A glimpse at wine making and grape growing in Georgia
Story and Photos by Stephanie Fenton
A teetotaler I am not, especially when it comes to the gift from Bacchus, a bold and dry Cabernet Sauvignon. The story goes that in the early 50s, when my father was stationed in France, I was left in the care of a French family while my parents went off to play bingo at a nearby military facility. Being a somewhat hyperactive child, the kind family settled me with cups of French wine. According to my parents, that is where my affinity for the noble grape began.
The history of American wine goes back to the time when European explorers first discovered wild grapevines growing in North America. Unfortunately, the wine made from those grapes was distasteful to the settlers, so they tried to grow familiar varieties of Vitis vinifera brought over from their homeland. Some of the most successful vineyards appeared in California when an immigrant from Bordeaux imported vines from France, and by the 1850s he had 40,000 vines under cultivation.
Georgia’s wine industry began using the state’s native grape, muscadine (Vitis rotundifolia). If you have ever walked through the woods in the fall and thought you smelled fermented grapes, you were right. The wild vines crawl up the trees searching for light, and the fruit is either eaten by birds or falls to the ground to rot. It was just such a fall day that my neighbor called asking if she could walk our property to look for ‘Scuppernong’ to gather to make wine. I told her she was unlikely to find any of those since they were a cultivated variety, but if she were lucky, she would find plenty of muscadines in the woods behind the riding ring. The weather was beautiful, and I couldn’t resist going with her to help. With gallon buckets in hand and optimistic attitudes, we set out to gather enough grapes to make muscadine wine. After several hours of being scratched by thorns and stung by yellow jackets we gave up our search with barely a half-gallon of overripe grapes we found on the ground.
The following weekend she called me again and said she had spotted a long row of trellised muscadine vines on a neighbor’s property and would I accompany her to ask permission to pick. Neither of us had ever met the neighbor, but since there is strength and (guts) in numbers, we gave it a go. As we drove up the driveway, we passed a quarter mile of vines, heavy with grapes. Our neighbor told us he had been growing several varieties of the vines for many years and taking meticulous care to fertilize and prune for maximum production. His crops traditionally turned out to be more than he or his friends could use.
I did not count the number of buckets we filled that day, and in our haste we did not separate them by variety, but rushed them to her house for washing and the first stages of making wine. I am not a winemaker, but I am a wine drinker. Unable to wait for her first wine batch to age, I went home and popped the cork of my favorite Cabernet.
Two long years passed before my neighbor dropped off my first bottle. She was so thrilled with the outcome that she planted her own vines for future wine production. Luckily, I waited until after she left before tasting it. Little did I expect that muscadine wine is so sweet, and I don’t like sweet wine! She also left me with a jar of muscadine jelly, so after spitting out the wine, I slathered a piece of French bread with butter and her jelly before pouring myself a mason jar full of Bordeaux.
Georgia has made great strides in the wine industry, producing Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Merlot from vines growing in the mountains north of Atlanta. Tours of the vineyards and wineries are available to the public. Check some out at gawinetours.com.