By Iris An
(All pictures taken by the author and used with permission from Dr. and Mrs. Yao unless otherwise cited)
Pleasant Vineyards is located at 2018 Les Robinson, Columbia, Tennessee, at the foot of the picturesque Theta hills. The lovely 27-acre property features 11 acres of grapes, gorgeous views, quiet picnic spaces, and plenty of free parking. The Pleasant Vineyard, which is open every weekend for muscadine U-pick, wine tastings, and wine purchases, has hosted a great number of muscadine lovers and introduced this unique grape to a wider audience.
This beautiful vineyard is owned by Dr. Jie Yao, a reserved, friendly, and hardworking man from Sichuan, China, and his wife, Mrs. Yao, who comes from Guangdong, China, and speaks fluent English, Mandarin, and Cantonese. Mrs. Yao is talkative, cheerful, and enthusiastic. Everyone who comes to the Pleasant Vineyard stops by during the afternoon to say hello and enjoy her company.
Pleasant Vineyard offers Muscadine, a grapevine species native to the southeastern and south-central United States, to all their guests. Unlike regular store grapes, muscadines have a softer texture, the rich sweetness of Concord grapes, and a strong musky scent and flavor.
In our interview, Dr. and Mrs. Yao share their experience of cultivating and managing a Vineyard, telling a story about nostalgia of childhood, passion, and unwavering patience.
Iris: Can you tell us how you two manage the Pleasant Vineyard together?
Mrs. Yao: My husband is mostly responsible for grape cultivation. I am mostly in charge of extending the market, networking, finding customers, and expanding our networks on social media. Through social networking such as on FaceBook, Youtube, and WeChat groups, we share our skills in planting and gardening, as well as answering questions from potential customers. By doing so, we have made many friends and built great relationships with customers. We both work full-time on weekdays and spend all our time after work and on weekends in the vineyard.
Iris: You mean, you both work full-time and harvest this large Vineyard all with your leisure time?
Mrs. Yao: Yes! My husband is a software engineer, and I work in the financial services industry. We enjoy our professions but we also love muscadine, so we really dedicate all our leisure time to this precious vineyard. Everyday after work, my husband drives to the vineyard, and works there until eight or nine o’clock, performing all of the work by himself and occasionally hiring workers for a few hours. He has a huge passion for muscadine and its cultivation, and would do extensive research and exploration on growing techniques.
Iris: That sounds like hard, fulfilling work!
When did you start this business, and how did it grow to today’s scale?
Mrs. Yao: My husband grew up in Sichuan, China, and spent his childhood in an orchard. His family orchard grew mostly pear trees and a few other fruit trees. As a child, he learnt a lot of fruit tree growing skills from his family. When he grew up, he studied in Germany and settled in the United States, but somehow he always wished that one day he could have his own orchard, growing his favorite fruits.
Since moving to the United States in 1994, we have both achieved our academic and career goals, and our children have finished school and have found careers they enjoy. Now that we have more time and energy, it is finally time to make a dream come true.
Dr. Yao: 15 years ago, I bought muscadine grapes at a market and was immediately drawn to their distinct taste. We came to Tennessee in 2014, a major source of muscadine, and as fate would have it, I believed it was finally time to grow our own muscadine grapes. As a starting point, we planted a few Muscadine vines in our backyard in 2015 after we bought house in Brentwood. 3 year later in 2018 , we bought a 27 aces of land , and started planting Muscadines in our vineyard.
Mrs. Yao: We began planting grapes in 2018, all a thousand of the seedlings! With some harvest in 2019, I planned carefully, invited people to taste, organized events, and also offered grapes to some community activities in order to establish our reputation. For example, we hosted a visiting party on July 4th and lent our venue for the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival.
As 2020 brought a great harvest, we decided to open up our vineyard for muscadine U-pick. In the face of the covid-19 pandemic, however, we also sought to protect our consumers by adhering to the social distance principle. As a result, we opened our vineyard with time slots: each family or group can schedule a 30-minute appointment. Every week, we opened for a day, 8 hours, and welcomed 16 families or groups. There were a lot of friends who were interested in and curious about our muscadine at the time, so the appointments were always filled. The place was never crowded because of the size of our vineyard and the architecture of the appointment system, and we were happy to protect our customers.
In 2021, without the pressure from the pandemic, we could ask many more consumers to come and pick grapes. Families and friends began coming together, and we were so glad that our vineyard was evermore popular!
Sichuan is a province in China famous for its mountainous geography and rich natural resources. (picture: Creative common license)
Iris: What made you choose to invite customers to pick their own grapes, rather than selling already harvested ones?
Mrs. Yao: Muscadines are two to three times the price of normal grapes, and they ripen in a completely different way. Instead of ripening and plucking in bunches, they ripen gradually, one by one, therefore picking them one by one requires more effort.
From September until the end of October, our muscadines ripe gradually and picking labor is quite heavy. Because grapes on the same vine do not ripen at the same time, we would have to go back and forth to the same vine many times, which is quite inefficient. More importantly, we let our customers come and pick grapes because we want to provide them with a special experience beyond the taste of the grape. Before we had a vineyard, we went to visit other vineyards and the experience of picking grapes with friends was particularly fun and gratifying.
Dr. Yao: If we pick by machine equipment, one machine would cost about $60,000, making it only an option for massive mechanical farms and deviating from our original passion. As a result, the decision was made to open up the picking and invite people to do their own picking. At a price of $2 per pound, we only charge half the market price and allow folks who enjoy muscadine grapes to closely experience how they grow and thrive from the vines.
Mrs. Yao: And this year, the first U-pick opening in the fall attracted over 50 families and was extremely popular. We only open on Saturdays and Sundays alternatively, and are only open half a day a week from 1:00 to 5:00, weighing and cashiering all by ourselves. Seeing so many people enjoy our muscadine was a great joy and satisfaction.
Iris: In the four years of establishing your own vineyard, what are some of the most difficult parts?
Dr. Yao: There is no such thing as the “difficult part.” If it’s something you like and if you want it to thrive, each step demands careful consideration and effortful input.
Mrs. Yao: For example, while purchasing land, it is important to find an address that is not too far from the city. The topography should be flat, not potholed, but not flat, as this would allow water to gather readily and to harm the plants. It is ideal to have a little slope, so that rainwater is not completely lost. Ideally, it shouldn’t have too many woods because planting grapes requires clearing all of the existing vegetation, which would be difficult if there were woods. As a result, having open grassy areas with some neighbors nearby would be the best.
Dr. Yao: The land that was finally chosen is 27 acres in size, 11 acres have been planted with grapes, and houses more than a thousand trees in total. There is an interesting story behind the selection of this land. Our neighbor, a friend of the owner, was very enthusiastic and took us both for a drive in his car. When he introduced the whole land to us, there were potholes and ditches throughout. After we bought the land, we became very good friends with them and we still send grapes to their house every year.
To give you another example about how we kept trying despite failures. When I bought the seedlings, I didn’t know where to buy them from initially, and the first batch of 8 seedlings I bought were found to be irrevocably wilted when I received them. It took a lot of effort, reading reviews on websites and reading the experiences of other grape growers, before I bought seedlings with a high survival rate from a better seller.
Mrs. Yao: I also remember how we cleared the ground. The workers we hired took the money but did not come, and my husband had to cut the weeds all day by himself before he cleared the paths between the rows of grapes and used organic weed killer to remove all the harmful weeds.
Growing is a business that requires long commitment and patience, not a victory by just fighting over one difficulty. In the spring of 2018, we planted the grapes, and in 2018 they produced less than 10 fruits — That’s the product from over a thousand grapes! Grapes are slow-growing plants that are planted and take 4-5 years to reach maturity.
Iris: That’s a very meaningful life lesson of patience and perseverance！
What are some moments that reward your efforts and bring joy to the difficulties?
Mrs. Yao: Of course, our experience has not all been negative; the process is always a mix of hardships and joys. For example, prior to establishing the vineyard, we tried to grow muscadine grapes in our own garden in 2015, with a little harvest in 2017. So, when it came time to build the vineyard in 2018, the grape crop at home was already excellent, and we knew how to cultivate it and believed we could do so successfully.
Dr. Yao: Another thing that makes me glad is that we have a very good relationship with the surrounding farms and have received a lot of help from our neighbors. I already told you my story with the neighbor when we bought the land. Additionally, when starting out, we were two white-collar employees with no farm machinery, our neighbors around us were kind enough to lend us their machines, like tractors, and often came to our vineyard to help and discuss planting-related issues.
Iris: What are your future plans for the Pleasant Vineyard?
Mrs. Yao: While the grape harvest was plentiful, we also planted pears and dates in preparation for future variety expansion in our harvesting garden. We also hope to build Chinese pavilions, dredge a lake, plant lotus flowers, and recreate the splendor of our hometown here in the future.
Dr. Yao: Well, I believe digging a pond is a simple task, and we are not in a rush. Our immediate goal for the next year is to brew our own wine! We currently have a factory helping us to produce wine using our muscadine, and there are two types of red wines and one type of white wine, both of which are very popular. But for me, it would be a very interesting experience to make our own wine. I hope I can explore different sweetness and flavor categories by myself!