La Tanya Island is 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 elsewhere: “Where’s the 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. Nearby 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 a region that is becoming an increasingly popular destination for day trips and weekend getaways.
Georgia actually has a long history with vineyards. The state was reportedly the sixth largest wine grape producer in the United States before the Georgia ban went into effect in 1907. When the ban ended, Georgia’s wine industry struggled. It wasn’t until 1983, when a Farm Winery bill was passed in the Georgia Legislature, that the state’s wine trade began to turn.
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-adjacent businesses such as tour operators, restaurants, and adventure companies that take people on hikes, biking, and more. Winery owners said the pandemic led to an increase in the traffic of people unable to travel abroad and eager to be outdoors. As local outdoor travel boomed, wineries took advantage.
“I remember thinking that the people in the Atlanta area really don’t know anything about this beautiful wine country north of us and if they do know about it, many, many of them have failed to visit,” said Ms. Island, who runs a wine tour company in North Georgia with her husband Chuck called Pop the Cork Wine Tours. It is one of the few black companies in the Georgian wine industry.
Touring troves of wineries
Pop the Cork started in 2015 with a 12-passenger van. Today, the company has four vans and an SUV that tour every day. Thursday through Sunday are the most popular days for tours, starting at Stone Mountain or at a parking lot in the Atlanta suburb of Dunwoody. The Dunwoody location is well served by public transport and by car. Guests can arrange for pickup from a location of their choice when 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 have a minimum requirement of eight people. When booking the tour online, guests can choose from a handful of menu items created by Natalie Jane’s Catering, a popular local caterer offering options such as brisket tacos, Cobb salad, and chicken salad on a croissant. Other companies that take people on tours from metro Atlanta to North Georgia include Wine Tours of Georgia and the Vino Van.
At Pop the Cork, drivers like Jarome Wilson are also guides who share history about the region, talk about the wine industry’s contributions to the state 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,” Mr. Wilson told a group on a recent public tour.
Each stop on the tour has its own highlight: the wine itself, the rows of vines that line the hills, expert winemakers, or a captivating history. In 2018, the Dahlonega Plateau was awarded the coveted designation of a Viticultural Area, the first with boundaries in the state of Georgia, by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which is part of the Treasury Department. The soil quality, 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, the agency said.
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 tastings are offered daily, but not after 6pm on Fridays when the live music kicks in. Guests can do a five sample tasting for $20 or a six sample tasting for $35, which includes a souvenir glass. The owner, Eduardo deVelasco, is on hand to advise on the music and wine to accompany a meal.
Overlooking the mountains, The Cottage Vineyard & Winery hosts ‘Jesus n’ Jeans’, a Sunday program where people can come to the property’s chapel for worship before drinking wine. (Alcohol is prohibited from serving in the state before 12:30 PM on Sundays.) Reservations are required for parties of four or more. A flight of four wines starts at $12 per person. With an all-white interior and a new outdoor patio, Accent Cellars has a fun, youthful vibe. Comedy shows are regularly organized. Tyler Barnes, a winemaker and co-founder, makes tastings intimate for pros and beginners, explains the differences between astringency and dryness, and encourages people to try wines they wouldn’t normally consider. Tastings cost $20 to $24.
Mr. Barnes’ brother-in-law, Tristen Vanhoff, is a winemaker for both Accent and Yonah Mountain Vineyards, about 25 miles away. That 200-acre family winery has a wine cave filled with barrels and a spacious outdoor patio. Guests can even watch the owner Bob Miller and his son, Eric, who is also the general manager, play the piano. The winery offers a tasting of four 2-ounce wine samples from its red, white, mixed, or off-dry flights for $35. Wine cave tours cost $100.
Not just a day out
Visitors tempted to extend their day trip will find it easy. Some wineries have invested in lodging as the region has become more famous. Mrs. Eiland’s tour company often drops people off and picks them up a day or two later.
One establishment with accommodation 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 frozen wine slushies that are a hit with adults. No food is currently served while the winery waits for local authorities to inspect the newly renovated kitchen, but guests can socialize with photogenic alpacas and donkeys. The winery’s accommodations include a two-bedroom cabin with a king-size bed, each with its own bathroom, a sofa bed in the living room and kitchenette, and two fireplaces. Rates start at $289. The property also has a two bedroom cottage with a queen bed, bathroom and kitchen. Rates for the cottages start at $239.
There are four craft-style cottages at Kaya Vineyard and Winery, which sits atop a ridge and offers panoramic mountain views. The cottages, which start at $499 per night, can accommodate up to eight people. Guests can choose five wines from the wine list for the $25 tastings.