I recently had the opportunity to visit the grape breeding trial garden of grape savant, Jeff Bloodworth of Orange County, NC. I didn’t realize it until my visit that Jeff, now 73, and I were in the Horticulture Department at NC State together from the mid to late 1970s. While I was starting on my undergraduate work, he was working on a Masters and later a Doctorate. After school, Jeff went on to become a Research technician with NC State grape breeder Dr. Bill Nesbitt, until he unexpectedly passed away in 1983 at the age of 51.
Departmental leaders decided to do away with the grape breeding program due to a lack of commercial interest in NC, so Jeff saw an opportunity. Scrambling quickly, he found and purchased 12 acres in rural Orange County, where all the NCSU research genetics found a new home. Jeff, and his wife, Peggy, still live on the same property today.
I’ve grown and studied muscadine grapes for almost 40 years, but Jeff’s little finger has far more knowledge than I dreamed existed. To say Jeff is obsessive about his work with grapes is a grand understatement.
We were joined by video producers Bill Hayes and Erin Upson of Carboro’s Thunder Mountain Media, who are working on a video project to help tell Jeff’s amazing story.
Until 2013, Jeff had never introduced a single new grape. Part of the reason is that his breeding goals were regarded as impossible “pie in the sky” ideas. Jeff was trying to cross seedless bunch grapes (pictured below), which grow well in California, but sulk in our summers, with the Southeast US native muscadine grapes.
After 10 years of no success, he finally was able to secure a viable offspring, and so was off to the races. Despite this eventual breakthrough, Jeff struggled to get any commercial or academic entities interested in his creations.
That was until plantsman and Gardens Alive owner, Niles Kinerk and his team, heard about Jeff’s work, and soon after, hired Jeff as an employee, providing some welcome financial support. Below are Jeff and Peggy Bloodworth with Mark Wessel, Gardens Alive Director of Horticultural Research.
Jeff’s first introduction through Gardens Alive, in 2013, was the light purple Vitis ‘Razmatazz’. This small-sized grape was the first seedless muscadine hybrid on the market. Although the fruit size is small by conventional standards, it is long producing as well as deliciously sweet. This was followed a few years later by Vitis ‘Oh My’, a bronze fleshed, larger seedless muscadine hybrid.
My trip last week was to join the Gardens Alive team as they sampled the new hybrids and made their final selections for future introduction. I was particularly excited by one of Jeff’s hybrids with 1″ seedless bronze grapes, but Jeff explained by slicing the grape in half and examining the ovary, that this was a female grape, which would need a male pollinator. Most commercial muscadine varieties are “perfect”, with both male and female flowers on the same plant. The size of Jeff’s seedless grapes continue to increase, and the variance of sweet flavors are astounding, so the future of grapes in the Southeast US is very exciting.
Nearby Jeff’s farm, investors have purchased much of the regional farmland with the goal of large scale production, including hundred of acres of Jeff’s grapes. We salute Jeff’s brilliance and persistence in this amazing endeavor!