Not happy to turn sunlight into wine alone, Yonah Mountain Vineyards is now turning it into power.
The winery between Cleveland and the southern base of its namesake mountain is fresh off a $258,000 investment in solar power that has been a decade in the making.
“Solar we’ve actually been interested in for years, since the beginning, but it was never economically viable,” said Eric Miller, general manager of the winery. “Now that the cost of solar is dropping and dropping — and we like being cutting-edge — as soon as we found out that we could finally do a large-scale solar project, we pulled the trigger on it.”
His father and owner of the winery, Bob Miller, said they invested more than a quarter-million dollars into 360 solar panels that will pay themselves off in eight years, according to estimates from the contractor, Alternative Energy Southeast.
“We’re going to get a lot of that back through credits,” Miller said.
Some months, depending on the intensity of sunlight and the energy load needed to run the business, the property will be an exporter of power onto the Georgia electrical grid — meaning the vineyard will get a check from its power company.
“The first contract, they’ll do a one-for-one,” Miller said. “They’re buying it back at the same price we have to pay for it.”
Some of the costs will be recouped up front through federal tax incentives for alternative energy.
All told, the family expects to cut 60 percent off of its power costs each year.
But even in the short run, the winery family feels like its achieving more than just a cost-saving goal.
“We’re here for the long range, and we like the whole sustainability of having energy (production on-site),” Miller said.
The winery owner believes Yonah Mountain Vineyards is the only winery in Georgia that is mostly solar powered and added that he suspects it could be the only one on the entire East Coast.
And rather than tuck the panels away from the property — which as with other North Georgia vineyards is a wedding and event destination — the Millers decided to slide the panel farm close to the main complex.
“We put them next to one of the vineyards,” Eric Miller said. "They are really big, and you can see them right out of our tasting room out of the back. They’re lined up with one of the vineyards at the foot of one of our hills.”
The farm comes in at about a third of an acre, his dad added.
“And we’re getting some good response from our customers,” Bob Miller said. “They appreciate that we’re going this way to try to be more sustainable.”
Miller wants to be 100 percent on solar at some point, but in the meantime he said he expects to save about $3,000 a month on his power bill.
The most energy-intensive activities on the property comes from two places: refrigeration and grape processing.
Yonah Mountain wine is kept at 60 degrees, which is a tougher task in the summer than winter — and the property has its own wine cave that also helps to keep wine cool. During harvest time, grapes are mashed using a hydraulic press.
Of course, they use feet instead of a press during the winery’s annual Crush Fest, an August harvest festival and its largest event each year.
The solar project is just one experiment going on at the winery.
The family also partners with Cory Momany, a professor and bee researcher at the University of Georgia, who keeps dozens of hives on the property to not only help local bee populations, but study how the insects handle life within a working vineyard, which relies on occasionally intense use of fungicides and other chemicals to keep plants and grapes healthy.
So far, the Millers said, the experiment has been a success.
“He is so excited about the bees,” Bob Miller said, chuckling. “He comes every week! I saw him on Saturday, and I said, ‘Cory, how are the bees?’ He said, ‘We’ve got happy bees!’”
The hives have started producing honey that is being sold at the vineyard.
The solar plant is a big investment to start off a big year for Yonah Mountain Vineyards, which this year hits its 10th anniversary. The vineyard is launching a 10th edition of its flagship red wine, Genesis, under the label Gen X to mark the anniversary.
“A decade ago, there were only about six wineries up here in North Georgia,” Eric Miller said. “Now we’re looking at around 24. The good thing about it is we’re all kind of friends. We all want the wineries to succeed because it helps everyone.”