Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Wine in Wolf's Clothing (Georgia Wine, part 2 of 3)

How many of your most enjoyable wine experiences start this way?

Wake up in strange bed in strange house (fortunately, not with strange woman), hazy-headed, blurred-vision. Dry mouth, pounding headache, regret. Oh, the regret. And yet, it's unclear what I'm regretting.

Oh yeah. Beloved alma mater lost football game. Stupid other games didn't cover. Drowned sorrow in what may-have-been root beer-flavored vodka.

Wake wife. Get dressed. Stop by Wendy's, hoping that they're serving a chicken sandwich at 10 AM. Chicken sandwich and large Sprite perhaps saves life. "Why did I set up a meeting with a winery today," I continually question myself. "The last thing I want to see is anything remotely alcoholic, let alone an entire operation dedicated to it."

Not familiar? Perhaps you're not an Irish-blooded, football-crazy wine lover. It happens.

But upon reaching the beautiful grounds of Wolf Mountain Vineyards in nearby Dahlonega, GA (about an hour north of Atlanta), things start to turn around. Up a very steep driveway off a non-descript backroad in an unknown (to most) part of the world, one is greeted by Cabernet Sauvignon vines, picturesque grounds, and- on this day- a packed parking lot. Apparently, the secret's out. My wife and I amble into the inviting tasting room and we're quickly greeted by winemaker and owner, Karl Boegner. The friendly, Hawaiian-shirt clad Boegner, looking about in his mid-fifties, is the patriarch of the family-run operation, and has spent most of his life in the wine industry, including tours in Epernay and Reims, two strongholds of Champagne, France.

As we walk through the rows of ripe Cabernet vines- only a couple weeks away from harvest- Boegner regales me of the great challenges and opportunities of growing vitis vinifera in North Georgia. He tells me that the 1800' above-sea-level elevation of the Dahlonega Plateau is the critical factor allowing traditional wine grapes to grow in such an unforgiving climate (in fact, Boegner has been a relentless voice in pushing to make this region Georgia's first AVA, or American Viticultural Area, giving real creedence to the local terroir). We discuss the experimental nature of the industry. Besides Cabernet, Wolf Mountain is also growing Syrah, Malbec, Mourvèdre, Tannat (a brutally-tannic variety indiginous to Southwest France), and Touriga Nacional (one of Portugal's signature red grapes) on its southwest-facing slopes. We move on to viticulture, the advantages of rain-repellant clay soils in a rainy climate, and how vine fungal diseases are a constant threat where notorious high-humidity is the norm, rather than the exception. When not fighting downy and powdery mildew- spraying every 7 days until June- Pierce's disease is a constant threat to the vines. Trust me: when you talk to a Georgia winemaker, you gain a great deal of respect for amount of, well, crap, that he endures in pursuit of a passion.

One thing is for certain: if the wines are half as lovely as the surroundings in where they're poured, then Wolf Mountain has a very good chance of putting local wine on the national map. What comes next is state support, and both Karl Boegner and his son Brannon seem hopeful that future administrations will loosen their historically-strict regulations on the industry. Distribution laws have recently opened up a bit, but there's more work to do. Indeed, the positive economic impact of a burgeoning wine region- both for product sales and tourism- cannot be ignored. What will come out of full support can only be a good thing.

The final piece of the puzzle is local backing. Visit Wolf Mountain, as well as its neighbors. No, I'm not being compensated to say this, and I was not asked to do so. But I have a great deal of pride in where I'm from, and every place in the world has something unique about it. One of the greatest things about wine is that it can express that uniqueness unlike anything else.

On Wednesday, I'll focus on the wine, touching on the highlights of Wolf Mountain's many offerings. I hope to find something in the glass that cannot be found anywhere else, much like what I've found in the foothills just north of my beloved city.

Oh, I'll also be staying away from root beer vodka, as I raise my glass of Pepto Bismol: Cheers, Sláinte, L'Chaim, Salud, Prost, Skål, Konbe, and Kampai!

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