Outdoors at Tennessee Valley Winery on Saturday evening, oldies rock music from the 1960s and 1970s played, as greetings and laughter filled the air. Lawn chairs were placed in shady areas, picnic food pulled from baskets and spread on cloths and friends came together for conversation and entertainment.
Inside the winery building, the soft pop of corks being pulled could be heard, along with calls for special varieties of wine and the ringing of the cash register. Customers crowded into the small store, sampled wine and made their selections. Bottles of chilled wines were carried to tables laden with fresh fruits, cheeses, crackers and snacks.
The incessant rains this season have not been good for the vineyard at Tennessee Valley Winery, but wine master John Smook is not concerned. "I'll do well to get two grapes from the vineyard this year," Smook said. "But I prefer to purchase my fruit. It's too much to keep the vineyards and make the wines."
Smook said he uses only fresh fruits for wine making -- never fruit juice concentrates -- and he purchases fruit from local growers whenever possible. He prefers to focus his efforts on winemaking, and wine sales are not suffering. In fact, they are growing. Saturday's event was a good indicator of that fact.
Music on the Mountain, an event held on the second Saturday of each month throughout the summer, draws as many as 200 customers or more. Vehicles line the driveway on the evening of the event. The tags indicate they come from surrounding counties and a few drive farther for the evening.
Begun more than a decade ago by Smook, Music on the Mountain has grown into an anticipated attraction for area residents and a monthly date for many. Not all who attend are wine connoisseurs. Some simply come for a free evening of fun.
Rhonda Hoffmeister said she has been attending Music on the Mountain for about three years. Hoffmeister indicated the view from the vineyard hilltop knob with a sweep of an arm. "I enjoy the music and being outdoors in nature," she said. "I like doing anything outside."
Smook came to work at the winery 12 years ago from Los Angeles, and in 2004 became a partner in the winemaking venture. Earlier this year, Smook bought out two partners to become sole owner of the enterprise. He enjoys making wine, a product he has been around most of his life.
Helping Smook at the winery store is his sister Paulette Pietti, who has been in America for 35 years. His wife, Therese, also helps out with sales.
Working behind the counter, Smook fields questions from interested customers about the origin of his indistinct European accent. He developed it living in multiple countries on several continents.
"I was born in Italy, and my mum's cousin had a vineyard outside Florence that had been making specialized wines for 200 years," Smook said. "I grew up in South Africa, on the coast of Durbin and in Johannesburg. Then, I was in England for five years. Now I am a proud African American who came to this country legally. I am American."
Like many proud Americans, Smook has a dream. The winery he owns will be 30 years old in November. As its new master, he has plans for the future.
"We have good support, and it is growing," Smook said. "We have support from people in Tellico Village and Rarity Bay and local people who have an understanding and love for good wine. I would like to start a wine club. There would be price breaks and benefits for members."
Smook has used the musical event to raise funds for the Good Samaritan Center food pantry, Susan Fox, Good Sam president said.
"He has been a good neighbor," Fox said.
Smook also is active in local tourism efforts and sits on the Loudon County Visitors Bureau board of directors meetings. He sells Sweetwater Valley Farm cheese in his wine store and would like to expand wine tourism efforts, starting with the winery store.
At a mature 29, the Tennessee Valley Winery is the oldest in the state. It is also the leading award winning winery, with 900 awards garnered to date. And, while the East Tennessee heritage may lean more toward moonshine-making than fine wine, that fact may be slowly changing.
Wine's reputation and status have grown worldwide as researchers discovered its heart and health benefits. Recent research suggests that health benefits skyrocket even higher when the grapes are muscadines, which are native to this region. Tennessee Valley Winery makes 20 varieties of wine. Wine is made, bottled and corked on site and shipped throughout the nation. In Tennessee, the wines are delivered through a distributor. The most popular seller is Country Red. Following close after are the muscadine wines in white, red and pink.
"Muscadine wine is good for you, for your heart health, as an antioxidant and for reducing cholesterol," Smook said. "The ORAC (oxygen radical absorption capacity) is much higher than in regular grapes. The only fruit that comes close to being as healthful as muscadines is the pomegranate."
Muscadines are unique to the Southeastern United States. Smook purchases his fruit from farms in Ringgold, Ga., Madisonville and Kingsport. Some grape varieties used are available only from other regions of the nation. Some come from New York and some are from the West.
Rick Price, cellar master, said the winery makes a brand to suit most any taste, from sweet, dry or semisweet and in many flavors like blackberry.
"We take a lot of pride in our wines," Price said. "We work hard to make our customers happy. We try to understand what they want and if anybody comes here, there is a wine they will like. Wine making is an art. It is fun to see the product in a bottle and for people to like it."
Although the top award-winner is a Riesling wine, dry wines do not sell well in Loudon County, the winemakers have learned. Taste here tends toward sweeter varieties, particularly the Country Red.
"I would like to broaden distribution, to Bristol and throughout Tennessee over to Memphis," Smook said. "Our capacity is 40,000 gallons, and we turn it twice a year, working time and a half. We buy our grapes and fruit fresh. We never use concentrate."
Music on the Mountain and other events like the Oktoberfest and Pigfest stretch the limits of the current facility.
"I would like to extend the taste room and add more wine-related products," Smook said. "We make sure the music is some of the highest quality local talent and it attracts a lot of people."
Kathy Casson Howell, another Music on the Mountain regular attendee, comes from Knoxville for the event. "The location is beautiful, with mountains and hills and trees," she said. "It is gorgeous."
"I really enjoy the crowd of people," Howell said. "I am not as young as I used to be and a lot of times, the crowd is younger. There are young people here too, but the music plays to a mature generation. I enjoy the camaraderie. And, the wine is really good, too."