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Visit the Georgia Wine Highway
If you haven't listened to Ray Charles in a while, or seen the Globetrotters do their dance to "Sweet Georgia Brown", or spent a rainy night there – get ready, wine lovers! You are about to have Georgia on your minds again.
A second era of wine making is being heralded by varietal-specific, award-winning wines. As early as 1732, Englishman James Edward Oglethorpe, founder of Georgia, tried to introduce European viticulture as a part of his economic plan to sustain the new colony. As chairman of a parliamentary committee of investigation, Oglethorpe had been horrified by the condition of English prisons and wished to provide an opportunity for poor debtors and criminals to work out their salvation in the New World.
Venture capitalists expected to make large profits out of the industries of silk and wine that were introduced. But the colony did not prosper. Convicts were poor workers, imported silkworms disliked native mulberry trees and wine grapes (vitis vinifera) could not be successfully cultivated due to mysterious New World diseases and indigenous insects. Environmental and labor resources determined that rice and cotton were destined to be the foundation of early Georgia's prosperity.
Fast forward a mere 150 years and 300 miles. Efforts to introduce viticulture in the north eastern part of Georgia met with remarkable success. In the fall 1886 Ralph L. Spencer left his birthplace in Essex, Connecticut for Tallapoosa, Georgia (Haralson County, west of present-day Atlanta). He was described as a man of "above average height; well fed and inclining to stoutness; handsome, personable, a born salesman with a flair for showmanship." Spencer, also known to enjoy wine, saw opportunity in the sandy clay of northeast Georgia. He invited a number of Hungarian winemaking families to leave their employ in the mining industry in Pennsylvania and settle on 2,000 acres of land near Tallapoosa. In 1893 some two hundred families of Hungarians immigrated to Georgia and began the cultivation of vineyards. Led by their priest, Father Janisek, they established a Catholic colony about four miles east of Tallapoosa and named it Budapest. Eastern Europeans who had settled in Ohio and various other parts of the United States were also attracted to the area and the new industry. Among them was a group of Slovakians who founded a second town site known as Nitra. The colony quickly flourished into a town with sixty buildings including a Catholic Church, stores and a post office. Soon many of sloping foothills of the
Appalachians were garlanded with grapevines. Storage vats were prepared and wineries were constructed. An 1896 map reveals that vineyards then covered approximately 12,726 acres of land in Haralson County, Georgia. Vineyards and wineries dotted the North Georgia countryside from east to west.
For a number of years, the Hungarians were very successful in their viticulture and winemaking ventures. Wine was distributed and sold throughout the southeast at the stops of the Southern Railway and Blue Ridge Railroad, often for a dollar a gallon, bring your own container. As Georgia entered the 20th Century it is reputed to have had over 20,000 acres of wine grapes and ranked as the 6th largest producer of wine in the US. By our unofficial count, Georgia has fewer than 400 acres of vitis vinifera (premium French Varietals), planted today. The reason for this dramatic change was prohibition. Georgia became one of the first states to prohibit the sale and distribution of alcohol in 1907, effectively wiping out all wine and vineyard operations. Not until the 1970's would Georgia experience resurgence of successful winemaking.
Since the 1970's viticulture and winemaking have steadily regained importance in Georgia's agri-economy. Georgia is currently host to more than 10 wineries, and the rate of new vineyard plantings is among the highest in the Eastern U.S. Production is now about 115,000 gallons annually. In 2001 Georgia's legislature recognized the significance of the industry and authorized the designation of roadways and signage to create the Georgia Wine Trail. Included in the trail is an area of North Georgia where an increasing number of wineries have been started over the last several years. With this designation, as well as other favorable farm winery legislation passed at the same time, we may now see wine production accelerate to industry status.
 The Oxford Companion to the Wines of North America, Bruce Cass, Oxford University Press, 2000.