Winemakers in the Upper Cumberland Plateau Forge a New Identity in Vino
If you order "peanut butter and jelly" at the tasting counter of the Stonehaus Winery in Crossville, prepare yourself: You''re not getting a sandwich. "We take some of our homemade peanut butter fudge or peanut butter crackers and pair those with a Davenport red," says Rob Ramsey, an owner of the winery. The Davenport red is a sweet wine made from Concord grapes-the same varietal used to make classic grape jelly. Ramsey says the pairing is popular. It''s typical whimsy for Stonehaus, where the ambience comes with a light and welcome touch, but the wine is serious business.
This is vino country on the Upper Cumberland Plateau, where conventions and pretensions about wine culture get turned on their heads. The region is probably more famously associated with whiskey and tobacco, but in recent years, a number of wineries have bloomed - and they're aging well. Many of the wineries ferment native grapes, like Concords and muscadines; others make wine from imported, more familiar grapes from California. Others ferment fruits like blackberries or raspberries-Stonehaus even has a sparkling peach-to make sweeter dessert wines.
For wine lovers looking for something a little different close to home, the Upper Cumberland Tourism Association has mapped out a wine lovers'" route that starts at the DelMonaco Winery near Cookeville and traces a circuitous, 168-mile path around the plateau, winding up at the Chestnut Hill Winery in Crossville. Destinations along the route include the Tudor-style house and blueberry patches at Highland Manor, Tennessee's oldest licensed winery, and the tasting counter at Stonehaus. Visitors can obtain a passport and get stamps at each winery.
Today's winemakers aren't the first Tennesseans to see the potential in the grapes of the Upper Cumberland. "My father left a fine estate behind him in the region round about Jamestown," wrote Mark Twain in his Autobiography, a rambling collection of notes and anecdotes. "He had always said that the land would not become valuable in his time, but that it would be a commodious provision for his children some day. It contained coal, copper, iron and timber. It also produced a wild grape of a promising sort."
Over a hundred years later, that wild grape has burst onto the scene. "The wine industry in Tennessee is growing by leaps and bounds," says Barbara DelMonaco from DelMonaco Winery. "People want to learn more about wines, and stopping in at the winery is an ideal place to do that." Ramsey credits the success of his own winery to his father and to Jamestown native Fay Wheeler, whom he calls the "father of Tennessee wine." During his career as an intelligence officer in the Air Force, Wheeler spent a lot of time in Europe and he spent a lot of that time touring wineries. When he left the armed services, Wheeler returned to Jamestown with his wine knowledge intact. "He had the idea to plant some grapes, and my father, Bob Ramsey, drank the successes and mistakes," says the younger Ramsey. "Fay came up with his recipe for the muscadine wine and started saying we needed to have a winery."
Rob Ramsey has a folksy goal for wine in Tennessee. He doesn't want to build up the cultural snobbery traditionally associated with wine culture; instead, he wants to break it down. "So many people are intimidated by wine," he says. "They're nervous and feel like they're not comfortable, or feel unsophisticated because they see all these wines and don't know what type they should be drinking."
But Ramsey thinks wine is more democratic than its reputation suggests. "The generation coming along now is not so interested in matching wines with courses. They want to put the food on one table and the liquor on the other, and try different combinations. For them, a lot of rules have gone out the window. We like to educate people. If they want to experiment and try different things that's okay with me. If you want to drink muscadine with a cheeseburger, go ahead. Drink it."
Many winemakers, Ramsey says, want to make wine that pleases them. But he wants to make wines that please his customers. And in the South, that can play out as producing more sweet wines than dry.
"People talk dry and drink sweet," he says. "We're in the South, and we're raised on Coca-Cola and GooGoo Clusters. People want something sweeter."
DelMonaco prefers the dries for herself, but says that DelMonaco Winery sells more sweet wines. "People have a wide range of tastes, so that's quite all right," she says. "We have something for everybody: reds, whites, dries, sweets-you name it." DelMonaco is a relative newcomer to the scene. Barbara and her husband, David, planted their first grapes eight years ago and opened the business three years ago. Now the winery includes an extensive wine list and an expansive facility that's usually booked far in advance for weddings and business conferences.
Ruth Dyal, for her part, once turned up her nose at the thought of Tennessee wines. She's the executive director of the Upper Cumberland Tourism Association-and also the creator of the rambling route through the countryside. Dyal hails from a wine-rich region of Germany, so she knows her grapes. (She admits she's partial to DelMonaco's vivance, a bright and summery white wine, and the pinot grigio at Stonehaus.)
She's not a fan of the sweet wines-but the region has something for her, too. Many of the wineries produce drier varieties, largely made from imported California grapes. "I had a glass of muscadine, which is very sweet wine, and I said, ''Dear God, you can't do that to me!'" she remembers. But when she tried the drier sorts coming from DelMonaco and Stonehaus and Highland Manor, she tasted something more familiar. "I thought,'Whoa! This is Ten'ry, nice fresh taste." And she offers up her own favorite recipe as well: "You take a little white rum and a little amaretto, mix it up with a little squeezed lime, and put a seyval blanc [a white wine readily available locally] over it."
When Dyal got excited about the wineries, she came up with the idea for the wine trail. But she''s not through yet. Though the wineries host their own small gatherings-concerts, movies, picnics, tastings, the works-she envisions larger events that incorporate all of the local winemakers. Her current endeavor is to organize a special package tour during which visitors can take a limousine from winery to winery-to stay safe-and spend the night at a bed-and-breakfast in the region. Though it''s not available for wine tourists yet, the day is coming: Dyal says she''s got almost everyone "sitting around the same table."
The Upper Cumberland doesn't have the grapes or the climate of California-after all, Tennessee''s humidity and extremes can quickly devastate a grape crop. But the enterprising winemakers don''t aspire to be the next Napa Valley; they want the Upper Cumberland to have an identity all its own. "We''re going to be a region to be reckoned with," Dyal says. "You wait and see."