One of our hobbies
One of our favorite pastimes is visiting vineyards and wineries and doing "tastings"
to sample their products. It gives us the opportunity to see some picturesque
landscapes, taste some good (and not so good) wine, and meet interesting people
Glasses on the table during a tasting at Monteluce Winery.
Types of Wineries
We've found that wineries are somewhat divided into two types:
There is, of course, some crossover; even the smallest mom and pop wineries usually offer some meeting and event facilities, but typically much less extensive and it is not the focus of the business. Also make no mistake, the hospitality oriented wineries also offer some very good wines. Although the wine may not really be their focus, the revenue from the hospitality business enables the winemaker to have resources that the smaller wineries may not be able to afford. A fat bank account can sometimes (but not always) compensate for less passion on the part of the winemaker.
- Some wineries, typically the smaller ones, are primarily focused on making good and interesting wines. The facilities are usually limited and sometimes are run by actual husband/wife owners; the true "Mom and Pop" wineries. The winemaker has a true passion for making wine.
- Other wineries, usually the larger ones with relatively extensive facilities, are primarily into the "hospitality" business. The vineyards and winery are really backdrops for the restaurants and gathering facilities intended for weddings, parties, anniversary celebrations and such.
I should also make it clear that I am no wine expert. I enjoy a glass of wine as much as anyone else and I enjoy tasting various wines, but do not pretend to have the ability to properly identify all the different nuances of wine. The comments I make about the wines we taste are purely from my viewpoint and may (probably would) be much different from what a true expert would say. I won't generally be critiquing individual wines at a winery, rather the general types of wines at a winery or the general approach they seem to be taking.
Where we are headed
For the rest of this essay, I will discuss the various wineries we have visited. Generally, they will not be in any special order, other than a major grouping by state. Since we live near Atlanta, Georgia, there are only a relative few wineries close by so we sometimes make multi-day trips to visit some of the more distant wineries, such as those in North Carolina. There will be some photos spread among the winery descriptions but there is no connection between the number of photos of a specific winery and what we think of that winery. Somewhat the converse, actually; a lack of pictures of a specific winery may imply that we were so involved in the tasting and talking to the owners or people running the winery that I forgot to take any photos.
North Georgia Wineries
We've visited the wineries below over the period of a couple of years. We've been to some of them multiple times, including taking friends and even attending a wedding at one of them.
Three Sisters Vineyards
The "Three Sisters" in the name does not refer to the people who started or run the vineyards,
but rather the Cherokee Indian name for three mountain peaks you can see from the winery. Three Sisters Vineyards
is a small winery with a relatively simple building and facilities and they refer to themselves as a "family farm" winery. They do have occasional festivals and bring in live musicians/entertainers, (on our last visit they had a large tent set up to accomodate some tour buses that were due that afternoon) but the primary focus is on the wine.
3 Sisters main building. A nice patio is available.
It is literally just around the corner from the larger Frogtown Creek winery; you can drive from one to the other via a gravel road in about 2 minutes.
I would generalize the Three Sisters wines as basic and honest, nothing fancy, but very good. To me, the most memorable was the "Fat Boy Red", a blend of 4 grapes that is very "bold" and would hold up to the most flavorful foods. It may be a bit overpowering for some tastes, but if so, their other wines should do fine. This is one of those wineries where you enjoy taking your time and talking to the person running the tasting (who is probably one of the owners or part of the family).
In the tasting room, Susan and our friends Margaret and James discuss the wine with the tasting host.
Time your visit to one of their festivals or special events and it will make for a lovely afternoon. They offer picnic supplies/food so you can enjoy a picnic with their wine and some light food on their patio or on the grass overlooking the vineyards.
Frogtown Cellars Winery
is a winery that is after the hospitality business but has not forgotten that they must also offer quality wines.
Frogtown Cellars Winery main building
On our first visit there 5 or 6 years ago, it seemed that the winemaker had gone a bit
overboard in avoiding creating the all too typical sweet southern wines; the wines
seemed a bit too far on the dry side. On more recent visits I think they have
achieved a better balance.
Our last couple of visits were on warm days and their whites offered a very
pleasant experience both as a tasting and accompanying simple foods. I think
of their wines as being well balanced, still just a bit on the dry side, but very pleasant with most foods. Most of their wines would be better
when paired with food rather than on their own.
They have extensive facilities for hosting large groups or smaller gatherings.
There are several large decks overlooking the vineyards
Dining/meeting area in the upstairs "loft" at Frogtown
for good weather events and plenty of space inside for more formal gatherings
or when the weather turns threatening. Frogtown offers numerous special
occasions, from special dinners with their wines, to festivals, and nice
luncheons on the patio.
The tastings are a little on the simple or even "rustic"" side, especially
if there is a major event occupying the main building. The rest of the facility is so nice that it would be nice and appropriate to have
some simple foods (cheese, crackers, etc.) available to accompany the wines during
a tasting. Overall, Frogtown Cellars makes for a pleasant stop on a wine tasting
day for both its quality wines and the facilities provided.
Wolf Mountain Winery
has made hospitality a science. From their wedding chapel overlooking a beautiful valley,
to the snacks available to accompany the extensive tastings, to weekly brunches and dinners
in their indoor dining facility, it is a well-organized and very pleasant facility.
The wedding chapel at Wolf Mountain
There is a beautiful inside dining room (with extensions on covered decks) where the meals
and special events are hosted. We have been to both a Sunday special dinner and a wedding
in this space and it worked well for both. The wedding chapel is open-air and overlooks a
pretty valley, making for an excellent site for a memorable wedding. The tasting "room"
is now an enclosed area that is essentially a deck under the main building. On a typical
weekend this area can get busy and has an almost party-like atmosphere. They do offer
very nice plates of snacks, with several cheese and crackers and fruit dishes, with the
tastings, at a reasonable price. You could easily make a light lunch with a tasting
and some of the snacks.
Wolf Mountain Winery main building
Don't let this emphasis on hospitality suggest that the wines are lacking in any way.
The Wolf Mountain wines were good and generally very true to what you would expect from
each varietal. If Wolf Mountain has a downside, it is that there are no real
"pleasant surprises" to discover when sampling their wines. All are good, but none
really stand out as memorable and or something you will remember and tell others about
later. As a place to have a pleasant tasting, or a dinner with wine experience, or
to host an important affair, it is hard to beat.
Tiger Mountain Vineyard
All the other Georgia wineries I'll be discussing are in the Dahlonega area, but
is in very Northeast Georgia, just south of Clayton.
The front of Tiger Mountain Vineyard
Tiger Mountain is one of the smaller,
"serious about wine" wineries, but with a bit of a playful nature.
Their wines have received a large number of awards, really disproportionate to the size of
the winery, suggesting a real dedication to producing quality wines. My impression
of their wines is mainly that the whites are especially refreshing and a good
accompaniment to light picnic style food. That memory is probably largely because
of the circumstances of our visit to Tiger Mountain.
Some of the awards Tiger Mountain has won
We attended their "Awakening
of the Vines" celebration in the vineyard one year. This is an annual event in
April that is timed to coincide with the full leafing out of the vines and is
really just a good excuse to have a nice party. The year we went the weather
was perfect for an outside picnic, the light food was great, and the wine that
accompanied everything really seemed as perfect as the weather. One of the
featured food items was several large containers of very fresh, locally grown
strawberries. One reason I say that Tiger Mountain Mountain has "playful" nature
is that one of the standard parts of the Awakening is the appearance and
performance of the Abominable Seed and Feed Marching Band. This marching
band consists of wildly costumed band members who march around, playing
tunes, and generally acting very silly. It all makes for a very enjoyable
experience. The culmination of the Awakening celebration is the bonfire
made from the prunings from the vines during their dormant season.
Parading to the bonfire at the "awakening"
All in all, Tiger Mountain is a very pleasant winery to visit and they
have some very good wines to match.
is not just a vineyard or winery, but a complete development designed to
resemble an Italian community. There are residential villas, vacation
rental villas, events such as a "wine University" as well as the winery,
complete with very nice full service restaurant.
Entrance to Montaluce winery and restaurant
Montaluce is a very
ambitious undertaking and a huge investment for someone. Tastings are
done on a covered balcony overlooking a small valley with grape vines
covering the hillside. Although we did not eat a meal at the restaurant,
it is supposed to be very good, with inviting ambiance and corresponding good food.
With all this attention being paid to all the "hospitality" aspects of
Montaluce, you might be concerned that the "quality wine" aspects of
the winery might have been left behind, and I'm afraid that you would be correct.
There is nothing in the wines that would "insult" someone or make you
think "this is really bad", but they seem to have no character. The word
that kept popping up in my mind to describe the Montaluce wines was "bland".
Some people might say that Montaluce produces wine more in the slightly mild or even bland French tradition,
rather than the bolder and richer California style, but I think it goes beyond that.
The tasting balcony at Montaluce
We tried both the white wine flight and the red wine flight and almost
all seemed dull. The one that was somewhat memorable was the mead.
It was different and reminded us of our homemade peach wine.
My impression was that the winemaker didn't want to take any chances
so the wines are very non-aggressive and non-assertive. Unfortunately,
this also means that they don't have much character.
If you want to spend a weekend, or a few hours, in a pretty Italian
community just a few miles outside of Dahlonega, Montaluce may be
just your place. If you want some really good and interesting wines,
there are better places to visit.
We happened to visit
immediately after visiting Montaluce and the contrast is very interesting.
Blackstock is a relatively small and plain looking building in the middle
of the vineyards at the end of a gravel driveway.
Blackstock is a simple looking building with good wines.
It has a good size covered patio area with picnic tables where simple light
meals are available on most weekends. The tasting bar is inside wwith a good sized room where
simple events could be hosted. On the back of the building there is a small deck
equipped with several rocking chairs overlooking the vineyards.
The covered patio: nothing fancy, but welcoming
This would be a great place
to relax with a glass (or bottle) if wine on a nice day. Unfortunately, the day we were there
it was a bit too hot for it to be enjoyable, but we did have a nice lunch at
one of the tables on the patio. After lunch we enjoyed a tasting of their wines and again
the contrast with Montaluce was clear. All the wines we tried were good with suprising
character. While they have the normal "basic" wines, they also have some that are a
little different, like the Sangiovese Rose' and the White Merlot.
There is another smaller room for tasting, but this large room is used on busy days.
Blackstock definitely gives the impression they are serious about their wine.
Cavender Creek Vineyard
Cavender Creek Vineyards is a relatively new (opened in 2011) family vineyard and winery in the Dahlonega area. For the owners, Raymond and Donna Castleberry, it is a retirement business/hobby that I'm sure is keeping them very busy. There are several unique aspects about their winery. First, they are somewhat specializing in a rather different grape varitial, Norton. They also grow the almost required Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and their "specialty" white is Petit Manseng. Although not grown or made at their winery, they also stock a couple of versions of Muscadine wine that is produced in south Georgia.
The vicious guard dog on duty. (?)
We found the Castleberrys to be very pleasent and interesting hosts. Their "guard dog" was sleeping on the front porch of the tasting room, and appeared to be more likely to lick than bark or bite. They offer a couple of tasting options and we sampled almost all of their wines. The Petite Mansang was very fruity but a little "lightweight" for my taste although I think many people would find it refreshing. To me, the Norton based wines were very similar to Cabernet, but not quite as full bodied. They have several blends of various combintions of the Norton, Cabernet, and Merlot and I enjoyed their Jackass Red and the Donkey Hotie Red. The names of their wines deserve an explanation. Their "mascot" is a small donkey (which actually exists in 4 legged form) and it appears on the labels of their wines. They "dress" it in various ways to represent the charcteristics of the wines. For example the Donkey Hotie (read it as "Don keyHotie") Red has a donkey with a Conquistador type helmet. The "One Eyed Jack" donkey has an eye patch over one eye.
Susan and the Castleberrys in the tasting room.
The wines were very good and the hospitality excellent, making for a very enjoyable visit.
North Carolina Wineries
We've taken a couple of short trips to visit North Carolina vineyards/wineries. As with the Georgia wineries, we found quite a variety in the styles of both the wineries and the wines. A great resource for locating NC wineries of interest is at the "Visit NC Wine" website." All of the NC vinyards I will discuss are identified and shown on the maps at this web site.
Just for my convenience (and as a memory aid), I will cover the wineries in the order we visited them, so the order I present them here really has no significance. I will also mention here that I will not be discussing what is probably the largest winery in North Carolina and is advertised as the most visited winery in the US, Biltmore Estate Winery in Asheville. It is a very nice winery with good wines and other activities nearby, but in order to visit the winery, you have to purchase a (somewhat expensive) admission to the Biltmore House and gardens. Since you cannot just visit the winery, I leave it out of my reviews, but I do encourage you to visit the Biltmore house and winery, it is all very nice.
The RockHouse Vineyards
Rockhouse Vineyards is an excellent example of a "Mom and Pop" winery. We met
both of them
and they are comitted to producing excellent wines and also enjoying the social aspects of hosting people coming for a tasting. The winery is close to Landdrum, NC, just barely into NC when coming from SC. If I rmember correctly, the owners actually reside in Charlotte and come over to Rockhouse to tend the vineyard and make the wine.
The Rockhouse Winery is, quite literally, a Rock House.
The wines were all good; I enjoyed each one. I don't think of any of them as especially different, but each was very representative of it's varietal base. Their Viognier did seem crisper and cleaner than other Viogniers I remember. I also liked the Meritage blend (Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sanvignon); it seemed a good cross of each of it's components but with a rich taste and style of it's own.
"Mom and Pop" preside over the tasting bar at Rockhouse.
Rockhouse is one of those wineries that you like to visit to talk to people and get to know them, both the proprietors and other people who were visiting at the time. I though it indicative of the friendliness of the winemaker that he suggested we visit another, relatively new, winery to try some other wine styles. They may be competitors, but they are also friends who respect each other.
The new winery they directed us to was
Exterior of the very informal Overmountain Vineyards.
The owners of Overmountain (Frank and Lita Lilly) have been raising grapes for quite a while, but until just about 2009
they sold all their grapes to the Biltmore Winery. They recently decided to produce their own wines and the initial
results really seem promising. He went to Viticulture school at Surry Community College in Dobson, NC. and applied the
knowledge to his own style of winemaking. All the
wines we tasted were technically very good, but the winemaker was not afraid to do things a little differently also.
Inside the tasting room with some very interesting wines.
For example, their Chardonnay somewhat follows recent trends to crisper unoaked style of Chardonnay, but then carried it
further by making it in the style of Pinot Grigio. The result is a delightfully light and refreshing wine with a basic
taste more like Chardonnay than Pinot Grigio. Another example is their Muscadine wine. Most Muscadine wines are made either a little or a lot sweet; perhaps good for a desert wine, but not for drinking with most foods. The Overmountain Muscadine
is much drier, perhaps more like a Viognier; it is somewhat dry at first taste, with a finish that leaves just a hint of sweetness. A very pleasent surprise.
Green Creek Winery
The third winery in the same general area as Rock House and Overmountain was
Green Creek Winery.
Like Overmountain, Green Creek has primarily been a provider of grapes to the Biltmore Winery and has
recently started making their own wines. Unfortunately, that is where the similarity ends.
The building and facilities appear to be a bit "industrial" in appearance.
Green Creek Winery has new and modern building.
The industrial appearance would be OK if the wines did not also have an "industrial" taste. Each of their wines
seemed to have an "off-taste". Each was somewhat different, but none very good. Before tasting one of the wines,
they said that they recommend it accompany bar-b-que and, sure enough, it tasted like bar-b-que. I enjoy
wines that are a bit different, but these were "different-bad", not "different-good". Unlike the other wineries
we have visited, their wines are only sold at the Green Creek Winery, not in any stores or restaurants. Judging by the
taste of the wines, I might understand why.
Baker Buffalo Creek Vineyard
On another trip to NC the first winery we visited was
Baker Buffalo Creek. The somewhat different name is the result of
combining a family name (Baker) which has owned the property for a long time, and the nearby Buffalo Creek.
This is another very definite "Mom and Pop" winery and the couple (Charles and Ann Edwards)
are delightful. We talked to Ann during the tasting
and afterwards Frank gave us a very nice personal tour of the winery.
Although fairly small, it was very well organized and spotlessly clean. In our conversation we found that they had
also gone to the Viticulture school at Surry Community College and they knew the winemaker at Overmountain from the
classes they both attended.
If I remember correctly, the winery is somewhat a "second career" after a successful business career and is largely a
labor of love for them, with the emphasis on "labor". The day we visited was very hot and Frank, who had multiple-bypass heart surgery earlier this year, was out working in the vineyard most of the day.
Perhaps it was partly because we enjoyed visiting with the people, but we also enjoyed the wine. They have both
"traditional" wines like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon and a number of wines made from local wine varieties, like
muscadine. The Muscadine was good, but just a touch sweether than the Muscadine at Overmountain and I think I prefer Overmountain's
version better. My favorite was probably the unoaked Chardonnay. They also produce a French Oaked Chardonney which was good,
but I thought the unoaked version was better, at least on this rather hot day.
The Cabernet Sauvignon was good, but it's hard for me to get excited about another "Cab" these days. On the other hand, their
blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Chambourcin ("Between the Rivers Reserve") had an excellent balance
with a bold taste that was still very drinkable.
While their focus is definitely on the wine, Baker Buffalo Creek does have some simple event facilities, including a restored mule barn that is used for events such as weddings.
Owls Eye Vineyard
The second winery we visited on this trip was
Owls Eye Vineyard. The slightly different name came about because the owner, Frank Hannah, is an Ophthalmologist, so the sharp eye of an owl seemed a fitting symbol of the winery. The facility is large, new, and almost barn-like, allowing them to host all kinds of events. They have weekly events such as "Wine Down Friday" to bring people in.
Owl's Eye Winery facilities.
We found the wines to be "OK", but nothing special. We chose the Chambourcin to take with us, partly because you seldom see this varietal unblended with other varietals. The unoaked Chardonney was good, but a touch sweet for our taste.
Some of the vines at Owls Eye.
The one we were most interested in trying was the Blackberry. Last year we had a very large crop of blackberries and
made blackberry wine and we wanted to compare the Owls Eye blackberry to ours. They were somewhat similar and
somewhat unusual, for blackberry wines, in that they are both relatively dry. We did like ours a little
better because we thought we could taste more of the blackberry fruit taste.
Owls Eye would be an interesting destination for it's events; I would probably enjoy their "Wine Down Friday" and similar events, but I don't think I would go far out of my way just for their wines.
The folks at Baker Buffalo Creek had told us that if we were interested in fruit wines, like blackberry
and blueberry, we should visit WoodMill Winery.
WoodMill Winery main buildings.
If you think you might want to try some Muscadine wine, this is the place to come. They have both Muscadine (red) and Scuppernong (golden) in sweet, semi-sweet, semi-dry, and dry variations. Their blackberry and blueberry wines are also available in multiple levels of sweetness. They also have blends of the grape and fruit wines in various degrees of sweetness. There are so many combinations I'm not sure how they keep track of it all. We tried quite a few and after a while they started to run together a little. If we were going to drink a Muscadine, I think their dry Muscadine would be my choice, but somehow the muscadine wines just did not "click" with us. I love fresh Muscadine (and Scuppernong) grapes but somehow the wines just did not have that fresh kick, although the Muscadine flavor did come through.
The cold fermenting room at WoodMill Winery.
We did get a very nice tour of the facility by a lady that I took to be the wife in the husband and wife team who own the winery. We got the history of the winery and a good view of the workings, from crushing, through fermenting,
to bottling. We left with a bottle of the semi-dry Red Muscadine as probably most representative of their offereings.
An elegant rose garden with walkways and water fountains, a patio area with picnic tables and umbrellas for enjoying a picnic at the vinyard, and impressive Italian styled winery and hospitality facility;
this is the first impression of
The front of Villa Raffaldini.
The tasting room and associated functions seems to occupy almost all of the lower level of the villa. There are several tasting bars, each manned by a very pleasant and knowledgeable host and capable of accomodating at least 6 tasters. They can acccomodate quite a crowd! You can purchase wine here, of course, but also a good selection of
snacks and foods appropriate for enjoying as a picnic. A little suprising, there seems to be no actual restaurant
on the property, despite parts of the villa that appear intended for just that purpose. Perhaps they are just not ready for that step yet. They do have some scheduled special dinner occasions. For such a complete and elegant
facility, it is surprising that Raffaldini does not appear to pursue the hospitality business more than they do.
Villa Raffaldini sits on top of a hill, surrounded by rows of vines on all sides.
Perhaps they are downplaying the hospitality part to focus on the wines. If so, they are doing quite well.
As befitting an Italian themed winery, the emphasis seems to be on their Sangiovese and we felt it to be quite good.
Bella Misto is a somewwhat unusual blend of Merlot, Nebbiolo and Tempranillo and comes across a well balanced and
hearty, but not overbearing, red. They also had a bottling of this wine in special bottles to support the local Humane Society: buy a bottle and some of the cost goes to helping local dogs and cats. The Pinot Grigio was good, but not quite as crisp or refreshing as I like to see in a Pinot Grigio. Overall I was a little surprised at the consistent good quality and taste of the wines as well as their presentation of some relatively unusual varitials.
I was expecting too much emphasis on the hospitality business but was pleased to see a strong focus on creating
Dobbins Creek Vineyards
After leaving Raffaldini we found Dobbins Creek Vineyards to be a interesting
contrast. Dobbins Creek is a very plesent, relatively small and friendly winery.
The rustic but new Dobbins Creek winery building.
The facility includes a rustic appearing but new and comfortable building with a nice front porch and deck overlooking the vineyards.
Some simple events could be accomodated but the emphasis here is obviously on the wine.
The tasting area of the main room is simple and comfortable with one fairly long counter and the staff are friendly, knowledgeable and very involved with the winery.
Inside the tasting area at Dobbins Creek.
The wines we tasted were all good but I don't remember any one standing out above the others. My favorite among the whites
was an unoaked Chardonnay. They offer both oaked and unoaked Chardonnay but I've grown to prefer the unoaked style lately.
This one was nice and crisp and would be very pleasing to enjoy on a warm evening on the patio. I'm not a big Riesling
fan, but their Riesling had a bit more body than what I think of for a Riesling and just a hint of sweetness.
The red that we came away with was the Merlot. It seemed a bit smoother and richer than typical Merlot, possibly
because of the extensive oak barrel aging. Their red blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon would go well
with hearty meats. Overall, Dobbins Creek was an enjoyable stop and presented some very pleasing wines.
Laurel Gray Vineyards
The last winery we visited in the Yadkin Valley American Viticulture Area (AVA) and the Swan Creek AVA of North Carolina was Laurel Gray Vineyards. The name comes crom the names of the owner's children: daughter Laurel and son Gray. Rather than a new facility, the winery and tasting room is housed in what appears to be a former farmhouse.
Arriving at Laurel Gray with the vineyard in the background.
The winery was doing a pretty good business when we visited and there were probably 10 people at the tasting table hosted by Kimberly Myers, one of the (husband and wife) owners. One thing that I found intersting is that they
have expanded their product line beyond wine and are also producing and selling several sauces, such as a Chardonnay
Caramel sauce and a Vinaigrette sauce. The winery facility itself appears to have a limited ability to host
events and they do have some organized "festival" type events.
The Laurel Gray wines we tasted were all very good. It was the afternoon of a hot day when we visited so perhaps
that is one reason I tended to like the Voignier and Pinot Gris. They were both crisp and fruity and very refreshing. My favorite among the reds was their "Sultry" blend of Syrah and Cabernet Franc. It has a full
bodied taste but without the heavyness of the typical Cab.
The End... (Until we visit more wineries.)
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