Tennessee is well known for its farm crops, with Warren County specifically famous for growing nursery stock. Grape production in our state has been steadily growing since the 1980s, with over 100 farmers raising grapes, with Tennessee wineries cropping up monthly.
During the late 1800s, vineyards were quite popular in the state, but were cut short in 1919 when prohibition hit the area. Currently it seems the grape crop is flourishing, as well as the wine-making industry in Tennessee.
Local viticulturist Jimmy Passons and wife Colene own and operate Passons Vineyard on approximately five acres, growing and harvesting an assortment of grape varieties. Their business has earned the title of “the oldest commercial growing vineyard in Warren County.”
Jimmy planted his first vines in 2002, and picked the first grapes in 2003, which was unexpected.
“We did get fruit that first year, which is unusual,” said Jimmy. “You never know how a crop is going to do. It depends so much on the weather conditions.”
It seems grapes like the rain to fall in April, May and June, and limited moisture in July, August and September. Grape vines need approximately 1,300 – 1,500 hours of sunshine during the growing season, and 27 inches of rainfall throughout the year in order to produce grapes suitable for winemaking. Each grape species has a uniquely preferred environment for ideal growing that has to be taken in consideration when planting vines.
The Passons most recently picked their crop of Chambourcian grapes. The grapes are hand-picked, transferred to large containers which hold approximately 1,000 pounds each, and then trucked to a winery. This batch of grapes went to Arrington Vineyards, which is owned by country music entertainer Kix Brooks, and Kip Summers.
Friend Nancy Priest was hard at work with other pickers, carefully selecting grape clusters and clipping them off with shears. She volunteers her time when the different varieties are mature for picking.
“I really like doing it, and helping my friends,” said Priest. “I tell them they can pay me by feeding me lunch.”
The duties of a viticulturist is widespread, including pest and disease control, fertilizing, irrigation, monitoring fruit development and pruning.
“I just love growing and caring for my vines,” said Jimmy. “I enjoy planting, pruning and the picking. I can truthfully say, I learn something every day.” Passons’ vines produced 27 pounds of grapes per vine this year, with the state average being 15 pounds.
Along with the Chambourcian, he grows Chardonel, Steuben and Golden Muscat. Just this season he has added the Noiret variety to his vineyard.
Jimmy admits it’s an honor to know his grapes are going to be made into wine, and especially an honor when wine manufactured from his crops wins awards. Beans Creek Winery’s 2008 Chardonel won both gold and concordance gold in competition.
“It is great to know your grapes are being made into award-winning wine, but I get my satisfaction from caring for the vines and watching them mature,” said Jimmy. “It’s just very relaxing for me to walk through the vines, the best part of the day.”