Growing Good Times in Georgia
Vineyard vines wind themselves through the peaks and valleys of the North Georgia mountains an hour north of Atlanta. Twenty years ago, vineyards and wineries began planting those vines in the small mountain town of Dahlonega, which has since become the heart of Georgia wine country, the wine tasting room capital of Georgia, and the Napa Valley of the South.
The first was Three Sisters Vineyards & Winery, Lumpkin County’s first legal alcohol producer since Prohibition. Before buying the “farm” in 1995, Sharon Paul and her husband Doug, whom she called a “visionary and a wild man,” were wine lovers living in Atlanta, working in advertising and marketing. They craved the calm of nature and dreamed of growing some grapevines.
“It’s all about being a real farm,” said Sharon. “It’s about having good wine and having a good time.”
Three Sisters planted its first grapes in 1998 and took its first harvest in 2000. The farm now stretches across 184 acres of prime wine grape producing land.
“[We are] 100 percent estate grown, 100 percent Georgia. We didn't get into business to make California wine. We got into business to make Georgia wine and show the world what Georgia can do. And that’s what we’re doing,” she said.
Rich soil for winemaking and hard work have helped Three Sisters and the Dahlonega-Lumpkin County wine industry grow to offer 12 wine tasting rooms and eight wineries.
Prime for Wine
Although young, Georgia’s wine region is fertile. The land is conducive to grape growing because of its soil quality, sun exposure, climate, and other characteristics. The mountainous elevations and grape growing conditions make Dahlonega-Lumpkin County prime growing land for a variety of wine grapes: European, French hybrids, and American.
In 2018, The Dahlonega Plateau was recognized as an official American Viticultural Area, meaning 85 percent of the wine comes from grapes in a designated wine growing area.
The AVA recognition has given Dahlonega’s wine industry “some street credit,” said Stephen Smith, Wolf Mountain Vineyards and Winery’s marketing and wine club director who oversees the tasting room operations. “It’s no different than Napa Valley or Sonoma County,” he said.
Wolf Mountain is a 30-acre full-production wine facility perched on a south-facing slope at 1,800 feet elevation. The estate grows and produces wines in the European style, which visitors sip while enjoying mountain views in the estate’s tasting room and full-service restaurant.
“Our whole initiative has always been to break the stigma of Georgia varietals as sweet, muscadine wines,” said Smith. “Stylistically, [Wolf Mountain’s] wines are usually thought to be more European in style—big, bold, dry—not the sweet fruit-based wines.”
Exploring the Wine Trail
Miles of windy roads separate Dahlonega-Lumpkin County’s vineyards, allowing visitors to meander through the mountain landscape and relax away from the city. Five of the region’s acclaimed vineyards and wineries, including Wolf Mountain and Three Sisters, are on the Dahlonega Wine Trail—a 39-mile scenic drive that winds through Lumpkin County.
Along the route, Montaluce Winery & Restaurant transports its patrons to the Tuscan countryside, while a few minutes down the road, Cavender Creek Vineyards and Frogtown Cellars showcase Georgia’s southern hospitality. The Trail is only a part of the region’s thriving wine industry, which also includes Kaya Vineyard & Winery, Dahlonega Resort and Vineyard, and Accent Cellars.
“Everybody’s got their own vibe. Every winery is unique,” said Sharon. “I say try them all and see which one fits your personality best.”
Napa Valley of the South
Dahlonega is no stranger to striking it rich with its earth. In 1829, gold was discovered in Dahlonega, making it the site of the first mass gold rush in the U.S., said Sam McDuffie, director of tourism at the Dahlonega-Lumpkin County Chamber & Visitors Bureau.
“That unique piece of history is captured through many of our tourism attractions,” said Sam.
The Georgia mountain town struck it rich before California’s gold rush. Dahlonega rivals California in both wine and history.
Between vineyard visits, visitors can poke into the mom-and-pop shops in the city’s charming downtown square or explore the region’s natural splendor on land or in the water. “We’re actually the closest mountain town to the city of Atlanta,” said Sam. “If you're into the outdoor adventure kind of stuff, not only can you hike and see waterfalls, but we also have two major rivers that run through our county that provide opportunities for people to canoe and kayak.”
The Appalachian Trail also runs through Lumpkin County—Wolf Mountain is only a few miles away from it—so getting outside is as convenient as drinking wine. “We’ll have people that have been out hiking all day. They’ll end up with us for a glass of wine at the end of the day,” said Stephen.
Dahlonega-Lumpkin County offers a true escape where people can, like the vines, wind themselves through the peaks and valleys of the North Georgia mountains.