Georgia's wine industry, waiting for your visit
After the prohibition-inspired drought, southern state is enjoying a vineyard renaissance
By Mary Ann Anderson
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Page 20
2009-02-05 12:32 AM
Last year, when Time magazine's resident rabble-rouser Joel Stein set out to sample at least one wine from all 50 states, I don't reckon, as we would say in the local vernacular, that he had an idea in his head that he would make us Georgians madder than an ol' settin' hen. After sipping from a couple of bottles of vino produced by Chateau Elan in Braselton, he promptly labeled it as "undrinkable," then adding insult to injury with this adieu:

"To be fair," he wrote, in part, "this is made by some kind of golf resort. Still, I have no idea how someone made this, tasted it and thought, Yeah, we should put this in a bottle and give it to people. I did not know so many things could be bad about a single wine: it's watery and yet it tastes like sweet gasoline at the same time. I tried Chateau Elan's red as well, and it was not only just as horrifying, but it was horrifying in almost the exact same way. This must be one nice golf course for them to get away with this."

Well, sniff, sniff. Maybe Chateau Elan's wines aren't quite up to, um, par with those of say, the Cape Winelands, France, or California, but there's always room for improvement. Other states whose wine Stein ranked "undrinkable" were North Dakota, South Carolina, and Wyoming, with even Alabama beating us by earning only a "bad" rating for its sweet muscadine wine.

(We Georgians don't like for Alabama to beat us at anything, especially football. Pigskins aside, I digress and move on.)

Georgia may not have the best wines on the planet, but we do have a remarkable wine industry, with a history dating to the late 19th century and Old World Hungary.

In the late 1800s, a group of Hungarians migrated from the Pennsylvania mining country and settled in Haralson County in North Georgia. The Hungarians, with a few Slovakians thrown into the mix, established their own village, naming it Budapest in honor of the capital of Hungary, with a second village named Nitra formed by the Slovakians. With their Eastern European knowledge, they began the cultivation of grapes for winemaking.

The naturally rolling terrain of northwest Georgia provided well-drained, mineral-laden soils and steep hillsides idyllic for growing the verdant vines. The Hungarians planted grapes profusely, with nearly 13,000 acres of vineyards in Haralson County alone by the early 1900s.

Since there wasn't much in the way of winery regulations or taxation then, Uncle Sam wasn't looking over anyone's shoulder, so the industry just came uncorked and boomed like crazy. As a matter of fact, Georgia's wine industry prospered to where it once ranked sixth among grape-growing states.

The traditions were gone

The "grape" fortune of the winemakers wouldn't last, though. In 1907, when Georgia - pretty much the buckle on the Bible Belt - voted on full alcohol prohibition, 11 years even before national prohibition, the wineries were forced to shut down. The fantastic winemaking traditions brought over from the Old World were essentially abandoned and forgotten as the Hungarians moved elsewhere. Other wineries had also sprung up across North Georgia, too, and their vineyards withered away as fast as the ink dried on the new prohibition laws. Winemaking, as a way of life, simply disappeared.

Prohibition meant two things: Georgians could obtain their booze illegally or make moonshine. That's when "white lightning" and bootlegging became permanent fixtures in the South for the next few decades and were even the focus of a couple of good ol' boy Burt Reynolds movies that were popular at small town drive-in theaters across the South. Few people drank real wine (Boone's Farm was the preference), much less became wine connoisseurs or wine snobs. Beer, whiskey, or 'shine reigned, for the most part.

A renaissance of the wine industry was brought on by the passage of national farm bills in the 1970s and ?0s that allowed vintners to thrive once more. When Georgia passed its own farm bills, two of the oldest wineries, Chateau Elan in Braselton and Habersham Vineyards & Winery, kick-started grape-growing and wine-production that has now grown to dozens of wineries and vineyards across the state.

Today, Georgia's wine trails stretch mainly across the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Georgia - with a few slight anomalies in South Georgia - where the natural elements have created ideal conditions for growing vitis vinifera, the native European bunch grapes, and French-American hybrids, the European bunch grapes crossed with American bunch grapes. The anomalies, small wineries like Still Pond and Meinhardt Vineyards, grow only muscadine varieties, as the more hot and humid conditions below Macon just won't allow cooler weather vinifera or French-American hybrids to flourish.

But it doesn't matter where the grapes are grown, be they are muscadine, vinifera or hybrid - the fact remains there are now 100-percent Georgia-produced vinos popping up everywhere. There are some pretty good ones, too, like Crane Creek in Young Harris with a sauvignon blanc that rivals anything around, and Wolf Mountain in Dahlonega, which has won truckloads of awards.

And Chateau Elan, the bane of Joel Stein's wine existence? This 3,500-acre five-star resort, modeled after a 16th century French Chateau winery, offers not only wines, but also acres of vineyards, a luxurious inn, a European-style spa, a conference center, golf courses, and world-class restaurants that feature, naturally, Chateau Elan wines. Honestly, it's so authentic that a visit there is like being transported to the French countryside. And it's the largest producer of premium and varietal vintages in Georgia, earning more than 275 national and international awards. So, go back to your corner, Stein.

Yes, winemaking is relatively new to Georgia, so our wineries don't have the deep, rich past that you would expect to find in the more historic, well-known regions like South Africa, Italy, or New Zealand. But that's OK. It's just worth the effort to explore a few of Georgia's wineries and vineyards for a few days - and, of course, sample a glass or two:

Chateau Elan, Braselton. (800) 233-9463 or visit

Crane Creek Vineyards, Young Harris. (706) 379-1236 or

Meinhardt Vineyards, Statesboro. (912) 839-2458 or

Monteluce Winery and Estates, Dahlonega. (866) 991-VINO or

Persimmon Creek Vineyards, Clayton. (706) 546-4884 or

Still Pond Vineyard and Winery, Arlington. (800) 475-1193 or

Wolf Mountain Vineyards, Dahlonega. (706) 867-9862 or, or

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