published Thursday, June 21st, 2012

Winemaker uncorks unique products on Chattanooga's Southside

Alexander Blanton bottles wine Wednesday at DeBarge Winery. The winery uses grapes from its own vineyards as well as from other locations in the U.S.
Alexander Blanton bottles wine Wednesday at DeBarge Winery. The winery uses grapes from its own vineyards as well as from other locations in the U.S.
Photo by Angela Lewis.

Wines available now

• Chardonnay

• Riesling

• Pinot Noir

• Cabernet

• Syrah

Coming soon:

• Chardonooga

Coming next year

• A variety of local blends

• Local strawberry sparkling wine

• Local peach sparkling wine

• Meade made from local honey

Planned

• Port

Source: DeBarge Vineyards and Winery

Name: DeBarge Winery

Where: 1617 Rossville Avenue, off Main Street

Who: Dr. Ray DeBarge, eye surgeon and winemaker

Why: DeBarge is working to create a variety of local wines that compare favorably with those from the Western U.S. and Europe.

What: The winery is currently open for wine tastings, events and purchases.

When: Monday through Wednesday, 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, noon to 10 p.m. Sunday, noon to 6 p.m.

Source: DeBarge Vineyards & Winery

Ray Debarge, owner of newly opened DeBarge Winery in Chattanooga, says there's a wine for every meal, mood and mindset, for every person and for every palette.

He should know.

In the process of creating Chardonooga, a blend of Chardonelle and Cayuga grapes, he's tried hundreds of wine varieties.

"We've been slowly but surely building up momentum," DeBarge said.

His historic Southside tasting room, store and event venue opened on June 2, but he's still working to build-out the location. Out back under the shade of a giant hardwood tree, workers are preparing to build a gazebo and patio for residents who want to enjoy a bottle of local wine. Inside, guests can already enjoy a bottle in the 1910-era building while watching workers cultivate next year's vintage through huge glass walls.

Though DeBarge acquired wine from other regions for much of what he'll sell this year, he's readying more than 3,000 liters of his own grapes for sale in 2013.

The businessman has spent the last few days bottling up wine at his Rossville Avenue location, while managing the fermentation and aging of next year's vintage.

"This is a good color right now," he said as he dipped a tool into the huge vat of grapes, sugar and yeast. "These are my grapes."

Lee Morse, who worked at vineyards on the west coast before DeBarge brought him to Chattanooga, has spent months managing last year's crop. This year should should be even better, the winemaker said.

"It'll take a year to get these to market, but it's going to be worth it," Morse said.

DeBarge, who works in Fort Oglethorpe as an eye surgeon, got his first taste for wine during a tour through France's Burgandy region about 30 years ago.

When he acquired a 112-acre farm on Pigeon Mountain, he decided right away that he wanted to do something extraordinary.

"I didn't want to grow corn or raise goats," he said.

He visited other wineries and vineyards, and after surveying his land found that, to his surprise, "our land was equally as good."

Now he's cultivating four acres of grapes -- which should be ready for harvest again in seven weeks -- and is working to find the perfect grape for Georgia's climate.

In addition to Chardonooga, the first commercial use of Chattanooga's Chatype font, he's also planning to create strawberry and peach sparkling wines, mead, and port.

"We'll try anything except muscadine wine," he said, referring to the sweet vintage traditionally popular in Georgia. "With this model, we can appeal to anyone from the sweet tooth to the sophisticate."

Prior to prohibition, Georgia was the 7th-largest wine producing region in the U.S., he said. During prohibition, however, federal agents destroyed many of the vines that had been lovingly nurtured for so many years.

"We're trying to do in Georiga what we could do in Georgia 80 years ago," DeBarge said.

Starting from scratch isn't easy, he said, but researchers at the University of Florida could hold the key to unlocking the region's full wine growing potential once again.

The new grape, called Blanc du Bois, was created in a lab to survive in harsh environments and taste great, according to the University of Florida. Wine made from the grape won international awards in 1998, 2001 an 2001.

It's resistant to the diseases that result from the wetter climates found in the Southeast, according to researcher Dennis Gray.

While DeBarge is "still looking for the perfect thing," he'll uncork Chardonooga within two months and will begin partnering with other local businesses soon to distribute his products alongside theirs.

"We're working to find the perfect wine for the Hot Chocolatier," he said.

Real estate agents want to use the new wine as part of a gift basket for new homeowners, along with a Moon Pie and a Little Debbie.

The only real hurdle so far, he said, is that "people don't know where we are right now."

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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