“Everyone knows you can't grow grapes in the South!”
From Champagne to Wine
Makers of “Still” Wine
Diverse and Growing Membership
Thanks to Uwe Zitzow for this history.
In the early 1970’s Herman Barnett—a chemist by education and trade—began to grow various types of grapes on his Missionary Ridge property. His interest was to grow grapes that could survive the hot, humid weather and the diseases that generally afflict non-native grapes and to make a drinkable wine from them. He thus relied on hybrid grapes that were a cross between the European and American varietals. These provided the vigor necessary to survive the harsh Southern climate and produce a drinkable or “potable” wine, as Herman referred to it. Sam Alsobrook, also a chemist, joined Herman in the making of the wine. It became apparent that the enthusiasm these two men had for the cultivation of the grapes and the making of the wine had more to do with their love for chemistry. Winemaking, after all is mostly chemistry—at least they would tell you so.
The grapes that grew on Herman’s terraced slope on the eastern side of Missionary Ridge soon became too numerous for Herman and Sam to pick themselves. Thus was born the famous fall harvest where friends and relatives from all over the area were invited to help pick the grapes. For their labor, Herman would reward them with a self-prepared, simple, but delicious field-hand’s supper (such as rice and beans with baguette bread) that is usually offered the grape pickers in France. And of course, the wine from the previous year would also be readily available and enjoyed by all. It soon became quite an honor to be invited to Herman’s grape harvest.
Being chemists, Herman and Sam were not content to just make still wines. They wanted to take the art to another level by turning the “still wine” into champagne, or “sparkling wine” as the French would insist on calling it if it was made outside their country. And indeed, making champagne takes quite a bit of extra effort. But it also provides such a pleasant reward. Eventually the two mastered the process and were ready to show others how to do so as well. Thus grew the fledgling group that would eventually call itself “La Société de Champagne.”
In May of 1976, the group became an official part of another fledgling organization that promoted the making of wine and became instrumental in helping establishing commercial wineries in Tennessee: The Tennessee Viticultural Oenological Society or simply TVOS. As such, La Société de Champagne was governed by an exacting set of bylaws and held business meetings about four times a year – usually dinner events in which some aspects of champagne making was presented and discussed. While the organization was open to anyone with a wine-making interest, it prided itself in promoting the mastery of making champagne and to bestow those who earned it the coveted title of “Champagneur.”
In pomp and ceremony, a member became a “Champagneur” by presenting his own-made bottle of Champagne to the reigning officers who would taste the product and dwell on its merits. If they agreed that the wine met all the qualifications of a drinkable champagne, the producer would be indoctrinated into the halls of Champagneurhood and be given a very special wine-tasting cup that he could hang around his neck at Champagne Society gatherings to display his achievement. These heavy, dimpled and shallow cups are easily recognized by most wine makers in France as a “testivan” that is used to taste wines in wine judging events.
Meanwhile, Uwe Zitzow had been growing hybrid grapes in his back yard, at a volume he could easily handle himself. But he became disillusioned with the quality of the wine that these grapes produced and so decided to look into the possibility of obtaining grapes from California. Uwe had become acquainted with a Judge Billy Beach in Clarksville, Tennessee who had befriended an Italian family in California that owned a small vineyard and winery. The family had offered to ship some of their grapes to Tennessee. In the Champagne Society of which he was a member, Uwe found enough people also interested in buying the California grapes and having them shipped in a refrigerated truck clear across the country.
The first shipment of grapes arrived in 1977 in an amount of about one ton. The crushing and pressing took place at Uwe’s house in Spring Valley at the foot of Signal Mountain. The event was so successful that the next year the group ordered two tons of grapes. And eventually it grew to three tons. By then, for the sake of logistics and practical reasons, they divided the grapes into two groups; one would continue processing the grapes at Uwe’s house and the other at Herman Barnett’s Missionary Ridge residence.
Eventually the members of Uwe’s group found themselves with more wine than they could consume and their wine production gradually came to an end. However, the Missionary Ridge group continued what was by then the established tradition of making still wine as well as champagne from the grapes they had shipped from California. While Herman provided his residence as a gathering site to crush and press the grapes, Sam Alsobrook was in charge of handling the grape orders, handling the financial aspects of the wine group, keeping track of the wine chemistry (in collaboration with Herman), as well as being the “Ministre de Champagne”—or President of the organization. Also prominent was General Dwight McReynolds who was raising a small vineyard on Signal Mountain, as well as Bob Janney who, around 1979, became the group’s leader or Ministre de Champagne.
Bill Higgins joined the group around 1989 and became Ministre de Champagne after earning the prestigious title of Champagneur. He took over the responsibility of ordering the grapes and doing just about everything that had to be done. He also joined the TVOS and became their president around 1996. In the ensuing years Bill became an instrumental figure in the continuity and the glue of the champagne maker’s organization.
Soon a number of other people began joining the group, including Sam McGuiness who owned a quaint early-twentieth century warehouse in Saint Elmo at the foot of Lookout Mountain. He offered the spacious basement of his warehouse for the site of our annual gathering to crush and press grapes. Thus, soon afterwards, the wine-making site was moved to the basement of the Saint Elmo warehouse where it has remained ever since.
The warehouse was a much easier place to receive our shipments of grapes and provided a more spacious environment in which to process those grapes. It also made it easier for more new members to participate. The move to the warehouse also allowed for a much greater focus on the making of red and white table wine. Each year we would order grapes from either California or Washington State. Over time, our selections included such varietals as Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot, Gamay, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Riesling. This has allowed the members to make some excellent wines that could generally stand up to the most discriminating palate. Indeed, in 1992, Bill Higgins won the TVOS “Best of Show” award for his Cabernet Sauvignon, one of the first wines that were produced at the warehouse.
Over the past decade, the leadership of the club passed on to Lawrence Alexander, Uwe Zitzow. Jim Roxlo and current president, Joe White. During those years our wine selection from “out West” expanded to include Syrah, Malbec and a few others. Also, around 2005, Ray Debarge began to make available to the group the viniferous grapes that he was growing on his North Georgia vineyard. They included many of the California and Washington State varietals we had been getting, as well as Cabernet Franc, Vidal, Chambourcin, Norton and Traminette. The wonderful thing about Ray’s vineyard is that it offered not only samples of locally grown premium grapes but also an opportunity for us to participate in the harvest of these beautifully-clustered fruits.
The legacy of our organization has always been a source of pride—but also some confusion and awkwardness. Its original name “La Société de Champagne” sounds French and has obviously something to do with champagne. Around 1996 when new bank checks had to be printed, the name on the checks was changed to “Chattanooga Champagneurs”—in an attempt to create a shorter and more understandable title—but still one with a focus on “Champagne.” But that did not really fit the mold of today’s operation. The reality of the picture is that we have become makers of “still” wine, which is wine that is not sparkling, and darn good ones at that. But that all-consuming effort had left us little room to focus on anything else. Making champagne had not been on our mind. Thus, throughout our history at the warehouse we referred ourselves as the “wine group or wine making club,” and “wine makers.” Eventually the name simply morphed into “The Chattanooga Wine Club.”
Recently several members, with Uwe's mentoring, did aspire to making champagne and today are proud and successful producers of the stuff. But whether it’s champagne or still wine, it’s the people who are making these wines that determine the spirit of the organization. And probably no organization comprises such a diverse and interesting group of people as ours. That has especially become the case in recent years as the size of our membership has grown. There are engineers, scientists, airplane pilots, archeologists, surgeons, lawyers, entrepreneurs, just to name a few represented professions. What draws these and others to joining us in our wine making effort is equally diverse—but there are probably some common threads: they find that the making of good wine is challenging, creative, and most importantly, a lot of fun.
As has always been the case, we meet to crush and press grapes in an atmosphere of camaraderie and pleasure. We are supportive of newcomers and encourage and compliment the accomplishments of others. Our wine making events, while instructional and purposeful, are festive. This air of good cheer is promoted by the presence of tasty home-made dishes and home-made wines from previous years.
Today the club is indeed a vibrant and growing organization. In 2009 our wine-making event involved an unprecedented 25 members who ordered grapes in an equally unprecedented amount: 9,200 pounds! Several years ago we began aging some of our wine in 60-gallon wine barrels. That has made for some outstandingly good wine. Every year we make a number of changes to streamline our grape processing and improve the quality of our wine. As has been the case at the beginning of every year, there is so much to look forward to in the next coming wine seasons.
“La Société de Champagne”
Uwe with several of CWC's oak barrels.