On the night the Atlanta Falcons saw their chance to return to the Super Bowl slip through their fingers, one Georgia winery played a game of Whose Wine is Best? with several renowned California labels and scored a resounding victory.
In a controlled blind tasting, Yonah Mountain Vineyards pitted its chardonnay against Kistler Vineyard’s Dutton Ranch Chardonnay. It also put its Genesis (a merlot-cabernet sauvignon-based blend) against Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon and Ghost Horse Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, one of those $750 cult wines. Yonah shut out California’s best in all contests.
Bob and Jane Miller, owners of Yonah Mountain Vineyards, located in the northeast Georgia mountains, have no beef with their opponent wineries. In fact, the Millers hold up Kistler chardonnays and Jordon cabernet sauvignons as bellwethers for their winemaking endeavors. The point of the competition was to show the 25 wine professionals and interested guests—and the greater world, of course—that Georgia wines belong in the same arena as this country’s best.
I’ve written a dozen or more articles on Georgia’s wine industry over the past decade and they mostly went something like this: They’re good; they’re getting better, but where’s the value? Whether it was a decent $20 viognier, $30 chardonnay or $40 cabernet sauvignon, you could always get more for your wine-buying dollar from other parts of the world. That story began to change in a drafty, little tasting room nine miles north of sleepy Cleveland, Ga.
A reasonable price for a bottle of 2008 Kistler Chardonnay from the Dutton Ranch Vineyard, like the one used in the Yonah tasting, is $100 retail. A bottle of 2006 Jordan Cabernet easily fetches $50. Yonah gets $28 for its chardonnay and $40 for its Genesis, outrageous prices for a Georgia wine, but…
But, once upon a time, another winery owner named Bob (better known as Robert Mondavi) tirelessly promoted his outrageously priced $15 Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons to a skeptical world. He placed them next to France’s best wines and just asked retailers and restaurants to pick the best. This Napa Valley pioneer let his wines do the talking and let the audience figure out that you can pay more for a similarly crafted wine, but you won’t necessarily get more. His efforts eventually propelled California wines on to wine lists and retail shelves across the country.
Bob Miller wants to make a similar statement (He often invokes the Mondavi story). It is his firm belief that the north Georgia mountains can produce world-class grapes, such as the ones grown by Jeff Parker, Yonah’s vineyard manager. He also believes that careful winemakers, such as Yonah’s Joe Smith, can take the necessary steps (and committed winery owners can pay for those expensive steps) to transfer that quality into the bottle. It is now Miller’s job to change the perceptions of a skeptical audience.
Which brings us back to the night of Jan. 15. The Millers called on Michael Bryan to organize the tasting. The meticulous Bryan, founder of The Atlanta Wine School, ensured the anonymity of the wines and that they were served at the proper temperature in appropriate glassware. He also carefully explained to the tasters the 20-point UC-Davis evaluation scale, which was used to score the wines.
Harry Constantinescu, respected wine director for the St. Regis Hotel, a number of wine writers, including yours truly, and several Atlanta-area restaurant professionals were assembled to do the scoring.
I love an underdog and while I may have been pulling for Yonah, there was no way I or anyone judging could knowingly help the young winery. That’s what makes these contests compelling. In fact, being familiar with the Kistler and the Jordan (I enjoy the same bottling two weeks earlier), I thought I pegged the California wines only to find out they were from Georgia.
I scored the 2008 Yonah Chardonnay a hair better than the Kistler and a bit better than the 2009 Yonah Chardonnay. If my scores can speak, I was particularly charmed by the 2006 Genesis, which I gave 17.8 out of 20 points (I actually mistook it for the 2000 Ghost Horse). But I was not the outlier, by a show of hands and by the tally of the score sheets, Yonah was the clear winner. [NOTE: A recalculation of the scores after this column was printed showed the Kistler as the winner on total points with the 2008 Yonah Mountain Chardonnay receiving more first-place votes. The Yonah Mountain Genesis 2, a multi-vintage blend, received the highest total score with the 2006 Genesis garnering more first-place votes.]
Over the past decade, local retailers and restaurateurs have repeatedly told me that they would better support local winemakers if they could produce wines on par with quality wines from elsewhere for the same price. They often carry Georgia wines merely out of good will toward their neighbors, but find it difficult to sell Georgia wines with conviction. Wine buyers, especially those who want to remain in business, can support a charity case only so far. Georgia winemakers must play with and beat the big boys to be truly taken seriously. On a cold January night, while Falcon fans sat in a stunned Georgia Dome, one of this state’s winemakers shocked the heavily favored fine wines of California.