Georgia (wine) on my mind

The growing number of wineries in North Georgia has prompted UGA to pursue a professorship in viticulture

Georgia (wine) on my mind

Travis Howard, right, pours samples of wine for Brianna Brown (left) of Royston and Erica Willis of Cumming, in the Wolf Mountain tasting room.

When Martha (ABJ ’60) and John Ezzard (BS ’58) decided to plant grapes and make wine on the mountaintop property near Clayton that had been in John’s family for five generations, people told them they were crazy.

“We’re in the Bible Belt,” Martha Ezzard acknowledges.

Fourteen years later, Tiger Mountain Winery is producing 3,200 cases a year of Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Manseng and other varietal and blended wines. Georgia wines have brought home medals from such tough contests as the San Francisco International Wine Festival.

“We’re competing with California wines and winning awards,” Martha says.

In the past 15 years, the numbers of wineries in North Georgia has more than tripled. Seven new wineries have opened in the past decade, joining old timers Habersham Winery in Helen and Château Élan in Braselton. Using native grapes, like Norton, as well as European varieties, such as Cabernet Franc, Georgia winemakers are making more than the sweet scuppernong and muscadine wines for which the South has become known.

The movement, as it is, began in the mid-to-late 1990s. Amateur farmers like the Ezzards, Karl Boegner of Wolf Mountain Vineyards and Winery, and DeAnne (BS ’83, DVM ’88) and Eric Seifarth of Crane Creek Vineyards decided to try their hands at growing grapes in the higher altitudes of North Georgia. The native grapes, like Norton, were easy to grow. The European varieties, vinifera grapes like Cabernet Franc and Merlot, were more difficult. Vinifera vines the world over must be grafted onto native American rootstock because of a mite that got into the soil hundreds of years ago. Cultivating the European varieties is a tedious and challenging process, one not well understood in the Georgia agriculture community until recently.

“A lot of the grape growers (in Georgia) have had to learn by trial and error,” says Scott Angle, dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “They are the pioneers.”

The college now is trying to establish an endowed professorship in viticulture to educate students interested in the wine business and to help Georgia’s vineyard and winery owners in the industry, Angle says. So far, the college has raised about $100,000, with help from local winemakers. It needs $250,000 to endow the position.

John McMullan (BBA ’58, MBA ’60), a partner in Tiger Mountain Winery and a trustee of the Arch Foundation, says vineyards and winery owners deserve the same assistance that Georgia peanut growers and chicken farmers get from the state’s flagship institution.

“There is a natural reason for the university to be supportive,” he says.

Grape growers like John Ezzard and Eric Seifarth sought advice from successful grape growers in Virginia, which has a similar soil composition and climate to North Georgia.

Ezzard, a urologist who still practices part time in Rabun County, worked with a grower in Orange County, Va., about an hour southwest of Washington, D.C., to determine which grapes would best tolerate the humidity and bugs that plague Georgia crops during the summer. The best, he learned, were those that did well in southern France: reds such as Cabernet Franc, Malbec (the French variety, different from that made in Argentina) and the rare Tannat; and whites such as Petit Manseng, a grape that produces a fruity, dry wine with high sugar levels that are usually hard to attain in a humid climate.

The Ezzards planted the first rows of the native Norton and Cabernet Franc in 1995. In 1996, they added six new varieties. There are nine acres of grapes growing at Tiger Mountain, and the Ezzards purchase the harvest from an additional five acres grown nearby.

They made their first wine in 1998, three barrels in an old building on the property that was once used as a creamery. In 1999 they produced six barrels of their first commercial wine. They now produce between 2,500 and 3,200 cases of wine a year, depending on the grape yield.

“I don’t want to get any bigger than that,” Ezzard says.

While most of the Georgia wineries are small, each producing fewer than 5,000 cases a year, they are making a growing dent in the mountain economy. A financial impact study, produced in 2005 by UGA’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government, showed that the wineries generated $1.16 million in gross revenue in 2005 and could produce almost $2.3 million by 2015. Jobs generated by the growing industry were expected to increase by 44 percent from 232 in 2005 to 335 by 2015.

In addition the new industry is protecting the land, once home to apple groves and dairy farms, from development.

On a picturesque hilltop just north of Young Harris sits Crane Creek Vineyards, which for several years was threatened by a potential residential development next door. Eric and DeAnne Seifarth bought the farm in 1995 and had been trying to buy the adjacent property ever since. They watched anxiously as the owner negotiated with developers. Fortunately, the deal never materialized. The Seifarths bought the additional 15 acres last spring.

Named for the creek that runs behind the property, Crane Creek Vineyards produces wines from the Cabernet Franc and Norton grapes, as well as the French Chambourcin and Chardonnel and the American Catawba.

Eric Seifarth, a retired U.S. Army officer, became interested in grapes and winemaking when he was based in Italy. After he and DeAnne, a veterinarian with the U.S. Army, moved to Georgia in 1995 they began looking for mountain property. They moved into the more than 100-year-old farmhouse on the Crane Creek property with their two then-young sons.

It was an adventure, DeAnne recalls. The house had not been lived in since the 1960s and had no bathtub. DeAnne bought a veterinary practice in nearby Blairsville while Eric cared for the children and put in test plots for grapevines, learning what he could from experts in Virginia and summer courses at the University of California at Davis.

Grapes were not foreign to the land, they learned. The family that had long owned the land had grown grapes and made wine there in the 1930s.

“The area had a lot of grapes growing prior to prohibition,” DeAnne Seifarth says. The original house, which the Seifarths now use as a tasting room and shop, is filled with photos of the Bryson and Crane families that owned the land. Members of the Crane family return every year for a family reunion and picnic on the property.

But it was not an easy start. A hailstorm wiped out one of the Seifarths’ first crops. They were not growing enough grapes to sell or to make enough wine to make money.

“We didn’t even really know if this type of business was viable in this area,” DeAnne says.

By 1999 they needed to build a new house and had to decide whether to push forward to become a commercial operation. They decided to go for it. They made their first wine in 2000, a Seyval Blanc, using the facilities at Three Sisters Vineyards in Dahlonega. The Seyval was released in 2001. They built their own winery in 2003 and slowly began producing more and more cases each year. In 2009, they produced 4,000 cases. They already have begun planting on the new land to increase their production.

“It’s definitely a lifestyle,” DeAnne Seifarth says. “That’s what we were going for.”

A little farther south is Karl Boegner’s Wolf Mountain Vineyards and Winery, which he built from the ground up in the late 1990s after retiring from a 40-year career in the hospitality business. Always interested in wine, Boegner took several years to look for the perfect site for his own company and found it on a plateau near Dahlonega.

The site, close to Atlanta, offers sweeping views of the southern Appalachian Mountains. The elevation—1,800 feet—is ideal for growing the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, which won’t grow in lower elevations and struggles farther north.

Boegner grows white grapes on another tract of land about 10 miles away. He planted his first vines in 2000 and released his first wines, 800 cases of red and white blends, in 2003. Wolf Mountain produces about 4,000 cases of wine each year, including red and white blends and North Georgia’s only sparkling wines.

The business is a family affair. Son Brannon (BSEd ’97) manages the vineyards, while daughter Lindsey Smith oversees the hospitality program. His wife Linda coordinates weddings, which are held in a covered pavilion overlooking the vineyards behind the winery.

For Boegner the winery was the next logical step in a career running hotels, restaurants and resorts. He got his start with Disney in 1970 when the company was planning its resort in Orlando.

“You get a lot of opportunities to meet winemakers [in that business],” Boegner says, “and they give you a lot of great advice.”

“This is the culmination of the background I gained and the things I’ve seen that interested me.”

The winery and restaurant, with heart pine wood and stone, is patterned after a Craftsman cottage from Napa Valley, with interior touches borrowed from the various facilities he’s seen over the years. A fountain outside the tasting room is similar to one at the Simi Winery in Sonoma Valley.

However, it’s in the wine making that Boegner has used the knowledge he’s gained over the years. Wines are stored in French, Hungarian and American oak barrels, which each give the wine a distinct flavor. Most of his reds spend about two years in a barrel, are then blended and finished and put back in the barrels for four to six more months.

“When it’s released it’s a more complex wine,” he explains.

Wolf Mountain is the only Georgia winery making sparkling wine, a process that requires expensive special equipment and more work than traditional wines. Boegner says he has spent the past couple of years trying to perfect the process. His 2008 sparkling dry Blanc de Blanc earned a bronze medal at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition earlier this year (the 2008 Chanteloup took a gold in its category).

“I love sparkling wine,” Boegner says. “The only way I would make it is the right way.”

The opportunity to produce wine “from vine to bottle” is what drew Brannon back to Georgia from Colorado, where he had been living since graduating from UGA. Brannon first traveled back to help his father look at potential sites for the winery. He and his wife moved back in 2000.

With their two young children they, like his parents and sister, live in houses tucked away on the mountain.

“My commute to work is on a four-wheeler,” Brannon Boegner says with a grin. “Nice days, you get out and get the vineyard work done. Bad days you’re in the cellar.”

Get More

For more information on the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences endowed professorship in viticulture or to make a gift to the program, contact Bo Ryles, interim director of development, at (706) 542-3390 or by e-mail at (JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).