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Watch out Napa, this Rabun vineyard is getting noticed in taste competitions

By Wayne Knuckles

California’s Napa Valley has long claimed to be America’s wine capital, but you might be surprised to know that North Georgia—with more than 20 vineyards scattered across the region—is developing into a surprising challenger.

Leading the way is Rabun County’s Tiger Mountain Vineyards, the first vineyard in Georgia to concentrate solely on fine dry wines and among the most honored for its products.

Founded in 1999, Tiger Mountain has received 195 awards--and counting—for their wines.

Most recently, Tiger Mountain won the gold medal/Best of Class for its 2016 Petit Manseng, the unique white wine pioneered in Georgia by its late founder, Dr. John Ezzard, in the Los Angles International, one of the nation’s most prestigious wine contests, whose awards are recognized not only in Napa and Sonoma, but in France, Italy, Australia, Argentina and 10 other countries as the key to international wine recognition.

Take that, Napa Valley.

Harvest time on the 15-acres that make up Tiger Mountain Vineyards. Photo by Peter

Co-owner Martha Ezzard said she is especially proud of the silver medal the Tiger Mountain Malbec won for its wine made from Ezzard Farm grapes.

The pride is justified. Almost 3,000 wines from 885 wineries were entered in the 79-year old Los Angeles competition this year, and only 178 were awarded both gold and Best of Class.

Not bad for a former lawyer/state legislator who came back to Georgia from Colorado to help her late husband, a surgeon by training, save the family farm nearly 20 years ago.

“Five generations it had been in John’s family,” Martha said recently. “It’s been cultivated since the 1830’s. John said ‘We’re going to grow something.’ We’d belonged to a wine club out in Colorado, but we were certainly not wine connoisseurs. We didn’t know beans, really.”

After apprenticing with legendary Virginia vintner Dennis Horton—a recognized expert in growing European grapes in the soil of the American South—John realized he could do the same given the soil, elevation and climate of North Georgia.

“We did a lot of learn as you go,” Martha recalls.

They also had to overcome a good amount of local skepticism.

Joe and Carole Raguckas (left) toast a perfect fall afternoon at Tiger Mountain Vineyards. Lisa Ezzard (right), vineyard manager, loads some of 2018 Norton harvest. Photos by Peter

“Everybody knew John, and his papa and his grand-papa,” she said. “When he started planting, everybody said ‘John, how come you’re planting those highfalutin grapes? How about some muscadines?’ It took us a few years. We were among the pioneers.”

Guests can enjoy a bite to eat in a great atmosphere when the visit the Red Barn Café at Tiger Mountain Vineyards. Photo by Peter

The hard work and study paid off big when Tiger Mountain’s first real vintage, a 1999 Cabernet Franc, received a gold medal.

“Dave Darrow, who was counsel to the American Wine Society, said you ought to enter this,” Martha recalled. “We said, oh no, we’ll just be embarrassed. And we won the gold medal. We were pretty pumped up. We thought every year would be like that.”

From humble beginnings as a family farm, Tiger Mountain has expanded to include not only the vineyard, but an original dairy barn which has been converted to a tasting room and café. Their wine club currently boasts of 1,500 members.

“What we’ve learned is that if you grow the right variety of grapes, if you’re doing fine dry wines, and you have quality fruit, the wine will speak for itself,” Martha said. “There are still people who think, ‘Oh no, I’m not going to try Georgia wine’ until they taste it.”

The Ezzards have also been very active in Georgia’s emerging wine community.

Martha played a key role in establishing a wine program at the University of Georgia, and Tiger Mountain recently hosted their 12th UGA summer intern.

Martha lost her life partner of 56 years in 2017. But the family tradition continues with daughters who still tend the vines and even design the bottle labels.

“John grew up here and he always said what he loved most was just sharing a taste of Tiger earth,” Martha said. “I’m glad he had the chance to get back to the land he loved. He said people have a good time when they come here and this is what I want most, for people to enjoy it.”