It was his early family life in Jamestown introducing Fay Wheeler to vineyards, and one of its tasty by-products – wine. “My father grew lots of grapes and after my mother used all she needed for juice and jelly, some would accidentally turn into wine,” Fay said.
While pursuing a career as an Air Force intelligence officer, Wheeler was stationed in Europe for well over a decade where wine was as common as Coke in this country. It was during those years his passion for wine grew. It was also during those years he meet a young Scottish lady named Kathy who worked for the British Civil Service and would become his bride. “We spent our last two years in the Air Force in Europe on Crete,” he said, adding that of all the places he could choose to live, it would be that beautiful Greek island.
After retiring from the Air Force, he returned to his native community of Jamestown, Tennessee and embarked on a second career. However, when the Tennessee State Legislature voted in the Grape and Wine Act in 1977 permitting the production and sell of wine at retail, Wheeler began pursuing his interest in making wine. “The hitch was that all of the grapes had to be grown in Tennessee. Of course, at that time, we were talking about very few grapes” he said, noting the main reason for new law was to encourage more grape growing in the state. Fay planted the first commercial wine grape vineyard which included Native American and European varieties. “It takes a minimum of three years before new grapevines are ready to start producing grapes,” Fay said. “I had very little experience, but I planted eight acres of grapes and went into the business.” Over the years, Fay has assisted over 25 wineries and vineyards starting the same adventure he began in 1977 helping the industry grow and prosper.
Fay arguably pioneered the Tennessee wine making industry, and subsequently he has also become very active in state, national, and international wine and grape organizations. He became a Master Knight in the Brotherhood of the Knights of the Vine in 1985, headquartered in California. He has served as the Grand Marshal on the Grand Council of Le Croix De La Bourgogne (The Cross of Burgundy), headquartered in Dijon, France. He is one of only four Americans who have ever served as a Grand Council member in this 14th century order. He is an active supporter of the University of Tennessee and has served several years on an advisory board, and chaired a scholarship committee. He was also recognized in 2000 by a federal/state agricultural program for the development of value-added agriculture (grapes and wine) in Tennessee. He served as President of the Tennessee Grape and Wine Society in 1989 and was on the Board of Directors for over a decade. In 1990 he was awarded the prestigious “Homer Blitch” trophy for outstanding services toward the goals of the Tennessee Grape and Wine Society.
Fay has seen much success in his wine making career. He has produced wines and champagnes that have won international gold medals. Additionally, he has served as a wine judge at various national and international competitions; and organized and judged numerous amateur wine competition events.
Bob has been fascinated with wine since childhood. By the age of nine he was helping his Grandpa Ramsey tend to their Concord grapes, making wine, and even consuming the wine — so long as Grandma didn’t know about it. Grandpa’s primary focus was on sweet red wine, but occasionally they made blackberry, and on one occasion made some rhubarb wine, which was not to their liking. In college while becoming certified to teach Biology, Chemistry, and General Science, Bob’s interest in the fermentation process was renewed. This was reinforced when he became of legal age and discovered that wine was indeed one of the very special “simple pleasures of life”.
After a brief stint as an Army officer in the Medical Service Corp. and four years of night law school, Bob returned to his home in Fentress County to practice law. It was then in 1975 that he had the great fortune and pleasure of meeting Fay and Kathy Wheeler. While sharing mutual stories of their early family experiences with grapes, wine and some homemade corn spirits, they began discussing Fay’s interest in staring a winery. Fay and his friend Judge William O. Beach of Clarksville, TN began serious discussions of how this could be accomplished. Over the next couple of years Fay and Judge Beach and a few others spent hundreds of hours formulating a proposed law to encourage grape-growing and commercial winemaking in Tennessee. Bob played a minor role with some of the State and Federal legalities and the establishment of vital legislative contacts. The law came to pass in 1977 as the Tennessee Wine and Grape Act, which permitted the establishment of wineries in Tennessee, even in “dry” counties. The efforts of Fay and Judge Beach literally enabled what has become a thriving industry for commercial vineyards and wineries in Tennessee. Hence, Fay is known as the “Grandfather of Tennessee Wineries”. Fay gives Bob credit for “keeping them out of jail” so that making, selling and the enjoyment of wine would be a lawful enterprise.
In 1980 Fay and Kathy, and Bob and Belle opened Highland Manor Winery, which was the first legal Tennessee winery in modern times. After winning many awards including an international Gold Medal for quality, Fay, Bob, Dr. Lloyd Hassler, and Martin and Jamie Clark opened Stonehaus Winery in 1990 at its current location. Bob has been active in winery operations for over thirty years. After practicing law for over thirty-four years, on January 1, 2010 Bob came to Stonehaus Winery on a full-time basis when the winery became an entirely “family-owned” business. Bob oversees several aspects of the day-to-day winery operations and tremendously enjoys his role as a “coach” for the wonderful Stonehaus team of management and staff. He loves discussing wine and sharing it with others. The most enjoyable part of his job is conducting tours and presenting Stonehaus wines at tastings and events. Bob’s motto is: “Drink what you like! Wine is like music, to be enjoyed in many settings, forms, and flavors. One can really enjoy a broad spectrum of music, from Rock to Classical to Blue Grass. Wine is no different. We can find pleasure in a wide variety of wines, from a big bold dry Cabernet to a luscious sweet and fruity Labrusca. Just as you would not let some music critic tell you what music you should be listening to, don’t let some wine snob tell you what you should drink!”
Bob and Belle were high school sweethearts and have been married for more than forty-three years. They have two fabulous children who are also owners in Stonehaus Winery and four wonderful grandchildren who may someday be interested in carrying on the winery tradition. They also consider the Stonehaus employees to be a part of their family and several of them have been with Stonehaus for many years.
Belle has been involved in the day-to-day operations of the winery since the inception. Belle has done everything here from making the fudge, bottling and labeling the wine, working behind the bar in the tasting room, determining the product lines we carry in the gift shop, to working with the rest of the family managing the overall business. Belle is currently responsible for the management of the retail operations of the winery and gift shop, and the business office functions. Pretty much if you need to know anything about anything at Stonehaus Winery and Gift Shop, just ask “Ms. Belle”, as she is often fondly referred.
Prior to the last almost 20 years Belle has been at the winery, she garnered a great deal of business and financial experience which has proven very beneficial to the winery. In the years before Stonehaus Winery opened, she operated her own flower shop, provided bookkeeping and tax services, and co-owned and operated a cable company. In addition to all of her entrepreneurial experiences and passion for her work at the winery, she would emphatically tell anyone her favorite roles are that of grandmother to Jake, Darrah, Robert, and David; mother to Rob and Kim; and wife to her high school sweet heart Bob.
Rob Ramsey has been around Tennessee wine for most of his life. Rob’s mom Belle and dad Bob Ramsey and Mr. Fay Wheeler and his wife Kathy started Highland Manor Winery, the first licensed winery in the state of Tennessee, in 1980. Fay and Bob started laying the frame work for this in 1977 (Rob was 8 years old at the time.) Fay and his wife Kathy ran Highland Manor for 10 years. When Fay and Kathy, Bob and Belle, Dr. Lloyd Hassler, and Martin and Jamie Clark opened Stonehaus Winery in 1990 Rob was in school at Tennessee Tech. Rob was hired to work there part-time while in school. He worked at the tasting bar, gift shop, on the crush pad, mowed the grass, and helped bottle wine.
Funny as it sounds, Rob’s first entrepreneurial contribution to Stonehaus was pitching the owners on the idea of adding home-made fudge to the gift shop. He served as the first fudge maker at Stonehaus gift shop and the fudge was a hit from the start. The idea paid for itself in a very short period of time and Stonehaus now sells around 4,000 pounds of home-made fudge each year!
After graduating from Tennessee Tech (with a BS and MA in Psychology) he was hired by Mr. Lyndon Rains in Jamestown to work as a Producer for The Rains Agency in Crossville. Rob worked for The Rains Agency for five years. It was a wonderful job, but Rob just was not happy selling insurance.
About that same time, Dr. Lloyd Hassler (then President and CEO) of Stonehaus was looking for someone to help with the computer work at Stonehaus and someone to spearhead distribution sales in the wholesale market. Rob jumped at the chance! In addition to his distribution duties, he has been actively involved in the acquisition of new automated equipment and redesigning the branding (labels, promotional materials, audio/video/ and electronic media, etc) of the winery. He has also spent hundreds of hours of grass roots political work for the winery, and the wine industry of Tennessee, at the state and national level. He serves currently as the Tennessee delicate of WineAmerica.
Rob married Jane Darrah, daughter of Dr. David and Marsha Darrah of Smithville, on July 14th, 1996. Rob and Jane have two beautiful children, Jake and Darrah, who are spoiled mercilessly by their grandparents!
Rob’s job description has gotten a bit more complicated over the years. In 2006 Rob became one of the owners at Stonehaus. His duties continue to expand, but he could not be more content. Rob says that “Monday morning and Saturday morning feels pretty much the same to me. It does not get much better than that”!
A native Tennessean, Jan Nix began working at Stonehaus seventeen years ago. It was August of ’93 when she applied for and secured a job working in the winery at the tasting bar. Originally she took the job as a part-time departure from the relative solitude of her full-time job of water plant operator for the City of Crossville. She was well suited for the tasting bar, enjoying the fast-paced days and customer interaction. One of the highlights of the bar days was when Fay would, in lull moments, conduct one of his ‘special’ tastings. For those unfamiliar with the name, Fay Wheeler was a driving force in the genesis of the Tennessee wine industry and he is a veritable font of oenological information. He encouraged and fostered Jan’s already keen, interest in wine. He introduced her to a global buffet of varietals and blends and regaled her with tales of his viticultural ‘adventures’ abroad.
Twelve years passed with Jan happily tending the tasting bar, giving tours and assisting on the bottling line. She returned to school and received a B.S. in Interdisciplinary Studies from Tennessee Tech. The degree carries a dual emphasis in English and Plant and Soil Science. She jokes that, after years of taking classes part-time, attending no fewer than three universities, and garnering a colorful and varied transcript, “They finally found a suitable area, in which to give me a degree.”
It was early spring of 2005 when everything changed. Then winemaker, Helen Ledford, announced that she would be leaving at the end of the year. The partners approached Jan with a brand new job opportunity. She would train with Helen for the remainder of the year and then assume all winemaking duties with the dawn of 2006. Trepidatious about the responsibility, but immensely flattered to be offered the chance, she accepted. The next seven months she spent with Helen, learning the processes and particulars of the business of making wine. She explains, “At its core, winemaking is elementary, I mean after all, any juice left to its own devices will ferment.” “But, she elaborates, “that is the beauty and the crux—maintaining the integrity of the juice , but also tending it, like you would any living thing, and guiding its transformation, it’s a delicate balance, really. The finished product should be a reflection of its origin and the care instilled in it.” She says, now, four and a half years in, she enjoys the daily challenge of the job and considers herself very fortunate to work under the tutelage of Mr. Wheeler. “I work for and with the best people, I really feel like a member of the family!”
Aside from wine, Jan also has a passion for travel, the “pursuit of happiness for canines everywhere,” and the never ending chore that is yard work.