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Wine Country, White County

Northfield Vineyards specializes in linking people with fruit of the land

Sustaining a profitable farm-based business requires an ability to move with the times and think outside the box.

Realizing a rural property’s full value and working potential may mean using it to produce something new and unique. Or it may entail rediscovering something that’s been there all along.

For Mark Ray and his sister, Marty Luna, who own and operate Northfield Vineyards in White County, it was a good bit of both.

They’ve built their 30 acres of highland farmland, located a couple miles east of Burgess Falls, into a flourishing destination for visitors to come taste Tennessee country wines and sample some rural flavor and scenery away from the hum of population hubs.

In addition to their tasting-room and a Pick Tennessee store that’s open to the public daily, Northfield operates an event hall that caters to family-focused events like reunions, weddings, baby showers and birthday parties. It is also an ideal location for business conferences, organizational retreats or other kinds of group meet-ups in which the participants will appreciate pastoral charm and bucolic views.

Everything about Northfield says “country” – the surrounding hayfields, the rustic barns, the old tractors, wagons and vintage fuel pumps and especially the resident draft mules, Burt and Rube (short for Reuben), who serve as the winery’s readily identifiable mascots.

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Mark Ray, Marty Luna and Belinda Elsberry of Northfield Vineyards serve up down-home hospitality at White County’s highland country winery.

Northfield is a great country escape both for tourists passing through or for local inhabitants looking to get out and enjoy some sweeping views while sipping an assortment of down-home vino flavors.

Northfield tends to specialize in fruit wines. “Sweet, but not syrupy,” is how Ray describes them.

“A lot of these country wines are the ones that get people out, because they like something different,” he said.

Especially popular is the mild and mellow rhubarb wine. “Everybody seems to like it,” said Ray.

Another crowd-pleaser is a cranberry wine that’s very popular around the holidays. “We sell the world of it this time of year,” he said. “People put mulling spices in it and warm it up. And you can mix ginger ale in it and it really makes a good spritzer.”

With the grape wines, Ray’s preference is to avoid going overboard on the oak tones. He doesn’t like it “when you can’t taste the grapes.”

Reuben’s Red, named after the mule, is more in the vein of a traditional hearty table wine. Ray noted that Burt doesn’t have a namesake wine yet. “But he will — we’ll do something for him later on,” he said.

But of all the wines Northfield bottles, the the biggest source of pride to Ray is the Mule Shoe Muscadine, which won a silver medal at the Wines of the South competition in Knoxville this year.

“Muscadine is a Southern thing,” he said. “We’re at the far northern end of muscadines range. You get up into Kentucky and they freeze out — and they even freeze out here sometimes if we get a real hard winter.”

It was especially gratifying, because muscadines were his first foray into winemaking years ago and resulted in a tub of undrinkably foul hooch. “That batch was awful. I poured it out, it was so bad,” Ray recalls. “But it got me interested.”

If you’d like to see for yourself just how far Ray’s handcrafted, award-winning Northfield wines have come after years of trial and error and tasting and tweaking, Northfield is open Monday through Saturday, 10am to 6pm, and Sunday, 1pm to 5pm. Look them up online at northfieldvineyards.com or Facebook, or give them a call at 931-761-9463.

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A Taste of Cumberland Wine Country

DelMonaco Winery and Vineyard in Baxter tempts tourists to toast regional agriculture

Over the last decade, growth in Tennessee agriculture tourism, or “agritourism,” has emerged as a promising, profitable trend for many families relying in whole or part on farm income for their livelihood.

A 2013 University of Tennessee economic survey estimated that farm-based businesses that cater to tourist harvested $34.4 million statewide, and another $54.2 million was generated in local economies as a “multiplier effect” of spending by visitors.delmonacomap

Volunteer State “wine tourism” has particularly flourished.

The number of Tennessee vino-making venues has more than doubled over the last eight years. In 2008, there were about 30 wineries in the state. Today there are about 65, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

“Wine, grapes, grape products and allied industries create employment and new market opportunities in rural communities,” a 2014 study commissioned by the department asserted. “In areas that previously had diminishing farming of tobacco, cotton, and other crops, the planting of grapevines and the creation of wineries is now offering new life. Grape farming is providing employment as is the establishment of new wineries, shops and restaurants springing up in the footprint of these rural communities.”

Barbara DelMonaco, who owns DelMonaco Winery and Vineyard in Putnam County, has witnessed firsthand the industry’s burgeoning potential to prosper since she and her husband, David, planted their first vines 14 years ago.

“Tennessee still has a long way to go to reach its full potential,” she said.

But DelMonaco Winery is doing its best to help Upper Cumberland’s wine industry blossom and develop.

Situated just a few miles off I-40 — an easy detour for travelers thirsting to put interstate traffic in the rearview mirror — DelMonaco is one of seven wineries that make up tasting stations along the Upper Cumberland Wine Trail.

DelMonaco also happens to have taken root right by a working set of railroad tracks. So it periodically serves as the destination depot for a vintage excursion train departing from the Tennessee Central Railway Museum in Nashville. The 10-hour round-trip rides are hugely popular, typically selling out weeks or even months in advance.

A Sip Starts in the Soil

Diane Parks, a winemaker at DelMonaco, takes full advantage of the teachable moments when rail riders from the Music City detrain at the vineyard. It’s a great opportunity to enlighten folks living outside the countryside about the time, talent and tolerance for trial-and-error necessary to coax a crop of grapes out of the ground and into the wine-imbiber’s glass.winetrain

First and foremost, winemaking is an agricultural endeavor, Parks explains.

“A winery is nothing without grapes. The life’s blood of most wineries are its grapes,” she said. “You can make a crappy wine out of really good grapes, but you can’t make a really good wine out of crappy grapes. You really have to manage your vineyard well in order to have good quality grapes — and, in turn, to make good quality wine.”

Tammy Algood, a viticulture marketing specialist for the state, has been studying and helping promote Volunteer State varietals for the better part of 30 years.

It’s gratifying to see the wine industry benefiting from Tennessee’s booming tourism economy, said Algood, precisely because it is “inherently tied to the land.” Tasting-destination wineries represent “a beautiful marriage between the tourist industry and the Tennessee wine and grape industry,” she said

“Grape-growing is farming. And it is beautiful farming,” she said. “This industry is enhancing the visual appeal of Tennessee. If you are going to have a great wine, it started on the vine.”

And often wineries are drawing visitors’ and their vacation-spending into areas both that particularly need it — and might not otherwise enjoy a reputation as a tourist draw, Algood said.

“The topography of the land is very important for grape growing. Unlike a manufacturing facility that can pick up their operations and move to a different county or a different state seeking out tax incentives or a different kind of labor force, an agriculture operation like a vineyard is connected to the land and the local rural economy,” she said.

“You are not typically going to see vineyards in the middle of large cities. You are going to see them where they have land to spread out,” said Algood.

While Tennessee is trailing neighboring states like Missouri, Georgia and Virginia in total number of wineries, wines from here are regularly judged favorably against the best at national and international festivals, she said.

“Each winemaker puts his or her own spin on a particular product,” said Algood. “Tourists that come to Tennessee, particularly from more northern areas, are surprised and pleased to learn that we grow different grapes and as a result have different wines than they are accustomed to.”

“Everybody wants to go home with something from Tennessee, and a bottle of wine is the perfect thing to carry home with you after spending a vacation here,” she said.

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Vineyard Serves as Sample of Viable Family Farming

Cellar 53 Winery in Brush Creek promotes local agriculture, protects rural landscape

The newest sipping stopover along the Upper Cumberland Wine Trail is a testament to one family’s commitment to farmland preservation and conserving country lifestyle.

Owned and operated by Scott and Rebecca Paschal, with the help of their three boys, Cellar 53 Winery is notched into the western edge of the Highland Rim in Smith County, just south of I-40’s Exit 254 on Alexandria Highway.

Cellar 53 opened to the public as a walk-through vineyard and winery just last year. But it took root more than a decade ago.

In the early 2000s, Scott and Rebecca shared “a dream to keep the family farm.”

Rebecca Paschal and her husband, Scott, put down Cellar 53's roots more than a decade ago.

Rebecca Paschal and her husband, Scott, put down Cellar 53’s roots more than a decade ago.

So they made arrangements to purchase a 100-acre tract that, while it’d been under family ownership for generations, had earlier been platted for future sproutings of suburban-style houses in lieu of raising crops and livestock.

In order to make a profitable long-term reality of their dearly priced dream, they set about sowing the seeds of a wine-growing operation.

Over the ensuing ten years, their vision blossomed into what is today a winsome venue for sipping homegrown vino and lingering about a vintage landscape that exemplifies Middle Tennessee at its bucolic best.

The idyllic parcel that rears the fruiting vines for their assortment of wines does abut up against a cove of contemporary homes. But that’s where the residential development stops.

Beyond the rolling hedges of Cellar 53’s wine grapes rises a wild and sprawling expanse of thickset timber that’s now buffered against exurban homebuilding.

Visitors to Cellar 53 are invited to stroll the grounds or relax in the tasting room or on the patio behind the pole barn that houses a conference room, commercial kitchen and wine-making vats. Typically, Cellar 53 has ten or so wines for oenophiles to sample.

“I make a lot of dry wines,” said Rebecca. She noted that they also grow all the blackberries for their blackberry wine, which tends to be a customer favorite.

The itinerary for touring Cellar 53 is pretty laid back. “You taste wine, you get educated, you walk through and appreciate the vineyards and the agriculture,” explains Rebecca. “And hopefully you buy a bottle and go home and enjoy it.”

To visit Cellar 53 Winer: From Interstate 40, Take Exit 254. Turn South - toward Alexandria. Go approximately 1.5 miles and turn left onto Poplar Drive - there are two stone pillars at front of the drive. Take the first left onto Oak View East. Head to the rear of the residential development - please drive slowly! cellar53winery.com

To visit Cellar 53 Winery: From Interstate 40, Take Exit 254. Turn South – toward Alexandria. Go approximately 1.5 miles and turn left onto Poplar Drive – there are two stone pillars at front of the drive. Take the first left onto Oak View East. Head to the rear of the residential development – please drive slowly! cellar53winery.com

Over time, the Paschals have come to recognize that a key element of their role in the community and the regional economy is in fact instructional, and maybe even inspirational. Their message to locals and tourists alike is that agriculture remains a viable livelihood for people willing both to work hard and think creatively about how to use their land and develop markets for selling locally grown products.

The Paschals believe wine growing has a particularly robust future in the Volunteer State if its full potential is ever uncorked. “Before the Prohibition Era, Tennessee had 19,000 acres of wine grapes,” said Rebecca. “Now we have 900. So we obviously can grow them here.”

The Tennessee Farm Winegrowers Alliance reports that there are currently about 25 wineries in the state.

“During the late 1800s, vineyards were flourishing in Tennessee, mostly in areas that were believed to be unsuitable for other agricultural uses,” according to TFWA. “At the time, it appeared that grape-growing would become one of Tennessee’s most important cash crops. However, Prohibition all but ended this promise in 1919. It is just within the last quarter of the 20th century that grape growing (and winemaking) has seen a remarkable recovery.”

The Upper Cumberland Wine Train includes eight wineries. Visit uppercumberland.org to learn more.

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Hundreds Attend First Annual Upper Cumberland Wine Fest

Organizers of the inaugural Upper Cumberland Wine Festival, billed as the “first of its kind for the region,” say it was a huge success. Read more