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Georgia Wine, American Wine

Georgia Wine, American Wine

Wolf Mountain Vineyards Wine

Last night I drank some Georgia wine, and I’ve got good news and bad news for you about it. The good news is that the wine, from Wolf Mountain Vineyards outside Dahlonega, was darn good stuff – a crisp, floral, grapefruity blend of chardonnay and viogner. The bad news? It’s not really Georgia wine. At least not if you focus on where the grapes came from. The label simply says, “American Dry White Wine.” Based on that label, the grapes that went into it could have come from New Mexico, or North Dakota, or New York City. I love America, but designating a wine as just “American” feels a little… lost. That lost feeling led me looking for answers about the state of Georgia’s wine industry.

Winemaking is not easy. Winemaking in Georgia? Even not-er easy. One of Georgia’s most well respected grower/winemakers shut down earlier this year after repeated losses, due to the impact of our admittedly erratic climate. I reached out to Wolf Mountain’s winemaker and vineyard manager, Brannon Boegner, to get his thoughts. He said that, “over the past 13 years of making wine in Georgia, we’ve experienced ‘acts of mother nature” four times which have caused us to lose our entire crop.” Now, Georgia is not alone in this depressing fact – “acts of nature” have had major negative impact in places ranging from Washington State to Bordeaux and Burgundy – but our track record here is not reassuring.

Wolf Mountain VineyardsIs it possible Georgia is just not meant to be a rich and reliable wine growing region? Whatever the case, Georgia winemakers and growers continue to soldier on against the adversity of mother nature. And you have to respect their tenacity.

Wolf Mountain Vineyards is one Georgia winery that has done well. They make award-winning wines (“over 100 medals in major U.S. competitions, including Georgia’s first ever Gold medals at the prestigious San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles International Wine Competition”). They have a beautiful winery/tasting room/café/event space in the north Georgia mountains, and they consistently see more demand for their wine from winery foot traffic alone than what they can possibly supply. And maybe that’s part of the problem. The need to balance both the supply side of making wine and the demand side of being a successful winery. Is it possible Georgia wineries like Wolf Mountain are TOO successful??

Better yet, does it really matter if the wine sold in Georgia wineries takes advantage of the excess of wine grapes being produced in the fertile soil of California? I bet you’re saying, “heck yeah,” but think about this… do breweries in Georgia use 100% local hops? Do they use even 1% local hops? Would you expect a Georgia distillery making vodka or gin or whiskey to use only Georgia-grown grains? I bet your answers to those last three questions are NO, NO, and NO. So why does it matter if a Georgia winery brings in some California (or New York, or New Mexico, or Idaho) grapes?

Of course, wine is known for its sense of place – its terroir – much more so than those other beverages mentioned above. For the folks who are willing to spend $20 and more for a bottle of wine, it’s often not enough to know that a wine came from California, nor even that it came from Napa Valley, but that it came from a sub-appelation like Howell Mountain, or even a specific vineyard situated ON Howell Mountain. Wine geeks geek out over individual vineyards. In Burgundy, it frequently gets down to which specific rows at a particular elevation on a particular hillside are used for a particular wine. THAT is what “terroir” is all about – how those minute distinctions in the soil can translate into differences in the bottle.

Which brings us back to the problem of a $20 bottle of “American” wine that comes from a winery in the lovely, rolling hills outside Dahlonega, Georgia. We CRAVE the local. We ROOT FOR the local. And when our local wine, our Georgia wine, is made from non-Georgia grapes, there’s a natural tendency to feel that we’re being (at least a little bit) hoodwinked. Especially if you’re only looking at labels and not digging into the background of what’s really going on.

Wolf Mountain’s Boegner noted that, in Georgia, the “white grape cultivars are especially susceptible to freezes or frosts which can wipe out an entire vintage.” Their solution has been traveling out to California to team up with growers in regions ranging from the Russian River Valley, to Mendocino, to the Sierra Foothills. Clearly, Wolf Mountain does not take this task lightly. Boegner went on, “I travel to these vineyards to talk with the managers and establish a relationship in which they grow the grapes to our specifications. All grapes are delivered to Wolf Mountain and the wines are produced here.” Wolf Mountain also joined up with nearby Frogtown Cellars to form the Georgia Fine Wine Alliance. While Wolf Mountain has focused their vineyards on red cultivars, they rely on Frogtown to provide Georgia-grown white grapes, at least when available.

Wolf Mountain and Frogtown also aim to follow a strict truth in labeling policy of only labeling wine as “Georgia” wine when 100% Georgia grapes are used. Legally, winemakers can go up to 25% from out of state before they have to change that Georgia label, so this is a much stricter practice than what is legally required. Very few Georgia wineries are following this practice now – blending in out of state grapes is common practice, though not commonly made clear.

So, back to that bottle of Wolf Mountain Plenitude I mentioned at the outset. For the 2012 vintage, Boegner used a blend of Russian River (California) chardonnay and Mendocino (also California) viognier. This is basically well pedigreed California wine being made here in Georgia, by a Georgia winemaker. Why no Georgia grapes in the mix? Boegner said the 2012 vintage from their Georgia partner, Frogtown Cellars, was wiped out by a freeze. But, Boegner went on to note that his “decision to bring in fruit fluctuates from year to year based on growing conditions and availability.”

To that point, in 2011, Wolf Mountain’s Plenitude was made with 100% Georgia-grown grapes. And it received a 90 point rating and a gold medal at the Los Angeles International Wine Competition. Not too shabby. Wolf Mountain is purposefully labeling their wines as either 100% Georgia, else 100% American,  “keeping the two product lines distinctively separate.” I admire the stance. At the same time, I’m a little bothered by the fact that Plenitude’s label reads, “our Family Estate represents the ultimate North Georgia Wine & Food Experience.” Sure, it’s marketing speak, but surely the ultimate North Georgia wine experience involves wine made from grapes grown in North Georgia. Am I being too nit-picky?

Noted Atlanta sommelier Steven Grubbs (of Empire State South) was the one who recommended Wolf Mountain’s Plenitude to me. He recently took a trip through Southern wine regions, visiting Wolf Mountain and a few other Georgia wineries before heading on into the Carolinas and Virginia. He enjoyed the Georgia wines, but noted that he was “disappointed” by the news that the wineries were supplementing their own grapes with California fruit. Some, like Doug Paul of Three Sisters, another Dahlonega area winery, say they  simply refuse to make wine from grapes grown outside Georgia. That’s one way of approaching the issue, and probably the more stubbornly Georgia way to do it. But it’s not necessarily the path to the best wine, or the best winery experience for visitors.

Back at Wolf Mountain, it’s evident that the Boegners are both dedicated winemakers and smart businesspeople. I know they’re committed to the cause of Georgia wine. They’ve calculated what it takes to make very good wine, hopefully at a profit, that will keep the crowds driving up into the Dahlonega hills for a taste of wine country. I just wish our Georgia climate were more conducive to their endeavors. I wish that our Georgia wineries were not just places that make wine IN Georgia. I want them to be places that make wine OF Georgia. And I really wish they could succeed in doing so. But I’m just not sure that’s the case – at least on a year in and year out basis. I guess that’s the bad news. But when you’re up in the hills outside Dahlonega, enjoying a delicious wine made in the very same winery who’s offering you this sweeping view, maybe that bad news is not so bad after all. At that point, being “American” feels like a fine place to be.

IMG_2495Tasting Notes:
Wolf Mountain Vineyards, Plenitude
American Dry White Wine, 2012
13.8% Alc. by Volume
Approx. $20 Retail (available at Whole Foods in Atlanta or from the winery)

“Plenitude” is a blend of chardonnay and viognier, fermented and aged in stainless steel, with whole cluster pressing. The nose is lightly floral and grapefruity, a bit of cantaloupe too, with a lightly herbal edge (is that oregano?). I’d probably peg it as sauvignon blanc, but you can pick up both the chardonnay and viognier pretty well if you think about it.

This has nice body to it, a bit lush, but the stainless steel fermentation keeps it crisp. The acidity is bright, not quite sharp, but very present. Grapefruit again is most prominent. It’s got great balance between that acidity and the round floral notes and the fruit. Very enjoyable stuff. And 100% American. Made right here in Georgia.

Georgia’s BlackStock Winery Shuts Down

Georgia’s BlackStock Winery Shuts Down

There was sad news yesterday from one of Georgia’s pioneering winemakers – David Harris emailed friends and posted to Facebook that he is closing BlackStock Vineyards and Winery. The reasons cited included “repeated crop losses due to the exceptionally warm winters.” An inconvenient truth, indeed. Harris worked tirelessly over nearly two decades to grow great grapes and make great wine in north Georgia, and he met with a good deal of success until this recent turn of events.

While dealing with weather difficulties is nothing new for growers, there’s an increasing recognition that climate change will be a major concern for wine growers the world over (just Google “climate change and wine” and read the litany of news articles). Seeing warmer winters driving out one of the leaders of Georgia’s young wine industry, though, is truly sobering. Many Georgia winemakers are relying on bringing in grapes from other regions, which may fill the bottles but also undermines hope that Georgia can actually grow worthy grapes.

BlackStock earned many awards for their wines over the years, with a range of merlots and viognier in particular that were among the best Georgia wines made (and which I’ve personally enjoyed very much). BlackStock has also been one of the few Georgia wines readily available at retail in Atlanta.

Here’s the full text of Harris’ letter posted to Facebook:

Dear Friends of Blackstock,

I am very saddened to inform you that we are closing the vineyards and winery at Blackstock. It has been a wonderful experience to get to know all of you and be a source of relaxation, fun times and great pleasure, through hosting you at the vineyard and providing wines for your table. In the end, we have suffered from repeated crop losses due to the exceptionally warm winters and the early bud-break dates. This has resulted in normal frost dates having a devastating effect to our crop. We have also felt the sting from selling fruit in a soft economy and the importation of grapes and wine into Georgia wineries, eroding our market when the crop was plentiful.

I had a wonderful dream and lived it for 17 years, but while pages turn and chapters close, beautiful memories were made in this exceptional setting that will not soon fade, and I must thank you all for being a part of that story. I am especially thankful to our small group of “angel” investors, several of whom have passed away now. This was a very classy group of individuals who shared my vision and dream and saw it come to fruition in every aesthetic way, I am just sorry that we couldn’t make it sustainable.

While, in many ways, our fate was sealed on April 12th, I have been through every scenario imaginable to try to survive, but have also been through the roughest part of the reality emotionally. I have realized that some of our most passionate patrons are going to have a sense of shock and true grieving and, for them, please do not hesitate to reach out by email, FB, or text. I truly hope someone ends up continuing operations here after I have moved on.

Personally, I have been blessed with another opportunity for which I am passionate and thankful. Unfortunately, it is going to take me away from Georgia. I will miss my many friends made at Blackstock, but hope to stay in touch. Here’s to a Happy and Prosperous New Year to you all!

David A. Harris

Georgia Wine Country

Drowning in wine

Drowning in wine

I have something to admit. I hate big wine tasting events. Same thing for beer. I keep getting drawn into these types of events for the opportunity to try new things, to overload on whatever it is that is being poured. But I really tend to regret it afterwards, kind of the way one feels after eating too much at an all-you-can-eat buffet, shamed by participating in something that goes beyond reason, ready to perform penance for your sins (whether gluttony or greed or even envy of others).

Why do I hate these types of events? Insert rant here… because I hate large tents or ballrooms full of lots of people pushing their way through crowded aisles trying to get in as many sips as possible in an allotted time. After the tenth taste or so, your tongue begins to numb to any joy of tasting anyway. The atmosphere suppresses any ability to sit with a drink, to get to know it beyond a cursory sensation. Outliers become more notable simply because they stand out from the norm. There’s simply too much followed by even more, even if (maybe especially because) you’re spitting after every sip so as not to get intoxicated or simply full. And that ain’t right.

Sure, you get the benefit of trying many new things at a big tasting event. And at a high profile event, you actually get the opportunity to meet and speak with the owners and/or winemakers and/or people who really know their stuff and are passionate about their product. That is, at least until the next guy in line starts shoving you out of the way so he can get his free pour.

I went to a trade wine tasting event today. It was for the High Museum of Art’s annual wine auction weekend. This is a big deal wine event, with big deal winemakers present, passionate small producers, all kinds of names I’ve heard but never tried. It’s also for a great cause, the fine art museum that calls Atlanta home. I had to be there, right? Well, I did get to meet some fascinating people. I did get to try a few wines that were really interesting (among many things that were not). And I did get to reconnect with some friends in the business that I don’t get to see often enough. But that doesn’t change the fact that I felt a bit depressed at the end of it, yearning for something like the wine tasting I went to a few nights before, where it was one passionate person sharing her family’s story with a small room of people who really cared about the topic at hand. I’d rather meet that one person, taste that one winemaker’s wines, than speed date through a crowded room for the opportunity to taste a tantalizing array of too much. Sure, each type of event has its purpose, and each has its place. I’m just sharing my preference, the way I find more relevant to the enjoyment of wine (or spirits, or beer, or whatever), the more intimate route. (Dear public relations people: if you must blacklist me from future events for my remarks, so be it)

So, with that said, I’m happy to share the winemakers I met whose wines really did manage to break through the crowd and leave an impression upon me. The next few notes will probably leave you saying, “wait, didn’t he just say he hates events like this?” True enough, I have to be honest, I did enjoy a few moments among the masses.

First off, I really dig the pinot noir of Kosta Browne. These are fairly pricey wines that I’ve only rarely tasted, and it was great to try a few of their wines and meet Michael Browne in person. Their Russian River has a great mossy forest floor aspect to it (yes, that’s a good thing). I may have liked their Sonoma Coast pinot even more, with a bit more balance between the woods-y notes and the dark fruit, a fairly voluptuous take on pinot noir. The pinot noir being poured by Andy Peay from Peay Vineyards also impressed, especially the “Scallop Shelf Estate,” superb floral and spice nose, lovely body.

Pierson Meyer‘s Heintz Vineyard chardonnay was fascinating, more mineral and then intensely vibrant than other Heintz vineyard chardonnay I’ve had (there are many, and they all tend to be excellent in different ways). I learned that their winemaker, Robbie Meyer, is actually from Atlanta and went to the University of Georgia – always good to meet Atlanta folks who have made it in the wine world. His L’angevin Russian River pinot noir is also my kind of wine, full of spicy undertones.

You’ll notice I don’t mention many cabs or other big reds, they were present in abundance, but none of them really spoke to me. I’ve moved on from the attraction of big wines… AND big wine events.

P.S. I realize for many people in the trade, attending large trade tastings is very important. This is from the perspective of both a consumer (who has attended many large scale fundraiser wine tasting events) and a writer (who covers both trade and consumer events). Thanks, any feedback appreciated in the comments below.

If you’re interested in wine

If you’re interested in wine

If you’re interested in wine, especially wine with age, do yourself a favor and seek out the opportunity to taste the wines of Lopez de Heredia, one of the great Spanish Rioja producers that has been making extraordinary stuff for about 135 years now. I had the pleasure of visiting their winery a few years ago, so was thrilled to see that Maria Jose Lopez de Heredia, great-granddaughter of the founder, would be in Atlanta and leading a tasting at Tower Wine and Spirits. That event was just last night, and it was another opportunity to experience the magic of this winery and the steadfast resoluteness of their approach to winemaking. The wines of Lopez de Heredia are different, unique, uncompromising and alluring. If you want simple sipping and easy enjoyment, these wines are not for you. If you relish experiencing history and being beguiled by a wine, Lopez de Heredia is worth seeking out.

Maria Jose Lopez de Heredia and a few of her family's wines

At last night’s tasting, Maria spoke to the history of her family’s winery and their dedication to doing things as they’ve been done for over 100 years. The wines of Lopez de Heredia are made for aging – they spend up to 10 years in barrel before being bottled, and then many years more in bottle in the winery’s amazing underground cellars for further aging. Current releases range from 1991 to 2005. Yes, you read that right, the current releases go back more than two decades and have been sitting happily in Lopez de Heredia’s cool, humid, mold-covered (good mold!) cellars in Haro, Spain.

As we began tasting, Maria pointed out a few unique aspects of tasting these wines. The whites are best served close to room temperature (slightly chilled) to allow the flavors to fully show their stuff. I’ve had them served cold before, and it definitely does the wine a disservice. She does not recommend decanting, but opening the bottle up a bit in advance will not hurt. These wines do evolve in very interesting ways over the course of an hour or two hours or even two days. Maria also shared that the wines are really made for food – yes, they are fascinating by themselves, but paired with some cheese, some meats, the enjoyment increases. (On that note, Tower’s Stacey Sondek did a nice job putting together an array of Spanish cheeses, smoked fish, prosciutto and more to accompany the wine).

The wines tasted last night included two Lopez de Heredia whites and four reds. Very brief tasting notes are below, but the overwhelming takeaway is that these are stunning wines of complexity and character, unlike anything being made in America or anywhere else in the world really (on the red side, you’ll see some similarities to older Burgundies, but Lopez de Heredia certainly has its own very distinct terroir). Lopez de Heredia also focuses on their two primary vineyards – Tondonia and Bosconia – and contrasting the two demonstrates the degree to which the wines from nearby vineyards can diverge, even with  very similar mixes of varietals in the bottle. Bosconia produces more earthy and powerful reds; Tondonia is lighter and more elegant.

I could go on and on about Lopez de Heredia, but will simply wrap up by repeating the recommendation that you seek out these wines for a singular experience. Tasting notes (rather haphazard, scribbled over conversation) follow, then a few photos to give you a feel for the winery and its evident sense of history in Rioja.

The State of the Atlanta Sipping Scene

The State of the Atlanta Sipping Scene

Thirsty South has been covering the Atlanta drinking scene for a year now, and we must say that the state of the Atlanta sipping scene is STRONG. Whether you care about coffee, beer, wine, or cocktails, the past year has seen many good things. Here’s our take on the latest and greatest, with as many bad puns as we can fit in.

Coffee Is Roasting Hot, Percolating Wildly, Brewing Beautifully

If you need proof of how good, serious coffee is taking hold of this city, just consider that this past week Octane opened up the latest addition to its expanding empire: a new shop in Grant Park (check out their awesome espresso machine), joining the flagship Octane on the Westside and the mini-Octane “Pocket Bar” at the Bank of America Plaza as beacons of light in the haze of not-receding-fast-enough Starbucks-induced coffee coma. Meanwhile, Steady Hand Pour House is rocking and rolling and settling in nicely over in Emory Village. Empire State South is kicking what has to be the best coffee-bar-inside-an-award-winning-restaurant this side of the Mississippi. And Jason Dominy over at Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Roasters is emerging as one of craft coffee’s leading evangelists, with “coffee ambushes” all over town converting unsuspecting onlookers into Clever Coffee Dripping devotees. All praise the bean. On the downside? Why can’t there be at least one great coffee bar in Buckhead? (Octane, here’s your neighborhood for store number four)

Beer Is Hoppin’ and Growling Ferociously

The beer scene, even more than coffee, has truly gone insane (in a good way) over the past year. No one would have guessed a year ago that fresh growler fills would be available all over Atlanta, from Whole Foods to Hop City to Ale Yeah! to The Beer Growler and what seems like another new place every other week or so. The Beer Growler got growlers going in Athens last December and Hop City led the charge here in Atlanta, and there’s no stopping the trend now. It seems inconceivable that Ale Yeah! wasn’t even around this time last year, but now Atlanta has multiple world class beer shops (Ale Yeah! and Hop City in particular) to join its world class beer bars (The Brickstore and The Porter in particular).  And places like Tower and Green’s have continued to step up with great selections of their own. Meanwhile, Atlanta’s bars and restaurants are putting more effort into their beer lists and supporting our local brewers more than ever. Speaking of… Jailhouse, Red Hare, O’Dempsey’s, Wild Heaven, Monday Night Brewing all hopped heavily onto the scene in the past year. Are you serious?!? This is crazy growth, and thankfully a lot of great beer is being churned out by these local upstarts who are standing proud next to stalwarts like Terrapin and SweetWater. Wild Heaven probably made the biggest splash, and their Avondale Estates brewery will be a welcome addition once they get it up and running, but Jailhouse is showing that they can also play with the big boys and make some of Georgia’s most adventurous beers.

GA Wine Is Winning, Atlanta Wine Shops (& Lists) Are Bubbly & Sparkling

The past year has seen some of Georgia’s wineries continue to impress in competitions and tastings, gaining broader awareness for their quality. Yonah Mountain got some great press for kicking Napa butt in a blind tasting. Wolf Mountain and Frogtown picked up a bunch of gold medals in Los Angeles and from the Tasters Guild International competitions, among many others. Closer to home, on the retail front, exciting boutique wine shops seem to be sprouting up all over town. Perrine’s, Le Caveau and H&F Bottle Shop all opened up in the past year, and all offer passionate perspectives and impeccable selections. They are everything that Total Wine is not, thank goodness. On the wine list side of things, Empire State South (again!?) introduced one of Atlanta’s most exciting lists, full of impressive Burgundy, Riesling and grower Champagne. Who could ask for anything more?

Cocktail Culture Is Strong, the Competition Is Stiff & Spirited

Getting a well made drink around town is easier than ever. Again, restaurants have shown that a bit of attention to their bar program can really pay off. And a spirited community of barkeeps (AKA mixologists) is stoking the collective talent and enthusiasm all around town.  H. Harper Station is our pick for the most noteworthy newcomer on the cocktail front, thanks to Jerry Slater and crew’s purposeful punch bowls and bourbon bravado. Barrel-aged cocktails hit the scene at Iberian Pig and Double Zero. And while Greg Best and team continue to set Holeman & Finch apart from the rest, Miller Union, Cakes & Ale, Abattoir, Leon’s, 4th & Swift, The Sound Table and Pura Vida all continue to churn out serious stuff from behind the bar. It’s a great list, but we could probably name ten more right behind them. Oh, and best use of shochu in a cocktail? Miso Izakaya, hands down. The only regret? That Pappy Van Winkle is just too damn hard to keep in stock.

In summary, it’s easy to see that the sipping scene is sizzling in Atlanta. The public is thirsty for excellence in all its forms, and thankfully we have purveyors, brewers, baristas and more ready to quench that thirst. We’ll drink to that.