Crane Creek Vineyards, Young Harris
Why we like winter winery visits
A nice crowd gathers off the main wine tasting area at Crane Creek Vineyards in Young Harris on New Year's Eve afternoon. A steady stream of customers made their way to the country winery even as a winter storm was starting to move in that afternoon.
New Year's Eve "weekend" meant a trip to the Blue Ridge-Elijay-Young Harris area which also means a stop by our favorite country winery, Crane Creek Vineyards. An Earth Day event brought us to Crane Creek last April. While almost all the events were outdoors that time, everyone was inside huddled up as the coldest part of the storm was still coming in that afternoon.
But first we had to park and that's where trouble began. It was a busy New Year's Eve Day (3 p.m.) so we opted for a spot just off the parking area. Wrong move. No sooner did we pull in than we noticed a wheel or two already spinning where grass once grew.
As we exited to investigate, several couples leaving Crane Creek came right to our rescue without even a word spoken. One young lady directed the "rescue" attempt, coordinating a tow chain and a four-wheel drive. One clamp and quick pull later, and we were on our way. The "director" refused payment -- in cash or wine. So first we salute you, the Wine Rescue Crew on New Year's Eve. It is just another example of why we like wine people: friendly, helpful and funny.
Once inside the farm house, we beelined to the tasting bar only to be greeted by Catawba, the winery dog. In the past, we'd seen Sally sleeping behind the tasting bar but our pourer said the big old lab had passed several months ago. Sally is the namesake of some of the wine at Crane Creek. So, too, is Catawba (more for the grape but . . . ) and the pup did her best to make us feel at home by collapsing at our feet.
Properly stationed with Catawba's help, we got down to the tasting--a bargain at $3 per person, by the way, especially on New Year's Eve afternoon. The pouring list included:
One side note on our trip: Ten days earlier, Crane Creek hosted a winter solstice tasting from 6 to 8 p.m. In the past, perhaps 20 to 40 people came out on the longest night of the year to sample wine and food. This year, the count topped 100, says our pourer. The turnout surprised the hosts. Chalk it up to the friendly folks at the winery and the growing appeal of North Georgia wine.
-If you go: You'll find some special deals at nearby Brasstown Valley Resort for Valentine's Weekend and during the winter months. This Saturday, Jan. 16, Brasstown is hosting a special wine education seminar followed by a wine-paired dinner. Details> Click
This picture is from the rear tasting bar at Crane Creek, overlooking some of the novelty items on sale and the back deck. You can see the moisture on the decking and the mist outside that Thursday afternoon, the last day of 2009.
Our most recent reviews:
On location/Clayton, Ga. Wineries, Tallulah Gorge, Goats on the Roof
No. 1/Top your winery visit list this Saturday with a trip to Tiger Mountain near Clayton.
We didn't know what to expect from this 10-year-old winery in the Northeast Georgia mountains. We've tasted some of the wines while at Naturally Georgia in Dahlonega and liked what we sampled. Plus co-owner Martha Ezzard (with husband John) and I have mutual ties and friends at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. So we were anxious to visit Tiger Mountain and return to Clayton for the first time in 12 years.
-The winery: It is tiny by comparison to some of the offerings in Dahlonega but what Tiger Mountain lacks in size is compensated for quickly by way of atmosphere, snacks and the wines (especially Burton Blanc). We visited during the first of two Leaflooker Saturdays and timed the trip perfected. This roadside winery (park on the east, sip on the west) has a wonderful patio area that was brimming with visitors Saturday. Select cheeses, excellent sausage (you've got to try the chicken and apple sausage) and the wines made for a perfect Saturday, especially at just $5 admission per person.
-The tasting room beyond the patio is perfectly sized. You can sample Tiger Mountain's wines, buy gifts and wine and get a quick read on the winery's history. It is a must visit if you're on that side of the state.
-We took home a couple bottles of Burton Blanc.
No. 2/Persimmon Creek Vineyards. We stopped by the tasting room in downtown Clayton but didn't make the tour of the winery. One tip if you want to see the winery: make reservations first. They do regular tours for $15 per person. We were a bit time crunched so we stayed downtown (it is about three miles from Tiger Mountain). The tasting room itself is very nice, done in an older, comfortable style. For $8, you get to try several wines including the Riesling and a very sweet dessert wine. Your tasting fee can be applied to a discount if purchasing wine at the shop as well. We brought home a bottle of the dryer Rei sling, having sampled a bottle over dinner the night before (see below). The tasting room or the winery pair great with a weekend trip to Clayton.
No. 3/So what else is there to do in Rabun County? Plenty. Some suggestions:
-Tallulah Gorge: This beautiful state park is a good three-hour stop if you see the sites on both rims, visit the excellent outdoors getaway. Start with a visit to the Jane Hurt Yarn Interpretive Center. You truly start your hike to one of the many "stations" around the gorge inside the Yarn Center (park details). Come prepared to do some walking/hiking (i.e., no Crocs or flip flops). You can follow the paths and multiple steps to the suspension bridge and other points. You can chose between an aggressive hike or a passive one. Just remember: You have to climb back up all those stairs you descend. Think of it as an outdoor "Stairmaster." It is work the time and effort. $5 parking fee. Do the gorge before the wineries!
-Goats on the Roof: You want to scream "tourist trap" the minute you see it. So what? Go inside anyway; you'll find a wonderful selected of Amish furniture and foods. Plus, on the exterior: those very goats on the roof. The fun part is letting the kids fill a can with goat food and using the bicycle assembly to hoist the food to the waiting goats. Also on site: A wonderful fire pit and free marsh mellows to roast. This is a must if you have kids--or what a nice break from it all. Click Goats.
-The Stockton House restaurant: We didn't do our normal research before this trip. It was election week and a hundred of other excuses. So at 7:15 p.m. on a Friday, we were sitting in the Ingle's parking lot looking for dining spots via iPhone. Up popped Stockton House. We liked the quick reviews so we called and we're given easy directions from the store to the door. As we pulled up, a few remaining brain cells reminded us: we had dined here on New Year's Eve 1995. We had a great meal but some in our party were a little out of sorts that night. Not this time. We had a perfect meal including a wonderfully stuffed pork chop, Pecan Chicken Asiago, potatoes and asparagus plus bread. Our son had pasta and devoured every bit of it. As good as the food was, the service was even better. Excellent waitress. Several visits to the table by the owners. A great bottle of locally crafted wine (Persimmon's dry Reisling). With tip and all, we paid $90--and thought about returning the next evening but collapsed at the cabin after a day at the gorge, wineries and football. This is the restaurant to visit if visiting Clayton for the day or weekend. Click Web Site.
-Downtown Clayton: This is a very vibrant downtown so try to save a few hours to tour. One must: Reeves Ace Hardware. This one goes far beyond nuts, bolts and paint. You won't believe the furniture inventory under roof. Click Reeves
On location/Biltmore's Winery, Asheville, N.C.
Details about the winery at Biltmore: Click Winery
Overview: The good news is a tour of the winery and complimentary wine sampling is included in your Biltmore day pass, which means you pay up to $50 per person to get inside the massive compound. And it is worth every penny, especially the expanded tours of the Vanderbilts' home. If you haven't been to Biltmore in a few years, go. The access to the estate home and gardens has been expanded to include the second and third floors as well as the basement.
-The bad news is, to get to the winery for that free sampling, or the for-pay premium tasting bar (three samples, $8), you need that day pass. Or you can convert your daily pass to an annual pass and visit all your want for $50 more.
-And the so-so news: Once in the winery and at the tasting bars (free and paid), you'll taste some of the expansive wines. Maybe it is just us but it seems the glitzier the winery, the less we like the wine itself. (Wine list). But there are some keepers and we brought a few bottles home for friends to enjoy.
-What we liked: The quick wine tour was fun--and self-guided -- although attendants are on duty. You see the production area, the underground wine library, a great event room that looks as if you're in a castle's hidden wine cellar, an expansive free sampling area, the premium wine sampling bar (much smaller) and finally the vast winery store. This is a trick we wish more North Georgia wineries would adopt: let people see how the wine is produced.
-The sampling experience: Let's start with the "freebie" first. The pourer is very knowledgeable and let's you try as many samples from the non-premium wine list as you'd like. These are smaller samples than you get at the North Georgia locations but enough to let you know if the wine is something you wish to buy. The sampling room is huge. There's not a lot of atmosphere although a recent paint job does brighten it considerably. The premium bar is much smaller, with elbow-to-elbow room for perhaps a dozen people at a time. You pay as you go (we suggest the $8 three-sample package because it saves a dollar and you'll probably not want to go much further down the wine list than that). Between the free and premium tastings, we sampled eight wines. All are OK in quality with a few standouts. We did enjoy the Chenin Blanc, Merlot and Limited Release Merlot. The Century White Wine was sweeter than most Reislings but enjoyable.
-The amenities: The winery opened in 1985 and this is a busy time to visit. Around 2,200 guests toured the winery on Oct. 16 and we were among the 2,300 expected the next day. We're pretty sure they hit that goal. The winery complex is attractive, built around the former dairy. The vineyard is off site, around 100 acres near the French Broad River. (Click History). The winery is close to The Inn on Biltmore Estate and a new complex is rising nearby to increase the total visit experience (think "Helen" in Asheville but with a Biltmore touch). The winery features some outdoor wine gardens as well. Plus: You can save the admission price by sampling a few wines at the main gate.
-The Asheville experience: The Biltmore estate is a must-see. Plan to spend at least four to five hours on property, saving the winery for last (hours are noon to 7 p.m.). You'll want a break after all the stair climbing at the home itself. Off property, try dinner at Grove Park Inn. You'll find a few dining options there and the meals are surprisingly affordable. The wine list looks like something out of "War & Peace" and the prices as up there. A wonderful bottle of Reisling we chose with dinner Friday night was recommended by the sommelier -- for $96. We found the same wine available locally for $20 or so a bottle. It cost more than our combined meals that night and we had a wonderful chicken dish with out-of-this-world squash bisque. Accommodations: Shop the online specials and don't be taken by the photos on the Web sites. We stayed at a new "suite hotel" where prices went up $50 per night because of leaf season. The nearby Marriott Residence Inn would have been just as nice--and would have featured breakfast as well. Downtown Asheville is as eclectic as you've heard: wonderful shops, restaurants and more. Visit The Mast General Store, one of our regional favorites. It is a throwback retail experience.
Photos include, top to bottom, the 'free' sampling bar; the wine library; and two production area photos.
CHATEAU ELAN: Beautiful campus, great tour, so-so wines
Like many others, Chateau Elan was our first contact with the state's emerging wine industry. In the early '90s, Donald Panos was earning headlines as new amenities were added to the ever-popular stop off Interstate 85 near Atlanta. We sipped the wine samples then and were secure in the fact that Bud Light was still our beverage of choice.
Our return 15 years later solidified our first view even if our tastes for adult beverages has changed a bit. Chateau Elan remains a landmark attraction, one of the best in the state. A gorgeous setting just off the interstate. Excellent accommodates. Exotic dining. Plenty of ways to pamper oneself from the spa to the equestrian facilities to the winery tours and golf.
But we still need no more than the five samples you get at the $5 tasting/tour to know the wine isn't for us. We enjoyed the walk through the vineyards, sampled a crate of recently harvest grapes, saw the massive vats and oak sticks that make it all come together. But when we gathering around the incredible tasting bar and tried an ounce of this and an ounce of that, we concluded that we wouldn't need to stop by the wine shop on the way out to take some home.
And that was a first as we've always found at least one pour, one bottle, to test at home with family and friends.
Your tastes are different from ours; we certainly endorse spending an afternoon, night or weekend at Chateau Elan. But if you're looking for the taste and texture of wine you'll find in the North Georgia mountains--from Dahlonega to Young Harris to Tiger-- you won't find it here. But do the wine tasting and try to catch the tour that comes with it. The tour and the take-home wine glass ($10 on Saturday) easily are worth the investment.
>For more on Georgia's wineries, click Winery Profiles
Some things that help make an overnight or weekend stay near Chateau Elan ever better:
1) The Mayfield Dairy tour just across I-85 from Chateau Elan and up a few blocks. The tours are daily except for Sunday (Details). And even better: They're free. In around 30 minutes, you'll get a live infomercial on how and why that Mayfield milk in the yellow carton is so special--and pricey. And you'll leave thinking the price is right. In addition to the tour, you'll spend a good bit of time in the gift shop and, we strong recommend, the ice cream counter. For $1.50, you get an overflowing scoop of your favorite Mayfield ice cream flavor in a cup or cone. No matter young or old, make this a priority stop.
2) The Gwinnett Braves. You're going to pay more than you would at most minor league stadiums but less than you do at Turner Field (unless you take advantage of one of those deals). No matter, make the trip, make the investment. Gwinnett Stadium is an open-air beauty. The seats sink into the ground as if part of some modern amphitheater. The 2010 season isn't that far away, and the 2009 edition wasn't bad, having made the International League playoffs. If you have kids: Take advance of the $1 berm seats. Bring a blanket, spread out and relax. Click Gwinnett Braves.
3) The Mall of Georgia: Recession? What recession? This place is hoping and the development around it continues in robust form. A new BrandsMart between the mall and the baseball stadium is a huge hit already. And the shopping? Great selection of stores with some great deals. Plus: Chateau Elan has a $99 overnight special under way on select dates. Click Mall.
4) Accommodations: Plenty of options are online, including good deals at Chateau Elan, at motels just across the street or in about a 10-mile radius. Our suggestion: Pick a spot near the Mall of Georgia; it is a central location for food, entertainment and shopping.
-Persimmon Creek using solar power to operate winery: Persimmon Creek Vineyards launches solar power efforts at its winery in Rabun County. Co-owners Mary Ann and William “Sonny” Hardman partnered with Atlanta-based Radiance Solar to install an eight-kilowatt solar system on the roof of the winery, trapping energy from the sunlight and converting it into a usable form to power the vineyard’s many functions> Expanded details
North Georgia Wineries