Researcher working to uncork Mississippi’s wine making potential

Published 11:10 pm Monday, July 10, 2023

Mississippi State’s Haley Williams, a research associate at the university’s South Mississippi Branch Experiment Station in Poplarville, wants to uncork the Magnolia State’s winemaking potential.

Under the guidance of Extension/Research Professor Eric Stafne, Williams is working with nine southern cultivars—plant species selected specifically for their traits—to help boost future crop yields in the state. These cultivars include the MidSouth grape, originally released by USDA in the late 1930s, with rights to the cultivar later assigned to the university for production.

“I’m hoping that my research might one day lead to expanding the winemaking industry in Mississippi,” said Williams, who is also a doctoral student in the Mississippi State Department of Plant and Soil Sciences. “I’ve talked to growers who have expressed interest, especially those looking for alternatives to blueberries. We need to figure out the best practices that get the vines to perform well and show that to producers at our field days.”

Like most Southern states, Mississippi is not known for its vineyards. Soils range from hard clay to sandy soil, and both pests and pathogens thrive in the warm, wet climate. Yet certain types of grapes—most notably the native muscadine—thrive in the face of sometimes inhospitable conditions.

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Traditionally, grapes remain on the vine until the sugar content is just right. Since summers can bring both sweltering temperatures and strong storms, timing is of the essence when it comes to the harvest.

“Around late July or early August, either the bad weather kicks in or diseases take over, and we start losing yields,” Williams said. “That’s when it’s time to pick the grapes, whether or not the sugar content is high enough.”

The grapevine-to-glass journey takes about a year to complete. Once the grapes are harvested, they enter the crusher-destemmer, which provides free-run juice from the fruit and removes the stems. The juice chills for a few days while it extracts color from the grape skins, then Williams adds sugar, yeast and bacteria-killing sulfites as needed. It sits for six months before bottling and then ages another six months.

A Russellville, Arkansas native, Williams said she never imagined the possibilities of winemaking in Mississippi until she came across a feature published in MAFES Discovers, the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station’s research magazine, highlighting a study of muscadines and bunch grapes by both Stafne and Sam Chang, professor and Mississippi Center for Food Safety and Post-Harvest Technology director.

“Haley is pioneering winemaking with grapes and other fruits in south Mississippi,” Stafne said. “I have no doubt her work will impact future grape and wine production in the state and around the Gulf South region.”

Williams’ work is a continuation of the spirit of research launched at the Starkville-based A.B. McKay Food and Enology Laboratory in 1975. There, researchers first studied food products made from approximately 80 grape varieties grown at MSU research plots in Crystal Springs, Stoneville and Verona. The university would offer its first course on winemaking in 1976 and hire its first cellar master—the person in charge of production at a winery—one year later. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the laboratory received numerous accolades and prominent guests, including President Jimmy Carter’s mother, Lilian, who asked that MSU wine be served at the White House.

While Williams’ research represents a new chapter of wine production at MSU, the university produces and markets products made from muscadine juice, including muscadine ripple ice cream and jelly by the MAFES Sales Store.

For more information about MAFES, visit