"Rocky Top Wine Trail"
Enjoy Wineries and
By Gregory D. McCluney
Celebrity performers, go-karts, rock climbing, roller coasters, country music and bear sightings aren’t usually associated with exploring a wine trail, but along the Rocky Top Wine Trail in East Tennessee, you’ll see all that and much more.
Tennessee's Wine Trails
First, let's explain a bit about Tennessee's four wine trails, which cover two-thirds of the state.
Each has its own approach to wine making and grape growing:
- Natchez Trace Wine Trail stretches from Jackson to Nashville in middle Tennessee.
- Upper Cumberland Wine Trail is between Jamestown and Lafayette.
- Four Rivers Wine Trail is in northeast Tennessee east of Rocky Top.
- Rocky Top Wine Trail in East Tennessee includes five designated wineries and vineyards from Sevierville to Gatlinburg.
Each has its own draws, but trying to visit more than one trail per trip is not doable without weeks of time, or at least a drive of hundreds of miles.
So pick one trail and delve into the local culture, heritage and attractions. In our case, we headed to Rocky Top in the Great Smoky Mountains region (shown in the photo above left.*) . This wine trail includes five wineries within 12 miles but also a good dose of family friendly attractions.
Heading out to Rocky Top
The town of Pigeon Forge, home to Dollywood, is a good central base for touring the five "official" Rocky Top wineries, although visitors might alternatively stay in Gatlinburg or Sevierville as well.
(This parkway connects Sevierville and Pigeon Forge to Gatlinburg and encompasses many family-friendly sites. The wineries on the Rocky Top Wine Trail are accessible by using this major roadway.*)
Wherever you stay in the region, you'll discover wine tasting options for adults and plenty of family-friendly fun for kids. So you can take advantage of all the Smoky Mountains have to offer, and not simply drive from one winery to the next.
Start the Rocky Top Wine Trail tour by heading north to the Eagle Springs Winery first, before working your way east to the others and finally a bit further south to Sugarland, in Gatlinburg.
The official Rocky Top designated wineries do not charge for their wine tastings.
Eagle Springs Winery: To reach the Eagle Springs Winery (www.eaglespringswine.com), head out by car and travel north from Pigeon Forge and Sevierville on “The Parkway” or U.S. 441. Just before the Interstate, turn left on Dumplin Valley Road.
Motor up the steep hill. Then climb on foot to the rambling log building housing the winery.
Specializing in sweet and semi-sweet wines, Eagle is one of the newest of the Rocky Top wineries.
Step up to the spacious tasting bar. John “JD” Barr will start you off with a sample of Wohali Legend, a dry fruit-based wine with flavors of plum and blackberries.
The winery usually offers cheese or snacks, so visitors can taste how different the wines taste with food – and it often it makes a big difference.
Eagle’s second dry wine is Courage, a fruit wine that tastes of apples and melons, one of the best tasted on my recent trip to the region. Two semi-sweet wines also are offered, one of which is 100 percent honey -- something truly different.
Blushing Eagle is a blend of red and white Tennessee muscadine grapes, known for their health benefits.
Rounding out the Eagle sweets is Wildfire, a mouthful of delicious strawberry and kiwi in honey.
Editor's Note: Have your Rocky Top tour card stamped at each winery as then you’ll receive a Rocky Top tee-shirt (as shown in the photo at right*) and two custom wine glasses at your last stop.
Hillside Winery: Just a few miles east in Sevierville, Hillside Winery (www.hillsidewine.com) offers visitors a taste of more traditional grape varieties including dry wines appreciated by many wine lovers.
Perched -- as you might expect, given its name -- on the side of a hill, Hillside offers visitors a dozen unique wines, including a seasonal bubbly and a muscadine spumante.
Its dry wines include a crisp Pinot Grigio, Zinfandel and tasty Sangiovese, the base wine for most Chiantis, the famous wine of Italy.
Sweet wine lovers might try the Cantina Bianca, a muscato-type wine and Black and Blue, their best seller, a blend of three fruits.
Don’t miss a taste of the sparklers, unique in the RT wineries.
Editor's Tip: To learn more about the region's wine making, ask about the source of the grapes when visiting RT wineries. Not all grapes are locally sourced. Some wineries use fruit from as far away as California and Washington state and make the wine in their own facilities.
Apple Barn Winery: Just a short ride up the parkway from Hillside is the Apple Barn Winery (www.applebarnwines.com). The most unusual winery on the trail, Apple Barn is housed inside a complex called the Apple Barn Cider Mill and General Store.
The complex has shops, a restaurant, ice cream shop, food emporium, gift shop and a bakery, which incidentally makes great donuts. The winery (shown in the photo above*) is popular for its wine tastings.
Once you reach the tasting room, you’ll taste around a dozen wines from dry French varietals through semi-sweet and sweet fruit wines plus a silky-sweet muscadine. The cabernet and merlot are of particular interest, made with a blend of Tennessee and California fruit and aged in American oak.
The apple-strawberry sticky is sweet; this rich blend works best with a scoop from the ice cream shop.
Editor's Note: Plan on extra time at Apple Barn to explore the shops, landscaped gardens, orchard and picnic grounds. It's a multi-faceted attraction.
Mountain Valley Winery: Turning right out of Apple Barn’s driveway, you could almost toss a wine bottle to the fourth Rocky Top designated winery, Mountain Valley (www.facebook.com/mountainvalleyvineyards) in Pigeon Forge.
Housed in a round rock and stone building (shown in the photo above*), the winery could easily fit in styling with Napa’s Silverado Trail. Fortunately for Tennessee visitors, it's a Rocky Top winery.
So just wind through the gifts and wine accessories. You’ll be directed to a nice tasting bar near the rear of the building.
Mountain Valley offers the widest selection of traditional dry wines on the trail and some of the best, including an aged Chardonnay with complex acidity, perfect when paired with the right food.
The winery also has a Cabernet Sauvignon made with Tennessee fruit blended with Columbia Valley, WA, Zinfandel, and a deep red, bold Merlot.
But don’t pass up the semi-sweets, either. The Riesling-style white wine has excellent acidity and tastes of green apple. You may also taste a blush wine made from a variety of grapes for summer warm-weather drinking. It's a nice "back porch" wine.
Sugarland Cellars: Gatlinburg is home to Sugarland Cellars (www.sugarlandcellars.com). Just head up the mountain on Route 441 to encounter the most scenic part of the Rocky Top Wine Trail as well as Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Editor's Note: This can be a very slow trip during holiday weekends or during the fall foliage season, so allow an hour or more to creep the few miles on the map. But you won’t be bored as the the scenery is beautiful.
The winery itself is a modern log-and-stone showplace in a newer section of Gatlinburg.
Heading to its tasting bar, sweet wine lovers have five fresh and fruity blended vintages to enjoy. You'll taste the flavors of honey, fresh peaches, blueberry, muscadine, raspberries, rhubarb or blackberries, or a combination of those.
Cherry-Kee is a delicious sweet wine made from 100 percent Oregon cherries. Wiley Oakley is a blend of Concord grapes and Tennessee blueberries.
Two dry wines are also on their list. The first is a Burgundy-styled red wine called 1802. This Pinot Noir is traditionally made with Oregon grapes, but at this winery is often made from Tennessee fruit. It's aged in oak.
The second dry wine is a white Trillium, a Tennessee viognier made in stainless vats with no oak aging. It pleases the senses with floral and tropical hints and a smooth finish.
Editor's Note: After your tasting, the winery is a good starting point for a walking tour of Gatlinburg and maybe lunch or dinner in one of the local restaurants that serve everything from Tennessee barbeque to local trout suppers.
Rocky Top Wine Club
While you're out on the wine trail, you might buy a set of wine glasses at the winery gift shops on your route. (An example is shown in the photo at right.*).
Better yet, if you visit three of the wineries and have your tour card stamped, you'll receive one for free.
And if you like what you tasted on your Rocky Top Wine Trail touring, the group of wineries has a club for those who'd like regular shipments of wine to their home.
Sign up at www.rockytopwineries,com/wine_club.
Vineyards and Wine Grapes
While the Rocky Top Wine Trail is a fun activity with some good wines, if your idea of a wine trail includes a picnic in the vineyards or a tour of grapes on the vine, head just a short drive north to the Four Rivers Wine Trail (www.fourriverswinetrail.com).
Call ahead and set up your visit to Nolichucky Vineyards near Russellville, Richland Vineyards in Corryton and Sprout Spring Estates in Blaine.
(Shown in the photo at left, Nolichucky's vineyards are shown with grapes ready for picking.*)
These wineries sell what they grow.
All their wines are made from Tennessee grapes.
Beyond the Grapes: Family Attractions
While in the Rocky Top Wine Trail area, Dollywood (www.dollywood.com) is a "must" for most families. This large Appalachian-themed musical park has thrilling coasters and tame rides too, along with shows, down-home food, craft demonstrations, Smoky Mountain heritage elements and more
(Shown in the photo, a river rafting ride at Dollywood is a way for families to cool off in summer.*)
Editor's Note: Dollywood is large with myriad activities so plan on a full day visit. If you have kids in tow, it's also best not to plan winery visits on the same day as a park visit. Just note, no alcohol is served at Dollywood.
Beyond Dollywood, visitors have a slew of area attractions to choose from with tickets from less than $10 to more than $50 per adult. Kids’ tickets are usually one-third to one-half less.
You might visit The Titanic Attraction, (shown in the photo at left*) enjoy go-kart tracks or ride a Zorb -- essentially you climb inside a giant ball, which then rolls down a hill.
Alternatively, families might enjoy eco-hiking, a performance at Smoky Mountains Opry, mini-golf play or even indoor skydiving!
Dinner shows, magic shows, an aquarium, a wax museum and haunted houses are among the other diversions.
Most shows in the area are country-oriented and suitable for families, but ask before taking the little ones.
Personally, I enjoyed the Lumberjack Feud Dinner and Show, which I'd describe as one of the best shows in Pigeon Forge.
(In the photo at right, log rollers entertain at the lumberjack show.*)
Details on all the attractions are available at www.mypigeonforge.com.
Dining Along the Rocky Top Wine Trail
Not surprisingly, cuisine in this region is decidedly southern, so you'll see fried chicken, pulled pork and cornbread.
But in Pigeon Forge, you’ll also find a restaurant for every taste, cuisine and budget. Chains dominate the restaurant scene, and tourists like chains because they strive to be predictable and consistent.
However, three locally owned Pigeon Forge restaurants offer something different, and they are a lot more fun and interesting than choosing among all the familiar franchise faces on the parkway.
The Old Mill -- Specializing in country cooking and made-from-scratch goodies like fried chicken, biscuits and pork chops, the Old Mill located along a scenic stretch of the Little Pigeon River (as shown in the photo above*) offers an authentic southern dining experience.
Why go further than the country-fried steak pounded thin with thick gravy and all the sides? This restaurant is housed in a larger food and shopping emporium that includes retail sites including toys, fashion accessories and a dairy creamery.
Editor's Note: At the emporium you can buy grains from the original 1830-era mill, which is still in operation today.
The Pottery House Café and Grille -- Across the street from the Old Mill, the Pottery House Café and Grille offers lighter fare in the historic home of famous local potter Douglass Ferguson.
It's an inviting setting, so choose from tasty sandwiches, soups, salads and burgers set among an interesting display of pottery.
Editor's Note: Definitely take time to stroll to the nearby Pigeon River Pottery. It has exquisite pottery gifts and decorative items for your home. Everything created here is fired on the spot.
Bullfish Grill – For a more formal dining experience and full bar, head down the parkway to one of the top Pigeon Forge dining spots, the Bullfish Grill (as shown in the photo at right.*
This sleek and stylish free-standing restaurant offers a steak-and-seafood dining experience that's akin to what you might experience for a big night out in Atlanta or Nashville.
But the big-city-like dining experience has a much more reasonably priced menu than similar restaurants in those cities.
Where to Stay?
Pigeon Forge has more than 14,000 hotel rooms covering every type and price of accommodation.
Nearby Sevierville and Gatlinburg also have thousands more. (The Wyndam Great Smokies Lodge in Sevierville is shown in the photo at left.*)
Choose from luxury condominium rentals, pampering hotel suites, moderate and budget accommodations, and even camp sites.
Two options to consider? Personally, I liked the Music Road Inn (www.musicroadinn.com), a hotel with full breakfast and a family-friendly pool. Plus, it's in the middle of everything just off the Parkway.
Or, if you need more beds for a multiple generation family group or for couples traveling together, you might consider booking a condominium with Cabin Fever Vacations (www.CabinFeverVacations.com). You'll have a full kitchen, more beds and a stunning mountain view.
Editor's Note: Another option for those who LOVE Christmas is the Inn at Christmas Place (www.innatchristmasplace.com), also along the parkway. It's a year-round themed resort with a large fireplace, Santa around every corner and room décor that conjurs up memories of past Christmases. Santa visits at certain times too.
RELATED LINK: SouthernTravelNews.com covered the Inn at Christmas Place a few years back. Check out the photos at http://www.southerntravelnews.com/NewsRelease.aspx?NewsId=840
Exploring the Smokies
The East Tennessee region has much to offer outdoor lovers including hiking, swimming, fishing, zip lining and river rafting.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the only U.S. National Park that does not charge visitors for admission, is just two miles south of Gatlinburg on U.S. 441.
Start your exploration of the park at the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Park staffers will provide maps and advice -- based on your specific interests and activity level.
Some hikes, for example, are designated as easy, while others are more difficult.
At the visitor center, visitors should also brush up on how to safely watch wildlife. The park is home to many black bears.
Check out additional information at www.nps.gov/grsm.
If You Plan to Visit...
Rocky Top Wine Trail: www.rockytopwinetrail.com
Pigeon Forge: www.MyPigeonForge.com
Tennessee Department of Tourism Development: www.tnvacation.com
*Photos are owned, copyrighted and used courtesy of Gregory D. McCluney, Susan J. Young, the Tennessee Department of Tourism Development, and tourism bureaus in Pigeon Forge, Sevierville and Gatlinburg. All rights reserved. Do not copy nor link to these photos. Thank you.