Enjoy a bottle with Carrie and Perry Welch of Old Millington Winery
By Richard J. Alley
Slip out of the city.
Just a short drive north and you will find yourself on a winding, two-lane road; the old-growth trees form a canopy overhead, helping to drop the summer temperature by 10 degrees.
With the windows down, the wind and the sound of cicadas blow past your ears.
Around a bend in the road you come upon the unexpected. A winery. So unexpected because this isn’t Napa, and it isn’t Sonoma; this is Millington, Tennessee.
And this is the Old Millington Winery.
Perry and Carrie Welch began the operation six years ago with 500 vines planted on one acre of their 12-acre horseshoe-shaped parcel of land, with horses in the distance and power lines overhead. They now have two acres planted with about 1,000 vines.
The dream began after the two went on a business trip to California, where the couple took time to tour a wine-growing region.
“I didn’t want to leave,” Perry, a native of nearby Frayser, recalls. His wife said he couldn’t stay. “Then I’m going to grow grapes,” he declared.
And that’s how it began, with nothing more than a childlike enthusiasm for large-scale gardening. What to do with those grapes was another question altogether. A question that would be answered in probably the most surprising way—making wine in Tennessee.
Surprising, that is, unless you consider that Tennessee’s history with grape production can be traced back to at least the 1840s. Until Prohibition, grapes were the third largest cash crop grown in the state thanks to the large number of Italian and German immigrants making Tennessee their home. There are now 30 wineries statewide according to the Tennessee Farm Winegrowers Association.
“The different soils and weather conditions existing within Tennessee allow growers and winemakers a wide latitude in what they grow and the types of wines made,” says Dr. Dave Lockwood with the Department of Plant Sciences at The University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture.
The vineyard may seem small compared to Californian or French standards, but it’s manageable, and Perry takes great pride in showing a visitor a particularly full and ripe cluster of fruit. These are Chambourcin grapes, a French hybrid. “The closest,” Perry explains, “to a pinot grape that can be grown here.” They are small and appear delicate, and taste sweet right off the vine.
The grapes begin showing up as tiny clusters around April and should, weather willing, be available for harvest by late summer. But a lot is left to hope. Perry hopes the nights, even in the blazing heat of summer, will be cool enough to bring out the sugar in the fruit, so important to the winery’s popular sweeter wines, though sugar can be added later, if necessary.
And he hopes it will rain. Just as in the vineyards of France, there is no irrigation here. No pesticides, either. Only a mild fungicide, originally developed for the thin skin of tomatoes, is necessary, due to the high humidity of the area. The winery is surrounded in the area by pick-your-own fruit farms, and Perry learned from a local grower how to care for grapes.
In 2007, however, they lost a new planting of vines due to a hard Easter freeze and ensuing drought.
“Chambourcin requires a fairly long growing season to properly mature the crop. We grow it in most parts of the state, but you do not have to go too much further north and Chambourcin will not mature fully,” says Dr. Lockwood.
When things go well, the Welches can expect to produce just over 2,000 cases a year. That’s where a winery this size tops out, according to Perry. Any more than that and you have the added cost of more labor and equipment. As it is now, the labor includes Perry and locals Brandi Sorensen and Michael Mahannah, as well as the occasional friend who may stop by to help pick or bottle. Carrie takes care of the books and paperwork.
Though they don’t plan to expand the amount of growing and bottling, they do hope to add to their already burgeoning event list on the grounds. Weddings and receptions are hosted now, though at the mercy of the elements. They would like to build a building to hold those events regardless of weather.
They also have a Sunday music series from March through October, where close to 300 people gather each week for good music and good local wine.
Perry makes about a dozen wines now, but would also like to add to the list. “I want to do another fruit wine by Christmas,” he explains. “I’d like to do a plum wine.”
Making wine is a detail-rich process that Perry has learned by trial and error. “The first batch I ever made was swill, but it had alcohol so I was encouraged.”
The process for reds begins with the first showing of grapes in the spring. The grapes are picked upon ripening in mid-August and crushed and de-stemmed in a trough-like contraption with a corkscrew blade and paddles.
The result of this crushing is then poured into a 500-gallon stainless steel vat and the free-flow juice is drained. The fruit is allowed to sit in that vat for a week during a process called “on-skin fermentation,” which gives the juice color and adds tannins. It is during this time that yeast and any necessary sugar will be added. Once removed, the fruit is put into a press and this “pressing-off” produces juice which is put back into a stainless vat.
The wine is then “racked,” meaning it is moved from vat to vat, usually three times, to separate it from any impurities and sediment, which is all left behind. It could sit in the vats for two to three years before finding its way to cold storage stabilization which works to remove the tartaric acid, a natural preservative, an abundance of which can make the wine too tart.
From cold storage, it goes to the bottling station, where Perry and his help move the wine like cogs in a machine, from gravity bottler, to bottle, to the corking press. The cork and bottleneck are then encapsulated and the label is applied, all by hand. They’ll seal up 600 bottles in an impressively efficient three hours’ time.
The labels read Crying Angel, Vidal Blanc, Muscadine, Strawberry, Peach and the very popular Blackberry. Perry even makes Port.
Flavors run the gamut, from the sweet, to fruity, to a Chambourcin/Cynthiana blend that comes across as dry straight out of the vat. But Perry knows where his livelihood is. “You’re in the South with its sweet tea,” says Perry. “We give our customers what they want. Blackberry is king.”
And their visitors are treated like royalty in the tasting room. The wine makers have a good customer base with lots of regulars from the area. And then there are the tourists—the oenophiles—who make it their business when traveling to seek out local growers and tour the operations, taste the wines and, hopefully, take plenty back home with them.
It is these people the Welches hope to please at Old Millington Winery, not with an over-priced bottle, and not with more selling than substance, but with a friendly manner, southern hospitality, and an authentic and consistent locally-produced product.
Old Millington Winery sits among serene fields of cotton and peach orchards only 15 miles from downtown Memphis, and co-exists with a naval station and Memphis Motorsports Park. Though it may be an unexpected sight on the landscape, one visit and you will come to expect great things. eM
Richard J. Alley is a freelance writer from Memphis. He is a father of four who owns his own retail business and enjoys reading, writing, running, cycling, a good cigar, jazz, speaking of himself in the third person and other pretentious pursuits.
Old Millington Winery
6748 Old Millington Road, Millington, TN 38053-6206
Wednesday through Saturday 10 am to 6 pm
Sunday 1 pm to 6 pm
Closed Monday and Tuesday