Kix Brooks brings some country star power to Tennessee wine

When most people think of wine they think of Californiaor France. Some may think more grassroots-homemadewine. When people think of Tennessee, it’s likelythey think of the whiskey operations, but a vineyard?Yes! Vineyards can succeed in the South.

When businessman Fred Mindermann and winemaker Kip Summers started their venture it was at Fred’s Liberty Hill Vineyard in Brentwood, Tenn. In 2003, they bought a farm near Arrington and started Firefly Vineyards. They approached country singer Kix Brooks about becoming a partner in 2004 when an adjacent farm went up for sale. With Brooks on board, they expanded and changed the name to Arrington Vineyards. Businessman John Russell joined the partnership in 2008, a year after opening at their current location.

Kip Summers of Arrington Vineyard.

Good wine starts with good grapes

Summers, who has been making wine for 16 years and received several awards, including the Homer Blitch Award and the William O. Beach Award (best Tennessee wine) three times, knows that you need good grapes to make good wine.

Summers says, “Someone with experience with peaches would be better suited [for grapes] than [someone who has grown] row crops; the nature of the orchard expands into grapes easier. There is a natural aptitude that comes with being that kind of a farmer that can help make the transition a little bit more normal.” Still, there are big differences between crops.

“Grapes need to be more than purple grapes. Produce is different than wine. Unlike some other kinds of fruit crops, grapes are highly specific, especially in winemaking – for wine Concord has very specific use. The Sunbelt variety tolerates heat in the South but won’t make cabernet-type wine,” Summers explains, adding that you need to know the end purpose for the crop.

Planting, planning and marketing are all dependent on the desired end product.

Planting, growing and chores

One of the biggest challenges in the South is the variable climate. Summers says that, much like orchard crops, the blooms come out first, and it’s critical to avoid frost in spring. The grapevines are efficient at using water and even prefer dry soil to wet. “They don’t like wet feet,” he notes, so tiling or other methods to increase drainage between rows is beneficial.

If you’re considering starting a vineyard, Summers recommends starting small.

From a commercial standpoint, he notes that there are different systems to use for growing that are variety-specific. For example, Concord has a trailing habit, while French varieties feature a straight up growth habit. Also, winter pruning requirements vary depending on type.

Outside the main building guests can enjoy a bottle of wine while overlooking a beautiful countryside.

The ideal vineyard location, Summers says, is a western slope with rocky soil.

Temporary drip irrigation was used for the first year at the vineyard. They do not irrigate established plants, but there’s a 300-gallon tank to spot-irrigate new plants. Summers notes that the first year is critical for the grapevines, which are typically bare-root planted. Summers says, “By the second year we’re not worried about rainfall, and by the third year we don’t think of it at all.”

He notes that even with the drought a couple of years ago the established grapevines did well.

Summers says farmers of other crops may be surprised by the amount of hand labor required. There is not a lot of machinery for use with growing grapes. The market you’re selling to may not want machine-harvested grapes. Wine grape growers prefer handpicking to deliver the best product to their market.

Typical seasonal chores may vary. In winter and spring pruning is important. Other spring chores include trellis repair; ensuring vines are retied and re-staked as needed; and spraying once vines start growing to keep them weed free. Bare ground under vines with grass between rows is typical throughout the vineyard. Fungicides are used to control rots that can occur with humid weather, something western vineyards don’t contend with. Chores during the summer depend on variety, but include continued spraying for weeds and pests, and at Arrington they monitor crop and sugar levels in July.

Grape growers often send samples to wineries to measure sugar, acid and pH. Harvest takes place mid to late summer.

Fall is “downtime” with some weed control, but a slower pace than the rest of the year.

Disease issues

Vineyard owners in the South have some issues that California vineyards don’t. Summers says, “Napa or Sonoma are easier to be organic because the only disease they’re concerned with is powdery mildew, which has an organic solution.” For those concerned with organic, grapes are a bit different than vegetables. There are some hybrids with higher tolerance to disease, but Summers cautions, “Organic would entail another range of choices – [you] can’t really plant disease-susceptible vines in the south like chardonnay. If organic is a focus, select a hybrid that is disease-resistant, then find a winery that wants to make organic wine.” He also mentioned the worldwide informal network that is focused on improving disease resistance while maintaining flavors.

Kix Brooks, co-owner of Arrington Vineyards, out in the field, checking grapevines.

“Powdery mildew, black rot and downy mildew are the big problems in the humid South,” Summers says. “It costs a lot of money to spray for those in Florida, so they engineered to combat that.” He adds that “synthetic sprays have very low toxicity and are very specific to one pest. Fungicides are very tricky for organic growers.”

At Arrington Vineyards, Summers says they currently grow about 15 percent of the grapes for the wines and purchase the other 85 percent. The wine capabilities surpassed the growing capabilities, and the decision was made to invest in wine-making equipment rather than vines.

Providing an experience

Each member of the Arrington Vineyard ownership team brings ideas and experience to the vineyard. Like many growers, Arrington Vineyard sees agritourism as a way to increase income.

Summers’ advice: “Depending on insurance [coverage], do as many things as you can – make the most of it, especially if you’re near a populated area.”

Improvements such as a better driveway, parking, fencing (to keep visitors in or out of certain areas) and updating bathrooms are just a few considerations.

Check with state agriculture departments for information on marketing, such as exemptions to signage laws. Also, they may offer grants for agritourism.

Keeping the vine rows weed-free and properly staked and tied is an important part of vineyard management.

At Arrington Vineyard, they strive to balance the public exposure and the work on the farm. One example is the lodge, where wine tastings are held and items from corkscrews to wine remover are available for sale.

A Brooks & Dunn hot air balloon was given a new Arrington Vineyard skin and offers guests a unique experience and provides extra income for the vineyard.

Guests enjoy the total experience at Arrington Vineyards.

Jan Hoadley is a freelance writer based in Alabama.