Three wine lovers visit Yonah Mountain Vineyards in part one of a series
The Dahlonega / Lumpkin County area of Georgia is known as the “heart of Georgia wine country” and in 2018 became the AVA Dahlonega Plateau (an AVA, or American Viticultural Area, is a label given by the Alcohol and Tobacco Bureau to a specific area of land that is designated by a unique climate and geographic area).
The history of Georgia wine dates to colonial times and in 1880 the state was the sixth largest producer of wine with nearly 1 million gallons per year. The original vintners took indigenous varietals like Muscadine and Scuppernong and made sweet wines, while the newcomers experimented with traditional grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Chardonnay and unique ones like Seyval Blanc and Tannat.
It wasn’t until the 1980’s that some of the first commercial wineries were established in North Georgia, like Habersham Winery in Helen and Chateau Elan in Braselton. Three Sisters Vineyards was the first within the Dahlonaga AVA. Now, there are 101 wine making permits in Georgia.
We joined Billie Harris of The Vino Van on a recent Friday to travel north and visit three unique wineries that help tell the tale of Georgia wine. Our adventure began in front of VinoTeca where we met Billie, driver JT and her Mercedes Sprinter. The Vino Van was established in 2017 as a way for Billie to bring her “friends in wine” safely to North Georgia wine country and share her love for wine. Growing up in Mississippi, Billie’s grandmother owned a small grocery that, in May 2016, her family worked to have added to the National Historic Registry. It was her family values that made her build a business immersed with something she loved. Billie studied wine at Vino Venue in Atlanta, Emory University, and Subvino in Nashville. She currently holds a WSET (Wine Spirit and Education Trust) Level 2 certification. Making unforgettable memories with friends and family over wine is the heart of The Vino Van.
The first stop was Yonah Mountain Vineyards (yonahmountainvineyards.com) in Cleveland, the 12th established winery in the area. We arrived and were welcomed by a huge, covered veranda perfect for enjoying their wine flights while taking in an exceptional view of the mountain landscape. Yonah, the Cherokee word for bear, also boasts a 5oo-seat event facility recently added for weddings and private events. The rooftop is covered with Tesla solar panels, which covers half of the electricity for the vineyards. They also boast an 11,000 square foot underground production area – including the only aging cave in the area – as well as a private tasting room. Founder Bob Miller and wife Jane retired to Florida after raising their children in Smyrna, but Jane wanted a farm, so they purchased 200 acres in Cleveland in 2005. It was a friend that suggested planting grapes on the land. They went to Napa and worked with growers and vintners as well as a consultant who walked them through what to plant and how. Their first vines, planted in 2008, arrived on a UPS truck. Now they produce 20 different wines in six vineyards, named after their daughter and five granddaughters.
A highlight of the visit was our opportunity to sit down with Bob, who explained that his “job is to walk around and talk to people.” He is a consummate storyteller. After playing the piano for us, he gave a tour of the facility including the caves, tasting room and event facility, all while pouring us samples from their catalogue of wines – each one with a different story.
Yonah Mountain employs an Australian winemaker named Tristin, and Bob gives him free reign to try and make the best wine in the Southeast. They use French Oak for aging and are experimenting with Hungarian oak and different yeasts for fermentation with bottles aged for at least a year.
As for their fruit, 60 percent of grapes came from their property and 40 percent are sourced from California, but they never blend the grapes. Many wineries found that it is cheaper to source grapes than to grow onsite because in Dahlonega there is a significant amount of rain (averages at 62 inches per year) which creates mildew and makes pruning a constant battle. They employ a ‘small army’ to constantly keep the vines in check. The hard work and attention to detail, while sparing no expense, shows in the quality of their traditional wines.
Grab a sandwich from nearby Sheilah’s Village Market (sheilaahsvillagemarket.com) to enjoy with your tasting at Yonah. Her shop occupies the very first Yonah Mountain tasting room!
The first wine made at Yonah was Genesis named after the first book of the Bible. This is the highest selling wine at Yonah and is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petite Verdot. The wine is rich and opulent with plum, black raspberry and toasted caramel.
Part 2 of this trip to the North Georgia wineries will appear in November.