Nashville has one more good reason to raise a glass, as the city celebrates the opening of Davidson County’s first and only winery, the Winery at Belle Meade Plantation.
Over the clanking and corking of bottles at the Winery at Belle Meade Plantation’s packaging room, Belle Meade Plantation president Alton Kelley, along with six others from the plantation staff—whose typical duties include developing educational initiatives, fundraising, planning special events and coordinating ticket sales—have rolled up their sleeves to make sure the sweet elixir is ready for the winery’s grand opening on November 16.
Over the course of the day the staff will dress over 4000 bottles for Nashville’s first and only winery.
“It’s a family effort,” Kelley says. “This is how most wineries operate, with everyone pitching in. We’re no different,” he says. This dedicated crew started at 7 a.m. from the winery’s ground control, a cramped 10 x 30 room with a minimum of seven folks packed in and laboring. It takes both man and machine to produce the four inaugural bottlings. A quarter of a million dollars’ worth of new filtering and bottling equipment, including two 1200-gallon holding tanks, are housed here to aide in the vinification. Over the course of the day the staff will dress over 4000 bottles for Nashville’s first and only winery.
The addition of a local winery adds an air of sophistication to the city recently named “America’s Friendliest” by Travel + Leisure magazine. It’s a natural fit for Nashville, says the plantation’s vintner Brian Hamm, because simply put, “Wine is fun.”
Hamm, a decorated winemaker with over 40 international awards to his credit, was tapped to help develop the winery’s signature wines: Carriage House White, Bramble Blush, Muscadine and Blackberry. Hamm describes his personal philosophy of winemaking with community in mind: “I make wines to share with family and friends, and for people to enjoy and drink now,” he says.
The Winery at Belle Meade Plantation partnered with Keg Springs Winery, Hamm’s family-owned farm located just south of Columbia, because “in Belle Meade,” Kelley says, “growing a vineyard is not a reality” due to acreage limitations. “The folks at Keg Springs have been instrumental in teaching us the ropes. They’ve passed on the knowledge,” he says.
The Belle Meade Plantation staff made the initial trip out to Keg Springs to harvest the berries by hand. Additionally, Kelley says they selected Tennessee-grown fruits to accent the wine’s flavor and support the state’s farmers.
Officially opened for business on November 16, the Winery at Belle Meade Plantation serves as the outpost for final fermentation, filtering, bottling and labeling. The winery anticipates producing 50,000 bottles over a year’s time, which should serve the plantation’s 170,000 annual visitors.
Kelley says the winery is modeled after North Carolina’s Biltmore Estate Winery. For the first year, according to Kelley, the Biltmore Estate reported that wine income exceeded ticket income. “The Biltmore’s winery has been very good for them, so we thought this was the right place to try it. There’s no other non-profit doing this, so this really makes us unique,” Kelley says.
And the sweat equity serves a higher purpose. All revenue from the winery will go toward the plantation’s educational and preservation missions. “Every non-profit is looking for a new funding source,” Kelley says, “so we’re going back to the soil, because that’s what built this place.”
Historical records and old invoices from the plantation archives suggest that the Harding and Jackson families maintained vineyards on the grounds, as well as importing fine wines from Europe to entertain a steady stream of guests.
Even the plantation grounds themselves offer a hint as to the variety of grapes that may have been cultivated on site. “On just about every tree there are muscadine vines, and the blackberry patches still come up,” Kelley says. “I would be shocked if they weren’t making wines here. It was a way to take what was growing from the land and make use of it.”
The plantation’s new wines not only reflect the estate’s storied past but serve as a bridge to the present. The elegant labels on the bottles feature the plantation’s prized, historical equine art collection. Says Kelley: “This collection has been hanging on our walls and enjoyed by our visitors, and these labels will share it with all of Nashville.”
Kelley encourages the Nashville public, ages 21 and up, of course, to stop by the winery’s exclusive tasting room to sample the wines. Bottles are reasonably priced around $18 and exclusively available for purchase in the tasting room. The tasting room, open seven days a week, will offer classic pairings of chocolate truffle and assorted cheese straws with each pour. Weather permitting, an outdoor wine garden, with plenty of seating for those who want to uncork immediately, will be available for use adjacent to the tasting room.
“Entertaining with fine spirits is one way of welcoming people to Nashville,” Kelley says. “With the addition of the winery, we are upholding a Southern tradition that goes back 200 years at Belle Meade Plantation.”
The Taste Test
This writer’s nose and palate are by no means those of a sommelier. However, we at Nashville Arts Magazine thought it would be interesting to pit my amateur taste buds against those of the professional, Belle Meade winemaker Brian Hamm.
On a Thursday morning at the plantation, we uncorked a bottle of the Blackberry. Hamm filled our glasses and instructed me to give the wine a swirl around the bowl to “release the aroma.” Next, we dug our noses into the glasses and heartily inhaled (something Hamm doesn’t recommend doing in public, mind you). Here’s our take on the bouquet:
Lizza: Hints of tangy, sweet fruit.
Brian: Black cherries.
Next, Hamm told me to sip slowly and generously, allowing the liquid to spread across my tongue for the full range of taste. First impressions as follows:
Lizza: Strawberry pie, cherries and a pomegranate finish.
Brian: Tart cherries with a blackberry sweetness on the back end. This is great with anything salty.
Next on our agenda was the Bramble Blush. Hamm rinsed the glasses and warned me that the young wine might still be in “bottle shock,” meaning it might require some aerating to relax the flavor and integrate the aroma and texture. But I was willing to take the risk. Thus, I sniffed:
Lizza: It smells acidic, a little like pink grapefruit.
Brian: Light fruit and alcohol scents. I can’t put my finger on it, but the fruit might be currant.
As for the taste:
Lizza: Tart. It’s got a bite. It’s light. I’d serve it at a spring or summer brunch.
Brian: Light alcohol taste, distinct fruit flavors and a clean finish.
At the conclusion of our tasting, Hamm had one final word of advice for the novice and vin connoisseur alike: “Don’t let good wine go to waste.” Bottoms up!