The Upper Cumberland boasts beautiful mountain scenery, rolling fields dotted with livestock and bustling shopping centers. But the wineries of the area are making a splash with tourists and building a reputation for the area's unique and flavorful wine creations.
The Upper Cumberland Tourism Association launched the Upper Cumberland Wine Trail earlier this year, inviting both visitors and residents to get out and explore the Upper Cumberland and visit six wineries in the region.
Two of those stops bring tour participants to Crossville to visit Chestnut Hill Winery and Stonehaus Winery.
"If you visit all the wineries, at your last winery, you get a couple of the special Upper Cumberland Wine Tour glasses, and we do something special for those finishing up their tour here," said Rob Ramsey, owner and distribution sales manager. "It's a fun way to see the area."
The wine trail was one of the official routes for the Hog Rally held this past year in Cookeville, bringing hundreds through the area, and the promotion is helping people find good wine close to home.
Winemaking in Tennessee
In the 1800s, grape-growing and wine making provided a valuable cash crop for the state and put land to use that was unsuitable for other agricultural uses. That ended with Prohibition in 1919. Though the constitutional amendment that prohibited the manufacture, transport and sale of alcoholic beverages throughout the U.S. was repealed in 1933, wine production remained crippled in the state for much of the 20th century. In 1977, the grape and wine law was passed, removing wineries from local option legislation and reducing the cost of licensing to $50. Wine produced was taxed at five cents per gallon, and no winery could sell more than 20 percent of the wine it produced annually through retail sales.
Highland Manor Winery in Jamestown became the state's first licensed winery in 1980. The state has since reviewed its regulation of the industry and increasing the amount of wine that could be produced and loosening requirements that a certain percentage of grapes used in production be grown in Tennessee.
That's been good news for Cumberland County wineries, Stonehaus Winery, which opened in 1991, and Chestnut Hill Winery, which opened in 1998.
"There have been times we could have purchased better grapes at a cheaper cost by going out of state," said Darrin Stryker, who opened Chestnut Hill Winery in 2007 with his family.
Rob Ramsey, owner of Stonehaus Winery, agreed, adding while much of the grapes used at Stonehaus are grown in Tennessee, the supply was quickly exhausted and there were grape varieties that just were not suited to the Tennessee climate.
Winemaking came to Cumberland County in 1991 when a group of partners formed Stonehaus Winery on Genesis Rd. at the 320 exit of Interstate 40.
Bob Ramsey, owner and president, and his wife, Belle, owner and general manager, opened Tennessee's first winery, Highland Manor Winery, with Fay and Kathy Wheeler, in 1980. Fay is considered the "Grandfather of Tennessee Wine" and has helped more than 25 wineries and vineyards start production during his career. When the Ramseys looked to open a winery in Crossville, the Wheelers joined them, along with partners Dr. Lloyd Hassler, Martin Clark and Jaime Clark McGuire. In 2010, the winery became an entirely "family-owned" business, and members of the Ramsey family not only serve as owners, but in managing the everyday business of the business.
Wheeler is one of the few American members of the French Ducal Ordre de la Croix de Bourgogne, dedicated to Burgundy wines, and is a Master Knight in the American Knights of the Vine.
The name Stonehaus was chosen to recognize the distinctive native Tennessee Quartzite Stone found in the area that is famous the world over and "haus," German for house, to recognize Wheeler's time in Germany while serving with the U.S. military overseas.
Today, Stonehaus Winery offers 19 varieties of wine, including dry red and white wines, sweet red and white wines, fruit-flavored wines and four sparkling wines.
"We want to have something for everyone," said Rob Ramsey. " Our motto is 'Less pretension, more fun.'"
Some of the newer offerings are Moonlight Cab and Red Muscadine. The Moonlight Cab gets its name from the experience during the first crush for the wine, when the crusher and destemmer had trouble accepting the grapes and it had to be done by hand under the light of a harvest moon. The wine was later launched during a special concert at the winery by country music artist John Anderson, coincidently, during a full moon.
Distributors had been recommending the development of a red muscadine variety for several years; however, it took winemakers Wheeler and Jan Nix time to find a process they were happy with. Muscadine wine is made by allowing the skin, which provides all color for wine, to sit with the juice for 10 to 25 days. The problem is the grape variety used to make muscadine often develops a "musty" flavor after the fruit becomes overripe, Ramsey explained. Those flavors are concentrated in the skin, and the trick is to get the red color without those flavors.
"Fay and Jan were never happy with the process before, but they found a way to do it and get a flavor that they were pleased with," Ramsey said. "The red muscadine and white muscadine are two different animals, and some people love one but not the other."
The white muscadine continues to lead sales among the two, but both are sweet wines. Ramsey invites readers to visit the winery and decide which is their favorite.
"That's the great thing about wineries," Ramsey said. "You get to try before you buy, and we offer free tastings with no pretension and no high-pressure sales. Our goal is for you to have a good time, enjoy yourself, look around and taste. Visiting a winery should be a pleasant experience, a break from your day."
Other wine offerings include merlot, pinot gris, chardonnay, Homestead White, Fairfield Red, Davenport Red, Lantana White, Helena Blush and muscadine. Fruit-flavored wines are Blackberry Summer, Cumberland Gold (a peach-flavored after-dinner wine), Raspberry Mist and Orange Squeeze.
More than 20 years ago, Wheeler made a sparkling muscadine using the méthode champenoise, which is time consuming, expensive and difficult to do on a large scale. But the product was a hit.
"People were still asking when he was going to make it again after more than 20 years," Ramsey said. "When he figured out a process that we could repeat easily and at the volume we needed, we figured it was a home run."
Sparkling wines are Sparkling Seyval Blanc, Sparkling Muscadine, That's Just Peachy and Tickled Pink. A portion of the sales of Tickled Pink are donated to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Tickled Pink recently took Best of Show in the Wines of the South competition, and Sparkling Muscadine, Sparkling Seyval Blanc, Davenport Red, Blackberry Summer and Red Muscadine brought back medals, as well, in the blind tasting competition.
Coming up, the winery is working on a private label wine for the Tennessee State Park system in celebration of the 75th anniversary of Tennessee State Parks. Six of the eight state parks, including Cumberland Mountain State Park in Crossville, can serve wine and, beginning in the spring, diners will be able to enjoy the special selection.
"We hope to also be able to offer those bottles here at the winery, with a portion of the proceeds benefitting the state parks," Ramsey said.
The winery also offers non-alcoholic juices, including muscadine juice, sparkling apple muscadine juice and blackberry cider.
The building where Stonehaus Winery found a home had previously housed The Urban Cowboy and later a church. It was a 5,000 square foot building at the time, but as popularity and production grew, more space was needed. The building has had seven expansions and now covers more than 35,000 square feet.
"Five of those expansions were supposed to be the last expansion we'd ever need," Rob Ramsey explained.
Much of that space is used for the wine-making process. While Stonehaus utilizes grapes grown in Tennessee, that supply can be quickly depleted. Fruit quality is critical, and like any agricultural product, the supply varies with the year.
"Winemaking truly is an art," Ramsey said. "And it's truly an agricultural product. It's messy and there is no blueprint. You have different grapes every year with different flavors."
The winery has a fermentation capacity of 90,000 gallons in 79 Criterion poly tanks. Fermentation takes place over months by keeping tanks at a consistent temperature below 50 degrees. This method helps to retain the fruit quality in the wine and results in a better product, the winemakers believe.
Filtration is vital to the quality and stability of the wine. Because Stonehaus produces many sweet wines, its imperative to remove all the yeast cells, which would continue the fermentation process and could cause a cork to explode from a bottle. Stonehaus Winery was among the first to utilize cross-flow filtration, similar to kidney dialysis, in its production. In 1992, 10 prototypes were offered in the U.S. It was used for 15 years before a replacement was needed.
"Fay saw this as the future of winemaking and bought one. We ran it until it couldn't run anymore," Ramsey explained. "The wine it produces is more chemically stable, it tastes better, it's faster and is less expensive in the long run. It's better all around, but it does have a high up-front cost."
Bottling was done by hand as little as five years ago, and Mondays were spent bottling wine. As production grew, the time needed to bottle grew until bottling was taking place Tuesday and Wednesday, too. An automated bottling machine allows the winery to bottle up to 3,000 bottles of wine per hour.
In addition to offering 19 varieties of wine, the retail store also offers a variety of unique, one-of-a-kind items, from wine accessories to gourmet foods and cheeses and artwork from nationally acclaimed craftspeople.
Homemade fudge is a popular seller, too, and Ramsey adds, was his first entrepreneurial contribution to the business. The winery now sells 6,000 pounds of fudge a year, and tastings of the sweet concoctions are available. The salespeople can also help pair wines with the fudge for unique, complementary tastes.
There are more than 40 cheeses available and Stonehaus is offering gourmet crackers already made or kits to make the buttery, savory treats at home. There are also soup mixes, dip mixes, jellies and more.
Smithville artisan Susan DeMay, a member of the faculty at Peabody College, has her ceramic pottery offered through the gift shop. Her work is on display in the Smithsonian Institute. The shop also offers a full line of Davinci jewelry.
There is also an educational toy room, which is great for tourists stopping by with their children, or who want to get a unique toy to take home.
"We want the kids to have fun, too," Ramsey said. The winery offers tastings of its homemade fudge and juices to its younger guests.
Stonehaus Winery is open Modnay through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. For more information, call (931) 484-WINE, or visit www.stonehauswinery.com.
Chestnut Hill Winery
At Chestnut Hill Winery, exit 322 on Interstate 40 and just off Peavine Rd., business is booming as guests stop at the "Place to Taste."
The winery currently produces 10 wines, including the popular Hillbilly Shine wine.
"Our winemaker thought we needed something new," explained Darrin Stryker. He and his wife, Trudi, own the winery with his father, Harold.
Hillbilly Shine Wine is a blend of several different wines with a natural watermelon flavor. The label features an outhouse and a still.
"It's a fun wine," Darrin said. "So many of our visitors want to take something home with them from Tennessee."
Other wine varieties are Special Reserve Red Onyx, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Mandolin Blanc, Dulcimer White, Sweet White Muscadine, Sweet Red Muscadine, Volunteer Peach and Blackberry.
Special Reserve Red Onyx is a blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petite Verdot red wines, and it is bursting with fruitiness with a delicate oak after tone. It pairs well with pasta and red sauce, red meats and more.
The full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon is a treat when paired with pork, lamb or beef. Merlot is aged in French oak, which provides smoothness and its distinctive taste.
Mandolin Blanc is a clean, crisp, dry white wine that is similar to Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigo. The Dulcimer White is a semi-dry white wine with a hint of sweetness.
Sweet White Muscadine is made from Southern Muscadine grapes and is a full-bodied dessert wine that pairs well with sliced apples and pears or poured over vanilla ice cream with fresh berries. Sweet Red also pairs well with fruits.
In the coming year, two more wines will be added, a sweet concord wine and a Riesling. Fiddler Red is expected in the spring. It's the latest in a musical line of wines.
"We have plans for several other wines to take on musical names," Darrin said. "We want people to associate those names with us."
Chestnut Hill Winery is a producer, distributor and retailer.
"Everything is done right there at the winery," Darrin said.
Harold added the winery doesn't distribute to liquor stores, restaurants or other retailers.
"We don't rely on wholesalers," Harold explained. "The only place to buy Chestnut Hill Winery wine is at the winery."
The past year has seen a tremendous growth in business, Harold said.
"It's quality and customer service, no question about it," he said.
The winery looks far and wide to find the best quality grapes for its product. The Strykers were happy the state had removed rules regarding Tennessee-grown grapes, allowing wine producers to find the right grape for their product. While winemaking is an agricultural process, Chestnut Hill Winery has elected to stick to wine production and not growing grapes.
"Though there are some wineries that do have vineyards, we decided those were two separate entities and decided not to go that route," said Harold.
Winemaking at Chestnut Hill is overseen by Tom Reed, winemaker. Reed grew up in East Tennessee and has grown up with the wine business, the Strykers said. The winery has a fermenting capacity of 23,000 gallons.
The gift shop features wine-related products, from glasses and wine racks to kits for making wine at home. Those are popular as many families have recipes that have been passed down through generations. Of course, if they'd like to sample the recipes offered at Chestnut Hill, they are happy to oblige.
"People enjoy coming in because this is a happy place," Harold said. "They are greeted, talked to and treated well."
Darrin added, "We had a group of customers spend over an with us just visiting. If people are not in a hurry, they are welcome to stay and chat."
No charge tastings are offered of all Chestnut Hill wines. Guests can also call ahead to arrange for a tour of the winery and learn more about the wine-making process.
If you're looking for something unique to take home with your wine, the Hillbilly Shine wine glasses, which go hand-in-hand with the popular wine, are a customer favorite.
Grape seed oil is another grape product finding popularity with cooks. Harold explained the grape seed oil is a healthy oil for cooking, offers lots of antioxidants and is good for those watching their cholesterol. It also has no flavor, so the flavor of the food shines, not the oil.
Fresh, homemade fudge is also offered, as well as jams and jellies made by area Mennonites. Chestnut Hill Winery also offers local honey.
One unique item is a wine bottle holder made from the stump of a fir tree in China. Nature makes the bottle holder and no two are alike.
Also found in the gift shop are an assortment of unique, Tennessee-made products. There are locally made wine bottle lights, which offer a beautiful glow, and local artists produce beautiful painted wine bottles to add a special touch to any décor.
The shop offers the Sweetwater Valley Farms cheese line, and "Old Crow Walking Sticks," handmade in Crossville, are also available. The staff is happy to help assemble gift baskets for any occasion.
The family recently lost its gift shop manager and bookkeeper, family matriarch Nancy Stryker, who passed away in October. The family has been filling in where needed following her death.
The Chestnut Hill Winery location also boasts a meeting room perfect for small parties and receptions and the Brass Lantern Restaurant next door.
"It's one of the finest dining experiences in Cumberland County," Darrin said. "We invite everyone to come and check it out."
Chestnut Hill Winery is at 78 Chestnut Hill Rd., with the building facing Peavine Rd. next to the 322 on-ramp for Interstate 40. GPS coordinates are latitude 35.9608 and longitude -84.9829. Call 707-7878 or visit www.chestnuthillwinery.com to learn more. Chestnut Hill Winery is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. The winery is closed for all major holidays.
A Salute to Industry series is a project of the Crossville-Cumberland County Chamber of Commerce to feature local industries and businesses.