It pains me to have to say this, but here it goes: “Georgia has a wine industry.”
OK, all of you snickering class clowns, be quiet. I feel compelled to tell folks that Georgia has a successful and growing wine industry not as a point of ridicule, but quite literally many people are unaware that there are wine grapes being grown not too far north of Alpharetta.
Besides not getting deserved respect, it ain’t easy being a Georgia winemaker. If it’s not the ill-timed rains during harvest or the punishing (sometimes devastating) spring freezes or the humid summers with their associated diseases, it’s antagonistic state and local governments, which only recently have grown more tolerant.
Then there’s the bane of market perception. Many otherwise good people inside and outside of the state think it’s OK to scoff at the efforts of the grape growers and winemakers in Georgia. There are 30-plus Georgia wineries. Some make great wine, some not so great. Some use out-of-state grapes, some don’t. You could say the same thing about any other wine region or country, including California and France, which once imported untolled tons of grapes from North Africa for their “French” wine.
But wait. There is a ray of hope, a glimmer of respectability. As of July 18, Georgia has its first designated viticulture area, known officially as the Upper Hiwassee Highlands American Viticultural Area. It is approximately 700 square miles, twice the size of Napa Valley, and includes the counties of Towns, Union and Fannin (and the North Carolina counties of Cherokee and Clay).
“The new AVA is a huge step for the Georgia wine industry,” said Elizabeth Slack, marketing director for the Winegrowers Association of Georgia. “Respectable wine growing areas all over the world are specifically delineated and given a name. Since many wine drinkers select a wine with origin in mind, the new AVA gives Georgia wine an advantage in the marketplace. And in a world where choosing a wine and deciphering a wine label can be confusing to some, the more the consumer can glean from the wine label, the better.”
And, of course, Slack is right. It is a step in the right direction or, perhaps, a half-step. The preponderance of the new AVA lies in North Carolina and was spearheaded by North Carolina winemaker, Eric Carlson of Calaboose Cellars in Andrews, N.C. Merely four Georgia wineries (Crane Creek, Hightower Creek, Odom Springs and Paradise Hills) reside in Upper Hiwassee Highlands (That’s the North Carolinian spelling of Hiwassee. In Georgia, it’s Hiawassee, the county seat of Towns.)
The bigger fish that is nearing the pan are the areas around Dahlonega and Cleveland, which contain a higher concentration of wineries. For years, the idea of a North Georgia or a Dahlonega Plateau AVA has been thrown around. Unfortunately, more than anything else, what was thrown around was a lot of mud.
“Yes, historically, it appeared some of the Georgia winemakers did not get along,” said the diplomatic Slack, who represents the wine association’s 18 wineries. “But now that those that actually want to work together have banded together, the environment has changed.”
Georgia winemakers working together. That is big news.
And there has been an esprit de corps. I’ve witnessed exchanges of farming and fermenting advice, especially from veterans of the fickle Georgia growing seasons to rookie winemakers. I’ve also seen sharing of facilities and equipment.
“They realize that what is good for one is good for all,” Slack says. “The goal is to help the industry grow and they can accomplish a lot more when they work together.”
So when can we expect a truly Georgian AVA? Despite a lot of talk of cooperation, I could not get one person to guess. But it is important. Upper Hiwassee Highlands is North Carolina’s fourth AVA. About 30 years ago, North Carolina ranked toward the bottom of the list in U.S. wine production, neck and neck with our Peach State. Today, Tarheel winemakers sit at 12th. Many of them will tell you it was and remains a battle to gain market share and respectability, but it was a cooperative effort.
Georgia remains at 40th on that list and likely will stay there until Georgia winemakers discover the benefits of a rising tide.
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Gil Kulers is a sommelier and maitre d’ for an Atlanta country club. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.