‘Giant’ in Ga. wine industry made fortune in pharmaceuticals

Don Panoz, a serial entrepreneur who helped build Georgia’s wine-making industry, launched motorsports businesses and founded the upscale Chateau Elan development in metro Atlanta’s exurbs, said earlier this year that the word retirement “isn’t in my vocabulary right now.”

"I never become hostage to anything I do," he said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Progress isn't made by looking in the rearview mirror."

Panoz, 83, died at his home in Duluth on Tuesday after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer, according to a press release by his company.

He had his family by him and “enjoyed his last cigarette,” according to the release. Panoz, a smoker, made much of his fortune in the pharmaceuticals industry, where his business included technology used in nicotine patches to wean smokers off cancer-causing cigarettes.

He enjoyed being a maverick.

He grew up in West Virginia and eventually co-founded Mylan Pharmaceuticals. But he built much of his pharmaceutical empire and the Elan Corporation in Ireland, in part because of business frustrations in the United States. He eventually became an Irish citizen.

It was on a business trip through Georgia that he tasted locally-grown grapes and wondered about raising a fancier variety to become the foundation for a winery and resort near metro Atlanta.

“A lot of people told me I couldn’t do it and couldn’t make wine, that we were too far out and people wouldn’t come,” he recalled.

He didn’t heed the warnings.

In the 1980s he launched Chateau Elan in Braselton, Ga. It eventually included a winery, golf courses, hotels, restaurants, convention space, a spa and an equestrian area, as well as nearly 1,000 high-end homes in gated communities. The main winery building, designed to look like a 16th century French chateau, is visible from Interstate 85 near a northeastern edge of Gwinnett County.

Chateau Elan wasn’t the first modern winery in Georgia, and the quality of its wines suffered stiff criticism at times. But Panoz’s operation became the biggest commercial wine-making operation in the state.

“He was a giant in the wine industry in Georgia, if for no other reason than for how rich he was,” said Tom Slick, who owns Habersham Winery.

Panoz knew how to draw in visitors, Slick said. “He set the standard for how to do big, cool stuff that people would like to see.”

Panoz pushed for changes in state law to make it easier for wineries to sell direct to customers.

One of his supporters in that effort was Georgia Public Service Commission member Lauren “Bubba” McDonald, who at the time was a state legislator.

“We lost a great Georgian and a great friend,” McDonald said Tuesday.

In the wine industry, Panoz “made the big, bold move,” McDonald said.

Panoz did the same in the racing business, despite having essentially no experience in that arena before Danny, his sports-car building son, encouraged him.

The elder Panoz founded the American Le Mans Series for endurance racing in sports cars. For years, he also controlled race tracks, including Road Atlanta in Georgia and the Sebring International Raceway in Florida.

The American Le Mans Series is credited with “returning road racing in America to prominence through bigger fan turnouts, more manufacturers and better TV,” motor racing journalist and author Jonathan Ingram wrote in an emailed comment to the AJC.

The series was later merged with operations controlled by NASCAR’s owners.

Panoz also launched businesses to push automotive innovations, including creation of the DeltaWing racing car design. And he funded development of luxury sports cars and electric vehicles, the latter through Green4U Technologies in Braselton.

Automotive technology continued to catch his attention. But earlier this year he said he sold some of his Chateau Elan holdings to make sure it was “on a firm footing in the future.”

“I thought it was time to move on,” he said.

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