DAHLONEGA, Ga. — So what wine goes best with fried pork rinds, anyway?
"That'd be Fat Boy Red," deadpanned Sharon Paul, not missing a beat as she continued to pour at a tasting at her Three Sisters Vineyards & Winery in the steep foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
Paul and her husband, Doug, a former broadcaster, own and operate the kitschiest of a cluster of remarkable wineries just outside this north Georgia town hitherto known principally for one of the nation's oldest military colleges and the Southeast's biggest gold strike. (The U.S. government actually established a branch mint here in 1838 to turn out gold coins.)
But the gold in these hills here and now can be found in the thousands of acres of grapevines laid out as if in military rows up and down the steep slopes of outer Dahlonega. The place even looks like the Napa and Sonoma valleys.
A short (once you get out of Atlanta traffic) drive due north from the state capital, Georgia's wine country beckons oenophiles, tourists and folks just looking for a pleasant day out of the hustle and bustle of the city for a taste of fine yet casual dining, decent live music and surprisingly good local wine.
Arguably the best of that wine is produced in the vineyards in and around Frogtown, a red-clay community perched along the border of rural Lumpkin and White counties, where you can almost hear the tune from "Deliverance" as you drive past the occasional dilapidated gray wooden shack barely held together by rampant kudzu.
Within a Champagne cork's toss from Three Rivers are two wineries recognized as producing wines on a par with any in the storied California regions of Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles: BlackStock Vineyards and Winery and Frogtown Cellars.
"My wines are an expression of this place," said BlackStock owner Dave Harris, a fifth-generation Atlantan who studied at Fresno State University to hone his craft, which he says is not just growing grapes but "growing wine."
BlackStock's 40 hilly acres encompass 240,000 vines planted in 1997 and yield a wide range of wine grapes, from merlot to chardonnay to pinot varieties. Harris modestly claims to be the second-largest grower on the East Coast of viognier, a highly prized, once nearly extinct French grape that legend claims was the favorite of kings.
But he seems most proud of the fact that BlackStock's wines are "100 percent Georgia grown." Citing a unique combination of soil, slope, rainfall and mountain-protected climate, the soft-spoken but passionate winemaker declared, "This is an exceptional grape-growing area."
Which explains in large part the mini explosion of successful wineries that have cropped up in north Georgia over the last decade and a half. The Georgia Winegrowers Association lists 10 local wineries within an hour's drive of one another.
Michael Bryan, director of the prestigious Atlanta Wine School, said the high elevation and cool climate "provide the best chance of mimicking better known domestic wines from the West Coast."
Just up the road from Three Sisters (named for the trio of mountain peaks you can see from the porch) and BlackStock is what some critics consider the best of the Georgia wineries: Frogtown Cellars.
Owner and winemaker Craig Kritzer has built an impressive European-style operation in Frogtown, embracing innovative winemaking techniques and combining that with shrewd marketing concepts.
A retired lawyer from Atlanta, Kritzer followed his passion for wine to realize his dream of owning what he claims is the biggest homegrown vineyard (41 acres) in Georgia and — as he will tell anyone who will listen — the best.
"We do not just say we make competitive premium wines," Kritzer said. "We prove this characterization of our wines by submitting Frogtown labeled wine to the rigors of competing against the best wines produced anywhere in the world."
To back this up, he produces a list of recent medals Frogtown Cellars has won in a slew of major U.S. wine competitions.
While the title of No. 1 Georgia winery likely will continue to be challenged by these competitive neighbors, most of the folks who drive up from Atlanta or down from their mountain vacation homes mainly seem to be looking for where they can have the most enjoyable wine-tasting experience. All provide tastings, fine dining, live music and leisurely sipping — even grape-stompings during harvest season — plus venues for weddings and receptions.
The consensus seems to be that visitors leave happy, whichever winery they visit — from the slick Old World Frogtown Cellars to the engaging modern sincerity of BlackStock to the down-home atmosphere of Three Sisters.
Which brings us back to Fat Boy Red. Where did that name come from?
"Have you seen my husband?" Sharon Paul asked, gesturing to the rather robust man in denim overalls pouring a glass for a visitor.
If you go
Tastings generally run $15 for eight or nine wines.
and Winery, 5400 Town Creek Road, Dahlonega; 706-219-2789, ext. 223; bsvw.com
Prices range from $15 for a 2006 merlot to $32 for a 2008 reserve touriga. The 2010 reserve viognier is $25.
Frogtown Cellars, 3300 Damascus Church Road, Dahlonega, 706-865-0687, frogtownwine.com
Prices range from $19 for a 2008 sangiovese to $50 for a 2006 Frogtown Family reserve merlot. Most Frogtown wines are in the $20s.
Vineyards & Winery, 439 Vineyard Way, Dahlonega, 706-865-9463, threesistersvineyards.com
Prices range from $10 a bottle for Chestatee red or Chestatee rose to $28 for a 2005 cabernet franc (from the reserve list). Fat Boy Red is $15.
Other wineries in north Georgia:
Cavendar Creek Vineyards and Winery, Dahlonega, 770-823-9255, cavendercreekvineyards.com
Crane Creek Vineyards, Young Harris, 706-379-1236, cranecreekvineyards.com
Habersham Winery, Helen, 706-878-9463, habershamwinery.com
Montaluce Winery & Estates, Dahlonega, 706-867-4060, montaluce.com
Persimmon Creek Vineyards, Clayton, 706-212-7380, persimmoncreekwine.com
Sautee Nacoochee Vineyards, Sautee, 706-878-1056, sauteenacoocheevineyards.com
Tiger Mountain Vineyards, Tiger, 706-782-4777, tigerwine.com
Wolf Mountain Vineyards & Winery, Dahlonega, 706-867-9862, wolfmountainvineyards.com
Yonah Mountain Vineyards, Sautee-Nacoochee, 706-878-5522, yonahmountainvineyards.com