Region History

Tennessee Wine, Past and Present

Girl Picking Tennessee Grapes, circa 1940

Little girl picking grapes on a Weakley County, Tenn. farm, circa 1940. Used with permission from the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Tennessee has an extensive history in both spirits production and grape growing and wine production.

Moonshine Roots

Tennessee is perhaps better known for “moonshine,” or whiskey, right?

One of the better summaries on spirits production was written by Kay Baker Gaston in 1999. According to Ms. Gaston, in 1886, the Nashville Union reported that the distilling industry was the largest manufacturing industry in the state of Tennessee, annually consuming 750,000 bushels of corn and 500,000 bushels of apples and peaches. Her research documented that both East and Middle Tennessee were well suited for the production of whiskey, having good soil for growing corn, an abundance of firewood, white oak for the manufacture of barrels, and a good network of rivers upon which to ship the whiskey to marketing centers like Knoxville, Chattanooga, Nashville, Memphis, and beyond.

Wine Production

But wine production was close behind that of whiskey.

Girl Stomping Tennessee Grapes, 2016

Little girl stomping grapes at J. Hall Wine Grapes, Dandridge, Tennessee.

According to H. Bruce Throckmorton, European settlers brought grape growing and winemaking to Tennessee in the mid-1800s and by the late 1800’s, vineyards were flourishing in Tennessee, mostly in areas that were believed to be unsuitable for other agricultural uses. However, the economic turmoil of the American Civil War during the 1860s resulted in many vineyards being pulled up or abandoned. After the Civil War, the growing of grapes and the production of wine again became a thriving business; J. A. Killebrew devoted an entire chapter to grape cultivation in his 1874 book, Introduction to the Resources of Tennessee. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 1880 there were 1,128 Tennessee acres planted in grapes producing 64,767 gallons of wine with a value of $90,000.

Catawba was the most widely planted grape variety and was the grape behind Nicholas Longworth’s acclaimed Ohio sparkling wines that were distributed as far away as California and Europe. Leon Adams’ Wines of America reports that “a Catawba wine from the Willowbrook Vineyard, near Wartrace in New Bedford County Tennessee, won first prize at the 1857 State Fair in Nashville and at the 1875 Louisville National Fair in competition with wines from Northern states.” U.S. Census records just prior to prohibition show that 208,000 gallons of wine were produced in Tennessee as well as 5 million pounds of table grapes. Before Prohibition, Tennessee was said to be one of the largest grape growing states in the nation.

The first restrictive law in Tennessee, the “four mile law,” was passed by the 40th General Assembly in 1877, prohibiting the sale of intoxicating liquors within 4 miles of an incorporated institution of learning, except where such sale was protected by the charter of an incorporated town. The authorities of the University of the South at Sewanee were largely responsible for the passage of this law, important because it was the first in a series leading to the “Bone Dry Law.” Its passage so encouraged prohibitionists that they agitated for an amendment to the state constitution, which was submitted to a vote and narrowly defeated in 1887.

The legislature of 1889 passed an act allowing all incorporated towns with a population of not more than 2,000 to secure new charters prohibiting the sale of liquor; in 1903 this law was amended by an act applying it to towns of not more than 5,000 inhabitants.

The majority of state legislators elected in the year 1908 were supporters of state-wide prohibition and passed a law to this effect in January, 1909, over the veto of Governor Malcolm Patterson. When the law took effect on July 1, 1909, Tennessee legally became one of the “dry states,” bringing Tennessee’s thriving wine industry to a standstill. In 1919 the 18th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was ratified, bringing prohibition to all states; and for 14 years the legal manufacture of “whiskey” in the U.S. ceased entirely.

The contemporary industry got its start in 1974, when TVA established a grape research program at Muscle Shoals. Led by the efforts of Judge William O. Beach and CMSgt (Ret) Fay Wheeler, the Tennessee General Assembly began loosening restrictions on the industry with passage of the Wine and Grape Act of 1977.

Growing Grapes Today

Tennessee is experiencing a Renaissance in grape production! The Appalachian Region Wine Producers Association has received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expand opportunities for grape growers and wine producers in the state. ARWPA has a number of initiatives lined up for the next three years. One of them is the Nine Lakes Wine Festival, May 19-20, 2017 in Oak Ridge. Celebrating our Nine Lakes Region, and the award-winning wines we produce, this festival will feature 20 Tennessee wineries, 100+ wines and ciders, live music and great food. Don’t miss it!