Many of you are likely familiar with Blue Slip Winery. Located at 105 West Jackson downtown, it’s a cool little niche in a building right in the heart of the Old City. In 2009, when Linn Slocum opened Blue Slip, it became the first winery in Knoxville and, consequently, the first to operate downtown. For those of us unfamiliar with urban wineries, it seemed like an oddity. As the years have passed, it seems more a part of a national trend, prompting lists like Food Republic’s Top Ten Urban Wineries.
While many urban wineries import their grapes from points all over the country, there also seems to be a common bias toward local grapes, making the wine in each location potentially unique. Many of the wineries are located in places like the west coast which we typically associate with vineyards, while others make their wine in more surprising parts of the country, such as Dallas, Cincinnati and New York City – and Knoxville. In the case of Blue Slip, Ms. Slocum is very proud of the fact that all their fruit is supplied by Tennessee growers.
In the nearly five years the business has operated at its current location, it has slowly grown and increased production. Recent changes in Tennessee law, allowing grape growers to sell wine on the same property as their vineyard has led to outsourced production at Blue Slip to supply the wine from the grower’s grapes. While the space at Blue Slip’s current location is warm and inviting and has great foot traffic, it is also small when you consider production, storage of wine barrels and and a tasting room. It was time for a change. The scope of the new venture goes far beyond finding a space with a little additional room.
I met Linn in the new space – at the Southern Railway Station. It’s the massive-looking building on Depot Avenue. In my architectural ignorance, I’d always mistaken it, and the smaller depot next door, to be newer construction. It turns out it was built in 1903 to serve as the primary train depot downtown at a time when train travel and transport reigned supreme. Built with two floors with each floor split into equal sides, it easily conformed to the social restrictions of the time, with races segregated to either side of the beautiful internal lobby and stairways. The two floors of the building, not allowing for the full basement, measure out around 20,000 square feet, a large amount of space, but fewer than I might have guessed looking at the outside.
The entire building will be managed by Blue Slip, but plans for the large space call for a range of uses. Bullock Smith and Partners architectural firm will continue to occupy the top floor on the western side of the building. The top floor eastern side will become an entertainment space and ballroom, managed by Blueslip and offering space for wedding receptions and other large events. Interestingly, that space is currently filled with cubicles from a previous incarnation, and as the room is re-claimed as an open space, Linn is excited to see the architectural details that have no doubt been covered in this beautiful building.
The western end of the ground floor will remain open as a versatile space housing, for example, this weekend’s Winter Market (more on that later this week), while the eastern portion of the building will house Blue Slip Winery – and a somewhat surprising addition to the enterprise. Inside the door on the ground floor, an expanded tasting room and gift shop will greet visitors to the new space. Wine tastings, pairings and dinner events are also likely activities.
Just out of sight will be the wine production and offices for the business, all of which will occupy this 5,000 square foot section of the building, replacing the approximately 3000 square feet in the current location. While an increase of 2,000 square feet seemed like a relatively small increase given the total size of the building, I realized it represented a larger increase when Linn told me the basement would be used for all the barrel storage, freeing space for the rest of the operation above
The surprise for the space is that this section of the building will also offer a train museum. Long discussed locally, this has potential as a tourist draw and could work very nicely in conjunction with the presence of the winery. Located on the tracks just behind the building, historic train cars will be available for tours, as well. It’s been a dream for rail enthusiasts to have a more prominent forum to highlight Knoxville’s rail history and this looks to be what they’ve hoped for.
Linn is realistic in acknowledging the loss of foot traffic as they move from the previous location, but she notes the increased capacity to host a variety of events, the location on the trolley route and the large expanse of connected parking as positives that she feels will outweigh that small loss. I’d also note that the neighborhood is set for vast expansion of living space and retail nearby with the opening of the White Lily Building just around the corner, the renovation of Knoxville High School as senior housing and the currently mysterious development coming across the street at the Regas Building.
The current time-table calls for an April opening, barring extenuating circumstances, so look forward to a nice early spring walk across the Gay Street Viaduct to a better-than-ever Blue Slip, a train museum and a very cool, unusual urban space. In the meantime, I’ll give you a great agri-business excuse to visit the building before that. Stay tuned.