North Georgia vineyards turn wine tastings into big business — and fun

Georgia winemakers go from ‘kooks’ to ‘wine county cool.’

Why would people go to the Montaluce Winery & Restaurant to take a guided 1.8 mile hike through the woods or fly fish in the Etowah River — many for the first time? “You’ll be surprised what people will get excited about when they know there’s wine at the end,” laughs Matthew Garner, general manager.

Credit: Contributed by Montaluce Winery and Estates

Credit: Contributed by Montaluce Winery and Estates

Located in Dahlonega, Montaluce is one of at least 77 wineries in the North Georgia mountains (and counting), that hosts wine tasting experiences. Overall there are about 106 bonded wineries in the state. Some offer straight up tastings while other have expanded into full blown experiences with guided hikes, fishing, music, hay rides through the vineyard or interactions with the winemaker. Others have restaurants, lodging and event space to host weddings and other celebrations. Regardless, people across the country are discovering North Georgia Wine Country.

Eric Seifarth who owns Crane Creek Vineyards puts the growth in perspective. “It used to be that if you said you had a winery in the mountains people looked at you like you’re a kook. Now we have 70-something wineries, many of which are award winners, and suddenly we’re Wine County Cool.”

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

“I know it’s a cliche but Dahlonega had the first gold rush in 1828. This is the next gold rush,” says Sam McDuffie, director of tourism for Dahlonega and Lumpkin County. “It’s changing the face of the whole region. People are coming up, staying in hotels, shopping, buying homes and visiting the wineries. We’re jammed packed here because of the wineries. It’s a good problem to have.”

Garner says the wineries and their tasting rooms have “gotten bigger and more expansive. People want an experience. They want the product to mean something. Places that provide those unique experiences are more desirable, and wineries are a great place to do that. Even in winter it’s nice to go out, connect with nature and have wine, which makes everything better.”

According to the Georgia Wine Industry, the wineries’ economic impact is about $4.1 billion with $1.4 billion in annual wages and $88 million in tourist expenditures. There are almost 1,000 acres under cultivation and about 214,321 tourist visitors. A Wine Trail map is available, but the best way to sample the wineries may be in March with the Wine Highway, a month-long event. In 2022, 40 wineries and 8 tasting rooms participated.

Tasting is Believing

A. Eric Richner, a retired investment professional, has been to between 30 to 40 tastings. He had “no expectations” on the quality of local wine but was “very pleasantly surprised. We had mead wine, which I hadn’t had before. There are some places that produce fantastic wines and we purchase about four to six bottles a month.”

Valerie Walker Bennett spent three weekends traveling the Wine Highway. She first focused on Dahlonega and then the Ellijay wineries. One weekend she stayed at a winery with lodging in the Sautee Valley.

Bennett, who grew up in nearby Booth, saw parts of Georgia she’s never seen before while visiting the wineries. “All these people in the vineyards have come up with different creative ways to bring out their personalities and mix it with the beautiful places and the agriculture.”

One of her favorites is Terra Incognita Vineyard in Clarkesville, where guests can purchase wines as well as hike and camp on the property.

Blairsville resident Wes Duffey visited Crane Creek Vineyards 15 years ago and has been a fan of Crane Creek and North Georgia wine tastings ever since. “I’ve gone to every vineyard around here. Friends and I like to go and check out the wines. It’s become a wine destination!”

Credit: Andre Leon

Credit: Andre Leon

When he first started, he felt the overall quality of the wines was not “very good but over the years, the people have become dedicated. There are a lot of wineries here that have won national awards. It’s such a beautiful place. I enjoy the camaraderie of coming together with family and friends.”

Kennesaw resident Eric Berrios heads to the vineyards every two weeks and calls the wine tastings an “undiscovered experience. You can talk to the winemaker and have a more intimate experience than at a wine festival.”

Credit: Andre Leon

Credit: Andre Leon

Andre and Mari Leon married at Tiger Mountain Vineyards near Clayton. They frequent the Engelheim Vineyards in Ellijay, which was named the 2018 Georgia Winery of the Year, and Chateau Meichtry, a family owned winery in Talking Rock where the “owners are so cool.” Both offer music as well as tastings. “These places are investing in the experience with music and that sets the winery apart for us.”

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Growing the industry

Sharon Paul and her late husband, Doug, left Atlanta, moved to Lumpkin County and thought they could grow a few vines. Twenty seven years later, Three Sister Vineyards is flourishing. All the wines are made from grapes from their vineyards including rosés, whites, sparkling, dessert and reds.

“The first couple of years were pretty lonely, with only a few other wineries, and then more started popping up,” says Paul. “Now we’re a tourist attraction!”

Seifarth’s Crane Creek Vineyards in Young Harris has two on-property tasting rooms and satellite tasting rooms around the state. He also sells directly to restaurants. “During COVID it was crazy how much wine we were shipping out,” he says. “Pre-COVID people didn’t have a clue we were selling wines.”

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

The popularity can be attributed to one main thing, he says. “It’s the quality of our wines. We don’t fall back on muscadines and sweet wines; there’s really nothing wrong with that. But as a group, we all had the desire to raise the bar and make wines that can be appreciated. We are in a good area for growing grapes and making wine. Are there better places in the world? Yes. But California’s going to run out of water; they do need rain or irrigation, and that’s significant.” Crane Creek recently took gold in the prestigious San Francisco One Chronicle Competition for its “Hellbender” Norton 2019.

Christina and Charles Ernest started VIP Southern Tours in 2013 with the first all-inclusive wine tour in the Southeast. “We started tastings of four or five wines, which was not a good idea. It’s a lot of wine. Now we visit three wineries. We also provide a waterfall tour where they can hike to a small waterfall and then go to the wineries.”

As more people discover North Georgia wines and tastings, the industry will only grow and attract more attention.

“Prior to the ‘70s the wine in Napa was considered redneck wine and then it hit the global stage,” says Berrios. “I think Georgia is trending in that direction.”

Crane Creek Vineyards. 916 Crane Creek Road, Young Harris. 706-379-1236, cranecreekvineyards.com.

Montaluce Winery & Restaurant. 501 Hightower Church Road, Dahlonega. 706-867-4060, montaluce.com.

Frogtown Cellars. 700 Ridge Point Drive, Dahlonega. 706-865-0687, frogtown.com.

Three Sisters Vineyards. 439 Wineyard Way, Dahlonega. 706-865-9463, threesistersvineyards.com.

Terra Incognita Vineyard. 1821 Vandiver Mountain Road, Clarkesville. 828-482-7382, terraincognitavineyard.com.

Tiger Mountain Vineyards. 2592 Old 441 South, Tiger. 706-782-4777, tigerwine.com.

Engelheim Vineyards. 127 Lakeview Road, Ellijay. 706-635-9463, engelheim.com

Chateau Meichtry. 1862 Orchard Lane, Talking Rock. 706-502-1608, chateaumeichtry.co