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Why Don’t Atlanta Restaurants Serve Georgia Wine?

Wines from half a world away are more available at our restaurants than those made in our own backyard.

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Many shelves lined with many bottles of red wine
The wine selection at Husk in Savannah
Photo by Andrew Lee

“It is easier to find wine from the country of Georgia in Atlanta than one made in this state,” says Carolyn Robinson, wine captain and certified sommelier at St. Cecilia in Buckhead.

Think about that for a moment. Wines from half a world away are more available at Atlanta restaurants than those made in the city’s own backyard. The mountains are a mere hour and a half drive from the city, and yet there is sparingly a taste of them at dinner at local restaurants.

Similar patterns ring true nationwide. New York City restaurants may have the one offering of Finger Lakes Riesling, despite the New York Wine & Grape Foundation urging the city’s restaurants to carry more local wines; Virginia, where Charlottesville was named Wine Enthusiast’s wine region of the year, doesn’t yet dominate Virginia or D.C.-area restaurant menus with its wines.

One obvious reason is that consumer demand is low for local wines at a restaurant, Robinson says. Wines from the state of Georgia have a reputation for being sweet and heavy-bodied, a style that is a hard sell to a customer who prefers dry wines. However, winemakers across the state have been pumping dry wines from whites, rosés, and reds that are indicative of Georgia’s unique terroir. But at the moment, getting a Georgia wine on the table would require some convincing. Okay, a lot of convincing.

Georgia is home to two American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), which means the region is nationally recognized for its winemaking potential. There’s the Dahlonega Plateau AVA and the Upper Hiwassee Highlands AVA, the latter of which is shared with North Carolina. According to Georgia Wine Producers, there are 105 licensed farm wineries in the state right now, up from almost 45 a decade ago. Most of them are in north Georgia, growing the state’s native muscadine grape, and hybrids like chardonel, chambourcin, traminette, and more.

To drink these wines, one must visit a local vineyard. Yes, a handful of tasting rooms will offer flights in rustic downtowns of these regions, but it’s the vineyards that survive on agrotourism, selling directly to people who make the trek to visit them. If winemakers sell their wines to restaurants, they incur a 30 percent price cut for wholesale. Selling directly to consumers takes no hit on profits. So, why bother selling wholesale to the city at all?

“Usually that’s your best form of advertising — get your wine on a wine list at a great restaurant and have customers ask where to get it from,” says Jordan Smelt, co-owner of Lucian Books and Wine in Buckhead. “It’s been a long time since I tasted anything from North Georgia. I couldn’t tell you who’s selling it or who’s distributing it.”

Wine distributors buy wine from producers and sell it to restaurants and retail shops — a middleman taking a cut from the sale. But here’s the catch: According to the Rules and Regulations of the State of Georgia, winemakers with a Georgia Farm Winery License may sell their wines directly to restaurants. A wholesaler license allows them to self-distribute in Georgia, eliminating the need for a distributor. This is a major missing piece of the puzzle for restaurant sommeliers like Robinson and Smelt, who believe they need a distributor to buy Georgia wine for their list.

“The information is not being spread. It’s just not known,” says Robinson. “As somebody who was raised in Georgia, [Georgia wine] is a cool thing. As someone who works in wine, it’s a new idea [to involve Georgia wine on menus].”

Peter Seifarth, a second-generation winemaker at Crane Creek in Young Harris, Georgia, is one of many producers moving this idea forward. He hopes to land his wines at an Atlanta restaurant, saying it is one way to shine a light on the state as a quality producer. He says many local winemakers are discouraged by the hassle of driving their wines to the city because they have limited quantities and not much assurance that people will drink them.

“There are remnants of old thoughts that Georgia wine, Southern wine, and East Coast wine, is sweet and unsophisticated, which is obviously not the case,” he says.

Seifarth, alongside a slew of other Georgia winemakers, has won awards for their wines at the annual Georgia Trustees Wine and Spirits Competition. The range and quality of the state’s wines is vast. There’s Cartecay Vineyard’s gold medal estate-grown traminette, or Paulk and Still Pond Vineyards’ muscadine wines, which won gold and silver medals, respectively, and Cloudland Vineyards and Winery’s silver medal-winning tannat and bronze medal-winning lomanto.

One restaurant has taken note. Husk in Savannah, Georgia, is a unicorn restaurant, three and a half hours from Atlanta, that pays homage to the state’s wines. It carries either one or two local wines on the menu, slowly introducing its diners to Southern fare with wine from the same region.

“It’s so special having a meal composed of ingredients from the South with an estate-grown Georgia wine,” says Jamie Crotts, certified sommelier at Husk. “The potential is there. There’s still significant growth to be seen in the Georgia winemaking world because Georgia is establishing its identity.”

Crotts believes it’s important to share the stories of local winemakers with customers. Of the homegrown offerings, the restaurant has served Crane Creek’s white blend by the glass for about $20; it sold out quickly. Husk’s wine list also features Crane Creek’s chambourcin for $105, a steep price to pay against a Burgundy on the list for the same cost.

“You’re not going to get this wine, this terroir, anywhere else in the world,” Seifarth argues. “It’s a bespoke product.”

At restaurants, farm-to-table dining is commonplace. Menus change often to reflect seasonality and chefs love showcasing local produce. In the same vein, Georgia wine is a local product, much like locally sourced peaches or honey. A glass of Georgia-grown traminette offers distinct notes of white flowers, citrus, melons, and the very peaches and honey the state is known for. Pair it with shrimp and grits for a meal. Until Atlanta restaurants can take the chance on a Georgia wine, customers will have to wait for the opportunity to order it by the glass in the city.

Henna Bakshi (@HennaBakshi) is an experienced food and wine journalist, producer, and on-air talent, with a decade of experience at CNN. She holds a Level 3 certification through the internationally renowned Wine and Spirits Education Trust. Henna’s work appears in Wine Enthusiast, Food & Wine Magazine, Eater, VinePair, Full Pour, and more.

CO

675 North Highland Avenue Northeast, , GA 30306 (404) 474-0262 Visit Website

Lucian Books and Wine

3005 Peachtree Road Northeast, , GA 30305 (404) 549-2655 Visit Website

Buckhead

, , GA

St. Cecilia

3455 Peachtree Road Northeast, , GA 30326 (404) 554-9995 Visit Website