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Wine without Pretense: Wineries can be a tough and dirty business

POSTED: July 6, 2011 1:30 a.m.

There’s a wry old saying about the business of making wine. Goes like this: Know how to make a small fortune in the wine biz? Start with a large fortune.

Same goes for farming. And it should, because the production of wine grapes and the lovely nectar they give up is a form of farming ... hard, dirty, tiring work that depends on the fickle moods of Mother Nature.

To celebrate another wine axiom — great wines begin in the vineyards — two Rabun County farm wineries are opening their doors to the public from noon to 4 p.m. Aug. 20.

It’s Rabun County Farm Winery Day presented by the folks at Tiger Mountain Vineyards and Persimmon Creek Vineyards, wineries with two unique features in common. Both are working to preserve old farms as farms. And both grow 100% of the grapes used in producing their wines.

"Ours is a five-generation farm in John’s family," explained Martha Ezzard, co-owner of Tiger Mountain, plunked in the suburbs of scenic Tiger. Don’t blink when you go through. Also, don’t speed.

"John" is her husband, Dr. John Ezzard, who oversees the wine-making program. That is when he’s not out battling bugs and diseases that constantly threaten the vines and grapes.

Good grapes can be grown and good wines made in the difficult climate of northeast Georgia.
But it’s not Napa Valley and not Bordeaux. Two factors heavily influence what grapes can be planted — extreme humidity during the summer, and the danger of a late frost in spring.

The Ezzards planted their first vines in 1995 and opened their winery in 1999. Wine farming is different in one special way from, say, planting corn. The vines need at least three years to begin producing viable wine grapes. Martha remembers cringing during the first three years when they had to cut away the young bunches of just-set grapes.

"When you plant corn, at the end of the season it goes away," Martha remarked. "A grape vine is forever.

"We’re really farmers, out there with the bugs and mold and mildew," the former journalist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution continued. "We make the soil better, just like other growers."

The Ezzards run Tiger Mountain along with partners John and Marilyn McMullan. They have a working relationship with another fledging winery just up the road, Stonewall Creek Vineyards.

Persimmon Creek Vineyards was established in 2000 on a 110-acre site along that creek by Sonny (Dr. William) and Mary Ann Hardman They planted 24 acres in vines, growing vinifera (classic European) grapes, such as riesling, cabernet franc and merlot, along with a patch of the French-American hybrid white grape, seyval blanc. The Hardmans have garnered a number of awards and honors for their wines.

"Every vine has to be touched by hand," Mary Ann told me recently. "Martha and I have the same approach; we’re both working hard in farming."

She loves that people identify with wine, but not with the mystique attached to it. "Most people don’t understand that wine comes from plants — beautiful, well-tended plants. Romance of wine is great, wonderful; but it’s food."

At Persimmon Creek their sheep graze the vineyards in the off season, helpfully providing natural fertilizer. As we spoke, Mary Ann said from her downtown Clayton tasting room, "I’m looking at hanks of wool from our sheep."

Here’s how Rabun County Farm Winery Day works. Motor up to the area (see accompanying box for contact information and directions) and go to either winery. Pay $20 and that gets you into both places. It also gets you a souvenir wine glass and goodies to munch.

Visitors will be able to sample all the wines at Tiger Mountain and Persimmon Creek. Winery personnel will explain the farming aspect of wine production and growing techniques, such as how to train a grape vine to the trellises, and what must be done to protect the vines and fruit from weather and critters.

"And we want to serve samples of things that grow on our farm," Martha noted. She’s planning on offering blueberries, some tomatoes — "if we have any left" — and possibly home-grown herbs.

To liven up the affair the bluegrass band Mountain Hoo-Doo will perform.

"We hope to make this an annual event," Martha said. "We want to educate people about what they’re getting in a glass of wine. We want them to have a taste of the earth ... this earth."

Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. He can be contacted at murrwine@aol.com.



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