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GRAPE expectations

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Rebecca and Scott Paschal stand near the entrance to their Cellar 53 Winery, which opened in May between the Smith County communities of New Middleton and Brush Creek on a farm that has been in the Paschal family for four generations. Their vineyard grows seven varieties of grapes. KEN BECK / The Wilson Post
Husband and wife for nearly 20 years, Scott and Rebecca Paschal are now partners in a seven-acre vineyard and a new winery. In the palms of their hands, they hold Marquette grapes. KEN BECK / The Wilson Post
Cellar 53 vintner Rebecca Paschal stands in the vineyard room which boasts two 250-gallon stainless steel tanks, made in Italy, and four 500-gallon tanks, made in Croatia, all filled to the brim with aging grape juice. KEN BECK / The Wilson Post
Among the seven varieties of wine available from Cellar 53 Winery are Tennessee Chardonel and Blackberry Wine. Rebecca Paschal designed the labels. KEN BECK / The Wilson Post
Nashville singer-songwriter Ian Johnson entertains patrons from Smith, Davidson and Rutherford Counties during the May 23 grand opening of Cellar 53 Winery. KEN BECK / The Wilson Post
Rebecca and Scott Paschal, center, and their sons Dalton, left, Cameron, right, and Boone will pitch in when in when it comes time in late summer and early fall to pick the grapes from their vineyard. Dalton, a rising senior at Friendship Christian School, plans to pursue a college degree in viticulture and enology. KEN BECK / The Wilson Post

Cellar 53 Winery pops the cork on first vintage

Some take lemons and make, well, you know how the modern proverb goes.

But others start with something much sweeter.

Five years ago, when Rebecca and Scott Paschal found themselves with 10 tons of ripened grapes on their hands and no market, they came to an obvious conclusion.

"We never intended to be a winery," says Rebecca.

"We always hobbied at making wine at home," Scott added.

Scott and his father Tom Paschal planted their vineyard in 2006 with the intentions of selling their grapes to Tennessee wineries. Plans were running smoothly as they sold their harvest to four wineries. But in the fall of 2008, the global recession struck, and things caught up with the Paschals two years later.

"We had trouble in 2010 in selling our crop," recollected Scott.

"When we planted the vineyard, under Tennessee law Tennessee wineries had to purchase at least 75% of their grapes from Tennessee growers," Rebecca said. "The law was overturned in '09 in federal court. When that happened, we had no buyers for our white grapes, 20,000 pounds. We were going to have to dump our grapes."

Coming to the rescue at the last second DelMonaco Winery in Baxter joined forces with Tennessee Tech and purchased the Paschals' white grape crop to concoct a Tennessee Tech golden spirit wine called Espiritu de Oro.

After breathing a huge "whew" of relief from the close call, Rebecca and Scott put their heads together.

"We started thinking, 'If we're gonna keep doing this, we gotta have a backup plan.' We started out there picking grapes and realized we're gonna have to make wine," said Rebecca of the notion which struck in September 2012. "If we're gonna take this leap, we might as well take the full leap and be a bonded winery so we can buy grapes (and fruit) from other growers."

Voila! Cellar 53 Winery was conceived.

Jumping in with both feet

The couple took the grape plunge, and earlier this year saw their labors come to fruition as they sold their first bottle of Cellar 53 wine on the Saturday before Easter.

The Paschal family held the grand opening of Cellar 53 Winery on May 23 as they offered patrons seven varieties. Their white wines go by the names of Brush Creek Sweet, Vidal Blanc Blend, Summer Peach and Cotton Britches Chardonel. The reds are Brush Creek Sweet Red and Windrock Red, and there is Blackberry Wine.

Located on a 104-acre farm on the east side of the Hickory Hills subdivision between the communities of Brush Creek and New Middleton, the Paschals' neatly mowed seven-acre vineyard proves to be eye-popping green with row upon row of leafy grapevines bearing thousands of clumps of young grapes.

The varieties include Chamboursin, Cayuga white, Noiret, VidalBlanc, Steuben, Marquette and Concord.

The 2,400-square-foot winery building consists of a tasting room with an L-shaped counter, a dining room with handsome, locally handcrafted tables, a kitchen and bonded wine room where the fermented grape juice, bolstered with yeast from France, ages into wine.

(The tables are constructed from the floor joists from the feed mill that is being torn down in South Carthage.)

The wine room holds two 250-gallon stainless steel tanks shipped from Italy, four 500-gallon tanks from Croatia and three 59-gallon white oak barrels, all filled to the brim.

While the two were novices to some degree when they began the undertaking, they took their initial steps a little over 20 years ago while vacationing on the West Coast.

Cellar 53 Winery

This Smith County winery opened in May on Highway 53 between the New Middleton and Brush Creek communities. Hours are 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and 1-6 p.m. Sunday. Cellar 53 plans a pre-harvest party in late August. And Mt. Juliet musician Zac Shaffer will perform at the winery at 3:30 p.m. Sept. 26. Born Zachary Hank William Nelson Shaffer, he is a passionate and rising star who blends rock, blues, pop, bluegrass and country along with original sounds on his guitar. It's less than a 30-minute drive from Lebanon. Take I-40 East to the Alexandria exit (Exit 254) and turn right toward Alexandria. Go approximately 1½ miles and turn left on Poplar Drive, then turn left on Oak View Drive East and follow to winery entrance. Offering seven varieties of white and red wines, the winery hopes to be offering 12 by the end of the year. For more info, go online to cellar53winery.com.

"We went to Napa (Valley, California) when we were 25," said Rebecca. "We went to Caymus Winery and sat down with the owner, Charlie Wagner. He must have been in his 80s. We had no idea how famous his wine was. We were hooked after that."

Remembers Scott, "What got me in the door, he loved my Tennessee accent. He said he was closed but told me, 'Your voice sounds interesting. Come on in.' When we came back home, we started experimenting.

"We built our house here in 1999. About two years after that I planted a vineyard in the backyard, about 80 plants."

"We didn't know what we were doing," confessed Rebecca.

"In 2005, I approached my aunt and bought her interest in the farm," continues Scott. "Dad and I started farming, and we planted the first vines up here in '06, and by then I kinda knew what I was doing.

"Rebecca pretty much does it all. During the week she runs the business and makes all the wine. It's as if she were the president and CEO," he says, giving credit where it is due.

"It's a little more work than I thought it would be," says vintner Rebecca, a native of Cave Spring, Georgia. "I'm up at 4:30 a.m. and may get to bed until midnight during harvest days."

Roots and vines

The duo, who will celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary in September, met in 1991 when she was a student at Appalachian State University. Rebecca later earned a graphic design degree at Middle Tennessee State University. She has been a product designer in the tanning industry and nowadays freelances as a graphic designer.

Scott, who was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, moved back to Smith County when he was 8 months old. His parents, Tom and Linda, operated the Sears & Roebuck catalog store in Carthage until 1986 but also farmed. Scott's grandfather, Van Paschal, raised hogs, cattle, corn and other crops here in the first half of the 20th century.

As a youngster Scott worked on the farm with his father raising registered Hereford cattle and hay. After graduating from Smith County High School in 1986, he played basketball and golfed at Martin Methodist College in Pulaski for two years before finishing his business administration degree at MTSU. He now serves as a partner with Financial Partners Group and works three days a week in Gallatin and two days a week in Lebanon.

Rebecca and Scott have three sons: Dalton, 17, a senior, and Cameron, 14, a freshman, both at Friendship Christian School in Lebanon; and Boone, 7, a second-grader, at New Middleton Middle. The boys are seventh-generation Paschals to live and farm in Smith County.

Two years ago, Scott and Rebecca bought out his parents' interest in the vineyard. Their two older sons help by mowing the vineyard and sucker the vines, stripping off leaves.

How to make wine

The wine-makers say it's an eight-step process to changing grapes into wine.

The abbreviated version goes like this:

  1. The grapes are harvested in September and October.

  2. The picked fruit is crushed and de-stemmed.

  3. The white grapes are pressed immediately, while the red grapes go into a tank with their skins on.

  4. The grapes ferment for two weeks or so.

  5. The liquid is chilled to drop out solids.

  6. Then racking occurs-moving the wine from tank to tank and filtering to produce a clear wine.

  7. The wine ages (six to eight months for white; 12 to 18 months for red).

  8. The beverage is bottled, corked and labeled.

As for hard labor, Scott says growing and harvesting grapes compares to the rigors of raising tobacco, neither a lazy man's game.

Among important chores come putting 14-foot netting around all the vines in early August to protect the grapes from the birds. "Birds can wipe out an acre of fruit in a week," noted Scott.

Then in late August, Rebecca begins testing the amount of sugar in the fruit.

"We test the PH levels and the sugar (Brix) levels. When they reach a certain point, you've got to pick 'em," she says. "I tell people (her pickers), if you won't eat that grape, I won't make wine with it."

"The quality of wine truly starts out there (in the vineyard)," added Scott.

"You want 21 to 23 brix of sweetness," Rebecca says describing the potency, which translates to a wine being approximately 10 to 12 percent alcohol. "However flavor and fruit quality is most important. I can adjust certain issues in the winemaking process.

"We're pretty much self-taught, especially in the vineyard process," she said. "All the other wineries have been a big help to us."

There are about 50 wineries in the Volunteer State, most of them, like the Paschals, are members of the Tennessee Farm Wine Growers Alliance. Scott and Rebecca have sold their grapes to wineries in Manchester, Arrington and Centerville as well as to DelMonaco Winery in Baxter.

"We're a bonded farm winery. We can buy fruit from off site," said Rebecca. "We grow enough fruit for me to produce 1,500 cases of wine if we don't have a late frost."

Customers can only purchase Cellar 53 Winery on-site, but the couple plans to have it in some area restaurants in the near future.

"Once we get up to 12 wines, we will try for in-state shipping. We hope that happens by the end of 2015. We also plan to start a wine club where folks can buy a subscription," she said.

The best reward for all the hard labor?

"When it's in the bottle, it tastes good," Rebecca says enthusiastically.

"We always call ourselves farmers first. We've got the vineyard part covered. That's the hard part," she said.

Concludes Scott, "You can't control Mother Nature. She's got the last word."

Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at kbtag2@gmail.com.

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