Grape Expectations

With more than 120 wineries, Georgia’s grape-growing renaissance might soon surpass pre-Prohibition levels of production

Before the 1919 Prohibition Act, there were 20,000 acres of grapes growing in North Georgia. Indeed, grape cultivation was a thriving business—the 1900 agriculture census documented 665,885 grapevines with a production of 1,593,536 pounds of grapes, making Georgia one of the leading wine-producing states in America. Most of this cultivation was in the hands of Hungarian and Romanian families who were recruited to the state for their wine-making expertise.

Then the revenuers (federal agents) arrived. “They came and smashed wine barrels and did a good job dismantling wine production. And that was that. It really wasn’t until the early 2000s that winemaking started to take off again in Georgia,” says Jane Miller, owner of Yonah Mountain Vineyards in Cleveland and president of Georgia Wine Producers, an organization dedicated to supporting the growth of commercial wine production in the state.

And, by “take off” she means more than 40,000 jobs, according to a 2022 economic impact study from WineAmerica, a nonprofit national wine industry association based in Washington, D.C., that showed $410 million in total tax revenue and a total of $1.6 billion in wages for Georgia alone. “So yes, the wine business offers a nice ripple effect,” she says with a laugh. “We are now in the next wave of winery businesses; we were the 12th licensed winery in the state in 2006, and today there are over 120 wineries.”

A 2018 report by the Georgia Department of Economic Development revealed that from 2013 to 2018 the number of visitors to Georgia wineries increased by more than 40 percent. And those numbers continue to grow. Eric Siefarth, owner of Crane Creek Vineyards in Young Harris, has been in the Georgia wine business for almost 30 years and marvels at the progression of Georgia’s wine industry. “When I started winemaking in 1995, there were seven wineries,” he says. “[At the beginning of 2023], I think there were 116. They just keep popping up. I used to know everyone. it was such a small community, but now I can’t keep up with all of them.”

Siefarth has been instrumental in unifying Georgia’s wine industry. “I was the last president of Winegrowers of Georgia. My goal was to transition us to Georgia Wine Producers and become a statewide organization,” he says. Initially, the state’s wine industry only focused on North Georgia wineries. Seifarth helped create an organization that included wineries across the state, therefore giving them a bigger voice in the legislature. “It made a big
difference in terms of our power as an industry,” he says.

Grape Varieties

Given the nascence of Georgia’s wine industry, the debate about which grapes grow best in Georgia remains unsettled. The various microclimates across the state, and even within the foothills of North Georgia, make it challenging to identify one grape that does it all. Many
consider Norton and Seyval blanc to be successes.

According to Simone Bergese, winemaker and owner of Château Elan Winery & Resort in Braselton, muscadine is the obvious choice. “Each site is unique,” says Bergese, “but it took me 20 seconds to understand that in our area there was no option other than muscadine. It’s meant to be here; it grows wild in the woods all the way to Savannah, and it’s a uniquely indigenous wine grape.”

Even given the wine’s historic reputation as an overly sweet, simple wine, Bergese’s instincts have borne amazing success. His 2017 Bianco American Riserva white port chardonnay and muscadine both won coveted Sweepstakes Awards at the 2022 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, making them the first Georgia wines to win at the globally renowned competition.

Siefarth also makes the argument that hybrid grapes are creating new opportunities across the middle of the state. “For a long time, North Georgia was really the only place to cultivate grapes, but over the last decade, we’ve seen the debut of hybrid grapes such as blanc Du Bois and lomanto that are very tolerant of a more humid environment. These varietals have opened growth opportunities for wine country in middle Georgia.” Examples include the Warm Springs Winery, established in Warm Springs in 1910; and Trillium Vineyard in Breman, which had its first bottling of blanc Du Bois in 2016.

Sean Wilborn, winemaker and owner of Cloudland Winery in Buford, agrees. “The hybrid American heritage grapes have been a game changer for us. These grapes can tolerate the conditions we have and make such cool, fun wines, like our lomanto.” Wilborn’s wines (and his winery’s easy proximity to metropolitan Atlanta) have become quite popular, with weekend visitor traffic often exceeding his capacity.

Tastings, Tours, and More

Varietal arguments aside, there is one universal truth about winemaking in this state—you cannot stay in business unless you offer some form of hospitality experience. “When I talk to prospective owners, I warn them if you only want a winery or a vineyard you’ll fail,”
says Crane Creek’s Siefarth, a pioneer in Georgia’s wine industry who is often asked for advice. “You must have some form of hospitality because we are really in the business of agrotourism.”

Siefarth encourages wineries to look for profit centers and “weddings are a big one,” he notes. “Of course, we work hard to keep the wine side front and center, but people want pretty places for private events, rehearsal dinners, and big birthday parties. We have two to three weddings a month, while wineries such as Wolf Mountain in Dahlonega might host two or three a weekend.”

Selling wine is Yonah Mountain’s biggest income generator, says Miller, but they incorporate hospitality as well. “Our Genesis Red Blend is our No. 1 seller; we will put it up against any wine in the world. But we have diversified with weddings and weekend offerings such as food trucks and live music. We are also bringing accommodations to the winery.”

In fact, lodging is a natural evolution of the winery hospitality trend, especially for wedding parties that like to stay on-site in luxury cottages such as the ones offered at Kaya Vineyard & Winery in Dahlonega or the rustic mountain cabins at Paradise Hills Winery Resort & Spa in Blairsville.

While the North Georgia mountains have abundant day-tripper traffic, Georgia’s southern and mid-state wineries struggle with weekend drop-in visitors due to geography. “Our remote location is a challenge, but we maintain a busy event calendar to attract business,” says Jorjanne Paulk of Paulk Vineyards in Wray, Georgia. The winery has also partnered with Harvest Host, a membership program that allows people to park their campers in designated “off the beaten track” destinations across the nation. “We have had visitors from as far as Canada,” says Paulk.

Yet, the most impressive partnership is one the Paulks have formed with more than two dozen North Georgia wineries. “Many visitors to the North Georgia wineries like sweet wine [like ours], so we’ve teamed up with two dozen producers to offer our wines in their tasting rooms, helping them round out the offerings,” says Paulk. “It helps grow our business too.”

Ripple Effect

In the past few years, the Georgia Wine Producers organization has unified the state’s 120-plus wineries into a single voice to address the legislature. “We have a conduit to the legislature,” says Miller. “Instead of being 120 separate entities, we have one voice together.”

Winemakers would like to see some of what they pay in taxes back in the form of education, marketing, and research. Providing educational support for new winery owners is essential. The Georgia Wine Producers recently hosted a seminar in Carrollton for new winery owners or people thinking about getting into the industry. “We brought in oenology experts and lawyers to help them get a license. We wanted to be a one-stop shop for starting a winery business,” says Miller.

The organization works with Sara Louder, a faculty member at the University of Georgia who specializes in viticulture. Louder is hoping to secure funds for more research and commissioned studies of pest issues in vineyards that impact production and sustainability. Marketing funds are essential in continuing to spread the word that winemaking is alive and well in the state. “We still have people come in and say, ‘I didn’t know Georgia had wineries,’” says Siefarth.

Despite the ongoing need for research and marketing investment, progress is heading in the right direction. Consider the Georgia Wine Highway program. It started as an annual day-long event where visitors would buy a passport and go from winery to winery. Now, the passport experience runs for the entire month of March, and in the process brings value to local economies as well.

Siefarth remembers when he was an outlier. “Back in the day, if you told people you owned a winery in the North Georgia mountains, they thought you were kind of a kook. But today, well, now you are in wine country. Wineries and wine production are industries that thrive
on company—it only gets better when more people want to get into the business.”

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