From Gold Rush to Grape Crush

Florida Press Club 2012 Second place winner, Commentary.

Originally published in Lake & Sumter Style, January 2012 • Photos by Tony DeSantis

In 1829, covered wagons loaded with pick axes bumped along the dusty mountain roads in north Georgia as prospectors set off America’s first gold rush. Today, cars filled with wine enthusiasts snake through the curvy highways visiting wineries along the Dahlonega Wine Trail and sampling what area winemakers call “liquid gold.”

Never in my wildest dreams could I imagine that wines produced in my former home state of Georgia would become international award winners, but they have. An hour and a half north of Atlanta, the area known as the Dahlonega Plateau melds together perfect conditions for growing grapes and winemaking.

“Dahlonega turns out to have the best mix of elevation, slope, rainfall, and temperature,” says native Atlantan David Harris, winemaker and owner of Blackstock Vineyards and Winery. “The rolling hills and steep slopes offer good drainage, and we’re shadowed by the high mountains that protect us from harsh winters and extreme heat in the summer. It’s an exceptional grape-growing area.”

The view from Blackstock Vineyards & WineryAfter reading a wine chemistry book while a student at the University of Georgia, Harris realized winemaking was his future. He transferred to Fresno State’s enology and viticulture program, where he first began a feasibility study about the Dahlonega area. After working for other Georgia wineries, he began developing Blackstock in 1994 and planted Dahlonega’s first vineyards in 1997.

Georgia Trend described him as a driving influence in developing Georgia’s premium wine industry. His Appalachian-style lodge winery, which opened in 2006, overlooks the Blue Ridge Mountains and is a relaxing setting to enjoy and learn about the hand-crafted complex wines.

Blackstock is the East Coast’s second largest producer of Viognier, a delicious alternative to Chardonnay and my favorite Blackstock wine. With 40 acres of vines, Blackstock also produces reds, blushes, and dessert wines — all made with Georgia grapes.

Just a cork’s throw down the road sits Frogtown Cellars, the most awarded non-Californian winery for premium dry wines in major U.S. competitions.

Craig Kritzer of Frogtown Cellars

Craig Kritzer of Frogtown Cellars

“Wine is about place,” says winemaker Craig Kritzer who along with his wife Cydney founded Frogtown Cellars in 1998.  “The French understand this but Americans don’t. When you blend another state’s grapes or wines, it obliterates the taste of place.”

Kritzer, a retired Atlanta attorney who also happens to be a University of Florida Law School graduate, is passionate about making quality Georgia wines under “strict French rules.”

“With the exception of our dessert wines, our Frogtown-labeled wines are completely dry,” explains Kritzer.  “We do not add any sugar because it makes the wines less food-friendly.”

Kritzer doesn’t ignore his clientele who may prefer a little sweetness, though. Frogtown has a second label, “Thirteenth Colony,” which includes wines ranging from an off-dry American style Vidal Blanc with just a touch of sweetness to a premium version Blush Royale made from traditional Muscadine grapes.

Frogtown’s premium European-style wines, however, are the ones being noticed at prestigious wine competitions around the country. One of my Frogtown favorites is the 2008 Frogtown Bravado, a gold medal winner at the recent San Diego International Competition. The very earthy Frogtown Tannat , a gold medalist in the 2011 California Critics Challenge, is a favorite among “frogofiles,” also known as members of Frogtown’s wine club.

Wolf MountainWhen it comes to breathtaking settings, Wolf Mountain Vineyards just outside of Dahlonega is the place to capture Kodak moments with spectacular sunset views and beautiful vistas. The outdoor tasting room was a perfect place to end my tour with Wolf Mountain’s gold-medal winner and signature wine, Blanc de Blancs Brut, a dry sparkling Chardonnay. Wolf Mountain is the only member of the Georgia Wine Growers Association to produce sparkling wines, and the Blanc de Blancs was the first Georgia wine to be served at the James Beard House in New York. The tasting room is a bit hectic on fall weekends because so many people come to enjoy the day, beginning with reservation-only brunches in the chalet-style winery.

“We pride ourselves on hospitality,” says Marketing Director Stephen Smith and also a member of the Boegner family which owns Wolf Mountain. “We are selling the experience. The view, the wine, the food, and the ambience are all part of the total package.”

SignsIf those words ring Disney-esque, it’s because Wolf Mountain owner Karl Boegner says his “graduate school” came from the experience he gained on the opening team of Orlando’s Walt Disney World Resort. After majoring in Hotel and Restaurant Administration at Florida State University, Karl had a 30-plus year in the hospitality industry. He and his wife, Linda, established Wolf Mountain in 1999 and planted 30 acres of vines by hand in 2000. The winery opened to the public in 2003, and the first vintage sold out within eight months.

“All of the wineries along the Dahlonega Wine Trail offer totally different experiences,” says Smith. “All of us want people to enjoy themselves and learn about Georgia’s exceptional wines.”

Members of the Georgia Wine Growers Association will showcase their wines during the increasingly popular Wine Highway Weekend, March 23-25, 2012. For information, visit

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