Five years ago, Jabe and Barbara Hilson were faced with a choice.
Jabe Hilson, who had worked at Tiger Mountain Vineyards for seven years, could take a steady job at a winery out of state, or the couple could embark on the daunting journey of starting their own winery in North Georgia.
“It was the easy route or a life-changing hard route, and I chose the life-changing hard route,” he said.
Their Noble Wine Cellar tasting room in Clayton is a clear sign the hard route has taken the Hilsons somewhere. An even better indicator is that Noble Wine Cellar is on the menu at Atlanta’s Empire State South, known for the strength of its wine program. Noble also has made the cut at similarly lauded restaurants, like Canoe, Gunshow, and Table and Main.
Empire State South’s wine director, Steven Grubbs, learned of Noble when the winery released its first vintage in 2015. “The first sentence of Jabe’s sales pitch told me everything I needed to know,” Grubbs said. “He said, ‘I’m not trying to imitate wine from anywhere else. I’m trying to figure out what Georgia can do.’ I was immediately on board.”
However, it wasn’t just the Hilsons’ commitment to the region that won him over. “That wouldn’t be effective, if he wasn’t showing moments of real genius in certain wines,” Grubbs said. “When he nails them, they’re such breakthroughs. Like the 2016 chambourcin we’ve poured, and the 2017 petit manseng we’re pouring now.”
Chambourcin? Petit manseng? Like many Georgia winemakers, Hilson has figured out that grapes like chardonnay or pinot noir don’t offer the same potential here that lesser-known grapes might. Noble’s primary vineyard, Fiddlers Ridge, actually sits just over the Georgia-North Carolina line, in an AVA called the Upper Hiwassee Highlands that spans the two states. (An AVA, or American Viticultural Area, is a federally designated wine grape-growing region, like Napa Valley. The Upper Hiwassee Highlands and the Dahlonega Plateau are the only two Georgia AVAs.)
Hilson knows that the grapes from Fiddlers Ridge — like chambourcin, petit manseng and traminette — can lead to great wine, but he and Grubbs both understand the challenge of opening consumers’ eyes to wine made from relatively unfamiliar grapes.
“I think the only way to make Southern wine a workable, everyday part of regional culinary culture, instead of an occasional novelty, is to get it in restaurants, by the glass,” Grubbs said. “Jabe has made a concerted effort to ensure that his wines are not just at his tasting room.”
Grubbs noted that Noble Wine is winning over drinkers. “It’s satisfying to prove an entire realm of possibility to someone,” he said, adding, “You can tell they’re excited to be drinking something that’s genuinely regional.”
Despite these successes, the road ahead is full of unexpected curves. Winemaking is, after all, an agricultural endeavor, dependent on the unpredictable climate of our region. “It’s a gamble being in the business of farming,” Hilson said.
He frets over how well each vintage might live up to the high points Noble already has hit.
“Sometimes, you think, is this (new vintage) going to do the good I want it to do, or not? And that’s really tough. I feel like, if I don’t leave myself open to different interpretations (of each wine at each harvest), I may miss out on excellence.”
That type of openness to the vicissitudes of winemaking certainly can lead to growth, but a poor crop, or taking a gamble in the winemaking or aging approach to each wine, also can undermine a year’s worth of effort. “I know why so many wineries focus on being tourist destinations,” he said, “because it’s what pays the bills.”
The Noble tasting room may not match the destination-trappings of larger wineries, like Chateau Elan, but the cute little storefront on downtown Clayton’s Main Street clearly offers the Hilsons a stable year-round opportunity to bring customers in to the “drink local” fold. In addition to the Noble wines, the shop features a line of meads called Southern Origin, made by Hilson in partnership with Blue Haven Bee Co. There are also wines from like-minded Georgia winemakers, and a handful of Georgia and North Carolina craft beers on tap.
Hilson hinted at things to come for Noble Wine Cellar. “Five years in,” he said, “it feels really good, but we know we’ve got to get around the next curve. We feel like we can get where we want to be, helping this wine region grow.”
He paused. “But you can’t control the weather.”
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