feather Bed Red and Bluebird Song. This writer’s favorite, Lucky Black, is a blackberry merlot named for Tom’s late labrador retriever.

“We never imagined it would grow into what it’s become,” says Brant, who left his High Point job two years ago and came back home as full-time director of quality control and head winemaker, moving his young family into his great grandfather’s house.

When the Burgiss family began the business in the mid-1980s, the North Carolina wine industry was in its infancy. Today it has an annual economic impact of $1.71 billion with 159 wineries that support more than 7,700 jobs. The state ranks 10th in wine production and third in wine tourism.

Is it possible that this Johnny Appleseed of home winemaking contributed in some way to such impressive growth? Tom Burgiss merely gives you a coy mountain shrug and grin.

“Who can say? It’s been a great business for us and second career for me,” he says, pouring his visitor a second glass of Lucky Black merlot. “The best part is the people who find their way back here into the hills. I love to see the faces of old friends and newcomers when they taste our wine. Good wine makes people happy, you know. It makes me very happy to think this place and our wine will outlive me.”

 

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