North Georgia Has a Secret: Great Wines and Gold!
By Anne Braly
As her utility vehicle climbs slowly between rows of wines dripping with clusters of green and red, Sharon Paul stops to pick a bundle of Chardonnay grapes.
“Here. Try some,” she says, before climbing back in her 4X4 and continuing our path to the top of the hill. Reaching the pinnacle, this is what we’ve come to see.
Pointing past a gleaming white gazebo where weddings happen, there are three matching peaks in the distance. “That’s where we got the name for our vineyard — The Three Sisters,” Paul says.
Paul is a 60-something-year-old woman, her shoulder-length blond hair and skin, un-aged from a life in her vineyard’s sun, belying her age.
She and her late husband, Doug, opened Three Sisters Vineyards in 1995, becoming the first family farm winery along the Dahlonega Plateau and first legal winery in the county since Prohibition.
Blue Ridge Mountain Views
The plateau’s breathtaking views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and its rolling hills come alive with vines heavy with grapes ready for picking, a sign that signals that Dahlonega is primed for one of the most-special times of year. The weather becomes crisp with autumn breezes and the leaves treat us to their dance of many colors, making it the best time of year to travel the Dahlonega Wine Trail to sample the award-winning fruits of the harvest.
While at it, take time to discover all that Dahlonega has to offer, from its restaurants to its history — the first gold rush in the United States. Yes, it predates the rush to California by 20 years.
Sips to Savor on the Trail
The Dahlonega Wine Trail traverses the Dahlonega Plateau and into the city itself and is dotted with eight wineries and a dozen tasting rooms. It’s something about which Southerners have known for a couple of decades — the altitude and climate perfect for producing European grapes.
But it wasn’t until four years ago that the region was recognized by the Alcohol and Tobacco and Trade Bureau as an American Viticultural Area, a designation that was a game changer for wineries in Lumpkin County.
“It helped put Dahlonega on the map and solidify our wine region as an important one in the country,” says Sam McDuffie, Director of Tourism for Dahlonega-Lumpkin County.
Here’s a sample of what you can sip, taste and do at some of the wineries. They’re all different, but the same in one way: wonderful wines with a depth of taste that mirrors and in some cases exceeds American wines in areas that, before, took the spotlight.
But now, Dahlonega wines have gained respect among winemakers and made a place for themselves among the best.
On the Wine Trail Three Sisters Vineyards and Winery
The Paul’s uprooted their family and moved to North Georgia from Atlanta to raise their daughter in a better place, and Doug Paul said to wife, Sharon, ‘I think we should plant a few grapes.’”
Those few grapes now number nine different varieties that grow on the 187-acre farm and produce 16 different wines, ranging from dry rose, pinot blanc and cabernet to off-dry blends such as the Fat Boy line that comes in red, pink and white.
All of the wines here are 100% estate grown. The tasting room, where wines are sold by the bottle as well, is open Thursday-Saturday 11 a.m.-5 p.m. and on Sunday from 1-5 p.m.
Sit on the covered veranda and enjoy a tasting of four wines and a beautiful view of the vineyard. For more information, visit threesistersvineyards.com.
Montaluce Winery and Restaurant
A feeling of déjà vu overwhelms any of those who have ventured to Tuscany as you wind your way up the hill to Montaluce.
Rows of grapevines and villas of Italian architecture meet your gaze as you drive up a long driveway that ends at a magnificent structure with handsome Old World elements.
It houses a tasting room, wine shop, restaurant and the wine cellar where the magic happens.
“Wine and wine culture are built around passion, right?” asks General Manager Matthew Garner as he looks out over the vineyard, its rows of vines and magnificent backdrop of the Southern Appalachians.
And this winery puts a lot of passion into its product, producing about 10 wines from its grapes, all of which can be purchased onsite or online if you have an address in Georgia or Florida.
Montaluce is one of several wineries on the Dahlonega Wine Trail that offer a full-service restaurant. In fact, it has two eateries.
Trattoria di Montaluce is open for lunch Monday-Saturday and has a casual Italian menu with lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch service.
Montaluce Winery and Restaurant offers a more elegant atmosphere and a menu that’s a nice fusion of Southern-meets-Italian.
Artistic cheese boards, pastas, Tuscan flatbread, filet Bolognese and outstanding wines for pairing, such as a nice Vognier to sip with a bowl of cucumber-melon gazpacho or Montaluce cabernet with a hoisin pork chop.
The winery offers a typical wine-tasting experience, but adds wine hikes and fly fishing along Etowah River to its lineup of activities.
A visit to Montaluce takes in the beauty of Tuscany, the experience you might find in Napa and mixes it with the grace of Southern hospitality.
Go online to montaluce.com for reservations and more information.
Wolf Mountain Vineyards and Winery
Wolf Mountain is the first Georgia winery to win Best-in-Class and double Gold Medals at the prestigious San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles International wine competitions for its cabernet and its Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine. What does that say for a family-owned winery in the North Georgia Mountains?
A lot, says Karl Boegner, who planted the first vine at Wolf Mountain in 2000. “Going up against all the cabernet found in California is probably one of the things that I’m most proud of,” Boegner says. The vineyard grows six varieties of red grapes on its property at Wolf Mountain and gets grapes for its white wines from neighboring farms.
The winery produces 17 wines — whites, reds and sparklings. “I keep saying enough is enough, but it’s fun,” says Karl’s son Brannon Boegner, who’s followed in his dad’s footsteps and is now winemaker and general manager. “
When people come up the mountain, we want them to understand that they’re gonna get the same caliber of wines as if they were in Napa or any of the big wine-producing regions out West.”
Wolf Mountain’s Sunday brunches are a thing of legend and are in high demand. There are two seatings –12:30 and 2:30 p.m. — featuring a jaw-dropping menu that changes with the season. September’s menu features French cuisine; October’s is a celebration of the harvest.
Lunch is served Thursday-Saturday from noon to 3 p.m., with a menu of salads, sandwiches, pizzas and if you’ve never had grits fries, you’re in for a treat. Ever seen them on a menu before?
They’re a specialty of the house, and for good reason. The fries come steaming hot — grits covered with panko and served with pimento cheese remoulade.
A different menu of appetizers and pizzas is offered in the tasting room. Reservations for lunch and brunch at Wolf Mountain may be made on opentable.com. For more information about the winery, visit wolfmountainvineyards.com.
Accent is the only winery located within the Dahlonega city limits, a stone’s throw from the town square, and does not grow its own grapes, but is really picky about the grapes it sources from Georgia, California, Washington, Texas and North Carolina, really anywhere owners Tyler Barnes and Tristen Vanhoff can find what they’re looking for.
“It’s quality we’re interested in,” Barnes says. Sourcing grapes from other vineyards is something many wineries do. In fact, Barnes says he can only think of five in Georgia that do not, Three Sisters being one of them, he adds.
But all wines are made onsite, such as a really good Riesling that is drawing acclaim from those who don’t like the sweetness of many Rieslings.
Accent produces a dry Riesling with grapes from the Yakima Valley in Washington State and has become a house favorite, along with Underdog, a red made with Chambourcin grapes, a popular new grape with a deep cherry finish. Very nice.
The tasting room is open seven days a week and stays open later than other wineries, till 8 o’clock most evenings. Bring a picnic or order a cheese tray, let Accent provide the wine and you’ll have a memorable day in Dahlonega.
This place is new and vibrant — an urban winery with live music on Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons, art classes on the deck and the occasional comedy show. For a complete list of all that happens at Accent, log onto accentcellars.com.
There’s Gold in Them Thar Hills
One cannot visit Dahlonega without being overwhelmed by its gold history. It’s said the first gold was discovered by accident as a man stumbled over a big nugget of gold while out in the woods one day. That accidental discovery led to thousands coming to the North Georgia mountain town in search of their fortunes.
From panning in streams to strip mining and digging mines into the mountains, the town became a frenzy of gold fever. With the establishment of the Dahlonega Mint, gold was coined using Dahlonega gold, and before closing in 1861, had minted almost 1.5 million gold coins with a face value ot more than $6 million.
All of this history and more can be learned at the Gold Museum, formerly the old Lumpkin County Courthouse. It was built in 1836 and many of its bricks are flecked with bits of gold. The museum includes a gift shop, a movie in what was once the courtroom where trials were held, pieces of equipment used in gold mining, and replicas of a jury room and judge’s office.
Crime and Punishment Tour
If you have time, take the Crime and Punishment Tour around the old courthouse and town square to learn how justice was dealt back in the 1800s and early 1900s. You might ask yourself: If only one year was given for murder, what about moonshine, hog thieving, jail breaks and bank robberies? You’ll be surprised at the answer.
Go For the Gold
If you’d like to try panning for gold yourself, there are two gold mines that offer tours that include a lesson in panning. And you can take home the gold.
Consolidated Gold Mine takes “miners” 200 feet beneath the earth in a mine that was once the largest in the county.
It’s a tour that opens your eyes to the hazards of gold mining and the men who worked for pennies a day. When finished, take time to pan for gold yourself.
It’s not as easy at it looks, but gold pros are on hand to show you the right way to force water through the sand in the pan and bottle up your gold when done. Crisson Gold Mine is one of two working gold mines in the United States.
Mine owner Tony Ray uses a large stamping machine that crushes quartz from the nearby hills. It’s a loud process, but the result is enough gold to keep the mine going, including enough to help wrap Atlanta’s capitol dome in gold. The tour at Crisson is an above-ground, self-guided tour that ends in an opportunity to pan for gold as well as mine for gems — sapphires, Amazonite, tiger’s eye and others — in dirt/sand brought over from nearby North Carolina.
A Treasure Hunt
A visit to Crisson or Consolidated is truly a treasure hunt that’s fun for families, or just on your own. You never know what treasures lie beneath.
Downtown Dahlonega is wrapped around the town square with historic structures from the 1800s, now housing restaurants, crafts and retail shops, like the General Store where whoopie cushions and Slinkies are stocked next to shelves filled with jars of Georgia peach preserves and bags of grits.
Or, open the door to Humble Candles, walk in and you may discover what Heaven smells like. The Square is also home to Paul Thomas Chocolates and its storefront that begs chocoholics to enter and indulge in handcrafted goodness, a shop filled with handmade pottery by Brad Walker, and number of gift and clothing stores.
If you want a birds-eye view of the town square, enjoy a meal on the second-story porch at Bourbon Street Grille. Overlooking the Gold Museum and the busyness of the square on any given day, it’s a place where you can relax with a cold glass of tea or cocktail and order from a menu of Cajun favorites.
Just off the square, you’ll find The Smith House, serving Southern cooking family style for 100 years, making it one of the oldest continuously-operating restaurants in Georgia. It’s famous for its platters of fried chicken and country-fried steak, bowls of vegetables, hand-mashed potatoes and homemade desserts.
Spending the Night? There are only 804 rooms in Dahlonega/Lumpkin County, and that includes all known Airbnb’s and other rental properties.
The town is known for its many festivals, from Gold Rush Days in October to the Christmas season and, in spring, the Dahlonega Arts and Wine Festival, rooms are at a premium and often hard to come by. So what that means is planning ahead and making reservations.
Some suggestions that are convenient and on or near the town square are Dahlonega Square Hotel, rooms at The Smith House, Hall House Hotel, Twenty Seven on Park, and Holiday Inn Express and Suites.
A Town With Talent
As you walk out of the General Store, it’s hard not to notice the booth housing Zelda’s Fortunes.
Put your coin in the slot and have your fortune told. I had no idea what a fixture she is in Dahlonega until sitting in the audience at Canopy + The Roots, a coffee bar on street level and music venue in the basement.
Holly Theater is another arts venue that offers a different, more formal experience than its neighbor, Canopy + Roots. The Theater opened as the town’s movie house in 1948, and now, on the National Register of Historic Places, is the place where full-scale productions are performed onstage five times annually.
“Into the Woods” is the first production of the new season scheduled to open September 30. The Holly is also the scene of an annual film festival and also a place for tribute band concerts. For a schedule of events, visit hollytheater.com.
Interested in discovering Dahlonega? Learn more about its restaurants, hotels and its wineries. And please don’t drink and drive, instead, make reservations for a wine tour from Dahlonega Wine Tours or DahloneGO while you’re visiting dahlonega.org and let someone else do the driving.