For almost 30 years, Cheryl Smith has worked to bring the world to North Georgia wineries.
If you found your way into a Dahlonega tasting room, coasted down a wine highway or got a good tip on your next trip to some far-flung winery in the mountains, send a thank-you to Smith, who has been getting the word out about Georgia wine since the long-gone days of travel agents and cheap airfare.
In December, the ebullient advocate for Georgia wine will hit her 30th year with the tourism division of the Georgia Department of Economic Development — a career spanning five governors that has seen the Northeast Georgia wine industry (second in its tourism draw only to the formidable Lake Lanier) grow from two wineries to the dozens dotting the hills today.
Smith has been a frequent face at Georgia Wine Producers, the statewide organization of winemakers where she’s a board member.
“All of us in the industry have devoted our lives and our fortunes to making Georgia wine a draw for all those seeking a bit of Georgia culture,” said Sharon Paul, owner of Three Sisters Vineyards near Dahlonega. “It never ceases to amaze me when people say ‘I had no idea that there was a Georgia wine country.’”
Talking with Home magazine in September on the Gainesville square, Smith spoke of her career as senior tourism project manager for Northeast Georgia and the wineries that make the region home.
Smith said each winery in the state is unique, but bringing the world to the region’s wineries, wasn’t Smith’s first career.
Born in Atlanta, Smith got her start in the working world as a wandering nurse with her husband, Pete Smith, who now works as a news photographer for Channel 11.
“We moved around a lot just kind of figuring out what we wanted to do in life,” Smith said of the early days.
Nursing wasn’t to be, however, as the quick-smiling Smith found that caring for the sick was work that didn’t suit her. Looking for something new, she landed at Lake Lanier Islands’ former Pineisle Resort — a line of work she found she preferred.
That revelation led the Smiths to South Carolina.
“I went to Clemson University. I was (already) a nurse, but I got my degree in parks recreation and tourism management at Clemson,” she said. “That’s kind of how I got into it.”
Her degree got her in the door at the growing tourism division of the Department of Economic Development in 1988, when the winemakers in Northeast Georgia were at Chateau Elan, Habersham Winery and Vineyards and in country backyards.
But since the founding fathers of North Georgia’s industry got their start — the late Don Panoz at Chateau Elan and Tom Slick at Habersham Winery — wine in the Peach State has grown up and developed a compelling story for Smith to tell the world.
The root of Georgia wine has always been in the state’s native muscadine, the species of grape cultivated in North America since the 1500s, but has today branched into a wide and very scientific array of varieties and hybrids of American and European grapes.
“In the north part of the state, you can grow French hybrids and American varietals. In the south part of the state, it’s all muscadine,” Smith said.
But even the humble muscadine has grown up with Georgia wineries, where an increasing depth of expertise is figuring out how to add some complexity to the American classic.
“The thing is, muscadine now is not like years ago where you maybe had a grandmother or grandfather making muscadine wine and it was super sweet,” Smith said.
Chateau Elan winemaker Simone Bergese has especially embraced the muscadine and almost exclusively uses the grape on its grounds, pumping out vintages of “Muscadry” whites, roses and reds.
Chateau Elan is “experimenting and doing so many different things” to bring muscadine out of your grandparents’ backyard patch and into the big leagues of winemaking, Smith said.
To the north, winemakers are trying their hands at non-native styles of grapes. Smith said she’s a particular fan of Three Sisters’ Fat Boy Red — a blend of cynthiana-norton wine grapes, cabernet franc, merlot and cabernet sauvignon — and one of the winery’s best sellers.
Fat Boy was a creation of Sharon Paul’s husband, Doug Paul, who launched the winery with his wife in 1999.
“This is one husky wine,” Doug Paul told The Times in 2010, when the Fat Boy brand was starting to make its mark. “Fat Boy embodies everything we love in a big, chewy, massive wine.”
As the wine industry has branched into ever-more-complex territory, the tools at its disposal have grown as well. Created to work with farmers and the agriculture industry, the University of Georgia Extension now employs a full-time viticulturist, Cain Hickey, whose job includes research into new varieties of grapes that might one day take root in Georgia soil.
“They plant experimental plots at various vineyards, and he works with a lot of vineyards to see what’s going to grow, what’s going to grow well, what’s going to be disease-resistant,” Smith said. “It’s been really important for the industry to have him in the state.”
Life changed forever for prospective North Georgia winemakers in the early 1980s, when the Georgia General Assembly voted to allow farm wineries in the Peach State.
Smith “saw very early on the importance” of agritourism and wineries in the region, said Habersham Winery manager Emily DeFoor, who called Smith a major cheerleader for the industry both with the public and with state lawmakers regulating the industry.
“For us, it is our lifeblood,” DeFoor said of tourism business for small wineries. “Clearly we have a good local market and we sell in the grocery stores and things like that. But it truly is the lifeblood — now, a tremendous amount of those visitors and tourists come from the metro Atlanta market, but we get Florida and the surrounding states.
“But it really makes us tick.”
As with breweries, which are often started in renovated industrial space that otherwise would be underused or vacant (see Gainesville’s Left Nut Brewing Co.), wineries beautify the places where they exist.
“The one thing I love about it is vineyards keep the region aesthetically beautiful, scenic,” Smith said. “It’s beautiful, and then you get the experience of going to the tasting room and meeting either the vineyard owner or the manager; they help educate you, and you learn things about the wine. It’s an educational experience and not just an experience.”
Between the law change, economic growth in Atlanta and a growing American appetite for craft beverages, Georgia’s wine industry has grown from just two wineries in Northeast Georgia in 1988 to more than 25 in 2018.
Fueling all of this growth are the tourists and wine enthusiasts who read a story, see an ad or hear from a friend about Georgia wine.
“Cheryl has been a staunch advocate for Georgia wine and Georgia Grown as long as I’ve known her,” said Sharon Paul. “She somehow magically appears at all big events involving wine. I don’t know what she drives, but she logs a lot of miles!”