Fresh and Local Wine and Culinary Tourism in North Georgia

Fresh and Local Wine and Culinary Tourism in North Georgia: The North Georgia mountains have been known for moonshine, agriculture, traditional values and a broad spectrum of geologic and cultural riches. These assets remain, but their impact is changing as visitors are now associating the North Georgia Mountains with beautiful new wineries, fabulous dining, luxury resorts and the abundance of wonderful fresh and local products.  Of course, you can still find a mason jar of good ‘shine if you know who to ask.

Fresh and Local Wine and Culinary Tourism in North Georgia

Fresh and Local Wine and Culinary Tourism in the North Georgia Mountains 

By David and Gayle Darugh[1]

The North Georgia mountains have been known for moonshine, agriculture, traditional values and a broad spectrum of geologic and cultural riches. These assets remain, but their impact is changing as visitors are now associating the North Georgia Mountains with beautiful new wineries, fabulous dining, luxury resorts and the abundance of wonderful fresh and local products.  Of course, you can still find a mason jar of good ‘shine if you know who to ask.

Just this year owners of many North Georgia vineyards, farms, orchards, mills, herbalists, dairies and restaurants founded the Georgia Mountains Foodways Alliance[2], dedicated to preserving the heritage of our mountain foodways and to promoting fresh and local products.  This Alliance encompasses a field to table spectrum from agriculture to fine dining, with emphasis on all the specialty foods, farm markets, and hands-on restaurants in between that are so dear to the hearts of southerners who love homegrown/homemade local food.

The notion of using fresh and local ingredients is not new to the Georgia mountain people who have planted gardens and orchards, raised farm animals and foraged or hunted in the wild to supplement what they might purchase at the market.[3]  However, the unique development is the birth and growth of North Georgia’s Wine Highway.  While the first modern Georgia wineries started back in the 1980’s, in the past decade many new vineyards have been planted and wineries built dedicated to making fine table wines from Georgia grown grapes.

Viticulture and winemaking have steadily gained importance in Georgia’s agri-economy.  North Georgia is currently host to more than a dozen wineries, and the rate of new vineyard plantings is amongst the highest in the Eastern U.S. Production is now about 115,000 gallons annually.[4] In 2001, Georgia’s legislature recognized the significance of the industry and authorized the designation of roadways and signage to create the Georgia Wine Highway.  This designation and more recent legislation permitting Georgia wineries to ship wine will encourage increased planting and production.

Along with the development of wineries is an explosion of wine and culinary tourism in the North Georgia Mountains – in particular there is a growing interest in fresh and local products.  Fruits and vegetables grown thousands of miles away are harvested long before peak ripeness so they can survive shipping and be market ready weeks later.  Local products are fresher, have better flavor and more nutrient benefit, offer more seasonal variety, lessen the environmental impact of transportation and packaging, and keep more money in local economies.

Although we are both Southerners, our parent’s employment took us to Northern California in our youth, well before Napa and Sonoma became synonymous with food and wine.  We observed the growth of California wineries during the 1970’s, but what really contributed to the development of culinary and wine tourism was the location of fine dining venues in Napa and Sonoma Valleys, along with the birth of California Cuisine.[5]  When John Ash & Company, The French Laundry, Auberge du Soleil and others built fabulous restaurants (and lodging) they quickly developed loyal followings – and that is when tourism exploded.  With over 5 million visitors annually, Napa is California’s second most visited tourist destination after Disneyland.

Together we have traveled the world in pursuit of food and wine destinations.  Some of our most romantic memories include wine dinners and wine tastings in a winery hosted by the winemaker.  Few experiences, at least for the wine enthusiast, can be better than sitting next to red stained wine barrels, breathing in the smell of wine-soaked oak, dining on the best of fresh and local cuisine, while the winemaker offers secrets on how she coaxed her grapes into offering their very best.  Once you have experienced this personal treatment you will understand what makes Napa more attractive to the tourist than Disneyland- at least for many adults.

A new survey reveals that the emerging phenomenon of culinary tourism-defined as travel to learn about or enjoy unique and memorable eating-and-drinking experiences-is taking hold in the American vocabulary.  One-quarter of all leisure travelers say food is central to their destination selection, and that number increases to 51 percent for culinary travelers (those engaging in culinary activities during leisure trips).  Deliberate culinary travelers also indicated that culinary or wine-related activities were either a key reason to take the trip or helped them choose between destinations.  According to the survey, two in five (40 percent) of leisure travelers self-identify as traveling to learn about or enjoy unique and memorable eating-and-drinking experiences.[6]

The study demonstrates that a sizable proportion of the U.S. leisure market does indeed make travel decisions based on a desire for wine and culinary experiences.  In fact, it confirms that wine and culinary experiences are a driver of destination choice.

This perspective has not been lost on Georgia’s grape-growers.  One of the first to appreciate and understand the association of wine and culinary tourism was Karl Boegner, founder of Wolf Mountain Vineyards near Dahlonega.  Karl opened the winery in 2002 and operates it with his wife Linda and son Brannon and daughter in law Ashley.  Karl is an old hand in the tourist, food and accommodation industry.  He was in charge of food service for the opening of Disney World in 1971.  He was also the Executive Vice President for Chateau Elan Winery from 1985-1989.  He and Linda owned and operated the Founder’s Club in Roswell, GA a high quality events venue.

Wolf Mountain was built as a destination for the wine and culinary savvy.  Karl spared no expense to create of a wonderful ambience in the lodge, tasting room, patios, and winery.  The lodge sits at the top of the mountain and enjoys a spectacular view with southern aspect for his 8 acres of grapes, which include Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Mouvedre and Touriga.  Wolf Mountain makes some of Georgia’s best and most highly rated wines.

In the winery, tasting room and barrel room, the architecture is a modern rendering of traditional craftsman style.  Karl has collected a stunning array of wine antiques that add an historic European flavor to the cellar ambience.  The floors and walls could easily be mistaken for a timeworn castle’s wine cave.  Wolf Mountain specializes in hosting weddings and banquets in the gardens and patios.  In addition, the Boegners offer themed wine dinners, live music, tours and tastings to the public.  Karl is a proponent of fresh and local products and is a supporter of the Georgia Foodways Alliance.  Karl has proven success in the delivery of fine food service has quickly made Wolf Mountain a popular and successful wine and culinary destination.

Not far away is another beautiful winery destination, Frogtown Cellars.  Owned and operated by Craig and Cydney Krietzer, this three level California-style gravity flow winery was designed to accommodate receptions, weddings and large events.  The facility is a timber-frame structure with cathedral ceilings, hand-carved Tennessee flag-stone walls and Brazilian cherry floors.  Two large decks and a wrap-around porch envelop the structure with breath-taking views of the mountains and their vineyards.

Frogtown makes award winning Georgia wines from 15 varieties of grapes planted on 32 acres of well-tended vineyards.  Craig is passionate about farming and making wine, and he is certainly one of Georgia’s most knowledgeable growers.  He and Cydney knew that the combination of food and wine in the development of winery events is a powerful determinate for the traveling public.  The winery facility includes a well-designed commercial kitchen and they now offer events on-site to experience food and wine.  Frogtown hosts regular multi-course winemaker dinners and receptions where guests can talk to the winemaker.  You can even plan your own Al Fresco dinner in the vineyard with live guitar or violin music.

The newest winery destination in Georgia is Montaluce, a Napa-Tuscan themed winery and residential estate development near Dahlonega.  Its commitment to food and wine tourism and to fresh and local is certainly the most ambitious so far.  The estate includes the brand new 9500 square foot Tuscan themed winery, Le Vigne Ristorante, estate home-sites and, finally, Montaluce claims to offer a Napa-Tuscan lifestyle for its residents and for visitors right here in the North Georgia Mountains.

To ensure culinary success Montaluce hired Steve Hewins as Executive Chef.   After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), Chef Hewins landed a job in San Francisco at the renowned Stars Restaurant, working under Jeremiah Tower (see fn 5) where he spent his four most formative years.

Chef Hewins has a passion for fresh seasonal ingredients and a commitment to sustainable produce.  Le Vigne Ristorante’s recipes reflect the Italian proverb of “eating by the calendar.”  Organic vegetables, fruits, and herbs are either estate-grown or handpicked by the restaurant’s forager from local farms and ranches.  Chef Hewins oversees the planting of organic vegetable and herb gardens on the Montaluce estate with the guidance of a full-time master gardener.

Finally, Montaluce says it offers a Napa-Tuscan lifestyle for its residents and visitors.  It will offer wine and culinary festivals throughout the year including wine seminars with guest speakers, visiting winemakers and its own winemaker.  Chef Hewins and visiting chefs will host culinary classes in their state of the art demonstration kitchen. There will be art exhibits with some of the finest artists and galleries in the south and visitors will have the opportunity to meet the artist, sample fine wines, and enjoy the finest in gourmet dining.  Finally, Montaluce will host Artists and Farmers Markets.  Reminiscent of the age-old street markets throughout Tuscany, the weekend artists and farmers markets will feature the area’s finest arts, crafts, and organic produce.

Wolf Mountain Vineyards and Frogtown Cellars are wonderful examples of wineries built to be wine and culinary destinations from the outset.  Montaluce goes another step and offers its visitors and residents a Napa-Tuscan “fresh and local” immersion and lifestyle.  All three are exciting venues offering culinary, wine and lifestyle events that will encourage visitors to make the North Georgia Mountains a destination choice.

In addition to these mega-venues, North Georgia has smaller wineries that, while they did not initially invest in large event facilities or commercial restaurant kitchens, are nonetheless devoted to culinary, wine and lifestyle tourism.  Tiger Mountain Vineyards in Rabun County, nestles at the foot of its namesake mountain.  Co-owned by two couples the winery itself is located on the fifth generation family estate of Dr. John Ezzard.  John and wife Martha farm about 10 acres of grapes, including Norton, Tannat, Viognier, Malbec, Mouvedre, Cabernet Franc, Touriga and Petite Menseng.  Co-owners Bill and Leckie Stack farm about 5 acres of grapes nearby including: Norton, Malbec, Viognier and Cabernet Franc.

At Tiger Mountain Winery almost everything is done by hand – farming and winemaking.  Martha Ezzard, journalist and author, showed us the different varieties of young trees, each one selected and planted by their young grandchildren.  She and John want to give them a love of the land and a personal investment in it.  John is a farmer at heart and spends as much time as possible in the vineyard.

Over at the Stack property, Leckie, a life-long gardener, has extended her skills to manage the vineyard as Bill spends weekdays at his law practice in Atlanta.  She is a devotee of the fresh and local movement and is a co-founder of the Georgia Mountains Foodways Alliance.  The Stack’s farm is a tribute to Rabun County’s fresh and local mountain heritage as it includes a 100 year-old apple orchard, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, persimmons, and Asian pears to name but a few.  Her yard is a wonderful wild jumble of perennials, wild flowers, lilies, flowering bushes and indigenous mountain plants.  Something is always in bloom.

Both families agree they do not plan to plant many more grapes.  They want to keep the acreage of vineyards at a manageable level, as their objective is to provide the highest quality hand-made wines from less commonly known grapes that prosper in north Georgia (e.g. Tannat, Malbec and Touriga).  We think they have found a wonderful niche.

The owners provide plenty of wine events and culinary celebrations for their visitors and for the local community.  In May they annually hold an “Awakening of the Vines” Festival with wonderful food and live music that may include the 100 piece Atlanta Chamber Orchestra set up in the vineyard.  The vines are serenaded by classical, show tunes, jazz, and of course, “I heard it Through the Grapevine.”  Late each summer they celebrate harvest with a stylish picnic, wine tasting and live music.  Visitors can help harvest grapes and may even participate in a grape stomp.  This spring Tiger Mountain Vineyards added a “Fiddle and Author Festival” to raise funds for Forest Watch.  The winery offers more casual celebrations to commemorate the release of new wines and vintages.  In addition, romantic Al Fresco picnicking and dining is available in the vineyard.  One will always find a large assortment of local artisan cheeses and many other seasonal products from local farms and gardens.  All of these wonderful products taste better with a glass of one of Tiger Mountains Vineyards award winning wines.

Crane Creek Vineyards in nearby Young Harris, owned by Eric and DeAnne Siefarth, is another wonderful small family owned operation that offers visitors a variety of events and festivals throughout the year, all of which include fresh and local products.  Spring includes an artfest, in summer a tomato festival, in fall a harvest festival with hay-rides for the kids.  The tasting room is located in a restored 1880 farmhouse that also contains a quaint guesthouse for visitors.  Eric and DeAnne host monthly wine dinners featuring Crane Creek wines, often with live music.  The setting is the tasting room in a beautiful garden location with expansive patios with a view of the vineyards, ponds and the mountains beyond.  The resident Crane Creek Chef is a supporter of the Georgia Mountain Foodways Alliance.  Eric also sells grapes to amateur winemakers and conducts home winemaking and pruning seminars.  The tasting room has many local products including art and amateur wine making supplies.

Blackstock Vineyards, owned by David Harris, with 40 Acres under cultivation, qualifies as the largest Vinifera vineyard in Georgia.  David is a graduate of the oenology and viticulture programs at Fresno State, in California.  He started his winemaking career as an assistant winemaker at Biltmore Estate in North Carolina.  His reputation and interests eventually led him to become the winemaker at the successful Habersham Winery in Helen, Georgia.  Ten years ago, he “semi” retired from winemaking to concentrate on the development of his own vineyard near Dahlonega, GA.  At this beautiful mountain estate he works in the vineyard daily, giving personal care to his 24,000 vines.

Last year David completed construction of a new winery and tasting room on the highest location on his vineyard.  The tasting room opens onto a large covered porch with spectacular views of the surrounding mountains.  Blackstock frequently uses the porch for wine, food and music events.  Visitors can also rent this area for their own private event.

One of the most gorgeous vineyards in the eastern United States is Persimmon Creek Vineyards located in Rabun County.  Set in a secluded valley encircled by high mountain peaks, trout flit through  Persimmon Creek as it meanders through the vineyards.  Sonny and Mary Ann Hardman searched for two years to find the vineyard site.  Currently there are 15 acres under cultivation planted to Seyval Blanc, Riesling, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.  Laid out with a painterly eye, the couple studied the undulations of the land and selected the planting areas for not only the specific conditions required of each grape variety, but also so the rows follow the land in a way that leads the eye to absorb exquisite natural contours and textures.  The couple has three young sons and find that working with them in the vineyard is a way to pass on a love of the earth and knowledge of the basic rhythms of the ecosystem.

Mary Ann Hardman is the marketing maven, flying and driving around the state to resorts and fine restaurants to offer tastes of Persimmon Creek wines to wine directors, sommeliers and chefs.  She emphasizes the fresh and local aspect of Georgia wines – and reminds them that wine is a farm product.  To a growing number of restaurants and resorts that brag about serving local Georgia products the point is not lost

The Hardmans are nearing completion of three farm cottages on land overlooking the vineyards.  These cottages will provide an escape and haven for visitors seeking the peaceful solitude of Persimmon Valley.  In addition, until they build a new winery, they have moved their tasting room to a building they refurbished in downtown Clayton.  “Persimmon on the Square” offers wine tastings, and it has a number of high quality fresh and local products and upscale gifts made or designed by Georgia artists.

We asked Mary Ann about her culinary philosophy and the phrase “what grows together goes together” and “farmers are our local heroes” rolled quickly from her lips.  She is definitely a strong proponent of fresh and local.  Their oldest son, Mitchell (age 14), has plowed up much of what is not planted to grapes and is growing wildflowers, silver queen corn, heirloom pumpkins, tomatoes, and vegetables.

Persimmon Creek offers a number of scheduled dinners throughout the year featuring well-known regional chefs that are proponents of fresh and local products.  They also offer private luncheons and dinners either in the winery, on their terrace or Al Fresco in the vineyard.  Sonny and Mary Ann will make sure you have the perfect Persimmon Creek wines to match your meal.

If you are looking for wonderful culinary and wine experiences, seek beautiful romantic scenery, want to relax and enjoy our mountain hospitality, and to sample the abundance of our fresh and local foods and wines then the Georgia Wine Highway should be your destination of choice.  The North Georgia Mountains are truly an exciting place to live or to visit.


[1] David and Gayle Darugh are owners of the Beechwood Inn, located in Clayton, GA. beechwoodinn.ws.  The inn includes a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence Restaurant.  They taught Wine Appreciation classes at the University of Tennessee during the 1980’s.  Gayle is a former National President of the American Wine Society and David was the General Counsel from 1990 to 2000.  Gayle is co-founder of the Georgia Mountains Foodways Alliance.

[2] http://www.georgiafoodways.org

[3] Rabun County resident Patricia Kyritsi Howell, author of “Medicinal Plants of the Southern Appalachians,” is the South’s foremost expert on native medicinal plants.  She operates Botanologos an herb school that specializes in teaching about Southern Appalachian medicinal herbs and their therapeutic uses.  Ms. Howell is also co-founder of the Georgia Mountains Foodways Alliance.  http://www.botanologos.com. 

 [4] The Oxford Companion to the Wines of North America, Bruce Cass, Oxford University Press, 2000.

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_cuisine: Alice Waters, of the restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, is credited with originating California cuisine and retains the reputation of offering the ultimate California cuisine experience. Her cuisine emphasizes the freshest ingredients in season and procured solely from local farms.  Jeremiah Tower worked for Alice Waters at Chez Panisse and then opened his own restaurant, Stars, in San Francisco.  Tower, who held a degree in architecture from Harvard, was the first to implement  the “stacked presentation.”  The success of Stars restaurant helped the hype of California Cuisine as “what the stars eat.”   

[6] The URL for this study is:http://www.travelindustrywire.com/article26325.html