That was not this trip, actually it was Florida to New Orleans then up to Natchez, across to Nashville, west to Memphis then to Arkansas and headed north to home. So why the title? Because one of TB’s favorite shows growing up Maverick (Brett not Bart), and that was part of the theme song: “Natchez to New Orleans, Livin’ on Jacks and Queens, Luck is the lady that he loves the best…” Okay, corny but what the hey?
Did you know there are wineries in all 50 states – yep, including Alaska and Hawaii. In some cases the grapes are purchased from OR/WA/CA growers. Why? Because the wine grape, vitis vinifera, can only grow between the 30th and 45th parallels at each end of the globe. There are other grapes that do not observe these boundaries (Concord, Muscadine – not related to Muscat – and others).
Back in the day, when TB was beginning his wine experience, most of the wine came from California or New York (most notably Taylor which having transitioned from a family-owned winery to a corporate entity, has now fallen by the wayside – remember what TB says about winemakers: they are passionate about what they do…they see it as agriculture, i.e. farming, with little romanticism or mystery to it. Corporations, especially today where the ‘long run’ is the next year or quarter, have no feelings and are not expected to have them: they exist to make profits, in what used to be labelled ‘free-market capitalism’ but is virtually non-existent today in an era of bulbous executive compensation – mostly for mediocre performance. Ethics? A thing of the past…and that is the biggest. The theory was that a corporation would never do anything that would endanger its long-run survival and profitability. Sure there were scandals but those were uncommon and usually related to price-fixing. We only have to look back to 2008 to see that fiduciaries (or supposedly so), including the biggest banks, threw ethics and service out the window: not for the benefit of shareholders who couldn’t see it but for greedy CEO’s and other financial executives. Poor Martha Stewart, she went to jail for a trivial violation.
Fast forward to the present and you will find that there truly are wineries in all 50 states. The principal grape in the southern U.S. is Muscadine, which is almost a weed and the only native American grape. There are several varieties but the other main one used in wine making is Carlos, a sweet white grape. Sometimes other grapes are blended with it and for Cabernet and Chardonnay, they import grape juice from California (unfortunately, as the taste tells you, much of that is from the Central Valley – Gallo territory). I have yet to find a red wine produced in this area that has the right character. On the other hand semi-sweet and sweet wines are pretty good and at less than $10 represent value if you want to sit on your patio on a hot summer day.
We started our journey in Tampa, Florida and drove up the panhandle. There are at least 18 wineries in Florida, seven in the northwest alone. In addition, I found that in the 11 states we transversed plus Minnesota, there are 407 wineries: Missouri 107!?!; Iowa 76!?! Plus 3 with <40 wineries!
Our first stop was the Dakotah Winery in Chiefland. There Dr. Max Rittgers and his son, Matt, have created a winery started in 1985. The wines were well made and they produce eight of them which they are eager to let you taste free of charge. The reds, which they make to satisfy a limited number of customers – hard to think of a dry red wine there – were well made but not to my liking. The sweeter wines including a Port and a Cream Sherry were good value at $13. They also sell a Muscadine grape juice for $7 which I purchased to enjoy while driving. The tasting room is well designed and very comfortable. The U-shaped tasting bar had creative ‘spit buckets’ at each station – something not always found in small wineries, and a big plus unless you are trying to taste yourself into oblivion. Not wise, if you are driving. This is a great stop if in the area.
Next was Montecello Vineyards and Winery in Talahassee, which grows 18 varieties of Muscadine for their wine lineup. Note that they are certified organic too!
We spent the night in Destin, half way out the panhandle. Emerald Coast Wine Cellars is located there. This is more of a tasting room as they purchase their grapes from various growers. We drove briefly through Alabama which has 15 wineries but all were way to the north
After visiting New Orleans we headed up to Baton Rouge past the St. Amat Winery in St. Amat and Vacherie Winery at Becnel Plantation. All fruit wines, blackberry both sweet and dry (more like semi-sweet), and the next day to Natchez (where Jerry Lee Lewis did his first professional performance in 1955…saw him perform at Jazzfest and although he walks with a cane (he is 80) he can still play as good as ever), home to Old South Winery – Mississippi’s only winery! It is just outside of town and has a large lineup of wines from dry (?) to sweet. Again, the reds were well-made but not to my liking. They did a good job though on the semi-sweet and sweet wines which were priced at just $8.99.
We then drove up the Natchez Trace which is a beautiful run all the way to Nashville and with NO commercial vehicles. Sometimes we drove for as long as five minutes without seeing another car! Highly recommended!
All of Tennessee’s 42 wineries are located from Memphis to the west past Nashville to Johnson City near the state line. They are just above the 45th parallel where vitis vinifera can grow. I confess that we were overwhelmed by the number of wineries and didn’t visit any this trip.
Oklahoma has 48 wineries. All but one are in the southern part of the state near Texas. There is one near Kansas, Cimmaron, but could find no information on when it is open, and website would not open up. Lots of bad comments here and mostly fruit wines. One standout was Sommerset Ridge, well south of KC. Due to the composition of their portfolio, a mixture of fruit and grape wines, and the distance we passed. Of all the states we visited, this one was the most perplexing and frustrating.
We spent the night in Kansas City, that’s Missouri, not Kansas. In the morning, crossed the bridge to K.C., Kansas and then up to Iowa. Most of Iowa’s 76 wineries are in the eastern part of the state. Eagles Landing, which produces 36 wines. Of particular interest to me was the use of oak barrels along with stainless steel fermenters. Good reviews and might be worth a trip. We are now in ‘cold weather’ country so the predominant grape here, as in Minnesota is Marquette along with other hardy grapes. This is the one area I might want to revisit sometime as there are nine wineries along the Mississippi east of Des Moines.
The upshot is that it seems most of these wineries cater to locals and while some are friendly, more are not so much and some of them have closed down. Few have website and that shows a lack of passion: if you have it, you want to tell others about it. So while wine may be made in all 50 states, good wineries in each are few and far between. If you find one: support it!
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