People have always come to Dahlonega looking for a brighter future. In 1828, it was the gold rush. Today, it's more of a grape gush.
On a recent Saturday, Doug and Sharon Paul gathered friends at their Three Sisters Vineyards, a 184-acre vineyard estate just out of Dahlonega, to help harvest their inaugural crop.
Busy clipping grapes from the vine was Greg Sheppard, a Lumpkin County Extension Service agent who has helped the Pauls since they came here in 1996.
"We've had to learn a lot about grapes," Sheppard admitted. "With any crop, insect and disease problems must be managed. We've been developing management practices that work in our area."
Sheppard isn't alone working with this emerging crop. More than a dozen wine vineyards are now scattered around north Georgia.
"The fescue pastures being converted to vineyards are less expensive to establish than if (growers) have to clear land," Sheppard said. "This is an industry that preserves our farmland and offers good potential income for producers."
Grape growers have found the rolling north Georgia hills perfect for growing grapes. A region once known for brewing great 'shine is now producing some fine wine.
Paul is growing several varieties of grapes, including Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Touiga, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay and Cynthiana-Norton.
"Each vineyard has its own specialty," Paul said. "Our initial estimated harvest is 35 tons, and we will produce a small amount of wine here."
While this generation of grape growers is fairly new, taking root in the late 1970s and early '80s, grape growing in Georgia dates back to the Cherokee Indians and other early settlers.
James Oglethorpe, Georgia's first colonial governor, tried to introduce European viticulture as part of his economic plan. His attempts failed when the grapes contracted a New World disease and were attacked by indigenous insects.
Those pests persist today.
"Pathogens are prevalent in middle and south Georgia that prevent those areas from being good for growing grapes," said Phil Brannen, an Extension Service plant pathologist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
"Pierce's disease is a problem even in some areas of north Georgia," Brannen said. "But elevation helps us out with pests and disease, so you'll have most vineyards above 1,200 feet."
Over the decades, native muscadines were cultivated throughout Georgia for table grapes and sweet wine production. European wine grapes, though, are relegated to these high elevations.
"Georgia features both large and small vineyards," Paul said.
Chateau Elan and Habersham Wines are two of the mainstays. "Literally across the highway from Chateau Elan is smaller boutique vineyard-winery Chestnut Mountain," Paul said. "Another small winery is Fox Vineyards & Winery in Social Circle."
Tourism and Agriculture Mix
Georgia's northernmost vineyard, Crane Creek Vineyards in Young Harris, hopes to anchor the top of the Georgia Wine Trail.
Beautiful, rolling hills of neatly tended rows of vines aren't just attractive economically. They make for pretty agribusiness. That helps attract income from another source.
"Tourism is big business in this area," Sheppard said. "This type of business works well with tourism and I think can actually bring tourists in."
Like most Georgia vineyards, Paul included special events as part of Three Sisters' business plan. The estate has an outdoor gazebo with a spectacular view for weddings and outdoor functions. "We see this as 'agritourism' at its finest," he said.
"The producers are optimistic," Brannen said. "They certainly have the opportunity to make a nice profit, especially if it's tied to tourism and provides a good escape from the city."
So will north Georgia be the next Napa Valley?
"In order to compete with Napa, it will take some time," Brannen said. "But these vineyards are going to produce some good wines, and some will be very competitive. This is an industry with a bright future."
(Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)