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.
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.
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.