By Robin Conte

If “wine is sunlight held together by water,” as Galileo observed, then North Georgia has the ingredients for a good bottle of grape. In the last two decades, about two dozen wineries and vineyards have developed in the northeastern corner of the state — from Jasper to Toccoa and northward — practically all of them less than a two-hour drive from Atlanta.  Most of them hold individual events or combined festivals throughout the year, which makes for an excellent day trip or weekend getaway.

The vineyards and the view at Cartecay in Ellijay.

The vineyards and the view at Cartecay in Ellijay.

Cartecay Vineyards in Ellijay, for example, features live music from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m. each Saturday throughout the year. For $10, visitors can enjoy the music along with five tastings of their choice of vineyard wines or hard ciders from Mercier Orchards, and then take home a souvenir wine glass.

Sitting neatly in the southern Appalachian Mountains and not far from the banks of the Cartecay River, Cartecay Vineyards was the first vineyard in Gilmer County. Owner Larry Lykins bought the property in 2007 after several years of researching the process of wine making.  He rebuilt the original chimney of the old homestead with Georgia red clay and uses it as the focal point of an outdoor patio and bandstand; a rendering of the chimney serves as the vineyard’s logo.

He also transformed the barn into a tasting room with the upstairs loft area functioning as an events venue and a winter location for the live music. Lykins now has about 13 acres of vines and says he’s involved in every aspect of the business, “from fixing door handles to washing dishes to planting grapes.”

The president of the newly formed Georgia Wine Producers, which is a statewide organization, Lykins has a straightforward philosophy. “Wine making is making wines that people enjoy drinking,” he says.

The same elements that make Ellijay prime apple growing country, such as elevation and a relatively cooler climate, make it amenable to vineyards as well. As Lykins puts it, “If you can grow an apple, you can grow a grape.”  Specific to the northeastern corner of the state is the ability to produce the vitis vinifera grapes, or those traditional and commonly recognized European grapes, such as merlots and cabernets.  Twenty of the North Georgia vineyards and wineries are members of the Winegrowers Association of Georgia (WAG), a nonprofit corporation that helps in marketing and promotion, and many of them host collaborative wine tours.  Many are also collaborative with their communities, donating portions of their event proceeds to local charitable organizations.

The weekend of June 12-14 marks the first “Plein Air at the Vineyards” event in Ellijay.  The four Gilmer County vineyards, Cartecay Vineyards, Chateau Meichtry, Ellijay River Vineyards and Engelheim Vineyards have partnered with the Gilmer Arts & Heritage Association for a three-day winery tour that begins at 7 a.m. on June 12 and runs through 7 p.m. on June 14.  Each vineyard will feature artists painting “in open air,” and will also have the artists’ works on display and for sale. A Plein Air Passport costs $25, entitling the holder to wine tastings at each vineyard, a souvenir wine glass, and admission to the special events, including an artists’ reception and a live auction. Some of the proceeds will benefit the Boys and Girls Club of Ellijay.  For more information, go to ellijaywinecountry.com or call 706-635-WINE.

On the other side of the Chattahoochee National Forest, in the pastoral countryside of Rabun County, lies Stonewall Creek Vineyards. The 5-acre vineyard produces about 3,000 vines, all of which are the vitis vinifera variety. The land was purchased by Carl and Carla Fackler, former residents of Brookwood Hills, who originally intended to simply produce and sell grapes.

They harvested their first grapes in 2005, and then opened their own winery in 2012.  The Facklers now produce two labels: Stonewall Creek Vineyards, which uses their own grapes exclusively, and Standing Deer Cellar, composed of grapes from neighboring vineyards. Carl is a retired surgeon, however Carla is quick to explain that their current lifestyle is “definitely not retirement.”

On June 20, from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Stonewall Creek celebrates the longest day of the year with a festival that includes a live band, wine tastings and their specially created Skywalk wine cooler. Tickets are $15, and visitors are encouraged to pack a picnic. A neighboring organic market and deli will have some food for purchase. A portion of the event proceeds will benefit Richard’s Kids, a local nonprofit that ministers “to the health, wealth and self-esteem of children in need in Rabun County, Georgia.”

For information about all of the WAG North Georgia vineyards and wineries, and various events, visit georgiawine.com.

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