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This professor's GPB documentary explores roots, culture of Georgia wine
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Benjamin Garner, an assistant professor at University of North Georgia in Dahlonega, has produced a documentary about Georgia wine and the growing movement among winemakers to take the next step in wine production: giving the region a character of its own apart from other wine regions in the world.

With their roots firm in Georgia soil, winemakers have a new mission: Refining a fledgling industry and setting themselves apart from other wine regions in the country and the world.

And a new documentary coming to Georgia Public Broadcasting explores that task. Produced, filmed and edited by Benjamin Garner, an assistant professor of marketing and management at University of North Georgia in Dahlonega, “Southern Vines: The Rebirth of Wine in Georgia” will take viewers into wineries around the state, including Hall County’s Sweet Acre Farms and many others in North Georgia.

“What I like about the wine industry is the passion and the art and the effort they put into making something that’s a step above our normal culture,” Garner said on Monday, Dec. 11. “What I like is people getting obsessed with producing something excellent. (Wine is) a blend of art and science.”

Among others, Garner visited Sweet Acre Farms, Yonah Mountain Vineyards, Wolf Mountain Vineyards, Chateau Elan Winery and Resort, Accent Cellars and, in South Georgia, Still Pond Vineyard.

Garner documented the winemaking process and interviewed winemakers about their products, land and history. He pitched the 26-minute documentary to GPB, which picked it up and will show it for the first time at 3:30 p.m. Dec. 29. The network will retain rights to the film for three years.

A public screening is tentatively set for the spring at UNG’s Gainesville campus.

Matt Vrahiotes, who owns Sweet Acre Farms with his wife, Lindsey, is a prominent figure in the documentary. The winemaker opened the first winery in Hall County after a prolonged review process with public officials, and he’s now in his third year of business in Alto.

Vrahiotes said that, for his own winery and for others in North Georgia, it’s time to move into the next stage of the industry: establishing an identity.

“Now we’re starting to play with the idea that we’re not just trying to make wine, we’re trying to make a wine that’s uniquely Georgian,” he said. “I think all the wineries are just now starting to come together to figure out what we think the flavor of Georgia wine is.

“What is Georgia wine? What flavors are unique to us, what varietals are unique to us versus Texas or California or Missouri.”

Those questions have been churning underneath meetings of the Georgia Wine Producers and other trade groups. Vrahiotes said Garner’s documentary has done the state a service: It took those questions that up to now have been worked out within the wineries themselves and “said them out loud” for the public to hear.

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Taylor Denton of Sweet Acre Farms unpacks new wine bottles for sterilization Tuesday, May 29, 2018 at the Alto winery as a small crew bottles hundreds of gallons of blackberry wine. - photo by Scott Rogers

Garner said he wants his film to help establish wineries in Georgia as different from other regions in the nation, with a history that stretches back to Colonial America and the early cultivation of the muscadine grape.

“I think place is important and a sense of community. The more we can create distinctive places in our communities, we can fight this homogenization of culture,” Garner said. “Sweet Acre Farms is different than Yonah, and Yonah is different than Still Pond.”

The professor and filmmaker has explored similar concepts in other industries, producing documentaries on a Kansas dairy farm and farmers markets in America’s heartland.

His affection for food and the cultures that produce unique examples of it began when he studied abroad in Italy. His time overseas, in cultures that have been changed and refined over thousands of years, helped him develop an appreciation for expertise tied to the land and what people are able to draw from it.

“All of these places we’re talking about are kind of artisan producers, in a way,” Garner said. “I was looking for that here.”

And with this latest film, he found it in Georgia wine, which is now going through a rebirth almost a century after Prohibition.

“All the vines and culture of winemaking got ripped up with Prohibition,” Garner said. “All the people who had expertise in wineries left. That’s partly why I like it now — it’s not just that we produce wine, but we’re bringing back a culture of expertise.”

For Vrahiotes, expertise has meant growth for his business. After two years, he’s now selling wine online, in stores around Hall County and, earlier this year, began selling in the Atlanta wine chain Total Wine and More.

As word gets out about his business and the others nestled in the hills of North Georgia, the winemaker is hoping Georgia producers will do more than just keep their doors open.

“A lot of us want to make an impact in the wine world,” he said.

Pickers at the Habersham Winery vineyard harvest grapes to be used for wine. - photo by Scott Rogers