When you first see the stunning Indian mound crowned by a lovely gazebo, you know you are in North Georgia’s wine country. Once the land of the Cherokee whose presence was doomed when gold was discovered in nearby Dahlonega, the area is now home to a thriving and diverse wine industry.
My journey through these ancient mountains began in Sautee Nacoochee and was more fun accompanied by the distinguished wine and travel writer Greg McCluney. Two gentlemen blessed with noses like truffle hounds were able to sniff out great wine and exceptional food in the wilds of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Yonah Mountain towers over fields of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Viognier and the native grape, Cynthiana. The fabled mountain is a sentinel guarding the past while protecting expectations.
Located on the southeastern base of its iconic namesake is the two-hundred acre family winery, Yonah Mountain Vineyards. Yonah consistently produces world-class wines. The winery and tasting room with abundant marble, crystal, brass and polished wood represents luxury like a Dixie Versailles. The aging barrels are stored in and near a natural cave. Everything appears to be constructed by accomplished artisans, blending design with the same skill employed in winemaking. Rolling hills and fertile soil produce Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Petit Manseng, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.
The rich history of the region is reflected in the living folk art tradition. The Folk Pottery Museum of Northeast Georgia, part of the impressive Sautee Nacoochee Center, displays visionary works of legends like the renowned Meaders family. Before touring nearby wineries, a visitor beholds handcrafted ceramic face jugs that could be glimpses of other worlds.
Although just 100 miles north of Atlanta’s megalopolis, Georgia’s wine country is refreshingly low-tech. There are many welcoming places and friendly people and there’s food galore; genuine farm-to-table products minus marketing hype. In addition to Yonah Mountain Winery, there are many others in the immediate area including Habersham Winery, Serenity Cellars, Sautee Nacoochee Vineyards, and Cottage Vineyard.
“Roughing it,” isn’t my idea of a memorable getaway. Lucille’s Mountain Top Inn & Spa has the feel of a Ritz-Carlton in the wild, designed to fit seamlessly with all that nature offers. Located on a small mountaintop near the historic Unicoi Turnpike, the luxury inn overlooks the pristine Blue Ridge Mountains and scenic Sautee. It is an architectural masterpiece with breathtaking views featuring a North Georgia gourmet breakfast like stone ground grits, free-range eggs, country ham, local sausage and fluffy hot biscuits.
Helen, the beautiful alpine city in the North Georgia Mountains temporarily transports you to Germany. It is also a beginning point for winery experiences. Bodensee Restaurant, located in the center of this top-tiered tourism destination, has a menu featuring Chef Aurel Prodan’s German cuisine like Gebratene Forelle Muellerinen Art (fresh pan fried mountain trout with almonds and dill sauce) and Schweinebraten with Sauerkraut and Spaetzles (Sauerbraten with potato dumplings and red cabbage). The wine and cocktail menu is comparable to expensive restaurants in Savannah and Atlanta.
Serenity Cellars is headed by über-winemaker Joe Smith, one of the most influential professionals in Georgia’s burgeoning wine industry. His love of wines and art was on display as we toured his barrel aging room, a work in progress, with artists painting a huge mural in his wine cave.
Another memorable destination is Sylvan Valley Lodge. They host different North Georgia winemaker dinners monthly, a multi-course experience. A different local wine is carefully selected and served with each course. The chef’s commentary is entertaining and enlightening.
The Gourmet Highway is more than a journey from one restaurant and winery to another. It’s a state of mind open to adventure and reward. Who knows what treasures are waiting on the other side of the mountain?