Wineries are working hard to create the next Napa Valley in every state in this great wine-making country, and I try to keep an open mind, but we all know that outside of a few, well-known states, most of the wine offers little beyond tourist novelty and local pride. So I was surprised when I decided to beat the summer heat by taking a little winery tour in the North Georgia mountains over Labor Day weekend. Expecting to find some wineries that were maybe a few years away from making decent wines, I found instead some wines that are already better than much of what you are picking off the shelves from California.
And given the setting amid the towering oaks, cold stony rivers, vales and hollows, it makes a great weekend destination for anyone in driving range from Georgia, Alabama or North Carolina, especially when the fall breezes blow and the leaves start to turn.
My last-minute trip was a little complicated since the AC in my ‘82 Mercedes had been struggling a little in the 105 degree weather, so I took it in to have it fixed and the mechanic managed to take it apart about three weeks ago but has not yet managed to put it back together. So as I was leaving Athens, Ga., in my rental car, reading the directions to the wineries as I went, and reached into the glove compartment to pull out my Georgia map for reference, of course it was not there. It was back at Antique Import Auto Repair, probably cradling some greasy bolts removed from the engine mount.
I remarked to Emily, my traveling companion and chief wine critic, that I could not really follow the directions without looking at a road map, but I hated to take the time and spend the money to stop and buy another one, when I already had a perfectly good one sitting back in Athens. Emily was quick with her analysis, “You sound like my mother.
“Come on. Stop and buy another map at a gas station. It’s not the Great Depression.”
I thought it was an interesting reference, since the Georgia mountains are full of stone walls and shelters built by the CCC when the dirt-poor Appalachians were crushed by poverty in that era, but according to Emily I am always over-intellectualizing everything, so I let it go.
Needless to say, we stopped and got another map, which will also probably get tucked away and not be handy next time I need one, but we found how to get from US 19 near Dahlonega over to 441 in Rabun County and mapped our wine route as we went.
We found some of the best wines and most picturesque views at our first stop at Frogtown Cellars, north of Dahlonega. They had a very interesting copper-colored rosé with hints of tropical fruit flavors that the Merlot, Sangiovese, and Cabernet Sauvigonon grapes somehow drew out of the mountain hollow. Frogtown also had some interesting varietals, such as a bold, tannic Tannat and a Viognier that seemed to more closely match its Georgia roots with notes of peach and melon.
The Cabernet family reserve I thought quite good but recalibrated at the sight of the $48.95 per bottle price tag. Emily opined that with the economies of scale at small, little-known wineries, they have to charge on the high side. But as a wine buyer I can’t help thinking about what else I could get for the same price, in this case an Achával Ferrer Quimera with an average of 95 points in the major wine ratings.
Emily and I agreed that the winery’s economics of the tasting itself were ill-conceived. Emily was totally aghast when the neatly uniformed server offered us one glass to share.
“They don’t even know if we’re dating. How can they give us one glass to drink from?”
She was even more aghast when they served about two small hummingbird sips in each glass. Emily is a big gulper. She says she needs it to really taste the wine, so that did not leave much for me to get a second hummingbird sip after she downed her portion. Emily finally asked for another glass and the server, apparently sensing her qualities of critique, had enough good sense to accommodate her.
But the winery still offered minute drips of wine in each glass. Emily swore it was impossible to taste wine that way. I noted that theoretically it was possible to taste the wine, and I remembered my high school chemistry teacher at Indian Springs, E. Leland Watkins, talking about the molecules expanding through the atmosphere that we detect as odors, explaining that as these molecules continued to spread throughout the universe, if Peppy LePew sprayed Yosemite Sam and you had a keen enough sense of smell — like my mother — you could sniff the air on the planet Mars, and exclaim, “Skunk!” And E. Leland Watkins veritably danced in front of the blackboard and suddenly sniffed, as if with high-ranking military authority, as he intoned this startling science to his students— just like the best-educated sommelier (though I did not make that connection at the time). In retrospect, I bet he could have also done that wine connoisseur gargling move where you suck air across the wine in your mouth to make it bubble, before it was de rigeur.
But Emily insisted, notwithstanding my ideal universe, that she could not detect one part per billion of Sangiovese, by any method. Frogtown also had a scheme for charging for the tasting that was more complicated than my high school chemistry class. There were three separate menus you could select from, each with entirely different wines on it, and you paid $5 for one menu, $10 for another, and $12 for the third, which seemed to amount to about a dollar per drop of wine, or at least just enough to leave the ablest proboscis sniffing in vain. And did I mention they encouraged sharing?
Of course as wine cognoscenti we did not want to feel nearly so confined and picked and chose at random from the separate lists, and the server had at least enough good sense to accommodate us on that. But after all the map-reading and back-seat driving to get there, Emily was starving and informed me she had to have something to eat right away.
Well, Frogtown Cellars offers brunch on the weekends and they have a lovely dining room looking out over the mountains and vineyards, as well as tables outside on a wrap-around porch. And we apparently had our pick of tables as there was almost no one there at the time.
But when we asked to be seated for brunch our wine-tasting server said he did not know if we could and ran back into the kitchen. He returned and sheepishly informed us that “there was not enough” for us to have lunch. We looked at the empty tables and wondered “enough of what?” I would have settled for a ham sandwich on the porch to quell Emily’s tremors, but we could get no further information to satisfy this curiosity, so we were on our way, with a nice finish on our palates but an ominous rumbling in Emily’s innards.
I wanted to stop at the other wineries very close by, Three Sisters, Blackstock and Wolf Mountain, but when Emily started mentioning blood sugar, I knew we really needed to find some food — and fast. I suggested we look at the materials on the other wineries that I printed off the internet to see if we could get something to eat at one of those. Wolf Mountain, in fact, advertised a Sunday brunch, and I was hopeful that we would get to give the nearby wineries a try.
So Emily called Wolf Mountain while I was driving around the mountain curves with her pleading for me to slow down because she couldn’t take them on an empty stomach. And I could tell by her stony silence that she had been greeted by an automated phone menu at Wolf Mountain. At what seemed like long intervals she would press a number on the phone to make her selection, then whimper with pangs of hunger and near-nausea through the next curve. All she wanted to do was make a simple brunch reservation (as apparently food is nothing to take for granted in those parts) but she finally hung up in exasperation, exclaiming, “It’s like a credit card company!”
At that point I knew we had to leave the wine trail and head all the way back into the town of Dahlonega to find some food before I found myself on the butt-end of another comparison to Emily’s mother. Thank you for your patience, Dear Readers, as we will have to leave those wineries for another day and another column.
After lunch, we did have time to try wines from Habersham, a vineyard and winery near Helen, Ga., before heading for Rabun County in time to get there before the wineries closed at five o’clock. Habersham also had very decent wines, I thought, in its Habersham and Creekstone lines — including Sangiovese and Viognier varietals made with purchased grapes, as well as Cabernet and very round, full-bodied Chardonnays grown on the property — but Emily could not accept the plastic cups used for the tasting. She said, “You can’t smell anything from a plastic cup,” and I wisely eschewed a retort with any more chemistry theories, because now she was having difficulty riding around the mountain curves so soon after lunch. Emily also thought the server seemed a little too wounded when we did not purchase a bottle of each wine we tasted.
But all came to a happy ending when we finally found our way to Tiger Mountain Vineyards near Tiger, Ga., just past the scenic Tallulah Gorge. The quality and variety of the wines was quite amazing, from Viognier to Douriga Nacional. They also had a nice Tannat, though not as powerful as Frogtown Cellar’s, and not quite as good in Emily’s opinion, though she was quite pleased with it, as I was happy to note. Tiger Mountain also did a good job with other less common varietals like Petit Manseng.
Overall the experience at Tiger Mountain was by far the best of the day. We had calm, friendly, knowledgeable people helping us behind the counter, who seemed in no hurry to bolt as the hands of the clock converged on closing time. They went and found two of the owners who came out and talked to us about the Malbecs of Argentina versus the Tiger Mountain Malbec, which as an Argentine wine exporter I was quite surprised to find in Georgia. It did not have the rich body and velvety texture of a good Mendoza Malbec, but was favorably comparable to the French and Chilean varietals. I was quite impressed with the depth and breadth, as well as the quality of the offerings from a 3,500-case-a-year winery.
Tiger Mountain also had scenic views of mountains and vineyards. And best of all, as one of the owners said, they were not trying to cater our wedding or sign us up for a credit card promotion — they were just making wine. And they gave us generous pours in real wine glasses, made of real glass, in a simple but roomy tasting room permeated, as it should be, with the aroma of the wines and the oak casks that lined the walls. I imagined that somewhere on Mars, E. Leland Watkins, my high school chemistry teacher, all helmeted up, was sniffing the atmosphere through a tube with deep, sommelier satisfaction and veritably dancing to himself as he exclaimed, “Petit Manseng!”
LINKS TO GEORGIA WINERIES
Could the next Napa Valley be in the state of Georgia? Not likely, but there are some wineries in our neighboring state producing notable wines. If you'd like to make a road trip of your own, here's a list of wineries within a day's drive from Birmingham:
TIGER MOUNTAIN VINEYARDS
2592 Old Highway 441
Tiger, GA 30576
Dr. John Ezzard started planting grapes in 1995 on the 100-acre farm at Tiger Mountain where he was born. With his wife Martha, he selected varieties of grapes suited to the climate of southern Blue Ridge Mountains, including the American Norton, and the vinifera red grapes of the Loire and Rhone River valleys of France: Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Tannat, Mourvedre and the white Viognier, as well as the Portuguese Touriga Nacional and Tinta Cao.
April - November - 7 days per week
Sunday - Friday 1-5 p.m.
Saturday - 11 a.m. - 6 p.m.
December - March
Friday – 1-5 p.m.
Saturday - 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.
700 Ridge Point Dr.
Dahlonega, GA 30533
Frogtown is a 57-acre wine estate located at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains equal distance between Dahlonega and Cleveland Georgia. Frogtown encompasses 32 acres of vineyards and a tri-level gravity flow winery specifically designed to produce the unique wines made from Frogtown grapes.
In 1998, native Atlantans Craig and Cydney Kritzer founded Frogtown in a location carefully selected for quality wine grape production and outstanding mountain views, the Frogtown District of Lumpkin County, Georgia. After researching Frogtowns soil, diverse climates and terrain, Craig divided the land up into separate vineyards. He planted different wine grape varieties based on the characteristics of each vineyard site. Frogtown is now home to 32 acres of vineyards planted to 15 different wine grapes varieties, both red and white.
Frogtown produces wines under the 'Frogtown' label and the 'Thirteenth Colony' label.
THREE SISTERS VINEYARDS
439 Vineyard Way P.O. Box 3
Dahlonega, GA 30533
Three Sisters Vineyards' property is located in the Frogtown community of Lumpkin County in the Chestatee River Valley. Elevation is 1800 feet above sea level. We believe it is the "perfect place" to grow a variety of winegrapes. Sharon's brother Ken VanDusen joined the family business in 1996 and acts as Vineyard Manager.. Three Sisters is proudly Lumpkin County's very first vineyard & farm winery since prohibition times.
Three Sisters Vineyards has planted over 8,000 premium wine grape vines (vitis vinifera, French-American and Native American varietals) covering thirteen-plus acres. The vineyard features Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Touriga and three distinctive clones of Chardonnay-as well as the French-American hybrid, Vidal Blanc and the East Coast's popular Native American varietal Cynthiana-Norton. Planted in the spring of 1998, the vines are in six to seven by ten foot row spacings. Three Sisters uses several different trellis systems-including VSP (Vertical Shoot Positioning) and GDC (Geneva Double Curtin).
5400 Town Creek Road
Dahlonga, GA 30533
BlackStock Vineyards, the first of the current vineyards in the Dahlonega area, was founded by formally-trained winemaker David Harris, a 20-year pioneer in Georgia wine. After a decade dedicated to evolving a vineyard with wife and partner Trish, the Harris' now offer an estate winery with spectacular views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Open Daily 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Sunday 12:30–6 p.m.
Call ahead for holiday and winter hours
WOLF MOUNTAIN WINERY
180 Wolf Mountain Trail
Dahlonega, GA 30533
Wolf Mountain Vineyards was established in 1999, with the preparation of our 25-acre estate for grape growing. In 2000, the vines were planted by hand and the winery construction began. We finished construction of the 8,000 square foot gravity flow winery in spring of 2001. Our first vintage of approximately 1000 cases was produced that fall, using locally grown fruit.
We opened to the public in early spring of 2003, selling out of our first vintage in only eight months. Our first harvest at Wolf Mountain was the fall of 2002, with our wine production reaching 2,000 cases. During our second season we expanded our program of events and sold out of our 2002 vintage. Our focus is to make the highest quality Georgia wines possible. As a result of our labor-intensive protocols, our production will remain limited. With the support of our loyal patrons, we hope to reach a 5,000 case production.
Thurs 12-5 p.m.
Fri & Sat 12-8 p.m.
Sunday 12:30-5 p.m.
HABERSHAM VINEYARD & WINERY
7025 S. Main St. (Ga. Hwy 75)
Helen, GA 30545
Some of the finest award winning Georgia Wines have been produced at Habersham Vineyards & Winery since 1983. Over 150 medals have been awarded to Habersham Wines in both national and international competitions. The Winery orginally was located in Baldwin Georgia until November 1998 when construction on a new facility located at the Nacoochee Village in Helen, Georgia was completed. Located just one half mile from Alpine Helen, the Nacoochee Village is now home to not only the Winery but to many other unique shops.
The winery is open seven days a week for tastings and sales. Hours are Monday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday 12:30-6 p.m.