The pleasant tones of blue grass music creep over the steep Union County hills on a Friday night, but the neighbors don’t seem to mind. In fact, many of them have staked their seats outside the Seven Springs Winery in Maynardville, Tenn.
The town welcomes visitors with a sign claiming to be the “cradle of country music,” due to it being the birthplace of Ray Acuff and Carl Smith. But these days, as many locals will tell you, there aren’t loads of places around the county to hear the next country music star play, or really do much of anything.
Of course, there are exceptions to that rule and one local winemaker hopes he can be just that.
“One of the things a winery does well is it pairs well with food, culture and a community,” explained Rick Riddle, founder and co-owner of The Winery at Seven Springs Farm. He, along with his daughter Nikki, run the business and also play host to a jam session for local musicians on Friday nights.
But a crowd of mainly Union County residents on the weekend won’t keep a winery open and that is partially why Riddle, along with 30 or so other local wineries, are applying to become an American Viticultural Area (AVA).
The federal designation would give the area more of an identity, argues Riddle, plus their bottles of wine could then be marked with the prestigious title.
“It’s not different from going to Nashville for country music, said Riddle. “We want tourists to come here.”
Slowly but surely, they are. Riddle’s own winery made 4,000 gallons of wine to start in October and sold out in three months.
“It’s a classic 'build it and they will come' scenario,” explained Riddle. “A lot of it is a big push to bring economic development into this area.”
U.S. Census data shows Union County has a 22 percent poverty rate, a full 7 percent higher than the national average in 2014. Riddle thinks making the rural areas of the eastern half of the state a wine destination will help rectify that statistic.
“The key is to bring some of the tourism potential into the rural areas,” he explained.
Riddle cited Napa Valley, California; Finger Lakes, New York and even Hermann, Missouri as three places that have figured that out.
“These are the ways to bring a lot of business and tourism into the rural counties,” said Riddle.
A single-state American Viticultural Area would allow local winemakers to label their products as part of Tennessee wine country.
The three-year process to get such a certification is all so that local grapes are defined as having unique regional characteristics.
"Everybody's familiar with the famous wine regions of the world, whether they be in France, in Italy, California, Napa...” explained Riddle. “We can put Tennessee literally on the map."
There are already two wine “trails” in the area, the Rocky Top Wine Trail and the Great Valley Wine Trail (formerly Thunder Road). But those are unofficial designations that wineries have agreed to be a part of. An AVA designation would mean, officially, East Tennessee is a wine destination.
Riddle is spearheading the efforts behind that, and hopes the “Nine Lakes Viticultural Area in the Great Valley of Tennessee” will become a mark of pride for local wineries and rural communities alike.
“Right now, when you think of wine in Tennessee, nothing really comes to mind,” explained Riddle.
WHY EAST TENNESSEE
Just down the road from Seven Springs is Spout Spring Estates Winery and Vineyard, in Blaine. Riddle’s sister Amy and her husband, Chuck Belt, run the business and predominantly sell their grapes.
The pair decided to leave the hustle and bustle of Knoxville behind after a family member told them about his property for sale in Grainger County.
“When I saw the fields, it just pretty much screamed ‘vineyard’ to me,” laughed Belt.
He said the higher elevation meant good wind and water drainage for his property, contributing factors to what he said makes the area a unique place to grow grapes.
He said for now, the wineries in the area are not able to keep up with the mass production happening out west in places like California.
“Every year will taste different,” he explained. “Because every growing season is different.”
Bigger wineries are able to mass produce their wines and adjust each bottle to taste similar. They’re also able to keep their prices lower.
With an AVA designation, East Tennessee wineries would be able to charge a premium price and hopefully, stay afloat.
Tennessee actually is already a part of a multi-state AVA.
The Mississippi Delta AVA, established in 1984, includes parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and West Tennessee.
We spoke with the owner of one West Tennessee winery who said they aren’t even sure they are a part of the designation, but are happy to be on a local wine trail.
“There are four new wineries that have opened up – of seven – in the last couple years, a lot within the last year,” said Carrie Welch, who owns Old Millington Winery in Shelby County. “You know, our sales have certainly grown a lot.”
That is a far cry from 1975 when the Tax and Trade Bureau reported there were zero wineries in the state of Tennessee.
Now, Riddle estimates there are about 65, with, he hopes, many more on the way. In fact, there is another petition for Appalachian high country to get its own AVA as well, according to Riddle. That would be for wine produced in Carter and Johnson Counties above 2,000 ft.
But for now, Riddle hopes his winery will help his community come together – through music and wine - and eventually, his side of the state.
“We could work together, you know?” said Riddle. “We’d all benefit.”