You heard it through the grapevine: Now in its 30s, North Georgia’s wine industry is making strides as two wineries celebrate major milestones.
What started out as two vineyards dominating the field has turned into a couple dozen wineries, vineyards and quite a few destination spots for people who live in the Southeast.
Wolf Mountain Vineyards and Winery in Dahlonega was one of those early on in the game. This year, it’s celebrating its 20th anniversary and has seen its fair share of changes over the years.
“We would like to think that we've had something to do with the change,” said Stephen Smith, marketing and wine club director. “There's been a bit of a shift in the consumer's mind.”
The Boegner family started the winery after Smith’s father-in-law, Karl Boegner, who spent years in the hospitality industry helping to open Disney World and Chateau Elan, dreamed of a place to grow grapes, make wine and “provide an atmosphere and lifestyle for people” in North Georgia.
His family believed in him, flocking to Georgia from places like Colorado and Tennessee to help make that dream a reality.
And it worked. Wine drinkers who used to think “good wines can’t be made in Georgia” now understand that’s not the case.
“The consumer, maybe 20 years ago, was very close-minded about what was going on,” Smith said. “Now, because the industry has been established, it's like, ‘OK, they are doing something right.’”
Those consumers have gotten younger and younger, too. Smith said back when Wolf Mountain was in its first 10 or 15 years of operation, people who visited the vineyard and winery were more “established wine drinkers.”
“Now, you have a bit of a younger demographic and a little bit of a more open-minded situation as a whole,” Smith said.
One of the major changes coming to the industry is its official designation as a nationally recognized wine region of the United States: The Dahlonega Plateau.
Eight vineyards and wineries are part of the region, including Wolf Mountain.
“That's been very good and I think it will continue to be very positive for us,” Smith said. “I mean, we've been recognized by the federal government saying there is a particular uniqueness to this geographic region that is giving the fruit a certain characteristic and quality.”
But even outside the Plateau, times are good for the wine industry in North Georgia.
Yonah Mountain Vineyards — in Cleveland and not part of The Dahlonega Plateau — is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year and has been making a splash of its own since coming on the scene.
Eric Miller, whose father, Bob, retired from financial services in 1998, bought the 200 acres the vineyard now sits on in 2005 when he decided he needed a new project.
“It was all grass and woods,” said Eric Miller, owner and general manager of the winery. “By 2007, we started planting the grapes and by 2009 we were selling wine.”
Eric Miller came on full-time to help the family business as it began to grow and he saw the potential. He said the business has grown every year since it opened.
Part of the reason for its success comes from his father’s mindset. Eric Miller said his dad wants everything to be first class — even if that means sourcing grapes from other places when the harvest isn’t sufficient or the product doesn’t meet their standards.
“He said, ‘If we're going to do this, let's make something that competes on a national scale,’” Eric Miller said of his father. “The wine has to be world class, the experience has to be first class. Everything kept escalating and escalating, which it always does with dad.”
That escalation has turned Yonah Mountain into one of the premier wineries in the region, making about 4,000 cases of wine each year.
“What dad wanted to do was really change the story and dynamic about what is expected in a regional wine,” Miller said. “When we started there were only six or seven wineries around.”
Now, with about four times that many wineries in the region, Yonah Mountain feels like it’s helped lead the way in elevating the quality of North Georgia wine.
An industry that used to be exclusive has turned into a more accepting, open industry that is looking for change.
“That general feeling and philosophy changed over the last 10 years,” Miller said. “(Wineries) see it's better to have more wineries and we should include people and we should make this a state-wide, inclusive thing so that we have a voice.”
Ultimately, Miller has his sights set on Napa Valley..
Miller said the team at Yonah Mountain are so confident that Georgia wine can be the rival of the famed California wine region that they regularly host blind tastings at Yonah Mountain, putting their wines up against some of the best from other wineries across the country and the world.
He said “seven times out of 10” Yonah Mountain’s wine wins the blind taste test.
“Dad loves it,” Eric Miller said. “He loves seeing how good we could be against the world.”
And they’re not picking cheap wine to compete with. Miller said they’re often high-end, $300 to $400 bottles of wine that they put up against their own wines.
For both Wolf Mountain and Yonah Mountain, it’s only the beginning of what the wine industry can look like in the state.
“I feel like we're still on the ground floor of what this industry is going to be,” Eric Miller said. “There easily could be over 100 wineries in another 10 or 20 years.”
Smith said the future requires a continued effort to prove that good wine can be made in Georgia. Even though Wolf Mountain has been making that case for two decades, he said word still needs to get out..
“I think we will continue to see vineyards being planted,” Smith said. “I would hope that as they come online, the focus continues to be in proper production … Hopefully as an industry, that focus will continue to stay or will be in play through the years.”