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La Tanya Eiland is from Compton, Calif. and has a passion for wine. So when she moved to Atlanta in 2013, she asked locals the question she always asks when she travels anywhere new: “Where is 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 city 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 weekends away.
Georgia actually has a long history with vineyards. The state was reportedly the sixth-largest wine grape producer in the United States before Georgia Prohibition came into effect in 1907. When Prohibition 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 business began to turn around.
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 like tour operators, restaurants and adventure companies that take people on hikes, bikes and more. Winery owners said that the pandemic ushered an increase in traffic from people who couldn’t travel abroad and were eager to be outdoors. As local outdoor travel boomed, wineries benefited.
“I remember thinking that the people in the Atlanta area really don’t know about this beautiful wine country north of us and if they know about it, many, many of them haven’t gotten to visit it,” said Ms. Eiland, who runs a wine tour company in North Georgia called Pop the Cork Wine Tours, with her husband, Chuck. It is one of the few Black-owned companies in Georgia’s wine industry.
Touring troves of wineries
Pop the Cork began operating in 2015 with one 12-passenger van. Today, the company has four vans and an SUV that run tours every day. Thursday to Sunday are the most popular days for tours, which start either in Stone Mountain or a parking lot in the Dunwoody suburb of Atlanta. The Dunwoody location is easily reachable by public transit and by car. Guests can arrange to be picked up at a location of their choice if they book 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 made by Natalie Jane’s Catering, a popular local caterer whose options include 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 said to a group on a recent public tour.
Each stop on the tour has its own highlight: the wine itself, the rows of grape vines carpeting hills, expert winemakers or a compelling history. In 2018, the Dahlonega Plateau was given the coveted designation as a viticultural area, the first with boundaries contained in the state of Georgia, by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which is under the Department of the Treasury. The 133-square-mile area’s soil quality, sun exposure and climate make it ideal for growing grape varietals, including cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and chardonnay, according to the bureau.
On a Pop the Cork stop in Cleveland, a city northeast of Atlanta, Serenity Cellars, known for its Tuscan-inspired red blends, makes music integral to the experience. Wine tasting flights are offered daily, but not after 6 p.m. on Fridays when live music starts. Guests can either do a five-sample tasting for $20 or a six-sample tasting for $35 that includes a souvenir glass. An employee, Eduardo deVelasco, is on hand to offer advice on the music and wine that should accompany a meal.
The Cottage Vineyard & Winery offers mountain views and hosts “Jesus n’ Jeans,” a Sunday program where people can come to the property’s chapel for worship service before drinking wine. (Alcohol can’t be served before 12:30 p.m. on Sundays in the state.) Reservations are required for parties of four or more. A flight of four wines starts at $12 per person. Accent Cellars, with an all-white interior and new outdoor patio, has a fun, youthful vibe. Comedy shows are regularly hosted there. Tyler Barnes, a winemaker and co-founder, makes tastings feel intimate for pros and novices, explaining the differences between astringency versus dryness and encouraging people to try wines they might not ordinarily consider. Tastings cost $20 to $24.
Mr. Barnes’s brother-in-law, Tristen Vanhoff, is a winemaker for Accent as well as 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 might even catch the owner Bob Miller and his son, Eric, who is also the general manager, playing the piano. The winery offers a tasting of four 2-ounce samples of wine from its red, white, mixed or off-dry flights for $35. Wine cave tours are $100.
Not just a day trip
Visitors tempted to extend their day trip will find it easy to do. Some wineries have invested in lodging as the region has become more well-known. Ms. Eiland’s tour company often drops people off and picks them up a day or two later.
One establishment offering lodging is Cavender Creek Vineyards & Winery in Dahlonega. It’s a laid-back operation with picnic tables, a playground and kid slushies as well as frozen wine slushies that are a hit with grown-ups. No food is currently served while the winery waits for local authorities to inspect its newly renovated kitchen, but guests can cozy up to photogenic alpacas and donkeys. The winery’s accommodations include a cabin with two king bedrooms, each with a private bath, a sleeper sofa in the living room and a kitchenette and two fireplaces. Rates start at $289. The property also has a cottage with two queen bedrooms, one bathroom, and a kitchen. Rates for the cottages start at $239.
There are four Craftsman-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, sleep up to eight people. Guests can choose five wines from the wine list for the $25 tastings.