long home to local craft beer, Chattanooga has significantly upped the ante on its adult beverage economy recently, with Chattanooga Whiskey making its debut in local liquor stores and bars. Now, local wine is getting its moment with the opening of DeBarge Winery at 1617 Rossville Ave. on the Southside.
For the past few months, Lee Morse has been fermenting the first batches of wine under the DeBarge Vineyards label that will soon make its debut in Chattanooga’s first urban winery.
Morse is general manager and winemaker of this outpost owned by Raymond DeBarge of DeBarge Vineyards of Lafayette, Ga. From this restored, early 20th century building behind The Church on Main, he has been readying a tasting room and watching over the wines that will be sold there.
Urban wineries may be novel to Chattanooga, but they are hardly new—they’ve existed in America for more than 150 years. And while these wineries are now hotspots for wine lovers in such cities as Portland, Ore., where Morse earned his winemaking stripes, the concept only recently found its way here.
“There’s nothing like it in town,” says Morse, a 2006 graduate of UTC who earned his master’s degree in food science from UT in 2008.
Urban wineries operate much like their craft beer counterparts, often owned by vintners such as DeBarge, and transport grapes from their vineyards to urban settings where they are fermented or finished off and sold in bottles on site.
While the new DeBarge Winery is owned by the vintner, many are not. In Oregon, Washington and California, urban wineries often purchase grapes from vintners and ferment them in cities at urban wineries under their own labels.
“One of the great things about grapes is that they care a lot about where they are grown, but not at all where they’re made into wine,” says Brendan Eliason in a USA Today article charting the rise of urban wineries. Eliason’s Periscope Cellars, forged from a World War II submarine repair station in Emeryville, Calif., has become a popular gathering spot, according to the article.
That’s the sort of experience in which Morse found himself while working in Portland, where he found himself after first pursuing craft beer-making at Big River in Chattanooga and later discovering Blue Slip, Tennessee’s first urban winery in Knoxville, where he worked while studying at UT.
“I started out wanting to make beer,” says Morse, “but I found the challenge of making wine much more preferable. Beer is so consistent—the quality of wheat, hops and barley are rarely compromised from year to year. But grapes are slaves to the harvest. It’s always a challenge because the climate varies from year to year.”
Climate and terrain are key to great grapes, of course, which is why the South has yet to produce popular wines. But that hasn’t stopped vintners like DeBarge from trying, and Morse is putting his skills and research to the test in search of a type of grape that can produce a fine wine here.
“In Oregon, it’s all pinot noir everywhere you go,” he says. “But in the South, where the climate is so inconsistent, the stuff everyone knows doesn’t grow here. So we’re experimenting with French-American hybrids to produce chardonnays and other white wines.”
Until Morse finds that perfect Southern wine, DeBarge is shipping in grapes from Oregon and California to produce its wines under its label that will soon be on sale at its Rossville Avenue winery.
Morse says he is hoping for a June 1 opening, but that will likely be a soft opening. The property is nicely finished out, and Morse says they are adding a rooftop deck and outdoor areas where customers can gather. Samples will be free, since laws prohibit the sales of wine by the glass in the winery. But if you sample a wine you like and purchase a bottle, you can walk out and around and enjoy it on the deck or patio. DeBarge will also offer a selection of local breads, meats and cheeses to complement the experience.