Humboldt Hosts Strawberry Festival, Wine Down Fridays
Tennessee’s natural, cultural and culinary one-offs magnetize visitors from around the world. Then they get here, and find a pyramid in Memphis, a Parthenon in Nashville and an Eiffel Tower in Paris.
We’re as curious about other cultures as they are about us. Maybe that’s what drove West Tennessee native Rita Wilson to study in Florence, Italy, while obtaining her degree from Northwestern University. Maybe it’s what motivated her to take the acting gigs in Europe when they came. Maybe it even drew her to Englishman Peter Howard, whom she eventually married.
Peter and Rita lived (live) an extraordinary life. When Rita’s friend, Wink Martindale (a fellow West Tennessean), connected her with his agent, Rita made a career acting, singing and dancing in Hollywood and abroad. Peter, an engineer and physicist, retired at 40, but acts anything but: Since retiring, he’s watched one of his innovations put to use on the International Space Station, and decided to open a winery.
That explains why you can now find this Italianate villa in Humboldt, about half-an-hour north of Jackson:
Crown Winery began as a 50-acre farm, a landscape of woods and ponds. In 2004, Peter planted the first vines with the help of Dr. David Lockwood, a faculty member in The University of Tennessee’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences and an Extension Fruit and Nut Crops Specialist. “We didn’t know anything about growing grapes,” Rita remembers, continuing, “Dr. Lockwood showed us how to plant, what varietals [would] work better – he even helps us harvest when he’s in the area!”
Three years later, the grapes yielded their first wine. In 2009, the Howards built the villa. Today, it sits amid 23 acres of grapevines. Though that makes Crown one of the state’s largest wineries, operations remain intimate and local: All grapes are grown and all wines are bottled and labeled onsite; added fruits, when they come into play, are sourced nearby. (More on that in a moment.) You can buy the wines by the case or the bottle onsite, or find them in wine and liquor shops throughout the region – Humboldt, Jackson and Memphis are good bets.
Rita, Crown Winery’s official taster, names the Chambourcin Special Reserve her personal favorite (she prefers full-bodied reds). “The Chambourcin grape is a lot like a Merlot, but better. Merlot grapes won’t grow here, but Chambourcin [will].” Peter, the winemaker, likes the Sangiovese, a medium-bodied red. “They said [the Sangiovese grapes] wouldn’t grow here, but [Peter] likes a challenge,” Rita says.
Today, I’m interested in the Strawberry Strut, a limited edition made from strawberries grown on Green Acres Farm in nearby Milan, and as a tribute to the West Tennessee Strawberry Festival (see footnote). It takes seven tons of strawberries to meet Crown’s production demands.
With strawberry season right on top of us, now is a good time to visit Crown. Peter and Vineyard Manager Taylor Barker guide tours (20-year-old Taylor was recognized by the Tennessee FFA Foundation in 2011 for fruit production). Discover the winery ($15), the vineyard ($15) or both ($30); tasting included. Tour times vary, but Fridays at 5:30 p.m. and Saturdays at 11:30 a.m. are fairly routine – regardless, reservations are required. Tour price for visitors 18 and under is waived and the winery runs a golf car for visitors who can’t walk the entire route (tours can last from 30 to 90 minutes).
Wine Down Fridays
Now through Oct. 4, 2013, I’d recommend reserving the Friday tour and staying for Wine Down, Crown’s seasonal signature. Friday nights from 7-10 p.m., you can listen or dance to live music and purchase a bottle of Crown wine plus snacks – Rita and Peter offer a spread of Tennessee cheeses, fresh-baked bread and cake ball truffles made in Jackson. New for this season, a local restaurateur is also offering dinners for purchase, but you can bring your own food (or even order in). Crown’s home page is the best place to find details on each week’s entertainment and refreshment offerings.
A strawberry-sweet footnote:
The West Tennessee Strawberry Festival runs through May 11 – a small-town spectacle as sweet as the fruit that’s inspired it since 1934. Expect princesses; recipe contests; floats big and small; a carnival; a barbecue cook-off; car, horse and tractor shows; a pet parade; loads of live music and more. View the full event schedule here, and be sure to wear something red.
If you like Crown Winery, tell us about your favorite bottle in the comments section below. If berries are your thing, share your favorite recipe!