RIPE FOR PICKING! 15th annual N.C. Grape Festival draws thousands to Dublin

DUBLIN — The rain remained a constant threat on a dreary, cloud-bloated Saturday at the 15th annual N.C. Grape Festival.

That said, an estimated 2,000 people still milled around the grounds of Lu Mil Vineyard off Suggs-Taylor Road.

Gathered around the participants for the traditional grape stomp.

And sipped from plastic cups of chilled wine and muscadine cider slushies.

The festival — where the fruit from the woody, climbing vines was ripe for picking — went on as planned.

“I was out here at 6:30, and people were already lined up,” said 28-year-old Kayla Dove, who did her best to try to talk away the rain. That only seemed appropriate, as she handles publicity for the festival and oversees social media for Lu Mil Vineyard.

“It’s not raining out here,” the freckled Dove said only minutes before the clouds burst with a steady drizzle of rain. “We’re still picking grapes, and people are out picking them.”

The winery grows five varieties of muscadine grapes over 78 acres.

The N.C. Grape Festival, Dove said, is largely about educating visitors about muscadines, which are considered ideal for making grape butter, jelly, jam and preserves. “And to give the community something to do. Bring the families out,” she added. “We started with 80 vendors, and it’s really grown since then. We started out with just yard vendors.”

A nutritional powerhouse, the fruit thrives in the hot and humid climate of the South.

“I love grapes. I don’t know if I have a choice or not. Yes, I do love them,” she said with a laugh. That’s because her mother, Denise Bridgers, is a co-owner of the 200-acre spread that encompasses the business.

Ashley LeGrande, 34, of Council, is quite fond of them, too.

“I took off from work to come out here. I love the grapes,” she said before approaching the food vendors area of the festival. “The people, the vendors. It’s an opportunity to get out of the house for a free event.”

LeGrande attended the event with her grandmother, Carolyn Hicks.

“I’m going to get me a cup of wine before I leave,” she said with a beatific smile after being asked.

It may have been 2 1/2 months before Christmas, but that didn’t keep Santa Claus from making an appearance, his crimson red suit a contrast to the bronze- to the dark-purple-colored muscadines.

The four rows of regular vendors on site offered a Walmart-like variety of items for people to stop, peruse and consider opening up their wallets: custom artwork, home decorations, pet apparel and toys, wooden flags, handmade copper jewelry, women’s clothing, local honey, even pecans.

Daina and Scott Justice had a tent where they offered food and other merchandise from their Justice Country Farm in Tar Heel. The couple didn’t bring along packages of their pig tails, pig feet or pig head to the festival, but among the “locally, ethically sourced products” that they sold on site included meats, liniments and a country scrub.

As for that pig head, which is available from the farm, Scott Justice noted: “Believe it or not, we just sold one the other day.”

Coastal Carolina Gem Mining gave festival-goers a treasure hunt for $10 a bucket, while a Real Time Pain Relief vendor was doling out an advertised “relief in minute” from free samples.

COVID-19 testing and vaccinations were available, with patients receiving $100 gift cards if it was their initial shot and a $25 voucher to their driver.

A good crowd of people sat on towels and chairs to watch the Bladen-based variety band, the Generations.

As for that grape stomp, the winners were Kelsey Willets in the children’s division and Aspen Allen in the adult division. Their feet squeezed out the most juice, respectively.

Fayetteville’s Vu and Amy Le (“I try to keep it short,” he quipped of his name) parked their Yummy Hibachi mobile food truck in the food section. The menu was limited and featured chicken, shrimp or steak hibachi; chicken or pork dumplings; and egg rolls.

“I’ve had the truck about a year and a half. I try to keep the menu simple on the truck,” he said before a young customer placed an order for the pork dumplings.

This marked the Le’s first time working the grape festival that dates back to 2006. “I like to go to new places and see new things,” he said.

Kelly Edge, 57, of Fayetteville, and sidekick Callie Soares, 26, and originally from Hamilton, Montana, could be seen standing in front of the C/Que tent, where the inviting husky aroma of wood-smoked beef brisket, pork barbecue, ribs and turkey drums hung like birds in the cool, humid air.

“It Ain’t Good Without Wood” is the slogan for this Lumberton-based smoked food operation.

Soares, who works as a stylist in Edge’s Leading Edge Salon in Fayetteville, remarked aloud that she was considering the brisket sandwich; Edge didn’t say.

Earlier, the two had bought muscadine cider slushies after trying a sample from inside the gift shop on the property.

Perhaps just for the festival, Kelly was wearing a shirt that read, “Because drunk lives matter.”

“We just wanted to have a good weekend off,” she said from the front counter of the shop. This was their first grape festival at Lu Mil.

“It will probably be a tradition. We’re just chilling,” Callie said between sips of the chilled beverage. “We love wine. That’s for sure.”

To prove it, she held up her right wrist. The outline of a wine glass was tattooed on her skin.

As soon as the festival concluded mid-afternoon, Lu Mil Vineyard was scheduled to kick off a wedding, according to Dove, the publicist for the winery.

Imagine that: Nuptial bliss among the grapes, which have always seemed so romantic in the first place.

This story authored by Michael Futch of the Bladen Journal. Contact him at 910-247-9133 or

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