Wine down – city view
Spout Spring Estates keeps viticulture thriving in East Tennessee
Every time I step onto the grounds of a local winery, I find myself having flashbacks. Life in the cellar was just a flash in my personal timeline, but it’s one I’ll never forget. As a tasting room specialist at a small, family-owned winery, I relished the times tending to the vines and guiding interested customers through the aromas they could encounter in the wines they were tasting. And while I was fresh out of college, even I could feel how each person’s daily struggles and stressors would melt away when they arrived to taste the carefully crafted flavors. That sentiment is undoubtedly felt at Spout Spring Estates in Blaine. Chuck and Alice Belt take care of it.
The pensioner’s legacy
I find it fascinating that this legacy that Chuck and Alice built here wasn’t always their life’s work. “Chuck and I are both mechanical engineers,” Alice confesses to me. “We were living in West Knoxville and were going to retire, but we couldn’t decide what to do.”
The options were to buy an ocean-worthy boat or buy a farm. And while you’d think they’d go for the more fanciful of the two, they bought the farm. That was in 2004. “Even if you’re retired, you have to do something,” jokes Alice. So after some research on the internet and finding “before prohibition, Tennessee grew more grapes than we even do today”, they settled on growing grapes.
Still living in Knoxville, the pair planned to plant an acre of grapes a year on their Granger County farm, but quickly discovered that two acres of grapes just couldn’t be taken care of on weekends. So they moved onto the property in 2006 and continued to plant.
Learning the ins and outs of viticulture is no small feat, and there are sure to be experts any winemaker will call upon on their travels. For Chuck and Alice, they studied culture at the University of California and used materials from the University of Pennsylvania. They joined wine organizations and the local Tennessee Farm Winegrowers Alliance. But they also connected with mentors, including Memphis-based winemakers Troy and Connie Perrin. “We came down and introduced ourselves to them, and they said, ‘Don’t do it. It’s too much work,” says Alice, “but we did it anyway.
The more we talk, the more I identify with Alice and Chuck. They ran towards the challenge. And rather than take the retired life of ease, the two – who lovingly call themselves ‘stubborn’ and ‘tough on the nose’ – decided they wanted it enough to endure the hard work. was just the step they had to take. “We found out they were telling us the truth,” Chuck says. “It’s a lot of work, a lot of work. It’s something you should start doing when you’re younger, much younger.
They sold their grapes to a local wine group in Pigeon Forge in those early years and made wine in their garage. “You’re allowed to do 100 gallons per person without a permit,” says Alice. But in 2012, Tennessee passed the Tennessee Farm Winery Law that allowed you to take your grapes to a licensed winery where they would make your wine, put your label on it, and sell it on your farm. And so Alice and Chuck jumped on board. “We did this for a few years to see if we would get enough business, before investing in winery equipment.”
Turns out people loved it, so the duo got into winemaking and started planning their winery opening. Chuck is modest when talking about the process. “A lot of people try to convey that it’s really complicated, and they’re very secretive about it,” he says. “But it’s not rocket science. It’s a natural process that will take place whether you do anything or not, but as long as you start with really good grapes, it’s hard to mess it up. It’s 10% vinification and 90% cleaning, sanitizing, monitoring and testing. Alice agrees, but is quick to call out the necessary subtleties that Chuck has mastered at this point as the winery’s winemaker.
Deciding to bring people to the farm wasn’t as big a deal as one might imagine for Chuck and Alice. Even before opening the winery, they were already welcoming people to the farm by reserving it for weddings. They eventually got to the point where they were hosting over 130 weddings a year at the property.
But with a thriving wine business, Alice says there just isn’t enough time to engage in both. They therefore officially abandon the wedding business and fully commit to their winery and vineyards.
The pavilion they built on the property was the perfect space to convert into a winery. There, they transform the grapes, create their wine, their bottle and their label, all on site. They have also created a retail space to sell and offer tastings. “After a few years of working with a very small tasting room, we expanded it into a much larger tasting room and started adding tables and chairs for more people outside,” explains Chuck. Winery goers often bring lunch and spend the whole afternoon outside the winery, a welcome sight for Chuck and Alice.
Today they tend to 4,500 vines in their six-acre vineyard and they have a team of incumbents to help them do so. Once the grapes are picked, they go through a detailed process right on site, from destemming and pressing the juice to finishing a wine before bottling. “We age all of our reds and one of our whites in barrels,” explains Chuck, adding that a red can take up to three years to bottle. On the other hand, there are white wines that can be bottled within six months.
“We grow the Nefras, which are most often referred to as the noble varieties,” explains Chuck. “It would be Cabernet Sauvignon, which is a Bordeaux. Sangiovese, who is Italian. Riesling, which is German. Chardonnay, which is a Burgundy grape variety. And a little Muscadine, just because it’s needed. Tennesseans love Muscat wine. So in 2014, after many requests from their customers, Chuck and Alice planted the grapes.
“It’s a lifestyle”
There are still only about 70 wineries that inhabit the state of Tennessee; the state’s wine industry appears to be still in its infancy. However, this number has nearly tripled in the past two decades.
“Recently we asked the state to create a grape and wine council and they’ve done a really good job of taking some of the tax money that wineries pay and funding different programs to help support the winery. ‘industry. It started happening probably in the last five years,” Chuck says, adding that he thinks it’s a good investment for the state. “I think they’re finally finding out that’s the case.”
In March 2020, Chuck displayed a map of the world in the Spout Spring Estates tasting room and asked patrons to place a pin on the map to mark where they were born. Two years later, this map has pins on every continent. Speaking to other vineyard owners in the area, they tell similar stories. Appreciation of good wine is not tied to location, age group or culture. It is a culture in its own right and as Alice says, “Wine culture is more than just a job or a product. It’s a lifestyle.