Georgia’s Wine Country

“Is It Wine-Thirty Yet?” The sign on the porch of Clayton’s Beechwood Inn, a circa 1922 “summer cottage,” presides over a daily sunset gathering of guests.

Looking over the inn’s gardens to the deepening hues of the Blue Ridgemountains, a group of five women are perched on wicker, sipping the inn’s own chardonnay and viognier, relishing every detail of the previous night’s feast. Inn owners David and Gayle Darugh join their guests, laughing and talking, as quiet strains of a jazz CD seep through the open window into early fall. Later, David will bring in a mystery bottle of red wine in a paper bag for a round of “Stump the Chump,” in which drinkers try to identify the wine’s type and origin by taste alone.

Clearly, if the words “Georgia wine” give you a muscadine migraine, you haven’t been to North Georgia recently. The Beechwood, which the owners promote as “Georgia’s premier Wine Country inn,” is a gateway to a burgeoning industry. The state’s two oldest and largest wineries – Habersham and Chateau Elan – have been joined by nearly 20 wineries and vineyards around the state, ranging from elite boutique wineries to European vinifera to quirky Mom-and-Pop shops selling scuppernong wine for its antioxidant properties.

The wineries – whose numbers are predicted to double in the next 10 years – are part of a growing agritourism industry, says Steve Gibson, manager of Habersham Winery and president of the Winegrowers Association of Georgia. “It’s what North Georgia is all about,” he says. “But it’s happening all over the nation.”

“The emerging wine industry is agritourism at its best,” says Crane Creek Vineyard’s Eric Seifarth, a retired Army officer whose operation is in its third year. Drawn by wineries and tasting rooms that are marked by the state’s Georgia Wine Highway signs, tourists are also filling secondary enterprises, such as new, luxurious mountain lodges and more sophisticated restaurants. Dahlonega’s Corkscrew Cafe joins the Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead and Savannah’s Elizabeth on 37th in offering native Georgia wine.

Although the best current estimates remain relatively small, at only $15 million annually for the industry, interest in Georgia’s wine is clearly growing. The Darughs say the wine connection brings in as many as 80 percent of their guests.

Some, like Wolf Mountain, have made huge investments for stunning facilities that will be run by the family’s next generation. Others, like the Beechwood Inn, a member of the prestigious Select Registry inn association, are already seeing profits – the Darughs say they are sold out every weekend. “It’s a niche that’s three inches wide,” Dave says, “but once you fall in, it’s 12 inches deep.”

Another Kind Of Success

In many ways, the Darughs are typical of Georgia’s new wine industry entrepreneurs. They came to winemaking from high-level professional jobs, hoping for another kind of success. Former president and general counsel, respectively, of the American Wine Society, the Darughs also bring sophisticated tastes to their new occupation. Still, they see their mission as educational, not snobbish: “We want to teach people to trust their own palates,” Dave says.

Many newer Georgia winemakers, such as John Ezzard of Tiger Mountain and Sonny Hardman of Persimmon Creek, had familial ties to the area, returning to farms they knew as children. Most are self-taught winemakers, but some, like Ezzard and Hardman, both doctors, and Gayle Darugh, an ethnobotanist, bring a scientific background. (Lawyers, such as Bill Stack of Tiger and David Darugh, also are well represented.)

A few, such as David Harris of Blackstock Vineyards, set to open his winery in spring, and Jordan Fiorientini of Frogtown Cellars, possess degrees in winemaking and/or viticulture. Others, like Doug Paul of Three Sisters, or Karl Boegner of Wolf Mountain, bring backgrounds in marketing or hospitality. Most simply have an overriding, consuming passion for their occupations. That’s important when your second job includes a harvest that requires working until midnight.

“This is a labor of love,” says Karl Boegner of Wolf Mountain. You could have guessed that from his impressive rows of French oak barrels, reminiscent of a Loire valley monastery. Martha Ezzard of Tiger Mountain puts it another way: “We scream at the Weather Channel.” Still, all are apparently learning the most basic lesson of gardening: Finding the right plant for the right spot. “You need to learn to grow grapes where you are,” says Bill Stack. North Georgia’s mountainous slopes provide better drainage and friendlier climate to European grapes.

Prone to devastating Pierce’s disease, hypersensitive to too much water and a host of other Biblical plagues, grapes are persnickety fruit, wearing their hearts on their sleeves. But it’s that very quality winemakers seek: Terroir is the French term for the telltale taste indicators of climate and culture that

differ with every harvest and winemaking method. It’s what practiced tasters like Dave Darugh seek to articulate in blind “Stump the Chump” samplings – always hoping to find the magical combination of sun and earth, rainwater and mineral. As MaryAnn Hardman of Persimmon Creek says, “You make a great wine from the ground up – or even below the ground.”

While muscadine cultivation is as strong as ever, and most Georgia wineries still make some sort of sweet wine (“People talk dry and drink sweet,” Bill Stack says), Georgia winemakers are enjoying surprising successes with dry wines from such European grapestock as viognier, seyval blanc, cabernet franc – even Portugal’s touriga nacionale, at Tiger Mountain. But there are also American varieties, such as Norton, first grown in Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello vineyards.

In some ways, these new successes hark back to the time when Georgia was ranked as the nation’s number six winemaker. Prohibition may have curtailed those days, but the future looks as pink as Wolf Mountain’s dry Sunset Rose. After years of battling restrictive blue laws, the winemakers’ recent successes include the Georgia Wine Highway signage, one indication of legislative warming.

What’s next? In addition to making inroads into restaurants, Georgia’s winemakers are trying hard to get their wines distributed statewide and beyond. “I’d like the see the shipping rules changed,” says Dan Baldwin, winemaker at Chateau Elan. Until recently, winemakers could ship cases instate with little problem, until a rule change required the purchase to be made at the winery. “It’s not conducive to a small winery,” he says.

Neither are the requirements of large distributors, who might at most be convinced to take on one kind of a small winery’s wine. “Consumers need to know how much power they have. Their request [for Georgia wine] in a wine shop or liquor store can make it happen,” says MaryAnn Hardman. And for now, shipping across state lines is prohibitive for all but the largest distributors – meaning Georgia wines can’t really compete against similar upstart wine regions such as Virginia and Texas.

Also in the works: A push to designate a North Georgia appellation – that is, a name denoting the region that would be marked on every bottle. With a little marketing, the “Blue Ridge” appellation (an Appalachian appellation, as one observer noted) could become, as Three Sisters’ Doug Paul calls it, “Georgia’s Napa.”

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