“I am very saddened to inform you that we are closing the vineyards and winery at Blackstock.” Thus began David Harris’ not unexpected letter earlier this year. We found out officially just after the New Year that he and his wife, Trish, were throwing in the towel after 17 seasons of growing arguably north Georgia’s best wine grapes from their vineyards outside of Dahlonega.
A freeze in April 2012, which left Blackstock essentially cropless, sealed the deal. Never heard of the Harrises or Blackstock? Not a surprise. From challenging weather, to a byzantine distribution system, to a largely skeptical market, to the preponderance of inexpensive, imported California grapes, Georgia’s winemakers face formidable barriers to greater recognition and success.
The Harrises’ departure is the latest testament to these challenges. Other stalwarts, however, remain.
From Jasper to Dahlonega to Clayton—and to the flatter parts of the Peach state—dozens of grape growers and winemakers are gearing up at this very moment for what they hope will be a blockbuster vintage. Hope and insanity reign eternally for Georgians in the winemaking business.
Among the quality growers remaining in north Georgia is Tiger Mountain Vineyards. A contemporary of Blackstock, Tiger was conceived by two Georgia-native couples, John and Martha Ezzard and Leckie and Bill Stack. (The Stacks have since been bought out by the Ezzards, who have new partners, John and Marilyn McMullan.)
Tiger’s vineyards and subsequent winery were built mostly on nine acres of land dating back five generations in John Ezzard’s family. When Mother Nature gives her OK, Tiger, located just south of Clayton, produces about 3,000 cases of wine annually. It offers wines that most Americans would find unfamiliar, like cynthiana, tannat, touriga nacional and, easily their best effort, petit manseng. But when every Tom, Dick and California winery sells the expected chardo-cab-merlot wine, it pays to be a little different.
Different grapes planted not just to be different; different grapes planted to give Tiger a fighting chance against the capricious north Georgia weather. If it’s not the dregs of a hurricane right in the middle of harvest or the disease-producing humidity of July and August, it’s the heartbreaking spring frosts (Am I right, David and Trish?), that can bring the most talented, resourceful grape growers to their knees.
When the Ezzards (and shortly thereafter the Stacks) began their folly, they consulted with the preeminent East Coast wine consultant, Dennis Horton. Horton helped John, Tiger’s winemaker, select grapes that would thrive despite the despicable weather.
This was fortuitous in a couple of ways.
Vines that are better suited to their environment tend to keep serious Georgia-grown winemakers in business. Ask any of the principals at Tiger where they get their grapes and you’re likely to get a resolute: “Right here in Georgia!” Other wineries (some quite well-known) find it necessary to import a little or quite a lot for fruit from outside the state, especially when things go bust weather-wise. This depresses the market and makes it hard for grape growers to make a decent living without having to resort to bonsai classes and wedding receptions (Am I right, David and Trish?).
What John Ezzard and Horton couldn’t have known back in 1995, when they thought that planting the Portuguese tinta cão was a good idea, was today’s enlightened restaurants embrace unique varieties, as do adventurous diners. Tiger wines can be found on lists at Quinones at Bacchanalia, The Cloister on Sea Island and the Ritz-Carlton and St. Regis hotels in Buckhead.
No one should support local winemakers out of the goodness of their heart. Support should come based on quality or because it enhances their business prospects. Despite all its obstacles, Tiger give consumers and retailers just that opportunity.
Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator and a consultant for a metro-Atlanta wine shop. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from Thumbs Down, One Thumb Mostly Up, One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Up, Two Thumbs Way Up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.