By Jennifer Justus, The Tennessean
Head to one of Tennessee's many wineries this summer and take in a deep breath of country air.
Many of the nearly 20 wineries in Middle Tennessee sit off winding roads, past pastures as fresh and green as the skins of a lime. While horses flick their tails and cows sit quietly in fields like meditating Buddhas, these mini road trips can cause blood pressure to drop before the tannins ever hit the tongue.
As Arrington Vineyards co-owner John Russell recalls regulars telling him: "It's like I went somewhere without having to go somewhere."
We dropped by Arrington - one of the most well-known wineries in the area, located about 25 miles south of downtown Nashville - and a few other nearby wineries, including Beans Creek Winery in Manchester and Beachaven Vineyards & Winery in Clarksville, to discover what's new for the upcoming season.
And while it's clear they aim to create an experience, the heart of the operation, like many of the other local vineyards, revolves around the juice swirled in the glasses of the tasting rooms.
With a chill in the air making its last linger, Arrington Vineyards founder and country music artist Kix Brooks threw a log onto the fireplace outside the tasting room with a view that cascades over a hill of vines dotted with picnic tables. He joined his partners, Russell and winemaker Kip Summers, to sip on glasses of cabernet sauvignon.
They talked of hot air balloon rides, the live music on weekends, tastings and cigar nights that in tandem make for a laid-back vibe that can draw 1,500 people on Saturday afternoons. Soon, Lilac Farms, the
25 acres adjacent to the winery, also will open for more quiet and secluded weddings and retreats. But, before long, the conversation turned to the wine.
"This is the life source, obviously, up here on the hill," Brooks said.
Summers added that the challenge has been keeping up with winery growth since it opened in 2007. When a particular vintage runs out, they can't muster up magical powers to immediately bottle more.
"We've had phenomenal success with our Antebellum wine (aged in Tennessee whiskey barrels, imparting a smoky flavor) and we should be bottling that again - the next vintage - probably this June or July," he said.
The first 300 bottles sold out immediately. So they ramped up from bottling 100 gallons to 1,000 gallons, and the next batch will bottle 3,000 gallons.
"People just love it," Brooks said.
Summers said Arrington's presence in wine shops throughout the state has been growing. Also, Kix's Wine Club, a membership organization that offers discounts and deliveries of select bottles, continues to grow with California as the No. 1 state for Arrington wine shipments.
Brooks added that the original vision of the winery has been to create more California, French and Italian-style wines.
"Typically, people think of kind of sweet, goofball wines when you think of Tennessee wines," Brooks said. "You have so many people in the Nashville area who have been to Napa Valley and they like big, dry wines. And we're fortunate to have Kip, who is extremely talented in dealing with those kind of grapes. So, we have taken advantage of being able to ship some of the greatest fruit in the world from California and Washington here to make wine out of, but we also have 30 acres of vineyards here that we're real proud of. Certain grapes grow really well in Tennessee and we're taking full advantage of that. We also, for people who want that, we have raspberry and blackberry. We also have these big, classy cabernets, merlots that people typically ask for."
The warmer nights and wetter climate here make growing some types of grapes that flourish in California more difficult. But Summers makes the most of what does grow here. Currently five grape varieties - chambourcin, traminette, vignoles, viognier and vidal blanc - are grown on 16 acres of the property.
"We think it's real important to have the agriculture aspect of what we do. And we take that very seriously and we make use of every available acre in growing fruit that does well in this area," Brooks said. "We crush everything here. We don't bring wine in and bottle it. We bring grapes in that are on the stems. Everything is produced here."
An experience to be sipped, savored
Likewise at Beans Creek Winery to the southeast in Manchester.
On a recent visit, Josh Brown had us out back where the grapes arrive - either from local vineyards or farther away - to show the process. He shows customers where wine is bottled, labeled and boxed. Then, down in the basement, he taught us how he makes sparkling wine from strawberries that grow in War Trace, Tenn. - by carefully turning bottles to settle the yeast. After seeing the process, it's not easy to walk away without buying a bottle.
For those who need another excuse to visit, the winery now offers live music with its Grape Jam Music Series on Saturdays.
To the north in Clarksville, Beachhaven Vineyards & Winery also holds a live music series called Jazz on the Lawn, which draws as many as 5,000 people on select Saturdays.
But again, it's the tasting bar, where guests can taste wines such as a Chardonnel, a dry white wine from locally-grown grapes, that holds the heart of the operation.
Brooks stresses that even though it's what matters most, it doesn't have to be taken too seriously.
"So many people are intimidated," he said, as they worry about not knowing enough about wine. "That's why we have a tasting bar."
He compares wine to music, naturally.
"When you turn on the radio, you know what you like. You don't produce records, but when you turn the radio on, you like this kind of music or that kind of music. ... If you really love it, you become more sophisticated about it. You start looking at the back of album covers, you start caring about who wrote what songs, who plays guitar on this or that. ... When you really get into music, you start paying attention to every nuance of it, and it's very much the same thing."
The cabernet he sipped, for example, tasted more Beatles than Rolling Stones, he said - maybe even like The Band with its earthy feel.
"You trying what you like is what's right. Nothing else really matters," he said. "Just come and have a good time."