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Once a faculty member, now Clair Livingston pursues life among the vines

By Candice Dyer

Claire Livingston has dedicated her life to the sciences.

She was a professor of anatomy and cell biology at three Georgia institutions over the course of her career. Recently, though, she shifted her focus from the microscopic to the panoramic, and she is bringing her laboratory skills to a new field. Livingston makes award-winning wines at Cavender Creek Vineyards.

“I’m still working in science,” she says, “because it’s all a matter of chemistry and balance, of mixing the right amounts of acid, sugars, and alcohol.” The anatomical specimens that cross her path now couldn’t be happier with the results. Livingston was teaching at the Heart of Georgia Technical School in Dublin, her hometown, when she visited friends in Dahlonega. Like every other baby boomer who brunches here and scans the ridge-line of Napalachia, she was struck with the ultimate retirement fantasy. “I fell in love with Dahlonega – everything about it, the mountains, the rivers, the friendly people,” she recalls. “There is so much culture packed into this small town. So I thought: Why not retire here and operate a winery?”

Claire Livingston is 'living the dream' as a chemistry professor turned vineyard owner. Photos by Matt Aiken                      

She was not a studied, discerning oenophile at the time; she was just a wine lover game for a new adventure. Planting vines that will be healthy and productive, though, is an arduous process that normally takes about a decade. “A lot of people discouraged me,” she says. “They told me it’s hard physical labor. It’s a money pit. And on and on. At age 60, I didn’t want to have to start from scratch.”

As luck would have it, Raymond Castleberry wanted to sell his operation, so she could step into a ready-made vineyard. Eager to roll up her sleeves and get her hands dirty, she became the first single woman to own a winery in Georgia.

“I just sort of jumped in without a lot of preparation,” she says, brushing a wisp of strawberry blond hair from her face. “I was just a lone woman with a dog, and I literally had to learn how to drive a tractor. It was harvest time, so it was a trial by fire.”

She makes frantic picking gestures with her hands to demonstrate.

Claire Livingston enjoys the fruits of her labors. Junea (right) keeps a friendly watch over the vineyards at Cavender Creek. Photos by Matt Aiken

“By the end of the harvest, my hands were numb. It forced me to have the carpal tunnel surgery I’d been putting off for years, but, boy, was it worth it!” That was three and a half years ago, and she has never looked back, except to invite old friends to visit for a spell and sample her product. “Claire went straight from drinker to maker,” says Robin Hall, a British wine educator who relocated to northeast Georgia in part because of the viticulture. “She brings this new viewpoint to her wine, which reflects her personality in that it is very enthusiastic. She has an instinctive knowledge of what the public wants and enjoys.” Cavender Creek Vineyards, which, like many of our local vineyards, was once a poultry farm, comprises 15 acres, four of which are planted in vines. Livingston grows mostly Norton, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Manseng grapes, which yield about a dozen wines, with plans to bottle two more soon. Her wines are made from estate-grown grapes, and to craft blends, she sources some varietals from other, neighboring wineries in north Georgia. “There’s a real spirit of cooperation here,” she says. “We work together as a community to help each other, which is another aspect of this work that I love.”

Her favorite wine, which is also Hall’s preference, is the Castleberry red, with its complex finish.

“It’s what I choose when I’m drinking for fun,” Livingston says.

It is one of several bottles that have racked up medals in the Georgia Wine Trustees Challenge. Her terroir is a true farm, she notes, and a peaceable kingdom of sorts, with the vibe of a cultivated commune for its 10 staffers. Until recently, Livingston had a donkey named “Hoatie.” (As in Donkey Hoatie – get it? Don Quixote.) He died a few months ago and left his mate, Dulcinea, to grieve and guard the four alpacas Livingston loans out to local fiber artists.

Glossy chickens peck at the dirt, while dogs tussle with a toy inside the tasting room. A 200-year-old, hand-hewn cabin sits atop the hill, and she has converted her barn into an event space, where her musically inclined employees gather to jam after work.

“We really are a family here,” she says. “We all like each other so much that we hang out together.” The fruit of her labors, she says, is more than just a heady libation. “We’re not just selling wine – we’re making magic,” she says. “I want this to be a place where people come to relax and connect with each other.  I want it to be an experience to be remembered.” So far, she has suffered no bad hangovers from this winning formula.

“I am doing what I love and making as many people happy as I possibly can in the process,” she says. “At the end of the day, isn’t that what life is all about?”

Photo by Matt Aiken