Traveling the Great Valley Wine Trail in Search of East Tennessee’s Wine Culture

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The Great Valley Wine Trail

 

Winery tasting rooms have varying hours based on time of year—call first.

The Winery at Seven Springs Farm

winerysevenspringsfarm.com
1474 Highway 61 East, Maynardville
865-745-2902
Tastings: Range from 50 cents a glass to $5 to taste everything and take home a wine glass. Visitors can buy wine by the glass for $5.75 to sip on the porch, at the bar or at covered picnic tables. About 10 wines (bottles range from about $13.50 to $15.50) from grapes grown in other states.

Spout Spring Estates Winery and Vineyard

spoutspringestates.com
430 Riddle Lane, Blaine
865-719-7485
Tastings: $4 to taste five wines, but the price is waived if you buy a bottle (range: $14.99 to $19.99). About seven varieties, mostly “Old-World” style, all from grapes grown on-site. Specializes in hosting weddings and receptions at covered-porch event space with expansive mountain views.

Eagle Springs Winery

eaglespringswine.com
119 W. Dumplin Valley Rd., Kodak
865-465-3186
Tastings: Free, most bottles between $16.49 and $17.49. About a dozen varieties (specializing in “sticky” honey wines), plus rotating seasonal selections, made mostly from grapes farmed elsewhere in East Tennessee.

Goodwater Vineyards

goodwatervineyards.com
1865 Goodwater Rd., Mosheim
423-608-3249
Five wines from grapes grown on the property or in East Tennesee, plus new varieties under production; about $14 to $18 a bottle. Tasting rooms periodically hold party-style events open to public. Second tasting room at 3112 Big Creek Rd., Hartford.

Watauga Lake Winery

wataugalakewinery.com
6952 Big Dry Run Rd., Butler
423-768-0345
Tastings: $5 for eight wines, includes a souvenir glass, in historic Big Dry Run schoolhouse. They offer 17 wine varieties, with a wider selection of reds than is typical in East Tennessee. Nearby vineyard specializes in hosting weddings.

It’s funny how long a mile of winding road is. It’s sure as hell more than a mile. Zigzagging toward Luttrell, I have plenty of time to ponder the equation. Inside the asphalt curve: A trailer. Swerve to the opposite side, next curve: Fireworks shack. Next curve: Field of sun-kissed blue flowers, rippling like water.

I picture overloaded, souped-up liquor buggies zooming over this same road in the dark of night, and wonder how they ever made it.

If, in fact, you’re going to be pondering alcohol as you loop through East Tennessee, it’s probably going to be moonshine. After all, you can stop at any tourist trap from Gatlinburg to the Kentucky line and buy an (empty) little brown jug painted with a snoozing hillbilly gripping his own little brown jug, helpfully labeled with X’s.

But today, I’m driving toward a different tipple. It’s not exactly associated with hillbillies.

Would you have guessed I’m in wine country?

A day trip from Knoxville can, in fact, take you along several East Tennessee wine trails. Today I’m exploring the longest, most spread-out wine trail I’ve ever heard of–five wineries in 142 miles. Yet it aims to become the first federally-designated American Viticultural Area within Tennessee.

One man is leading the charge to squeeze more value from the grapes grown in the area between the Cumberland Plateau and the Smoky Mountains: Rick Riddle, founder of the Great Valley Wine Trail and the driving force behind its effort to attain national recognition for the “9 Lakes” that frame the core of the region. An American Viticultural Area (AVA) is a region where the climate, soil, and typography create wines with a unique identity.

Riddle’s family owns the Winery at Seven Springs Farm near Maynardville. It’s one of the five wineries, all only a few years old or younger, on the new trail stretching from Seven Springs to Watauga Lake Winery in Butler. In between, the trail curves past the wineries of Spout Spring in Blaine, Eagle Springs in Kodak, and Goodwater Vineyards in Mosheim. (Initially, Knoxville’s Blue Slip Winery was involved too, but it bowed out, Riddle says.)

Created last fall, the Great Valley Wine Trail has already undergone an identity crisis. Ironically, it was originally branded based on its moonshine heritage, dubbed the Thunder Road trail because Seven Springs winery is on the old “Thunder Road” and Watauga Lake Winery is close to Copperhead Road. Both routes were memorialized for fast cars running untaxed liquor to Knoxville.

Some of the wineries still advertise the Thunder Road name, but the branding is swiftly changing because an American Viticultural Area must be associated with an existing, regionally-recognized geographic area, Riddle says.

It’s expected to give a much-needed economic boost to this region among the Tennessee Valley Authority lakes. In the Tennessee portion of the Great Valley, which stretches into other states, 10 of the 16 counties fall under the USDA Designated Persistent Poverty Strike Force because more than 20 percent of the population lives in poverty; five are considered “distressed” by the Appalachian Regional Commission.

The Winery at Seven Springs Farm sits across the road from the former location of the A.J. Woods distillery. It was one of three large whiskey producers that helped form the backbone of the Union County economy before Prohibition, which Riddle argues hit Appalachia worse than anywhere else. (Woods was the grandfather of famous Fountain City moonshine runner and “whiskey mechanic” Eddie Harvey.)

Riddle’s family has an adversarial history with alcohol—his uncle was a sheriff in Claiborne County, Kentucky, and his father was “a revenuer.” (If y’all ain’t from around here, that’s a government agent who arrested entrepreneurs who made and sold untaxed liquor.)

But before Prohibition lured poor mountain corn farmers to the profits of whiskey, wine helped float the Tennessee alcohol industry. U.S. Census records just before Prohibition show that 208,000 gallons of wine were being produced in Tennessee, as well as 5 million pounds of table grapes. In the late 1800s Tennessee was actually a national leader in winemaking.

“Our state is going through a renaissance in wine production,” Riddle says.

Rick Riddle

Rick Riddle

How Sweet It Is

A 2011 study showed that Tennessee’s annual wine production is worth $35 million to $40 million, with a total economic impact from the industry of $880 million, says David Lockwood, wine specialist for UT Cooperative Extension.

Even if you don’t sample the fruit of the vine, you might want to toast its profits.

“The grape and wine industry is the brightest spot in Tennessee agritourism,” says Tammy Algood, marketing specialist for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture. “The grape industry has provided a real shot in the arm, for not only the establishment of new wineries but restaurants and jobs and shops that have really helped diversify local economies while keeping the land in agricultural production.”

In fact, according to a USDA grant application by Rick Riddle, the state’s wine industry grew sharply from 2013 through the first half of 2015, with associated employment and wage increases outstripping national industry rates as well as those in surrounding states.

But it took a long time to get there. Tennessee only started allowing wineries again in 1977, and economic barriers continued to keep growth slow.

Tennessee’s state and local taxes on wine are among the highest in the country, Algood says. Plus the state adds an extra luxury tax on sparkling wine, port, and fortified wine. Those “sin taxes” are a cultural legacy. Winery owners and Lockwood attribute this partly to old-time religious opposition to alcohol, an aftertaste that remains despite the contradictory view of old-time moonshiners as renegade heroes.

But wine has advantages from an economic development perspective because it is so tied to a sense of place, Algood says.

“Unlike a manufacturing or service enterprise, you can’t pick up a vineyard and move it to a better area for cheaper labor or a tax incentive or a better climate,” she notes. And grape growing is a long-term commitment, because it can take up to four years from planting to a grape crop.

Wineries also buy a lot of other fruit, further expanding the benefits to Tennessee farmers. Almost all the wines at Eagle Springs have a fruit element, from lemon blueberry to mango to strawberry kiwi.

“Blackberry wine in particular seems to be a very strong seller in Tennessee,” Algood says.

The popularity of these sweet sips has wineries constantly casting about for new fruits. At Spout Spring, it’s Japanese wineberries. These have gone feral at the farm, growing thickly between an open field and the woods. They look like raspberries with red stalks, fuzzy pointed pods and yellowish leaves. Spout Spring uses them in a higher-alcohol, port-style wine.

Gene Poland, whose family owns Goodwater Vineyards, says he’d be more interested in making carbonated blackberry cider or other carbonated fruit wines. “We’re really into pushing the boundary and making something that no one’s ever had before,” he says.

Sweet wine fermented from native muscadines—which are actually berries—is a guaranteed seller. Spout Spring co-owner Alice Belt didn’t want to make it, but she says the demand was too great to ignore.

“The tourist industry is huge, and a lot of people coming through here want something that’s uniquely Tennessee,” Algood says. “And let’s just face it, the South is known for muscadines. It’s probably something you don’t see on the shelves in Minnesota. So it’s novel and unique.”

Algood says Tennessee wineries will also likely benefit from a change in Tennessee law approved this spring, allowing wineries to make hard cider.

The cider rules are still being written because the state has been busy with the July roll-out of wine sales in grocery stores. But when the Tennessee wine industry holds its annual meeting in February, a huge portion will be dedicated to teaching members about apple and pear hard cider, Algood says.

It’s a natural match for wineries because they already have the equipment, barrels, bottling capacity and labs to handle it, she says. And the alcohol level of hard cider is roughly equivalent to wine.

The view from Spout Spring Estates makes a popular setting for wedding receptions.Tricia Bateman

The view from Spout Spring Estates makes a popular setting for wedding receptions.

A Family Affair

At Seven Springs Farm, grapes grow on trellises high on a slope above the wood-cabin style store and wine tasting room, its porch cooled by breezes exhaled from a holler. In between are greenhouses full of tomatoes and a huge field where neighbors in floppy hats pick blueberries beneath a haze of netting that keeps the birds away. The farm produces 18 different blueberry varieties, some as big as your thumb.

Many grape growers and wine makers say the industry is benefiting from the national farm-to-table trend driving demand for locally-made products. Seven Springs Farm is a prime example. It sells shares in its produce through a CSA that keeps locals stocked with veggies and sells its cucumbers, beans, potatoes and tomatoes at the New Harvest and UT farmers’ markets in Knoxville, among others.

Behind the wooden bar of the tasting room, the wines are lined up with medals around their curvy little necks like proud women with gaudy jewelry. The popular “Southern Belle” is elaborately sweet, of course. The James’ Peach hearkens back to the classic Road Dahl children’s book, except the person dwarfed by the peach on the label looks suspiciously like Rick Riddle. Other labels bear pictures of Union County historic buildings like the courthouse, painted by a local artist, and the winery has donated a percentage of profits to preservation efforts.

In the gift shop, you can buy elk salami, “wine clutches” (resembling handbags equipped with bottle openers), and baby onesies proclaiming: “Vintage 2016: Perfect Growing Conditions.” A slushie machine slowly churns frozen drinks made with wine.

Like many of those on the Great Valley Trail, the farm is a family affair. Rick met his wife Donna at Central High School in Knoxville. The two put themselves through the University of Tennessee by farming tobacco and cattle on rented land off Tazewell Pike. Later Rick entered the U.S. Air Force, but after his retirement as a colonel the couple returned with the plan of farming again.

Rick has an education that belies the farmer stereotype, with an undergraduate degree in animal science, a veterinary degree from UT, and a masters in public health. In fact, many of the Great Valley winery owners have something in common: They are owned by highly-educated couples who have gone into business together as a second career.

At Seven Springs, Donna and her son Jim manage the fruit and vegetable operation, farm store and CSA. Rick (who more recently earned yet another degree, in enology—that’s the study of wine) oversees the cattle and helps his daughter and wine maker, Nikki.

Nikki began by making wine in a garage with her aunt Alice at what is now Spout Spring. A trained biomedical engineer, Nikki has organic chemistry chops that give her an edge in the winery lab, which looks like a kitchen except for the test tubes and the antique ebulliometer that measures alcohol volume of the wine. Wine made from out-of-state grapes ferments in 500-gallon stainless steel vats in a temperature-controlled, shiny white room.

This year the farm will harvest its own grapes for the first time. Under a blazing sun that has caused all his freckles to run together, Rick shows off the vineyard’s Concord grapes, still the size of an adult pinkie finger. Seven Springs has chosen grape varieties that grow in open clusters, avoiding the fungus and mildew that plague the type of grapes which clutch the Southern humidity inside their tight bunches. 

But drive down the road a piece, and those are exactly the kind of grapes grown at Spout Spring. The route takes me past R.J.’s Barbecue in Blaine (with its reputation for the second-best fried bologna sandwich in Tennessee) and roads with names like Tater Hollow. The final twists curl past a home machine shop on Easy Street, and skirt the collapse zone of a barn slanted so far as to defy gravity.

Drive through Spout Spring’s imposing iron gate up a steep drive to the tasting room, where a huge shaded patio overlooks breathtaking mountain views. Rick’s sister Alice Belt and her husband Chuck—retired mechanical engineers from West Knoxville—built the winery where they now live. They had been selling grapes since 2012 and making their own wine in the garage for a decade before they started bottling and selling small batches about a year ago. Early on, hand-picking the grapes was an extended family project that took 12 days and a bevy of aunts and uncles. “The average age of our pickers was 65,” says Alice.

Unlike Seven Springs, Spout Spring specializes in “Old World”-style wine. That means both traditional, mostly European, grape varieties and a hands-off winemaking style. Chuck doesn’t adjust the acids or have a big lab like Nikki’s. The wine ages in oak barrels in a basement that’s not even air conditioned. Unlike many Tennessee wineries, Spout Spring can clearly vintage its wine because it doesn’t mix grapes from different harvests or regions.

“The wine changes constantly,” says Chuck. “We think it’s a science, but it’s an art.”

An easy-going, grizzled man in a ball cap, jeans and sandals, Chuck grouses at his wife as she interrupts him repeatedly. Alice bugs him until he uncorks a barrel and pulls wine new wine from the top into a test tube.

“This is called a wine thief,” she confides, holding out a glass while he makes a face at her.

The Belts ride a golf cart among the gnarled, fat vines of chianti and chardonnay. The bark shags off the root stock, from which emerging tendrils are festooned with tight bunches of green grapes the size of bb’s.

After soaking up both the view and the wine, I set out again under a brilliant, hot sky.

Visitors make notes on their favorite wines at Eagle Springs Winery in Kodak, member of both the Great Valley and Rocky Top wine trails. Heather Duncan

Visitors make notes on their favorite wines at Eagle Springs Winery in Kodak, member of both the Great Valley and Rocky Top wine trails.

Sevier County’s Wine Trail

One of the challenges of the Great Valley trail is that most of it is so country, it’s hard to even find a place to eat. (I suggest bringing some fancy bread with you and buying some cheese and fruit at Seven Springs to tide you over.) The exception is when I arrive in Kodak from Spout Spring, rounding a swell straight from pasture to the visual chaos of Dollywood sprawl.

Here you are following not only the wine trail but a grape trail: Grapes that aren’t used to make the wine at Spout Spring travel this route to be used by the Collier Wine Group, which runs (with various partners) the wineries on the Rocky Top Wine Trail in Sevier County.

The newest of these sister wineries is Eagle Springs, overlooking Interstate 40 in Kodak. It’s the only winery to belong to both the Rocky Top and Great Valley wine trails.

The Rocky Top wineries have different specialties, although all lean toward sweet wine and don’t grow their own grapes. Eagle Springs’ wines are mostly honey-based (called “stickys” on the tasting sheet), which require daily involvement in the fermenting process, says general manager Chasity Grogan. The wines have eagle-inspired names like “Red Feather” and “Wohali Legend” (from the Cherokee word for eagle). But the day I was there, their “Courage” had sold out.

“I wonder if you could make pies with this?” a woman speculates after a swallow in the tasting room. The employee behind the bar doesn’t understand her Southern accent, which drawls “pies” into “paaas.”

The vibe at Eagle Springs is very different from the first two wineries. An electronic sign aimed at the interstate lights up with moving letters: “Free tastings!” Customers arrive in waves, and the two tasting bars can be packed two deep. If you have to wait, you can sift through a bin of plastic moose or buy one of those little brown jugs with a drunken hillbilly on it. Racks of jelly beans and gummy worms perch on the tasting counter.

This is my third winery of the day, and I can see I’m not going to make it farther. Although I enjoy both sweet and dry wine, I am totally sweeted out.

Off in the distance, the remaining Great Valley wineries provide further variety in the personality of both the wine and the vintners.

Goodwater Vineyards, for example, is run by a family team of Gene and Laura Poland and their four kids. Gene, the winemaker, had a degree in physics and past career stints in international modeling and Gatlinburg real estate. Their winery, where they offer catered picnics in the vineyard, is the largest on the trail and provides the official wine of the Tennessee Smokies baseball team. Goodwater recently added a second tasting room in Hartford.

Watauga Lake Winery was opened by Wayne and Linda Gay after they retired from the Italian import business. The grapes are grown next to the couple’s mountaintop Italian-style villa, while the wine is produced in the old gym of a repurposed schoolhouse.

Spout Spring Estates uses "Old World" wine-making techniques and grape varieties.Tricia Bateman

Spout Spring Estates uses “Old World” wine-making techniques and grape varieties.

Uncorking Profits

The Great Valley wineries are pursuing the AVA designation because it allows certain kinds of labeling and marketing that cause the wine, and the dollars, to flow.

Riddle recently received a $25,000 USDA grant to hire Patricia McRitchie, a consultant who worked on the highly successful Yadkin Valley AVA in North Carolina, to develop an AVA petition for 9 Lakes. The process can take two to four years.

I come from the Yadkin Valley that McRitchie helped enrich. My nearby hometown was once the recognized moonshine (and then marijuana) capitol of North Carolina. Dilapidated factories spat out furniture, textiles, and packaged chicken parts; tobacco and poultry ruled; and our NASCAR track was the center of cultural pride.

When wineries started popping up while I was away at college, I admit I saw it as a wonderful joke, a raspberry blown in the face of The Cultured. Wine? In Hicksville?

Today no one is laughing. Since the AVA designation, the number of wineries in the valley increased from 14 to 42. “It really increased the income to the region,” Lockwood says.

Algood says that happened partly because when states like North Carolina and Kentucky received tobacco settlement installments over the last 15 years, they used a significant portion to help tobacco farmers switch to new types of crops, including wine grapes. Tennessee put its settlement money in the state’s general fund. Some of it went to protect farmland from development as tobacco became less profitable, but at times it was used to prop up the state budget. North Carolina also invested wine tax revenue into educating farmers and promoting the industry.

The result is that today, North Carolina has three American Viticultural Areas within the state, as well as one shared with Georgia, and over 100 established wineries to Tennessee’s 67.

Lockwood is helping identify the key features of 9 Lakes wine for the AVA application. Riddle says East Tennessee wine is more acidic, fruitier, and lower in alcohol than wine from more familiar growing regions like California.

The 9 Lakes is geographically modeled on one of the few long-established AVAs on the East Coast, New York’s Finger Lakes. Riddle has partnered with the Middle East Tennessee Tourism Council, which is re-branding itself and its website from “Vacation East Tennessee” to “9 Lakes of East Tennessee,” says council chair Anne Ross.

Algood wants to link the state’s seven existing wine trails to create a network that runs across the entire state. The wineries promote each other, which is especially important on a trail as long as Great Valley’s. Riddle expects more wineries to join. He says a new winery is planned just outside Tazewell and he anticipates another in Greene County. After the AVA is approved, Riddle hopes wineries within its footprint will partner in a large regional wine festival.

“It’s going to be absolutely awesome,” Ross says of the trail and AVA. “Everyone likes to do these kinds of off-the-beaten-trail things.”

You know you’ve hit a curve when the (beautiful) middle-of-nowhere becomes “off the beaten trail”… a curve not unlike the graceful silhouette of a wine glass.

By the Numbers: The Grapes of Math

67wineries in Tennessee.

30+Varieties of grapes grown in Tennessee.

650acres for grape cultivation.

$881 millionestimated economic impact of grape and wine industry in the state.

7Total number of Tennessee wine trails.

2Northeast Tennessee wine trails: the Rocky Top trail (five wineries in 12 miles) and the Great Valley trail (five wineries in 145 miles).

Sources: Tennessee Department of Agriculture; U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau

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S. Heather Duncan

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at heather@knoxmercury.com

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