The secret to making perfect wine?

Half a century of practice
Sabie Cathcart shows off his winning wines. | Photos: Claudia Cathcart

FAIRFIELD COUNTY – The first time Sabie Cathcart planted grapes, it was around 1960. He planted 5 acres of them – Concord grapes, for juice-making.

It was part of an experiment with Clemson University – it was Clemson College back then – to supply grapes to a juice producer in Spartanburg.

The experiment was ultimately unsuccessful; after a few years, the cost and challenge of finding labor to harvest the grapes proved too much for a small farm, he says, so he put the land to use for other products. But it began what, for him, would become a lifelong hobby – making wine.

“You could not imagine how many friends I have made with a bottle of wine,” says Cathcart, 86, who adds that he doesn’t drink much wine himself – but people love receiving it as a gift, especially at Christmas and other special occasions.

And it’s no wonder. Five years out of the last ten, he’s won blue ribbons at the South Carolina State Fair for his wine. Government regulations don’t allow him to sell it, so he gives it away.

These days, he makes five different varieties of wine, and he labels them Roseland Winery – a nod to the fact that his home sits on what was historically the site of Roseland Plantation, says his wife of 58 years, Claudia.

In the years of those experimental harvests, he says, he and his father made wine and brandy together. Now, it’s something he does with his children and grandchildren, who he suspects will continue to carry the tradition forward.

The grapes he grows these days are native.

“Muscadines and scuppernongs grow naturally in this area,” he said. “You don’t have to spray them or anything, and they make the best kind of wine.”

The wine-making process, as he describes it, sounds simple enough: Crush the grapes, ferment them for a few days with the hulls in a 5-gallon bucket, add yeast and sugar. Press the juice through a cloth into a 5-gallon carboy, and let it sit two months for the sediment to settle out. Do this three times. Then, bottle it and wait at least three months before you drink it.

Simple as it may sound, producing a good product is an art – and with more than half century of practice under his belt, he thinks he’s been doing it well for about 10 years.

After dabbling in wine-making as a hobby for decades as a farmer and small business owner – sometimes using other fruits, like pears, in the recipe – it would seem that he finally perfected it in retirement.

These days he maintains about 15 grape vines and buys additional grapes locally to produce between 25 and 40 gallons of wine each year. But after all these years and all the blue ribbons, he’s still experimenting – and still finding new ways to make friends over a bottle of wine.

“I’ve got a friend right up the road here that wants me to make 5 gallons when summertime comes,” he says.

“’He says, ‘I’ll raise the watermelons if you make the wine.’ So I’ll make 5 gallons to celebrate with him.”