Call it “Nappalachia.”
The Georgia Wine Highway stretches from Young Harris to Savannah, but most of the state’s wineries are clustered, often side-by-side, in north Georgia, where the fruit of the vine enjoys a felicitous pairing with live music.
“The wineries have opened up this whole new, exciting venue for both the homegrown talent and for touring artists,” says Bob Fortin, a co-producer of the RiverMist concert series in Helen, sponsored by Habersham Winery. Fortin’s impresario career has stuck to a noticeable theme—he used to manage Atlanta-based jam band The Grapes, and now he operates a booking agency called Grapevine Talent. “Here, we try to create an informal, affordable atmosphere where kids and pets are welcome, and we celebrate our roots, both in music and in the earth. Just look around—it’s so much more aesthetic than being cooped up in some smoky nightclub.”
Plus, the hilly, alfresco acoustics lend a natural echo, as Ralph Roddenberry, a RiverMist headliner from Atlanta, discovers when he belts out some impromptu, a capella lyrics: “Meet me on the mountain, drink some Georgia wine—it tastes just fiiiiiine. The city takes it from you, but the mountain gives it back.…”
Roddenberry’s long-suffering ache of a voice sounds momentarily soothed, and around the crowd, glasses clink. “In vino veritas!” whoops some oenophile, who, judging by his twang, is as locally produced as the Cabernet he’s sipping.
Muscadines and much more
Georgia’s viticulture started in the early 1980s as a bold farming experiment that since has ripened into a genteel tourism industry, with the state expected to double its 30-plus wineries over the next decade. Their concerts and music festivals have become such mainstays that they occupy their own column of weekly listings in The Dahlonega Nugget newspaper’s entertainment section. Just as these vintners bring different varietals, blends, and levels of pouring generosity (or stinginess) to their tasting rooms, each winery is developing its own musical personality as well, catering both to local tastes—banjos are usually handy, if not always picked—and to the tourists and Atlanta day-trippers who constitute a sizable contingent of Sunday brunches.
Habersham Winery, one of the state’s oldest, appeals to area hipsters with a sort of gourmet-Bonnaroo vibe.
“We tend to book full bands rather than solo acts—mainly jam bands, singer/songwriter acts, regional groups that play at amphitheaters, and others that we know have a local following, like American Anodyne, Sol Driven Train and Deep Blue Sun,” says restaurateur Paul Rampulla, who coordinates the shows with Fortin. “It’s like Chastain Park with a much lower cover charge.”
At Chateau Elan, the 3,500-acre, Francophile complex of vats, golf, spa and conference rooms in Braselton, the demographic tends toward the more seasoned and well heeled, who dance the shag during the Carolina Beach Music concert series, featuring old-school legends such as the Jesters and the Embers. Dahlonega’s Italian-themed Montaluce—translation: “mountain light”—keeps it elegantly mellow, too, with classical guitar and harpists, and on weekends during the busy season, Tom and Juli Theobald, those versatile stalwarts who can perform just about any cover. (They breathe a discreet sigh of relief when someone calls for John Prine after three Jimmy Buffett songs in a row.)
“We try to entertain without being intrusive,” says Juli Theobald, after an especially lovely rendition of “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina.” “We’re background music here, which creates a more laidback atmosphere for us as performers.”
Move over, moonshine
The thumping heart of the winery-music scene, though, is Frogtown, the tiny, unpaved Lumpkin County enclave that historically was known for its moonshine. With neighboring wineries—Three Sisters, Blackstock, Frogtown, and, just up the road apiece, Wolf Creek—the picturesque district attracts a steady stream of pickers’ trucks alongside Jaguars with Fulton County tags, braving the paint-dinging gravel driveways.
In its “Grill & Chill” series, Blackstock cranks up the volume and shuffles the playlist by offering a season of blues followed by a few weeks of top-shelf jazz, culminating with a Wine and Music Festival that, this year, was heavy on tenor saxophone.
“We play a lot of clubs around the northern arc of Alpharetta and Roswell, and we’ll run into the same people up here at the wineries,” says Kip Dockery, who fronts a popular jazz ensemble headlining at Blackstock. “Mostly we do straight-up jazz and some funk, but in this neck of the woods, we can pull out a banjo for a riff, and it goes over well.”
In fact, across the road at Three Sisters, The Buzzard Mountain Boys, dubbed the “house band,” are warming up with banjo—and kazoo. “We’ve played pretty much all of the wineries,” says “Joe Bob” Matteson, one half of the comedic duo specializing in bluegrass and mountain music (the other is “Jim Bob”), “and I would say Three Sisters is the most musical of them all.”
A working retirement
Three Sisters, named for its view of a triad of mountains, whimsically embraces its red-clay terroir, with a tasting room full of face jugs and folk art by Howard Finster and Cornbread, and a cuddly proprietor usually wearing overalls and a grin—Doug Paul, whose background in the music industry has informed his operation since its inception as Lumpkin County’s first vineyard. He and his wife, Sharon, worked for 30 years in broadcasting, recording, and voiceovers and, during the 1980s and ’90s, owned their own studio and record label, Catspaw Productions, in Atlanta. During that time, they organized concerts for 99X, and, today, just for kicks, they operate a 50-watt radio station from their winery, playing whatever strikes their eclectic fancy, from bluegrass to big bands.
“We’ve featured every kind of music here—Cajun, gospel, blues, you name it—but we especially enjoy promoting Georgia artists to go with our Georgia wine,” Paul says. “Ninety percent or more of our acts are from Georgia, with the occasional groups out of Nashville or North Carolina. I also enjoy ‘discovering’ new talent, because there’s such an abundance here in our own backyard.”
He notes that Zac Brown used to jam at Three Sisters “before anyone else had heard of him,” and Curtis Jones, a local flat-picker who has toured with Alison Krauss, is another regular. As Paul is ticking off names of other gifted locals, Rick Harris, a witty jazzer who just moved here from Florida, takes his trumpet to the stage to sit in with The Buzzard Mountain Boys.
Out comes Joe Bob’s kazoo, and he tells the crowd, “The more y’all drink, folks, the better we sound!”
Note: Blackstock Winery closed in 2013.