Photos Courtesy of Tenn. Dep. of Ag.
“I n Europe then we thought of wine as something healthy and normal as food and also as a great giver of happiness and well-being and delight,” Ernest Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast. “Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary.”
A half century after the publication of Hemingway’s memoir, such a passage might describe the spirit of an afternoon—hot, likely, and humid, definitely—for a Rocky Top oenophile at one of the many wineries that thrive on the contours of the Cumberland Plateau and elsewhere in central Tennessee. These local oases are nurturing an interest in wine that has grown and matured in the last decade or so, vine by vine and grape by grape, and it’s never been easier to drink locally. Many wineries occupy scenic outposts among rolling, forested hills and fields, and some offer tours and casual gatherings that invite customers to enjoy the view. But since the state of Tennessee passed pivotal legislation in 2009, the wineries have also been extending their availabilities, through wine clubs.
One might think of a wine club as a highly specialized type of community-supported agriculture. Customers who subscribe to a wine club periodically receive a shipment of wine—either by picking it up or having it shipped through the mail—from a particular winery. The size of a share varies from winery to winery, according to a customer’s preference; so, too, does the selection of wines.
“I’m in several wine clubs,” says Tammy Algood, the fruits and vegetables marketing specialist for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture. “What’s nice about them is that you can tailor your membership. If you like wines that are on the sweeter side, you can tailor your shipment so that’s what you receive. If you prefer only dry wines, you can do that. They’re not one-size-fits-all.”
Arrington Vineyards, perched on a sun-drenched hillside 30 minutes south of Nashville, offers its wine club members four choices: all reds, all whites, a mixture of the two, or Fan’s Choice—a shipment of wines chosen by the customer. With more than 4,000 members, Arrington is one of the largest local wine clubs. And by far, the most popular option is the Fan’s Choice, says Sarita Blankenship, Arrington’s wine club manager. As with many local wine clubs, members can pick up their shipments or receive them in the mail; Arrington also invites wine club members to special events and gives discounts on bottles and in the gift shop.
Monica Travis, who runs the wine club at Keg Springs Winery in Hampshire, says the wine club has broadened the reach of the winery even beyond state lines. “Most of our members are local within Nashville, but some are in Michigan, and we have a couple in Ohio,” she says. “I can choose what they want, [or] they can choose what they want.”
Wineries like Keg Springs have been able to court out-of-state wine club members only for the last five years. In 2009, Governor Phil Bredesen signed a bill that permits licensed wineries to ship cases of wine across state lines; that bill, says Algood, opened up a new market for Tennessee wineries.
Many people prefer to receive their wine in the mail, but Travis says those who pick up their shipments in person like the company—and wining with other members. At pickup parties, the winery offers members food and live music. They can visit the tank room; in the past, the winery has even offered cooking classes.
“They made shrimp macaroni and cheese as the main course,” Travis says, “and of course, we paired wine with the food. Pickup parties function like community gatherings. A lot of our customers like to come out and enjoy the music, and just hang out. They can catch up with their friends.”
Beans Creek Winery in Manchester, the origins of which go back to 1976 when Tom Brown made his first wine in a pickle crock, has turned their club into a way for people to get more involved with the winemakers and the process itself. They recently offered a blending contest, where aspiring winemakers mixed their own blends from Cayuga, Chardonel, and Traminette wines, all of which were made from locally grown grapes. The winery began bottling the winning blend just in time for the Bonnaroo music festival this summer.
Beans Creek launched their wine club with 12 members and a pen and paper signup system in 2012; now, people can join online and do—to the tune of about 6 new members per week.
Southern wines have a reputation—undeserved, says Algood—for being sweet. “The reason for the reputation is muscadine grapes. Unlike a lot of different grape varieties, muscadines love heat and humidity, two things that the South has plenty of.”
But things have changed in the last couple decades. Creative winemakers, she says, can “play with a recipe, just like a chef, and utilize different fruits and grapes for different purposes.” Grapes get all the glory in winemaking, she continues, but “we have some excellent wines made from blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and peaches.”
In the last couple decades, local wineries have marked out a solid reputation for drier varieties, including sparkling wines, says Algood. And the variety of offerings is starting to gain recognition. At the Indy International Wine Competition in 2013, held at Purdue University in Indiana, Tennessee wineries won 21 medals; those included a double gold medal for Apropos, a port wine produced by Beans Creek. (Since 2010, Beans Creek has brought home more than 200 medals from national and international competitions.)
A wine club, says Algood, gives customers a chance to know a local winemaker. “It’s absolutely perfect for somebody who doesn’t really consider themselves to be a big wine connoisseur, somebody who’s not really savvy with lots of different wines but who does like to experiment and try different things,” she says. “It gives you the opportunity to maybe try something you wouldn’t have otherwise.”