Dahlonega Has a New Wine Appellation, But An Old Controversy Persists
It is the second time I’ve met Craig Kritzer, winemaker and owner at Frogtown Cellars, a winery capping a high, serene hill off Damascus Church Road, that—with 43 acres under vine—is the largest grower of quality grapes in the Dahlonega area. And, for the second time, Kritzer leads the discussion by emphasizing what seems to ruffle him most: use of imported fruit—usually from California—in bottles sold as Georgia wine.
“If even one grape of California fruit makes it into a Georgia wine, it ruins the terroir,” Kritzer says, using a French term that honors the feeling of a particular place. He is emphatic and unyielding on this point, and carries the demeanor of someone who has repeated this mantra before.
Frogtown Cellars has gained a reputation for producing high quality grapes grown from the rich soil just outside Dahlonega.
Earlier this summer, the TTB—the federal authority that regulates wine labeling—awarded an American Viticultural Area (an AVA, commonly) to the area now called the Dahlonega Plateau. It is the first AVA contained entirely within Georgia (the other, Upper Hiwassee Highlands, crosses into North Carolina), and includes all of Lumpkin County along with a bit of White and Dawson counties. An AVA is a labeling designation that carries extra prestige, since it suggests the demarcated area has particular character—via elements like soil type, sun exposure, and climate—and demonstrates consistent quality. With that labeling come stricter rules and a stronger guarantee of where the fruit was grown, since at least 85% of the grapes must be farmed within the AVA limits. If the words ‘Estate Grown’ are placed on the label—suggesting the wine came from the winery’s own vines— that number rises to 95%. A bottle labeled simply as ‘Georgia Wine’ must use only 75% from the state.
“The AVA is one more facet proving what we’ve been saying for 20 years, that you can grow fruit on the Dahlonega Plateau to make world class wines,” Kritzer says, but he believes that neither the AVA nor state labeling laws go far enough. Producers could still include some California fruit in their AVA wine, a practice which is financially attractive—since it is cheaper to buy California fruit than it is to grow quality grapes in Georgia, where grapes face many natural challenges—but raises a wide range of ethical and stylistic questions.
“The Georgia wine industry will go nowhere unless the state changes the rule on what constitutes Georgia wine. There has to be a reward for those who do the hard work of growing their grapes here, not taking the easy route,” Kritzer adds, suggesting that state law should go beyond the federal AVA rules, much like in Oregon, where wines labeled as being from the state must be 100% Oregon-grown.
A trip up the road adds more dimension to the discussion. At Wolf Mountain Vineyards, where Brannon Boegner is punching down vats of high-color red grapes harvested just days ago, his own excitement about the AVA—which he, Kritzer, and four other wineries in the area spent four years and roughly $30,000 petitioning the TTB for approval—is mitigated by the feeling that its potential might be squandered.
“An AVA is really just a great marketing tool,” Boegner notes. “And if the state doesn’t get behind it, and put some money into actually promoting it, the AVA will be dead in the water.” Boegner is transparent about sometimes buying fruit from California to supplement what they make, but his wines containing any amount of out-of-state fruit bear different labels, claiming only to be American Wine, and will be marketed separately from Dahlonega Plateau bottlings. For Wolf Mountain, it is an unfortunate necessity, since—having significantly less vineyard land than the other major Dahlonega producers—yield fluctuations in difficult vintages can severely diminish supply. They simply wouldn’t have enough to sell.
The newly designated Dahlonega Plateau is the first AVA to be contained entirely within the state of Georgia. At Wolf Mountain (right), Brannon Boegner is cautiously optimistic about the new Dahlonega Plateua designation.
Other producers seem unsure what the AVA might bring. “It doesn’t really change anything we do, since we’ve always been entirely estate-grown, 100% Georgia, 100% Three Sisters,” says Sharon Paul, owner of Three Sisters, the neighboring estate to Frogtown, “but it lends some legitimacy—that we’re here for real and somebody should pay attention.”
About a mile down Damascus Church Road, a visit to the sprawling Kaya Vineyard & Winery yields another take, as Ariel Padawer—who has been making wine and tending vines at the property for over a decade—sees the AVA in a more specific light. Although he notes that an AVA can raise the prestige (and price) of wines from the location, ultimately, “It puts the farming into focus. To me that’s what it means. It’s all about where it comes from, not what comes out. The AVA makes you focus on where it actually comes from.”
Padawer’s is a humbler attitude, one that betrays many years put into that ground, and I am reminded of something Craig Kritzer said earlier that day about farming the Dahlonega Plateau. “We’re dedicated to it,” he’d said. “It’s our whole being.”
Steven Grubbs is an award winning sommelier and Wine Director for Empire State South and Five & Ten. Photo by Mike Schalk