Winemaking in Tennessee

European settlers brought grape growing and winemaking to Tennessee in the mid-1800s. After the Civil War, the production of wine became a thriving business. J. A. Killebrew devoted an entire chapter to grape cultivation in his 1874 book, Introduction to the Resources of Tennessee, in which he also reported the 1870 Giles County wine production at 569 gallons. In 1880, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there were 1,128 Tennessee acres planted in grapes producing 64,767 gallons of wine with a value of $90,000. Tennessee’s thriving turn-of-the-century wine industry ended with the addition of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919.

Viticulture did not resume in earnest until the 1970s, although grapes were once again grown in Tennessee shortly after World War II. Several grape varieties were planted near Crossville in 1948 and 1953. Additional plantings occurred in 1959 and 1963. By the late 1970s, grape research was being conducted at the West Tennessee Experiment Station at Jackson, the Middle Tennessee Experiment Station at Spring Hill, the Plateau Experiment Station at Crossville, and the Plant and Soil Science Field Laboratory at Knoxville. Grape production research began at the Tennessee Valley Authority Agricultural Research Farm at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in 1974.

The first modern attempts to establish vineyards for the commercial production of grapes took place in the mid-1970s. In 1978 there were 125 acres of grapes in Tennessee. The state’s first crush (or harvest) of grapes for the purpose of winemaking occurred in 1980, when the first Tennessee wineries were licensed. By 1992 there were eighty-four growers in the state, with over 270 acres devoted to grape production.

In 1973 the Tennessee Viticultural and Oenological Society (TVOS) was organized for the purpose of encouraging the growing of wine grapes and the development of the wine industry; 200 members are now associated with TVOS. The society was instrumental in the passage of the 1977 “Grape and Wine Law,” which effectively removed wineries from the 1939 local option legislation and reduced the cost of a licensing to $50. A state tax of five cents per gallon was levied on wine produced in Tennessee from Tennessee products. No winery could sell at retail more than 5,000 gallons or 20 percent of the wine it produced annually, whichever was greater.

In 1983 new legislation increased the amount of wine available to be sold on the premises to 15,000 gallons and stipulated that wine produced in Tennessee must be made from not less than 85 percent Tennessee-produced crops. A 1988 law reduced the amount of Tennessee products to 75 percent and permitted new wineries to use 50 percent Tennessee products for the first three years of operation. In 1985 the amount of wine that could be sold at a winery increased to 20,000 gallons annually; in 1995, the amount was raised to 40,000 gallons.

After 1985 Tennessee-produced wine was taxed at the same rate as wine produced out of state. This followed a 1984 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down a Hawaiian law imposing a 20 percent tax on wholesale liquor sales while exempting a locally produced brandy and fruit wine. The Court ruled that this violated the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

A Viticulture Advisory Board was created in 1985. The Board coordinates the interests of growers and advises producers. Both the TVOS and the Tennessee Farm Winegrowers Association, an organization of grape growers that was formed in 1982, are represented on the nine-member board. Other members represent the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, and the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. Two members represent the grape growers, and two members represent the grape processors.

Today, wineries stretch across the state, from Cordova in the west to Blountville in the east. In 2001 there were twenty-four licensed wineries operating in Tennessee. While some are no more than expensive hobbies for their owners, others provide the primary source of income for their operators. Highland Manor Winery, the first licensed winery in Tennessee, opened near Jamestown in 1980 and has been in continuous operation ever since, although under several owners.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Winemaking in Tennessee
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  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 21, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018