In The Mountain Shadows

The Morris family makes wines with what grows best for them

Niche Markets

In The Mountain Shadows

The Morris family makes wines with what grows best for them

By Charles Johnson

Farmers in the rolling foothills of East Tennessee have to look to crops other than grains to make a living. If their land base is limited, beef cattle probably won’t pay. The Morris family at Charleston, Tennessee, finds that being creative with grapes and berries lets them make wines that tap into the booming local food market.

Early entrants. They were an early entry in the modern Tennessee wine industry, which experienced a boom in the past decade. In 1979, the Morris family bought a vineyard here that had been established in 1965. Today, they have both grapes and berries sold as wine on-farm, as well as a U-Pick operation. In addition, they on occasion sell grapes to other East Tennessee wineries.

The idea, Nathan Morris says, is to grow what grows well in this area, “You can’t get the same kind of wine here that you get in California. We can’t produce that kind of wine. We’re making the best with what our climate and soil gives us,” he says.

That means concentrating on muscadines along with Catawba, Concord, and Niagara grapes. In recent years they’ve expanded into raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries.

The Morris family recently expanded from grapes into berries.

The Morris family recently expanded from grapes into berries.

“A lot of people around here are looking for this kind of product. Muscadines are a staple for Southeastern wineries. If you’re going to have a vineyard here and produce wine, you’re going to have muscadines. They grow wild here, so they thrive in this climate. Ours are improved from the wild ones, of course,” he says.

Teamwork. It’s a family effort. Nathan’s mother, Carolyn Morris, and his sister, Heather Harris, team with him to run the 25-acre vineyard and on-farm winery and store.

“We all do a little bit of everything,” Carolyn says. “I’ve been the vintner and so has Nathan. Heather is very good, too. This is a place where you have to learn on the job.”

Their on-farm wine tasting room with its view of the mountains is a popular destination for both locals and people traveling through the region. They sell their own products, but also buy locally grown strawberries, peaches and apples to provide a range of fruit and berries for visitors.

The Morris family grew their business at a time of expansion for the Tennessee wine and grape industry. The state now has 72 bonded wineries, up from 21 in 1999. There’s still room for more growth, notes David Hughes, agribusiness development professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics and the University of Tennessee.

For just one example of the potential, Virginia, Tennessee’s neighbor to the northeast, now has 321 bonded wineries, up from 70 in 1999. Tennessee wineries now have $40 million to $60 million in annual sales from $5 million worth of grapes. The local food movement helps that effort, Hughes notes. So did legislation allowing wine sales in grocery stores.

Starting a Tennessee winery is no get-rich-quick scheme. University of Tennessee research shows that the fifth year of production is when a winery reaches break-even. Establishing muscadines requires a $5,225 per acre investment, the university economists say, but it can certainly pay.

“Some people come back year after year,” Carolyn says of her business. “Once people find us, they like what we have. They tell people. They like the view, which helps a lot.

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