Rod Byers: Wine is where you find it
OK readers, given the following information, where am I?
A small town about an hour from a major city. A historic district dotted with buildings on the national register. Home to an abundance of dining, music, theater, wine tasting rooms, galleries and shops, and, it was central to the first major United States Gold Rush.
Who wouldn’t guess Nevada City? Easy money. But you would be wrong. I’m in Dahlonega, Georgia.
First, let me tell you why.
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My sister and father live in north Georgia. I was going for a family reunion. A couple of weeks before leaving, I started thinking, I know every state has a winery. I wonder where Georgia wine country is?
Well, the Dahlonega Plateau, considered the heart of Georgia wine country, is 90 minutes northeast of Atlanta. I was going two hours northwest of Atlanta. For local traffic, it was clearly out of the way. But if you were from the East Coast traveling from San Francisco to Sacramento, wouldn’t you take the Napa offramp?
Mired in a variety of prohibition-era alcohol laws, the state of Georgia didn’t have much of a wine thing going on. Then in 1983, the Georgia Legislature passed the Farm Winery Bill, an epic shift, allowing wine tasting and cellar door direct sales.
Now there are about 60 wineries in Georgia, mostly in the northeast but also scattered throughout the state.
Dahlonega, claiming the capitol-of-wine-country title, is a town of 5,000 and the Lumpkin County seat. That position was cemented into eternity when the Alcohol, Tobacco and Trade Bureau designated the “Dahlonega Plateau” as an American Viticultural Area in July 2018.
It’s the first all-Georgia viticultural area in the state and a gigantic achievement. It took a coalition of wineries and the county Chamber of Commerce four years to push the application through the system before ultimately gaining status as a unique growing region.
The Dahlonega Plateau is a long, narrow plateau located in the northern foothills of the Georgia Piedmont, a very cool name when it comes to wine. The viticultural area covers a select 133 square miles in the northeast section of the plateau.
At inauguration last July, there were seven wineries and 110 acres of vines.
Grape growing in Georgia is challenging. Farmers are constantly at war with various molds and mildews that flourish in the humidity. But that doesn’t mean they can’t succeed.
Georgian wines also come with options Californians are not used to. Those includes vinifera wine grapes like Chardonnay or Merlot, but also French hybrids and American natives. It’s easy to veer into peculiar flavor territory.
I was specifically interested in vinfera grapes grown in the Dahlonega Plateau. I reached out to Robb Nichols, President of the Dahlonega-Lumpkin Chamber of Commerce. He set me up with an appointment at FrogTown Cellars with owners Craig and Cydney Kritzer.
Starting in the 1990s, Kritzer was one of the region’s wine pioneers, likening the local maritime climate as similar to Bordeaux. He now farms 42 acres of mostly vinifera grapes making over 20 different wines.
Proudly claiming to be the most awarded winery in America outside of California, FrogTown offers a classic tasting room, delightful wines, a restaurant, and vineyard views from the deck that would make any wine lover feel at home.
Estate grown, produced and bottled, Kritzer correctly recognizes that to forge an identity they must produce wine with grapes grown in the region. It’s the grapes that make the region.
Next was Three Sisters Winery. Named as Best Winery In The South, Dahlonega’s first family farm winery opened in 2000. Owner Sharon Paul farms 20 acres producing superb still and methode champenoise sparkling wines.
I asked if there was a history of viticulture in the region. “Does moonshine count?” came Paul’s answer. Grape culture, she explained, included taking muscadine grapes, stuffing them in a barrel, adding a pile of sugar and putting a lid on. Three months later, you started drinking.
But it’s a different world now. If you can grow good grapes, you can make good wine. Three Sister’s Cabernet Franc says it all, deserving a place on any restaurant wine list in Georgia, or California for that matter.
Still, it’s difficult to create recognition as an emerging wine region. While the wineries I visited were doing their best to overcome the Georgia-makes-wine? mentality, it remains a high hurdle.
I can’t speak to the state of the Georgian wine industry. I only visited two wineries. I can say the Dahlonega Plateau has a lot going for it. The region is tourist friendly with rural activities. Wine adds to the complexity, and the sophistication, of the mix.
It’s a young region, still learning what it does well. While they may feel under-recognized It’s impossible to overstate the significance of getting a viticultural designation. That puts them on the wine map in a way that just having wineries in the region can never accomplish.
It’s also impossible to ignore the almost six million people living an hour and a half away, looking at the map. Or people like me, looking from thousands of miles away.
Maybe you can’t immediately jump on a plane to go there, but wherever you’re going, check to see where their wine region is. It might just surprise you.
By the way, the reason you lost the opening bet was because Dahlonega’s gold rush was in 1828, 20 years before California’s.
Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. He is the host of the local television show Wine Talk. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and he can be reached at 530-802-7172.
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