Grapes ripen in the sun at Cartecay Vineyards, Ellijay. PHOTO BY ANITA ROSEN
Column: Wayne On Wine
Georgia wine history and trends
By Wayne Crawford
Georgia, the last British colony in America, was established as a Trustee of the Crown in 1733. Silk, wine and olive oil were key agricultural objectives to make the colony profitable.
In the wine industry, from its start, there have been historical peaks and valleys within the state. Today, Georgia enjoys significant progress in wine production and sales. Its varied climates and geography (including subtropical), disease and prohibition all played a part in vineyard and wine development. Perhaps the most damaging was the 27 years Georgia was under prohibition, 1908 to 1935. (See Thomas Pinney’s “A History of Wine in America.”)
Georgia now has 57-plus wineries and several additional vineyards that support the state’s wine industry. Additionally, grapes and fresh fruit account for 60-plus varietals, including European grapes cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. Muscadines of varietals like Noble and Carlos and American and French hybrids—such as chardonel, blanc du bois and traminette— can be found. Fruit wines include apple, blueberry, peach and strawberry.
Like all farmers, those in Georgia are confronted with weather variances from year-to-year. Based on my onsite research, these include drought, early frost impacting bud break, bug disease and animal pests—particularly birds near harvest—and a host of other factors depending on location, altitude, aspect and soil.
It is important to understand that Georgia, as the fourth state to ratify the U.S. Constitution, evolved over 100-plus years before it reached its current land size of 58,876 square miles, the largest land mass state east of the Mississippi River. Early Native Americans, including the Creek and Cherokee, originally owned all the land now called Georgia.
North America is unique among the world’s winegrowing regions, with a large diversity in grape species. Not yet classified, these native grapes adapted, for the most part, to regional climate, weather and plant diseases. It was a major challenge for European grapes to survive in the New World.
By the beginning of the 18th century, the secure pursuit of wine, silk and oil remained a cornerstone in colonial development. England was willing to establish a new colony south of the Carolinas to protect its holdings not only from the French and Spanish but also from Native American tribes, which had attacked the Carolina colonists in 1715. Wars with both European countries had placed restrictions on trade, and England desired to become more self-sufficient.
The first selected colonist’s journey to Georgia began Friday, Nov. 17, 1732, from Gravesend, 21 miles east of London’s center. James Oglethorpe, the lead trustee and founder, was on board the 200-ton frigate Ann, along with Captain John Thomas and a crew of 20 sailors and 114 colonists. They sailed to Madeira to take on wine and water and then journey west to Charles Town in the Carolinas. The distance to Madeira from Gravesend is 1,496 nautical miles and from Madeira to Charles Town, 3,135 nautical miles—a voyage of 61 days. Shortly after his arrival, Jan. 13, 1733, Oglethorpe negotiated with Yakima Indians for the land needed to establish the colony.
A key objective in the early days of the colony was to build a trustee garden of 10 acres, which included grapes from Madeira and France. This was the first experimental garden in the United States. The growing of European grapes proved not to be successful; similar to the experience in colonies north of Georgia, the grapes did not survive the disease nor, in the case of Georgia, the poor location used for planting. Notes from the educated Scotsman Hugh Anderson indicate poor site selection on poor soil with the site exposed to wind and sun led to disaster. Such ground might do well to grow mulberry trees for silkworms but, to grow vines, the trustees needed windbreaks, hedges, drained swampland, a greenhouse, well, laboratory and library. (See Thomas Pinney’s “A History of Wine in America.”)
The Trustee colony reverted to a Royal province in 1754. Native grapes were cultivated locally by farmers to make wine but little more occurred. However, several key individuals contributed to wine production in the years following the American Revolution.
Most notable among these was Thomas McCall from Laurens County, who served as Surveyor General of Georgia, 1786-1795. McCall systematically experimented with grape culture and winemaking beginning in 1816. By 1826, he was considered one of the best winemakers in Georgia and produced 860 gallons of wine off two acres of vines. His skills were rare and not easily passed along.
Other farmers attempted to reproduce Thomas McCall wine without much success or with limited demand for their product. These included James Camak (1846), Iverson Harris and Camille Le Hardy, near Rome. James Horsley of Upson County made large quantities of scuppernong, a variety of muscadines.
The bottom line was the wine industry in Georgia and the South remained largely a home enterprise, with no market for the unskilled Southern vintners. (See James C. Bonner, “A History of Georgia Agriculture, 1732-1860.”)
Ralph L. Spencer
The most compelling and largest vineyards and wine production activity in the late 19th century was positioned in Haralson County in west Georgia around Tallapoosa. An investment group centered in the Northeast, with Ralph L. Spencer from Connecticut a guiding force, envisioned Tallapoosa as a key industrial center.
In 1893, the group chartered the Georgia Fruit Growing and Winery Association. In the same year, Spencer visited Pennsylvania to recruit 400 Hungarian immigrants who understood vine production. Father Francis Janisek, a Catholic priest, facilitated the effort to convince the Hungarians to leave the coal mines and relocate to Tallapoosa to produce wine. In return, Janisek received land and a house, and each of the 200-plus families recruited were allocated 10 acres. Two thousand acres were devoted initially to this effort.
By 1896, there were 12,726 vineyard acres of land in Haralson County. The 1900 census on agriculture in Haralson County documents 665,885 grapevines with production of 1,593,536 pounds of grapes. The Tallapoosa vineyard experience made Georgia one of the leading wine production states in America prior to 1900.
In 1907, Georgia voted for mandatory statewide prohibition, since most counties had voted to prohibit alcohol. This put an end to commercial winemaking in the state for 27 years. The new law went into effect in 1908, well in advance of the passing of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The initial vote in Congress on the amendment occurred in December 1917, and the states would not ratify the amendment, commonly referred to as the Volstead Act, until January 1919. This amendment was repealed with the 21st Amendment, Dec. 5, 1933. Georgia did not repeal its prohibition until 1935.
Georgia wine history was interrupted by prohibition; vineyards and winery operations went out of business and expertise and skills not easily renewable were lost. A new start began in 1935, with the founding of The Monarch Winery of Georgia in Atlanta, which made mostly peach wine. It was not until Gay Dellinger started her Split Rail Vineyard near Dallas in 1979, that the modern era of Georgia winemaking would be born, leading the way for three current wineries to open in the early 1980s: Habersham Vineyards and Winery near Helen, Georgia Winery near Ringgold and Chateau Elan in Braselton.
As we start the New Year, the trends in Georgia vineyard growth and wine production are very promising. The University of Georgia (UGA) formed the muscadine-breeding program in 1909, and it continues under the leadership of Dr. Patrick Conner as the oldest and largest muscadine grape-breeding program in the U. S. Last year, UGA opened a testing laboratory to support vineyard and wine production within the state and hired a full-time viticulturist. We likely will continue to see new wineries opening in the coming year, and more people are visiting and drinking Georgia wine.
The research for this article is drawn from the author’s work for a forthcoming book, “Georgia Wine Journal,” which is due to be released later this year.
‘Drink what you like’
In the next article, the focus will be on Merlot.
Wayne Crawford is a French Wine Scholar FWS a certified specialist of Wine CSW a member of the Wine Scholar Guild, Society of wine educators and American Wine Society.