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Veni, Vidi, Viticulture

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In the 1980s, when Georgia Winery and Habersham Winery opened their doors, the north Georgia mountains were known more for moonshine than for fine wine.

Now, Georgia wineries draw thousands of visitors a year and contribute more than $81.6 million to the state’s economy annually. Georgia’s wine industry is thriving and pushing its way onto supermarket and wine shop shelves by sheer will and a little bit of that rogue moonshiner spirit.

Vineyard and winery owners have worked to gain a foothold for the state in the world of wine while managing the challenges that come with farming wine grapes in Georgia. In the last few seasons, with the addition of multiple north Georgia vineyards as well as the establishment of vineyards in the southern Piedmont region, Georgia’s wine industry is hitting critical mass, said Larry Lykins (BSA – Animal Science, ’96; MS – Animal Science, ’98), who also has an education specialist degree from the University of Georgia. Lykins is the owner of Cartecay Vineyards in Ellijay, Georgia, and vice president of the Georgia Wine Producers.

“It started in 1980 with Georgia Winery and Habersham Winery; that was the first wave,” Lykins said. “Then we had the second wave with about eight to 10 vineyards opening in the 1990s, and then we had a third wave between 2008 and 2012. That’s when we opened. As for what we’re seeing today, I wouldn’t even call it a wave anymore. It’s just steady growth.”

Today there are almost 60 wineries in Georgia, spread across the north Georgia mountains, the west Georgia foothills and even on the flat expanses of the Coastal Plain.

On land that used to be cattle pasture, sorghum fields or pinelands, a diverse group of planters have staked their claim in the name of grapes and winemaking, a big investment that often takes seven to 14 years to break even, said Lykins.

Georgia Wine Producers worked with UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences administrators and the Georgia General Assembly to put together funding for a UGA Cooperative Extension state viticulture specialist and hired Cain Hickey in 2017. Hickey’s expertise will help to take the industry to the next level, said Emily DeFoor, president of the Georgia Wine Producers and general manager of Habersham Winery in Helen, Georgia.

“Just having a point person who can give us good information and help us organize workshops and field days for our producers is huge,” DeFoor said. “It’s a pivotal turning point for us as we shift into truly supporting the industry. We are just absolutely delighted that Cain joined UGA, and he has been a great addition to the industry.” 

By Merritt Melancon


Harvesters set out to pluck wine grapes from vines at western Georgia’s Trillium Vineyard in September 2016.

CAES supports the next generation of winemakers

In the nine years since the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences launched its “Viticulture and Enology in the Mediterranean Region” May term in Cortona, Italy, almost 200 students have learned about Italy’s wine industry while earning credit for horticulture, food science or plant pathology courses.

Phillip Stice (BSA – Biological Science, ’10) used the knowledge he gained during his May 2010 trip to land an internship at north Georgia’s Tiger Mountain Vineyards and, eventually, a job as a wine sales representative with Specialty Wine Distributors. He works with chefs, bar managers and wine shop owners to curate wine lists that feature boutique vintages from France and California.

Stice took part in the viticulture and enology May term, and it gave him the foundation he needed to start his career. “It was a great base of knowledge and gave me the jump-start I needed to start my career, but I’m excited that they’re putting more resources into wine growing now,” Stice said.

Stice produces a small amount of wine under his own label. He worked with family friends at Caymus Vineyards in Rutherford, California, to bottle his Stice Russian River chardonnay in 2014 and his Stice Russian River zinfandel in 2015.

Taylor Lee (BSA – Food Science, ’13) learned about jobs in the wine industry during his time in the study abroad program.

“If I had not taken UGA’s viticulture and enology course, I would have been pretty lost,” Lee said.

He worked as a lab technician at Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley, California, before starting his master’s degree in viticulture and enology at the University of California, Davis. He is currently working at E. & J. Gallo Winery in Modesto, California.

"Most people have this romantic vision of what winemaking is,” Lee said. “But it’s a lot of dirty work. You get your hands messy. That’s something I really enjoy about it … Even though it has this culture of fanciness around it, it’s still agriculture at its core. We’re still working with the land to produce a great product that people enjoy.” 

As a graduate student in plant pathology, Stephanie Bolton (MS – Food Science, ’12; Ph.D. – Plant Pathology, ’16) helped to lead the college’s viticulture and enology study abroad trip, performed research on fungi from Vitis vinifera vineyards in the southeastern U.S., and surveyed mycotoxins in red wine. Today, she works as the grower communications and sustainable winegrowing director for the Lodi Winegrape Commission, a California winegrowers advocacy group.

“(Bolton) brings an extensive knowledge of grape growing along with a strong background in sustainability initiatives,” Lodi Winegrape Commission Board Chairperson Galen Schmiedt said. “Her valuable connections within the academic and research communities will continue to position Lodi as an innovator in the viticulture and enological world.”

Internships with Georgia wine producers are also a cornerstone of winemaking education at CAES. The program pairs students with north Georgia vineyards and provides a stipend for living expenses.

2017 Winegrowers of Georgia Interns

  • Renee Kuraly, environmental chemistry major, expected spring 2019
  • Junyi Zhou, food science major, expected fall 2017
  • Emma Johnston, food science major, expected 2018

By Merritt Melancon


Georgia wine is on the rise with guidance from UGA Extension

For the past three decades, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension agents and specialists have supported Georgia’s wine grape industry. Today, under Extension viticulture specialist Cain Hickey’s leadership, the Extension Viticulture Team is advancing Georgia’s wine industry. Hickey is creating new platforms that will allow members of the team to speak directly to area growers. The team includes:

  • Fruit disease specialist and plant pathology Professor Phil Brannen
  • Entomology specialist and Assistant Professor Brett Blaauw
  • Weed management Extension specialist Wayne Mitchem, whose efforts jointly support UGA, North Carolina State and Clemson universities
  • County Extension coordinators Paula Burke (Carroll County), Nathan Eason (White County), Phillip Edwards (Irwin County), Clark MacAllister (Dawson County Extension coordinator and Lumpkin County agent), Melissa Mattee (Union and Towns counties), Keith Mickler (Floyd County) and John Scaduto (Rabun County)
  • Extension Agent Heather Kolich (Forsyth County)

The viticulture team is a knowledge base and network of support for growers, said Mattee. She’s been working with grapes for over a year and having a network of fellow Extension experts to rely on has been essential.

“A lot of it is just the team leaning on each other, asking, ‘What are you seeing? Are you seeing powdery mildew? Are you seeing this? Are you seeing that?’” Mattee said. “It’s just keeping each other apprised (of the latest information). If we see something show up in vines that we haven’t seen before, then we ask another (team member) or Cain or Dr. Brannen. We’ve got a good team dynamic.”
To learn more, visit the viticulture team’s blog at blog.extension.uga.edu/viticulture.

By Merritt Melancon