A Brief History of Grape Growing and Winemaking in Tennessee
During the late 1800s, European settlers, predominantly from Germany, brought grape growing and winemaking to Tennessee. Vineyards were flourishing, mostly in areas that were believed to be unsuitable for other agricultural uses. A U.S. Department Agricultural report from 1880 citied 1,128 acres, producing 64,767 gallons of wine in Tennessee. After the Civil War, it appeared that grape-growing would become one of Tennessee’s most important cash crops. J.A. Killebrew devoted an entire chapter to cultivating grapes in his book, Introduction to Resources in Tennessee.** 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. By the late 1970’s, grape research began all across Tennessee at Agriculture Experiment Stations in Jackson, Spring Hill, Crossville and at the Plant and Soil Science Field Laboratory in Knoxville.
In 1973, seven individuals interested in viticulture and enology gathered around Judge Wiliam O. Beach’s kitchen table in Clarksville and organized The Tennessee Viticultural and Oenological Society (TVOS.) From its small beginning, TVOS had a mission to encourage the study of wine, grape growing, and winemaking in Tennessee. They are still in existence today cultivating wine enthusiasts with a passion for the vine and were instrumental in the development of the professional wine industry in the state.
Commercial grape growing resumed in the mid-1970’s, with around 125 acres by 1978. Then in 1980, Highland Manor in Jamestown, TN. opened their doors as the first licensed Tennessee Winery, where Fay Wheeler oversaw the states first crush of grapes for the purpose of commercial winemaking.
By 1982, there were numerous wineries starting to open up across the state and it was felt that there needed to be a separate organization dedicated to the needs (legal, financial, marketing and other) to the newly revitalized Tennessee wine industry. The Tennessee Farm Winegrowers Alliance (TFWA) was an offshoot of TVOS and was formed by professionals to promote the growing of grapes and the sale of Tennessee wine.
Additionally, in 1985, the Viticulture Advisory Board (VAB) was formed by Governor Lamar Alexander and the state legislature. The purpose of the VAB was to “asses the potential, establish the priorities, and determine the proper direction for the growth of the Tennessee grape industry”. (Tennessee Viticulture Policy Act, TCA 43-30-101.) There are nine members of the current board bringing together representatives from UT Institue of Agriculture, Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, TFWA, TVOS, two members representing the grape growers and two members representing the grape processors.**
Today the TFWA spearheads the efforts for advancing Tennessee grape interests, including promotion, education, and legislation. The result has become a major agri-business in Tennessee, growing from just 24 wineries in 2001 to over 70 winery licenses today. Growth and production of the industry stretch from Cordova in the west to Blonville in the east, with major concentrations in Sevier, Lewis, and Shelby counties.***
Recent successes from 2013 through 2017 have greatly reduced barriers of entry to our industry as well as creating new opportunities for business growth. Please consider supporting our cause by frequenting your local winery/vineyard!
*Tennessee Farm & Winegrowers Handbook, (2014) Louisa Cooke, Beachaven Winery
**Growth and Prospects for the Tennessee Wine Industry, (2016) Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, UT
***Winemaking in Tennessee, (Oct. 8, 2017) http://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entries/winemaking-in-tennessee/