Widow and son take over Willow Spring winery and vineyard

aweigl@newsobserver.comFebruary 1, 2014 

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    Adams Vineyards is at 3390 John Adams Road, Willow Spring, 919-567-1010, adamsvineyards.com

When Joyce Adams’ husband died three years ago, she not only had to figure out how to run a Muscadine vineyard and winery, she also inherited her husband’s cause: to keep the family farm viable for future generations.

The land meant a lot to her husband, Johnny, whose full name was John Quincy Adams III. The 200 acres that he inherited in southeastern Wake County have been in the family since the 1700s; it was part of a land grant from the King of England, Adams said. Johnny was the seventh generation to live and work on the land.

“After tobacco went out, he wanted to get something established for future generations,” she said.

His strategy was to create Adams Vineyards in Willow Spring. The vines were planted in 2006 and the winery opened in 2008. Two years later, Johnny died and 71-year-old Joyce Adams, a lifelong homemaker, was thrown into running the enterprise.

It hasn’t been easy, but Adams is making it work with the help of her 43-year-old son, Quincy, who became the winemaker. In the two years since Quincy has been making the wines, Adams Vineyards has won more than two dozen medals in statewide and regional wine competitions.

Jim Collins runs the Mid-Atlantic Southeastern Wine Competition at the Dixie Classic Fair in Winston-Salem. Of 13 wines Adams Vineyards entered in last year’s competition, 11 won medals and its gold-medal-winning Matthew Red also was judged Best Sweet Red Wine in the entire competition. Collins met Joyce Adams when she led tastings and sold wines during the event.

“She sold way more wine then any other winery during the wine tastings at the fair,” Collins said. “That speaks very well for their wines. It also could be that she is one of the sweetest persons I have ever met.”

From vineyard to winery

Adams and her husband were teenagers when they met on a blind date. They married in 1960 and had three children. Johnny had worked on the family farm but eventually migrated to the construction industry while also growing tobacco.

With tobacco’s demise, Johnny started talking about planting grapes. Muscadine is the native grape of the American South. (The mother vine of Scuppernong grapes, a variety of Muscadine, is located on North Carolina’s Roanoke Island.) The grapes are sweet and musky, and the wines tend to be as well.

Johnny ordered the vines in September 2005. Two months later, doctors found cancer on his tongue. Joyce and two hired men planted the vines in February 2006 as her husband recovered from treatment.

Despite recurrences of cancer in his throat and esophagus, Johnny not only persisted with his vineyard dream, but he also expanded it to include a winery, convinced that was a smarter course than selling the grapes to another winery. Adams Vineyards was the first vineyard and winery in the Raleigh-Durham area.

Then Johnny died from an infection in October 2010.

“Johnny handled everything, including money,” said Sharon Hargraves, a longtime family friend who works at the winery some weekends. “When Johnny passed away unexpectedly, she stepped up and figured it out. That’s the strength of her personality.”

Up until that point, Joyce Adams had only cleaned the winery and helped with tastings. She thought she’d be spending her retirement years traveling with her husband, not working six, sometimes seven, days a week running a business.

Her business savvy was evident at once. The day after Johnny died, she opened a business bank account in her name and wrote a check for a federal tax debt that she knew the company owed. Two weeks later, when federal authorities tried to shut down the winery because the business was in her husband’s name and he was no longer alive, she protested and pointed out that they had cashed a check in her name for the taxes. Federal officials relented and allowed her to keep operating as the estate was sorted out.

But the winery faced more pressing problems. When Johnny died, the tanks held a bunch of wine, but there were no notes about what was in there. There also were no recipes. Plus, Quincy Adams, who agreed to take over the winemaking, knew very little about wine; he wasn’t even much of a wine drinker.

“We didn’t have a clue what we were doing,” he recalled. At the time, Quincy, a former Wake County cooperative extension agent, was working as a loan officer for AgCarolina Farm Credit. On the side, he raised livestock and grew blackberries, peaches and apples for the fruit wines that his father had also made. Quincy agreed to help his mother by learning how to make wine while keeping his day job.

So Quincy started reading books about winemaking. “I realized very quickly,” he said, “that these books are talking about Merlots and Chardonnays and we have Carlos and Nobles,” referring to two types of Muscadine grapes. But Quincy, who studied math and science at N.C. State University, said the books helped him understand the chemistry of winemaking enough to produce wine from what his father left in the tanks.

Quincy named his first wine after his father: Papa Johnny’s White Bliss. They entered it in the state fair’s wine competition. It won a gold medal.

“We couldn’t believe it,” Joyce Adams said.

More acres, more wine

A year later, Quincy Adams got to discover his own path as a winemaker. He wasn’t as much of a fan of the really sweet wines that his dad had made. And he realized many of their customers who live in Cary, Durham and Raleigh did not grow up drinking sweet Muscadine wines. So Quincy made a decision to produce more dry wines; four of the wineries’ 11 Muscadine wines are on the dry side and only two are straight-up sweet.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, every seat at the vineyard’s tasting bar was full. Many of the customers were lured to the winery by recent online coupon deals. One of them was Susan Baty, 55, of Linden, a small town between Dunn and Fayetteville. She and five female friends and relatives decided to visit the vineyard as a Saturday afternoon excursion.

“I’m a fan,” Baty said, pointing to two checks on her tasting list next to Blush Plantation, a semisweet wine. “I’ll be leaving with it.”

That’s good news for the Adams family. But the last three years have not been easy.

As the vineyard’s only full-time employees, Joyce and Quincy each work at least 50 hours a week. While the business generates enough income to let Quincy leave his day job and pay him a salary, Joyce hasn’t been able to take a salary herself.

But the business is growing. The Adamses started with five acres of grape vines and now have more than eight acres. They have increased production from 800 cases to more than 2,000 cases last year. While they hope one day to be able to sell to supermarkets, they have been able to sell most of their wines at their winery and special events.

The only real question is whether Johnny’s dream will be realized: Will the vineyard and winery make the family land viable enough to stay in the family for the future?

Quincy has a 12-year-old daughter who would be the ninth generation of Adams to live and work on the land.

“I hope she wants to do this,” Quincy Adams said. “She likes the farming aspect.”

Weigl: 919-829-4848; Twitter: @andreaweigl

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