Chattanooga physician Raymond DeBarge recently opened what he is calling the city’s first urban winery.
He has joined the revival of the Southside, where he now ferments and bottles wine.
The 112-year-old Rossville Avenue building had been vacant for 26 years when DeBarge bought it.
“We are trying to resurrect the Southside the way that we resurrected this building,” DeBarge said. “I want this to be a focal point, not a pass-through.”
Since the June 2 opening, word of the DeBarge Winery on Rossville Avenue is spreading slowly, mostly by word of mouth, he said.
From hobby to business
DeBarge took a hobby, which he started working on in 1992, to a “viral” level with his new business, which he funded with his own money and through bank lending, he said.
Some of the wine he is selling now is made from grapes from other regions. But some of the 3,500 bottles he’s done so far were made with grapes he grew at his nearby farm.
—The DeBarge Winery is working with local Chatype designers to implement the Chattanooga-inspired typeface into the product.
—The winery will be using local fruits, such as strawberries and peaches, to flavor some of its wine.
—The next harvest at DeBarge's Northwest Georgia winery is in about six weeks.
—The winery is open on Sundays and holidays.
In 2000, he and his father-in-law bought a 112-acre farm in Walker County on the north slopes of Pigeon Mountain.
They planted seven traditional varietals, according to the winery’s website.
It takes three years to ready the grapes for harvest, and during that time, there are chances for a number of things to go wrong.
In 2008, DeBarge and his crew lost an entire crop after it rained for three days.
“We were literally out in the field harvesting when the bottom of the bucket dropped out,” he said. “I had pruned this stuff; I had sprayed it on a weekly basis. I netted it to keep the birds out.”
It was heartbreaking, but they had to accept it.
“All we could do was go to breakfast,” DeBarge said.
It happened again last year. DeBarge remembers the exact day—Sept. 5.
His grapes had been used to dry conditions. They were starting to “raisin up.”
Then the rain came, and they started to swell.
“When they swell, they split, and when they split, the fungus gets in them,” he said.
Grapes are delicate, and the process of winemaking is a sensitive one.
“You can take the same grapes out of the same vineyard with the same yeast with the same winemaker from the same day and have two side-by-side barrels [that] will have a different taste,” he also said.
To make all the bottles taste the same, DeBarge and his crew blend in a big holding tank.
When the team is really going, they can bottle nearly a case, 10 to 12 bottles, a minute, DeBarge said.
And they make it fun.
“We’ve got the heavy metal playing—four or five people, and we are all jammin’,” DeBarge said.
So far, DeBarge has built a small team of employees at the winery. He brought in general manager Lee Morse, whom he said was a great find.
Morse is from Ooltewah, but his education and love for the beverage industry has taken him to Knoxville and Oregon.
And when DeBarge called Morse and told him about his venture, it was a great opportunity for Morse, who was surprised at the Southside’s revival.
“It was a chance to do what I love and move home,” he said. “I moved out of Chattanooga in ‘08. Moving back here to see all this Southside renovation is just crazy. I thought the economy was in the tank.”
Both DeBarge and Morse have backgrounds in biology. Morse also has a food science degree, and they understand the science behind the process, from farming to fermentation to bottling.
Oxygen and heat are bad for wine, DeBarge said.
And, sometimes, corks are bad for it.
“Corks breath,” DeBarge said. “They are natural materials that can collect fungi inside. They are not perfectly sterilized. You can lose expensive bottles due to corkage issues. Up to 10 percent of bottles can be lost due to corkage.”
Just as cans for beer have gotten a bad reputation in the past, some people are still learning that caps are better than corks.
So, the DeBarge winery uses laser-perforated caps that breath just like a cork.
DeBarge has joined a growing family of beverage pioneers in Chattanooga.
Big River Brewing Company is bringing locally handcrafted canned beer to Chattanooga.
And the owners of Chattanooga Whiskey have recently brought whiskey back to the Scenic City.
DeBarge and Morse know and work with Big River Brewery’s head brewer Clay Gentry and co-founder of Chattanooga Whiskey Joe Ledbetter. Same goes for the leaders of the Georgia Winery, DeBarge said.
There is a great "synergy" amongst the group, he also said.
DeBarge Winery leaders will be working with their whiskey counterparts to try to get some alcohol laws changed.
“We are supportive of them, and we’re going to be at the same meetings where we [try to] get the county and city on board so we can do fermentation,” DeBarge said.
DeBarge isn’t currently allowed to make brandy, which is a distilled spirit made out of wine.
He would also like to make mead, which is “honey wine,” he said.
“What I want to do is have people start putting up little beehives on their rooftops at apartments around here and bring me the honey, and we’ll make Chattanooga mead,” DeBarge said.
In addition to working on getting laws changed, he has other goals ahead of him.
He needs more storage space because the business is already “outgrowing our footprint,” he said. So, he's in the process of looking for additional storage.
There is an event room at the winery, where he hopes to book activities from wedding receptions to business meetings.
"We will have events simultaneously while tasting is going on," he said.
And he also bought property behind the winery that he is hoping get changed from residential to business and add an outdoor venue.
So the next steps are to bring the music and book events.
“We can have music—a little banjo pickin’, a string quartet, a little acoustic guitar,” he said.