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Southern hospitality reigns supreme at this North Georgia winery
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Kayla Gray and Michael Miller serve wine to visitors Gary Berrisford and Wendy McGann at Cavender Creek Vineyards and Winery in Dahlonega. - photo by Scott Rogers

Editor's note: This story previously published in the October 2022 edition of Flight Magazine, a publication of The Times.

Once a hotbed for gold mining, visitors to Dahlonega often uncover a resource that’s just as valuable in its own right and available by the glass.

Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Dahlonega is home to eight wineries and a dozen tasting rooms, earning the city its bragging rights as the heart of Georgia wine country.

Cavender Creek Vineyards and Winery

Where: 3610 Cavender Creek Road, Dahlonega

Hours: 12:30-6:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 12:30-7 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday

More info: cavendercreekvineyards.com

Of all Dahlonega’s unique offerings, there’s one winery whose casual, laid-back atmosphere extends guests a warm invitation to make themselves at home: Cavender Creek Vineyards and Winery.

“I wanted guests to feel like they were guests in my living room,” owner Claire Livingston said of Cavender’s tasting room, which she’s outfitted with sofas and armchairs tailored for lingering. “I love the socialness of it (wine) — the history, the culture, the chemistry, the science behind it. But I think what appealed to me was creating a space where people really felt comfortable to sit, enjoy their wine, visit with their family and friends in a nice, relaxed environment and have all their needs taken care of.”

Guests might sit for a spell inside the tasting room or mosey out to the screened-in porch or outdoor patio, which is just a stone’s throw from the playground built for underage patrons. 

While you’re outside, you’ll likely encounter Elliot and Dulcinea, the winery’s resident miniature donkeys, or a couple of alpacas.

“People just love it out here,” Livingston said. “It’s just as crowded as it could be on a Saturday.”

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Cavender Creek Vineyards and Winery is a small farm winery just outside Dahlonega, Georgia. - photo by Scott Rogers

A retired anatomy and cell biology professor, the Dublin, Ga., native was hardly an expert on winemaking when she moved to North Georgia several years ago; she simply had a penchant for reds and an itch for a new adventure. She tested the waters by working at Cavender on the weekends under its original owner, Raymond Castleberry, until, in 2015, the opportunity to purchase the winery fell into her lap.

“I used to half joking, half serious say, ‘I’m going to retire up here, (and) I’m going to buy a winery.’ I did and I haven’t looked back,” Livingston said. “I did not know anything about grape growing or winemaking. I just would go home and read, read, read  — that’s all I did for about a year. I’d talk to people, I’d go to other wineries. You jump into it and you learn.”

Today, Livingston tends to 15 acres there at the vineyard, four of which are planted in vines. Those vines are Norton, a black American wine grape that produces an earthy, spicy wine, and European varietals cabernet sauvignon, petit manseng and petit verdot.

“Before I started coming up here, I didn’t know North Georgia had a true wine country,” Livingston said. “I thought all Georgia wines were muscadines. I didn’t know that you could actually get real wine here, and I was so surprised.”

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Cavender Creek Vineyards and Winery owner Claire Livingston picks through a batch of freshly picked Norton grapes at the small farm winery just outside Dahlonega, Georgia. - photo by Scott Rogers

Livingston has about 16 wines in rotation, representing both the sweet and dry sides of the spectrum. All of Cavender’s wines are made in-house using either the grapes grown in its own vineyard or grapes imported from California, New York and Washington State. 

“I was very proud of the fact, when I first bought this winery, that we were all Georgia made, Georgia grown,” Livingston said. “If I didn’t grow it outside, I would source my grapes from local wineries. But my winemaker said, ‘You know, you can only offer so much,’ so he convinced me (to) look at California and Washington State for grapes, and that’s what we’ve done.”

Although some of the grapes may come from elsewhere, Livingston said guests can rest assured they’re still, in a sense, drinking local wine.

“A lot of people say, ‘I want something local.’ I get that. You want to drink from grapes that are grown here, but at the same time, I, personally, found it very limiting. Even though the grapes may come from California, we still made the wine here and it’s still to my specifications. I think it still highlights what we’re capable of doing here in North Georgia.”

While the menu sees frequent changes, a few staples tend to make the cut, such as sauvignon blanc, viognier, chardonnay, chenin blanc, pinot noir, zinfandel, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc — an earthy white with a bit of spice on the finish — as well as some varietals visitors may not have heard of.

There’s Amendment 21, for instance — a bourbon barrel-aged Norton wine that nods to the repeal of Prohibition — and Castleberry Red — a jammy, rich, bourbon barrel-aged Norton and cabernet sauvignon blend with a hint of merlot. Then there’s the perennial favorites: Donkey Hotie and Blackjack, a dark and jammy red with a touch of sweetness.

On the sweeter side of the menu, there’s Cavender’s Fox Collection, a series of muscadine and vinifera wines that, like the rest of the vineyard’s operations, has significant rhyme and reason behind it.

“Historically, muscadines have been called fox grapes, because they have a foxy taste,” Livingston said. “It took a lot of research for me to figure out what ‘foxy’ meant. It’s a musky, sweet taste that’s not like any other. Europeans call that a ‘foxiness.’”

The Fox Collection is house-made, just like the rest of Cavender’s varietals, though only one — the soft, almost creamy-textured peach — is a true muscadine. The collection’s strawberry, blackberry and cranberry, which is particularly popular around Thanksgiving, are made with a blend of vinifera grapes and fruit concentrates.

As for the viognier, Cavender’s most popular “red drinker’s white wine,” connoisseurs might taste notes of honeydew, melon and grapefruit, catching “a hint of citrus up front and lemongrass on the nose,” according to wine stewardess Mackenzie Mobley.

With expert stewards and stewardesses like Mobley, Cavender’s patrons will find themselves in good hands, Livingston said.

“They know their wine, they know how to give outstanding customer service and I think when my customers are here, they feel like VIPs. At least I hope they do.”

Cavender’s wines can be bought by the glass, bottle or case. For those who can’t settle on a single wine or want to do a little sampling, flights are available as well.

And, if wine just isn’t your thing, Cavender also offers a selection of craft beer and mocktails because, according to Livingston, “not everybody wants to come and drink, but they want to look like they’re fitting in.”

From the kitchen, guests can choose a variety of snacks to nibble on during their visit, like charcuterie, Buffalo chicken dip and fresh popcorn.

As for Livingston, she’s living the dream in what she describes as a slice of heaven on earth.

“I’m having the absolute time of my life,” Livingston said. “I mean, I loved teaching, but this is great.”

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Cavender Creek Vineyards and Winery owner Claire Livingston visits the vineyard at the small farm winery just outside Dahlonega, Georgia. - photo by Scott Rogers