It was still dark when I hopped into my car, heading for Georgia's own little patch of wine country. As I traveled north out of Atlanta, past the uninterrupted chain of commuters pouring into the city, the air cooled several degrees. The wind rushed through my hair, the blood-orange sun rose over the hills, mountains appeared in the far-off haze, and, what? Seriously? A rainbow-colored hot air balloon drifting over the trees? This really is wine country!
The history of wine in Georgia is surprisingly not so concise. Georgia wine appeared poised to take off in, wait for it ... the early 18th century, when colonial founder James Edward Oglethorpe had the idea of building Georgia's economic base on vineyards and silk. Alas, the time was not right. Later, sweet Muscadine wine became synonymous with "Georgia wine." It wasn't until the early 1980s that the current course of wine began to emerge in the state, moving away from miles of Muscadine toward Europe.
In 1979, Gay Dellinger established Splitrail Vineyard with 3 acres of European vinifera and French-American hybrid grapes near Cartersville. Dellinger debuted her "Etowah Ridges" from the 1981 crop, but it was actually produced at Thousand Oaks Winery in Starkville, Miss. Right on Dellinger's heals was Tom Slick, who started Habersham Vineyards outside Clarkesville in 1980. Soon after, Chateau Elan began producing wine and pursuing an aggressive growth plan to bring more European varietals to Georgia.
After that initial burst of activity, proving that wine could indeed be made in Georgia from the same varietals that dotted parts of Europe and California, several ambitious wineries opened in the 1990s in the area stretching from Dahlonega to the North Carolina border. The slightly higher altitudes here offered greater protection for the vines from pests, combined with good soil and the type of sloping hillsides found in the world's great wine regions. David Harris, a graduate of Fresno State's viticulture and enology programs, spent a few years searching for a spot that offered the right elevation, microclimate and soil before founding BlackStock Vineyards just outside Dahlonega in 1995. Just down the road, the Paul family began planting the vines for Three Sisters Vineyards in 1998, the Kritzer family was setting roots at Frogtown Cellars in 1999, and the Boegner family began planting at Wolf Mountain Vineyards in 2000. With each additional winery opening, Dahlonega took another step toward becoming a true wine country.
Northeast toward North Carolina, Crane Creek, Tiger Mountain, and Persimmon Creek were also setting up shop. But there does seem to be something special about the Dahlonega area. BlackStock's Harris explained, "Is there a unique terroir here? The answer is overwhelmingly yes. There's half a dozen of us [wineries] now around Dahlonega, and I feel strongly that there's a higher quality here for many tangible reasons — we're in a lower rainfall niche, and our steep hillside slopes of red clay are a blessing, since the clay doesn't absorb the water. The terroir is a marriage of the climate, the elevation, the slope, the soil, and how they interact to influence the grape and the taste of the wine."
Georgia wine was evolving from a handful of disparate wineries to a semblance of a true wine country. A common thread across most of these newer wineries was a conscious attempt to build destinations, for day trippers, gatherings, music, weddings and more. "The potential for Georgia wine country is tremendous," Harris says. "The properties here are all destinations, beautiful places." Looking out at the views from the tasting room at any of these wineries, it's hard to disagree.
But Georgia will never be Napa, Calif., and making wine in Georgia still needs to evolve to maximize what this place, this soil, can do best. Maria Peterson, a winemaker at relative newcomer Montaluce Vineyards said, "The most important thing is that North Georgia doesn't try to copy California. Sure, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are great sellers, but that's not how you're going to single out Georgia as a serious producer. You're going to have to look at being different and using that as your strength."
BlackStock, Habersham, Frogtown Cellars, Tiger Mountain, Three Sisters, Wolf Mountain, Persimmon Creek ... all of these have built a reputation fueled by a mixture of acclaim in national competitions, by national wine writers, and by the hordes of visitors who have discovered Georgia wine country. You can find good Merlot, Chardonnay, Viognier, unique blends, you name it. So does Georgia have — or need — a signature character, an identifiable style? With the quality and diversity achieved so far, maybe not.
The challenge is making sure that the growing success as a destination among critics translates to a growing presence on the tables of Georgia wine drinkers. Whole Foods in Buckhead has a great Georgia wine selection, and the Four Seasons' Park 75 is pouring Frogtown Cellars by the glass. But gaining broader distribution remains the biggest challenge to Georgia wine's growth. Said Harris, "You really don't see Georgia wines on the shelf in Atlanta the way that they could be, compared to the hordes of people that are coming up here and touring and tasting and buying cases at the wineries. They'd love to get it at their local store, but it's still inaccessible."
Georgia has almost everything it takes to make for a robust local wine culture. The grapes are harvested here, the wines are made here, the blood, sweat and tears are shed here in Georgia in the name of local wine. The quality is there, the dedication and the beauty. All that's left is for our food community, wine purveyors and the public to embrace Georgia wine with the pride and enthusiasm it deserves.
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