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The wine life
North Georgia has evolved into the Napa of the South
A second-floor passageway leads guests into their separate quarters in one of the villas at Montaluce. This home will be open to the public during the week of April 6 as the development's show home, with proceeds benefitting the High Museum and Holly Theatre. - photo by Tom Reed

A precious commodity is drawing prospectors to Lumpkin County.

They come from New York or Atlanta, drawn by the lush mountains and temperate climate.

And they grow grapes. Lots of them.

Just like the gold rush almost 200 years ago, North Georgia — and especially Lumpkin County — is experiencing a wine rush. Steve Gibson, president of the Winegrowers Association of Georgia and general manager of Habersham Winery in Helen, said more out-of-towners are discovering the wine produced in that area, and the word is spreading.

"I know the interest is growing, and obviously we’re becoming better discovered," he said. "There’s no question the industry is growing."

And as word spreads, so does interest. So much so that Montaluce Winery and Estates, a swanky subdivision outside of downtown Dahlonega, is constructing its Tuscan-style homes not around golf courses but around a vineyard.

In much of the country, an upscale development that didn’t include a golf course would seem unusual. But Rob Beecham, chief operating officer of Beecham Builders in Atlanta, is simply realizing a dream that he said fits perfectly in North Georgia.

"My plans were to probably five, six, seven years retire to Italy or somewhere where they make wine ... It’s always been my dream to at some point quit and watch grapes grow," said Beecham, 41.

About 2 1/2 years ago, Beecham said, he was on his way to Brasstown Valley Resort when he noticed a sign for the Georgia Wine Highway. "We went on an emergency detour," he said.

"We pulled up to Frogtown Winery and it was closed that day, and the owner was out mowing the grass," Beecham continued. "He took us inside and about two hours later we left with two cases of wine, just blown away by the quality and that it was in Georgia."

Thus, an idea was born.

"Really, the seeds of Montaluce were born on that trip. The idea of opening a winery when I retired started to morph into, ‘Holy moley, there’s a burgeoning wine industry in making quality wine in Georgia,’" Beecham said. "I can do this now, one, and two, I can work my current occupation and career into the dream."

The idea, as it’s turning out, is a cluster of cottages, villas and estate homes designed to look as if they were lifted from the hills of Tuscany. Even the ceramic tiles on the roofs are crafted in Italy. And nestled between clusters of homes are small, newly planted vines.

Chad Ortis, food and beverage manager at Montaluce, said they plan on having a very small quantity of grapes ready for winemaking at the end of the year, and are hoping for a fuller crop in 2009.

The development also features a full restaurant, which officially opens on April 5 with a reservation-only grand opening party. And until Montaluce’s vineyards are ready, the tasting room and bar will serve wine by Stefano Salvini, Montaluce’s winemaker, who comes to Lumpkin County from the Campodelsole Winery in Bertinoro, Italy.

It’s not how most of the other North Georgia winemakers got into the profession, said Karl Boegner, owner of Wolf Mountain Winery in Dahlonega. Many in the area started out as farmers, growing grapes for a year or two before opening their tasting rooms to the public.

"Obviously it’s a young industry and a growing situation. A lot of us did it different; we put our vineyards in and made wine and did all those things before we opened, and they’re more real estate driven," he said. "From that point it’s a significant difference. We were working in the vineyards for four years before we opened to the general public."

Gibson agreed that the Montaluce approach to making wine was different from what has, until now, been traditionally a trial-and-error process.

"They’re certainly the extreme. Other wineries start out small, they typically grow into production," he said. "Typically the wineries in Georgia and the rest of the country are much smaller and family owned and operated."

But, Gibson added, there’s not a right or wrong way to get into the winemaking business, and while many members of the Winegrowers Association of Georgia are family-run operations, there are also wineries that operate on a larger scale, too.

But from the housing development point of view, the vineyard is an amenity that buyers want, just like the soon-to-be-built spa. And while this is a sharp contrast to the cow farms and simple homes that dot the rolling hills around Montaluce, it’s also a sign of changing times in Lumpkin County.

"What we refer to as the new gold rush in Dahlonega is the emergence of visual and performing arts in combination with the vineyards," said Hal Williams, director of the Dahlonega-Lumpkin County Chamber of Commerce. "The two together have just been a tremendous attractor here, and that’s what people are coming for at this point."

Montaluce, in all its Tuscan splendor, will be an asset to the county, Williams said.

"They have a restaurant and meeting facility, they’re also planning to have lodging there for group meetings, and of course, from a purely economic standpoint, the type of homes they will be selling will be a tremendous asset to Lumpkin County."

The area is already popular with couples, and more than 500 weddings are performed in the county each year, he said. And many of the small boutique hotels in the area are adding rooms to keep up with the rising demand for lodging.

And even though Montaluce hasn’t been specifically targeting wine connoisseurs, Matt Flesher, sales manager for real estate at the development, said wine and good food goes hand -in-hand with the same demographic that is interested in a $500,000 home.

"We are and we aren’t (targeting wine lovers). We’re targeting upscale buyers that kind of go hand-in-hand with that wine and food lifestyle," Flesher said. "We are first and foremost a wine and food community."

Chef Steve Hewins, for example, has owned his own restaurant in Italy before coming to Dahlonega. He’ll cook Italian food the Italian way, Flesher said, using fresh, locally grown ingredients.

Many of the buyers are from the Atlanta area, he said, with some also from Florida. But overall, he said, their team is still getting the word out about the wine growing in North Georgia.

"We’ve done a lot of events in Atlanta and no one has any idea that it’s all up here," he said. "It’s starting to become, rather than a day trip, it’s becoming a weekend destination."

Gibson added that Montaluce brings the wine industry up to a whole new level.

"It’s certainly going to add a real nice touch to the wine industry, and it will certainly benefit the industry, them being there," Gibson said. "That’s diversity of the industry, I think, and that’s good. I think it balances out the entire industry and gives us credibility in being a diverse wine industry."