North of Atlanta, a treasure trove of vineyards

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La Tanya Eiland hails from Compton, California and has a passion for wine. So when she moved to Atlanta in 2013, she asked locals the question she always asks when traveling to a new place: “Where is wine country?” »

In Atlanta, the most common answer was “north.”

About 90 miles north of Atlanta, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the town of Dahlonega has a dozen wine tasting rooms and eight wineries. Neighboring communities, including Helen, Cleveland, and Sautee Nacoochee, are also home to several establishments that offer local, regional, and international wines. In total, North Georgia has more than 40 wineries and tasting rooms in an area that is becoming an increasingly popular destination for day trips and weekend getaways.

Georgia actually has a long history with wineries. The state was reportedly the sixth largest producer of wine grapes in the United States before Georgia’s Prohibition went into effect in 1907. When Prohibition ended, Georgia’s wine industry experienced difficulties. It wasn’t until 1983, when a winery bill was passed by the Georgia Legislature, that the state’s winery business began to pick up.

Today, the state has more than 70 wineries, up from about 45 a decade ago. Wine tourism has become so popular that it has spawned several wine businesses such as tour operators, restaurants, and adventure companies that take people on hikes, bike rides, and more. Winery owners said the pandemic had led to increased traffic from people who couldn’t travel overseas and were eager to be outdoors. As local outdoor travel has boomed, wineries have reaped the benefits.

“I remember thinking that people in the Atlanta area really didn’t know about this beautiful wine country north of us and if they did, many, many of them didn’t get to visit it,” said Ms Eiland, who runs a wine tour business in North Georgia called Pop the Cork Wine Tours, with her husband, Chuck. It is one of the few black-owned businesses in the Georgian wine industry.

Pop the Cork began operations in 2015 with a 12-passenger van. Today, the company has four vans and one SUV that make daily rounds. Thursday through Sunday are the most popular days for tours, which start either at Stone Mountain or at a parking lot in the Atlanta suburb of Dunwoody. The Dunwoody location is easily accessible by public transit and car. Customers can arrange to be picked up from a location of their choice if booking a private tour.

The company’s public tours, where strangers share the same van and spend the day exploring together, cost $170 per person and include lunch and tastings at three wineries. Private tours, for a group, cost $190 per person and require a minimum of eight people. When booking the tour online, customers can choose from a handful of menu items prepared by The restoration of Natalie Jane, a popular local deli whose options include brisket tacos, Cobb salad, and chicken salad on a croissant. Other companies that take people on tour from Metro Atlanta to North Georgia include Georgia Wine Tours and the Wine Van.

At Pop the Cork, drivers like Jarome Wilson are also guides who share the region’s history, talk about the wine industry’s contributions to the state’s economy, and explain the practice of wine tasting.

“I know you know how to drink wine, but I want to make sure you know how to taste it,” Wilson told a group during a recent public tour.

Each stop on the tour has its own highlight: the wine itself, the rows of vines lining the hills, the expert winemakers, or a fascinating story. In 2018, the Dahlonega The Plateau has been given the coveted Wine Country designation, the first with boundaries contained within the state of Georgia, by the Bureau of Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade, which reports to the Department of the Treasury. The quality of soil, sun exposure and climate of the 133-square-mile area make it ideal for growing grape varieties including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Chardonnay, according to the office.

During a Pop the Cork stop in Cleveland, a city northeast of Atlanta, Serenity Cellars, known for its Tuscan-inspired red blends, makes music an integral part of the experience. Wine tasting flights are offered daily, but not after 6 p.m. on Fridays when the live music begins. Guests can do a five-sample tasting for $20 or a six-sample tasting for $35 that includes a souvenir glass. The owner, Eduardo deVelasco, is on hand to advise you on the music and wine that should accompany a meal.

The Vineyard & Cellar Cottage features mountain views and hosts “Jesus n’ Jeans,” a Sunday program where people can come to the property’s chapel for worship before drinking wine. (Alcohol cannot be served before 12:30 p.m. on Sundays in the state.) Reservations are required for parties of four or more. A flight of four wines starts at $12 per person. Accent cellars, with an all-white interior and a new outdoor patio, has a fun, youthful vibe. Comedy shows are regularly presented there. Tyler Barnes, winemaker and co-founder, makes tastings intimate for pros and novices alike, explaining the differences between astringency and dryness and encouraging people to try wines they wouldn’t usually consider. Tastings cost between $20 and $24.

Mr. Barnes’ brother-in-law, Tristen Vanhoff, is a winemaker for Accent as well as Yonah Mountain Vineyards, about 25 miles. This 200-acre family winery has a barrel-filled wine cellar and a large outdoor patio. Guests might even catch owner Bob Miller and his son, Eric, who is also the general manager, playing the piano. The winery offers a tasting of four 2-ounce wine samples of its red, white, mixed or off-dry flights for $35. Wine cellar tours are $100.

Visitors tempted to extend their day trip will find their account. Some wineries have invested in accommodation as the area has become more well known. Mrs. Eiland’s travel company often drops people off and picks them up a day or two later.

An establishment offering lodging is Cavender Creek Vineyards & Winery in Dahlonega. It’s a laid-back operation with picnic tables, a playground, and slushies for kids as well as iced wine slushies that appeal to adults. No food is currently being served while the winery waits for local authorities to inspect its newly renovated kitchen, but patrons can make up for some photogenic alpacas and donkeys. The cave accommodations include a cabin with two king bedrooms, each with a private bathroom, a sleeper sofa in the living room and a kitchenette, and two fireplaces. Rates start at $289. The property also has a cottage with two double bedrooms, a bathroom and a kitchen. Cabin rates start at $239.

There are four Craftsman style cottages at Kaya Vineyard and Wine Estate, which sits on top of a ridge and offers panoramic views of the mountains. The cabins, which start at $499 a night, can accommodate up to eight people. Guests can choose five wines from the wine list for the $25 tastings.

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