Editor’s Note: This feature is part of our Head for the Hills special section featured in the June issue. Be sure to pick up a copy or check out the digital edition at this link for more stories.
When three Tiger Mountain wines—the 2015 Sweet Petit (late harvest Petit Manseng), the 2014 Tannat and the 2016 Rosé—each won silver medals at the Los Angeles International Wine Competition, Martha Ezzard, one of the founders of Tiger Mountain Vineyards, knew it was official: “Georgia wines have come up in the world.”
The 2017 competition received over 3,000 wines from 999 wineries including wines from France, Portugal, South Africa, Italy and the US; that Tiger Mountain did so well is a testament to family commitment, passion, and dedication. Ezzard was also particularly thrilled because “Tiger Mountain was competing alongside wines from Napa and Sonoma wineries.”
The vineyards, located on about 90 acres between Rabun Gap and Tallulah Falls in Northeast Georgia, boasts a tasting room that hosts individual and reservation-based group tastings; individual and group winery tours; a wine and gift shop; an on-site facility where grapes are crushed, fermented and bottled; the Red Barn Café which offers lunch, brunch, and Saturday dinner; a Tigerwine Tasters Wine Club; a pond teeming with bluegill and bass where visitors can relax and enjoy a glass of wine; numerous picnic areas; and spots for do-your-own blueberry picking. Weddings, live music weekends, business meetings, parties and an Awakening the Vines celebration in the spring are also common events.
However, it was not always that way. The vineyard began with a dream and vision for Martha Ezzard and her husband, John, both professionals who traded city careers for a return to the rural land of Rabun County. John, a physician, and Martha, a lawyer, award-winning Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer, and author of a memoir about the experience of relinquishing city life–The Second Bud—confesses their motivation: “Our chief aim,” said Ezzard, “was to save the family farm. It was part of John’s soul; he’s a farmer at heart.”
The land that comprises Tiger Mountain has been in the Ezzard family since the 1830’s. Previously a dairy farm, John wanted to grow something but he was not sure what. There was talk of apples, but after extensive research, and considering the land, soil, and elevation, he landed on wine. It was not necessarily a popular decision with folks that had lived in the area for generations. Martha laughs when she shares the reaction. [Many people said] “John, how come you are growing these highfalutin grapes?” Then she confesses, “I thought it was a crazy idea too, but the secret was finding a mentor in Virginia.”
It was another Georgia vintner—David Harris, previous owner of a small winery in Habersham County—who recommended that John speak to Dennis and Sharon Horton in Charlottesville. After doing so, Martha and John began by working the first five acres on their own, and in 1994-1995 they planted five red European grape varieties—Cabernet Franc, Tannat, Malbec, Touriga Nacional and Mourvedre. All of these were selected by John, who took Horton’s advice to cultivate grapes for fine dry wines. And French grapes (with the exception of the Touriga, which is Portuguese) were best suited for southeastern climate and soils. Tiger Mountain Vineyards was the first vineyard in Georgia’s history to make this move, concentrating on the fine dry wines over the sweeter varieties like muscadine.
A particular time of excitement came in 1998, when the first grapes were ready to harvest after about three years of maturing. The Ezzards shared the fruit with a local vintner who was “very excited about the quality,” Martha says. And they sold the first harvest to the Hortons. This was also when the Ezzards produced their first batch of wine—on the back porch of the farmhouse in a large bucket purchased from Walmart. A photo of this event hangs in the old barn, now lovingly restored and converted to a shady nook-filled respite for visitors to enjoy a glass of wine while overlooking Tiger Mountain. This bout of initial success led to another important event in 1999: it was the year the winery officially opened for sales.
These days Tiger Mountain Vineyards produces 10 wines, but grows seven varieties of grape–five French, one Portuguese (the Touriga) and the native American Norton. They also produce three blends: the five-grape blend Rabun Red, (the most popular Tiger Mountain Wine), Mountain Cyn (a blend of Cab Franc and Norton, also known as Cynthiana) and TNT (a blend of Touriga Nacional and Tannat).
The Norton, a grape native to Virginia, thrives on the Blue Ridge. It’s known, Ezzard says, for “being hardly and reliable.” Martha has taken on her own experiments with the variety. She is currently growing two rows of Norton grapes that are chemical free. They cannot be organically certified because of the proximity of other grapes that are being grown traditionally. And the wine the Norton produces is not only known for being full-bodied with qualities of plums and cherries, it is also one of the essential wines that comprise the famed Rabun Red.
The Petit Manseng is also a point of pride for Martha. Native to the southwestern France in the Pyrenees, it is known for its small berries and loose clusters, which make it harder for mildew to take hold. And the ability for the Petit Manseng to ripen in the Georgia climate is great. The grape produces a crisp white wine with a hint of green apple tones. The late harvest Petit Manseng comprises the Sweet Petit, known for just enough sweetness to be considered a dessert wine.
And, while it was the 2015 late-harvest Petit Manseng grape that secured the 2017 win at the LA International Wine Competition, it was the 2013 Petit Manseng that won a gold medal for being an “exceptional wine that is near the pinnacle of achievement in its category” in the 2015 San Francisco International competition, known worldwide for “setting the standard for professional wine judging since its debut in 1980,” according to the website.
But to Martha, the connection to the grape is highly personal: “I think the Petit Manseng just loves Tiger Mountain!”
Martha says a lot of folks see running a vineyard as “romantic.” But she is quick to note the intense labor involved, a topic she addresses in detail in her memoir: “[Running a vineyard] is so much work. We are just farmers.”
Still, when touring Tiger Mountain Vineyards, one can’t help but note the rosebushes planted at the end of almost every row of vines. Pops of red, orange, and yellow dot the landscape amidst the green of the grape leaves. This practice originated in France as the flowers are early indicators of disease. Harbingers, they serve as way to ensure vines will stay healthy.
As it happens, Martha says, she and John have been “gifting each other rosebushes for years.” It is a tradition they picked up on and continued, in honor of the vineyard’s legacy, and of one another.
For more information, visit tigerwine.com.