by Pam Windsor

Grinder’s Switch Winery’s Joey Chesser enjoys every part of the winemaking process. He takes a hands-on approach whether it involves planting and harvesting the grapes in his Hickman County vineyard or taking all the time needed to make sure each and every bottle of wine tastes just right.

“We do a lot of testing,” he says.“People make fun of that, but it’s true. You have to taste it throughout the whole process.”

Chesser, who usually has a dozen different wines — or more — available at his Centerville location and the tasting room at Marathon Village in Nashville, says if it doesn’t taste right to him, he figures it probably won’t taste right to anyone else.

“I’ll keep working with it until I have the right amount of sweetness I want and the flavors are there. You have to balance the acidity and the sweetness and the fruit flavor of the wine. Get those three in balance and you’ve got a good drink.”

It was Chesser’s desire to create a “good drink” that got him started on the path to winemaking in the first place. Before that, he made a living selling industrial hardware and spent a lot of time on the road. During one of his sales trips to Chicago he came across a particular brand of wine he liked and began considering whether he could grow grapes that could make that kind of wine.

He began studying and reading about grapes, and started an experimental vineyard. Over the next few years he grew more than two dozen varieties.

“I learned how to grow grapes,” he recalls. “I learned what the problems were in growing grapes, I learned which variety of grapes make the best wine, and I learned how to make wine.”

When he started, his goal was simply to create a nice, classy bottle of wine for his own enjoyment.

He says that back in the 1990s he traveled to Portugal, and discovered a wine he liked made of Touriga Nacional grapes which are unique to that part of the world. It occurred to him that Portugal and Tennessee had similar weather conditions and perhaps he could grow those grapes here.

“Their summers are hot over there like our summers are hot. They don’t have the humidity, but they do have the heat. Touriga is a nice warm weather grape which develops more flavor, more body and more color.”

He began growing those grapes, and in 2003 made a wine blend combining Touriga grapes with some of his Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. He entered that wine in the Tennessee Viticulture and Oenological Society competition (TVOS) for amateur winemakers and grape growers. Much to his surprise, he won “Best of Show.” It marked a turning point for him. He needed to decide if he would continue making wine simply to enjoy on his own or do it on a bigger scale. He began growing even more grapes and over the next couple of years decided, along with his family, to open a winery. As they prepared for their first harvest, Mother Nature intervened.

“We were getting ready for our first big harvest from the vineyard because it takes three years before you get your grapes,” he recalls. “In the Spring of ’07, we had the warmest March on record followed by the coldest April on record. It killed the entire vineyard. We didn’t get any grapes at all.”

He had to supplement with grapes and juice from other places, but he made wine. He did that for several years, and then in 2010, he was finally able to get grapes from his own vineyard.

Now, a decade after the winery opened, business is thriving. It got a big boost two years ago when his wife suggested they add a second tasting room and store in Nashville.

“Marathon Village is a great tourist spot, so business has increased a lot. In fact, ever since it opened, we’ve really been hopping here to keep enough wine in the bottles to serve this place and the place up there.”

Edna McGuirt, who works at the Centerville tasting room says she sees a steady flow of people from all over the world who stop by for tastings.

“We have people from everywhere. We’re part of a small wine trail, the Natchez Trace Wine, and people come as part of that. A lot of times they’re traveling between Memphis and Nashville and see the sign on the interstate and stop by.”

With a name like Grinder’s Switch, they do get questions about Minnie Pearl. The famous country comedienne, known for the hat with the dangling price tag and her many appearances on the Grand Ole Opry and Hee Haw, grew up in Centerville, but told people she was from Grinder’s Switch. That wasn’t actually a town, it was a railroad switch, but she definitely put it on the map.

Chesser admits that factored in to choosing the name of the winery.

“Nobody’s ever heard of Councils Bend (Road) which is where we are,” he explains. “Grinder’s Switch is about three miles up the road. But you know, Minnie Pearl made it famous with her shtick, so I thought Grinder’s Switch was kind of a cool name.”

Although first-time visitors come for many different reasons, once they’ve tasted the wine, they tend to come back time and again.

Big sellers and favorites include Pullman Red, a barrel aged Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon, Switch Red made from the concord grape and often described as “grape juice with a kick,” Blondy, which is similar to a Moscato with peach, apricot and a back note of muscadine, and Blackberry Express, made – just as you’d imagine – from blackberries.

The Marathon Village location also offers something that’s become quite popular, especially during the warmer months of the year… Wine slushies! The demand has been so high, Chesser recently had have another slushy machine installed. The slushies start with an icy mixture in a cup, then guests can choose any type of Grinder’s Switch wine to pour over it.

Chesser says he never dreamed he’d been running a winery all those years ago when he started growing those first few grapes. But it’s evolved into a business that’s turned out to be rewarding in more ways than one. He says it feels good to hear people in the tasting room try the different wines and one after the other say how much they like each one.

“I enjoy making people happy. That was the difference in the hardware business. You had to deal with some pretty sour people to be quite honest. People who didn’t want to be there at work. Here, when people come in the door they’re happy and they’re even happier when they leave. Being able to see all of that is probably the best part.”

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