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“Close your eyes and think of your grandma’s garden in the summer sun,” said vintner Tom Brown, founder of Beans Creek Winery, located on Ragsdale Road, as he pours a flute of his prized sparkling wine, the award-winning, handmade Valley Home Sparkling Strawberry.
This year, keeping with a tradition of achievement, Beans Creek has brought home a collection of prestigious awards from the Indy International Wine Contest, the largest scientifically organized and independent wine competition in the United States.
The most notable, given to Brown’s port, Apropos, was a Double Gold award, that signified that the panel of American and international judges unanimously voted to give the port the gold award. The strawberry champagne this year took silver and the Chardonnay Reserve, a bronze.
“That makes an old country boy feel pretty good about things,” Brown said. “We were up against wineries with multi-million dollar facilities – French winemakers, imported grapes, you name it.”
Back in the Beans Creek wine cellar, oak barrels dominating the cool half-light, Brown explained the history of champagne, and more importantly, the méthode champenoise, the traditional method of making champagne*, that he has mastered for all his sparkling wine.
“Our strawberry champagne is second to none,” he dotes much like a proud parent. “You can’t find it anywhere else in the world. It’s just delicious.”
“We do all the right thing when they need to be done,” –Tom Brown
Handcrafting the water of life
Méthode champenoise, Brown explains, is a labor-intensive process that involves a second fermentation process that occurs, just as champagnes have for centuries, inside the bottle. Tedious and less cost effective, Méthode champenoise retains the intensity and creaminess of the champagne.
The process differs from what Brown calls Pepsi-champagne production where carbon dioxide is added to the wine just like the fizz is added to soda.
Brown’s son Josh handles all champagne production in addition to much of the back-of-house wine production and bottling.
“For our [champagne], the carbonization is from the natural fermentation in the bottle during a second fermentation,” Josh Brown said.
Beans Creek handles each stage of production from crushing the grapes to, in the case of the champagne, hand tuning the bottles to allow the turbidity to settle and the bottling and packaging the final product.
Their strawberry wine is used exclusively for champagne, but the brut champagne is a master blend of other wines.
For better taste profile consistency and control, all Beans Creek wines are fermented dry (yeast is allowed to grow until all the sugar is consumed). Then the proper amount of sugar is reintroduced to bring each to its defining sweetness.
For the champagne, a second fermentation requires the addition of a touch of sugar to feed the yeast that goes with the wine into the fermenting tank (imagine feeding a really large sourdough starter).
In about two-three days, once the fermentation starts in earnest, the wine is portioned into the heavy bottles that will eventually go to the customer. Instead of getting corked, for the time being, the bottle is stopped with a crown top (like on a beer bottle) for ease of opening for a latter step.
An airtight top (whether cork, metal or plastic) is the 15th century innovation that made the fizz possible. Before the rediscovery of the cork, vintner monks would top bottles with non-airtight wax seals, and alas no fizz.
The downside is the cloud that comes from the yeast’s split shells, called lees. To disgorge this as it settles, the lees must first be collected at the neck. Bottles are placed inverted on riddling racks to consolidate sediment by turning the bottles once or twice each day. Once all the sediment is at the neck, the bottles are frozen, then opened, the sediment quickly removed, and the bottle capped with a plastic stopper and wire retainer for labeling.
“An average day bottling for us is about 500-550 gallons,” Josh Brown said, … about 230 cases.”
A crew of four to five can hand bottle up to 800 gallons in a day.
A family of families
Tom Brown said that he learned early in his career that making a great wine is bigger than just one person or even one family.
“It’s not just Becky and I or Josh and I. We learned early on that you need the support of folks with similar interests. That has worked very well for us.”
“There are about eight or nine families involved in the winery, and six still grow grapes for the winery,” he said. “It’s a family of families.”
That association includes close ties to local agriculture.
“Our member vineyards are mostly from Warren, Coffee and Williamson counties.”
Beans Creek buys some grapes from East Tennessee.
Valley Home Farm, near Bell Buckle and Wartrace, supplies the strawberries for the champagne.
Brown takes pride in producing a local product.
“We surround ourselves with good people.”
“Wine is food; it’s not spirits.” - Tom Brown
Brown said that a single variety of grape can be used with a three or strings of yeast and you can wind up with three or four taste profiles.
“We’ve spent many years perfecting [our taste profiles],” he said. “Any microbiologist can make alcohol, but a true winemaker has to have a developed palate.”
Brown’s winemaking journey began, oddly enough, with a fishing trip. He had planned to go fishing with friend, Dan Lasater, but the afternoon plans changed when Dan’s father Joe asked Brown’s mother what she was going to do with her remaining grape crop.
“We didn’t go fishing that afternoon. We made wine. It was extremely drinkable. We know that because we drank it.”
Brown said that it’s pretty much a hobby that got out of control.
He continued to make what he calls just drinkable wine until he became acquainted with the Tennessee Viticultural and Oenological Society.
“With their critiques and by picking their brains, I learned to make good wine. That evolved into award winning wines and then into a winery,” he said.
This year will be Brown’s 38th vintage. Twenty-eight were in his basement and 10th commercial vintage.
“Our growth and reputation for quality wine has grown yearly. We’re well-know all over the Southeast.” -Tom Brown
“As my winemaking skills got better we began to win amateur awards,” he said.
Work began on the wine cellar in October of 2003. The winery opened in 2004 with a vintage that was actually produced by Brown at Keg Springs Winery in Hampshire, Tenn. with the help of Beech Haven in Clarksville.
The harvest of 2006 was the biggest crop, 160 tons, but this year’s crop is expected to yield an excellent vintage.
* Note: According to trade agreements and French tradition, Champagne is a sparkling wine made only in the Champagne region of France (in same manor as Vidalia onions only come from Georgia). The lowercase common noun, “champagne,” is used here synonymously with “sparkling wine.” The term should not be confused with the French.