In the Spirit: Honoring Georgia Wines

– Winners of this year’s Georgia Trustees Wine Challenge to be revealed at Gala in Athens –

Many consumers think it’s fun to be a judge at a wine competition, but it’s work. Lots of work. Not a lot of fuss and feathers, just work. You finish tired and hoping you’ve done right by the winemakers whose work you’ve just judged.

That’s what the five wine judge teams and one mead judge team experienced at the end of the fourth annual Georgia Trustees Wine Challenge. Held at the Michael A. Leven School of Culinary Sustainability and Hospitality at Kennesaw State University, the competition sorted through 153 entries from a wide swath of Georgia-based wineries, meaderies and cideries. The competing entities may make wine, mead or cider using out-of-state-produced fruit or elements, but they must make their final product in the State of Georgia.

Among the judges is Jonathan Brown, MBA, the school’s lecturer in beverage, who also organizes the several student volunteers. Students in the program study hospitality management and culinary, and their participation in handling the movement of wine samples (all judged blind) out to the judges is absolutely critical. Brown works with the school’s director Christian Hardigree, J.D., to enable the competition to take place at this facility.

To judge meads, a select team headed by UGA extension coordinator for Putnam County J. Keith Fielder, evaluated more than 20 entries, at least twice the number submitted in 2017. Fielder has tasted meads both here and abroad and holds several certifications.

What does a mead judge look for when evaluating this fermented honey-based wine?

“It’s gotta be palatable,” he says. “I’m looking for one that’s clear, so we don’t see cloudiness – nothing floating around in it. Open the bottle and check it for off aromas or anything odd that might be released when we uncork it. Let it breathe a minute or two and pour it in a glass. Swirl it and look for the ‘legs,’ [to see that] it’s got good alcohol. Check the nose. I’m looking for anything that’s odd or not pleasant. No off flavors, no beer-like flavors, or anything that wouldn’t be pertinent to that mead.”

One of the meads got his enthusiastic approval, and he pronounced it one of the best he’d ever tasted anywhere. This mead – its identity to be revealed at the Challenge Banquet on Oct. 29 – will be served along with other gold medal winners at the reception preceding the banquet, to be held at the Classic Center in Athens. Georgia wines will be presented at each course of the dinner. The event starts at 6:30 p.m., and details will be on the competition web site,

The wines submitted this year included wines made from the noble varieties –Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot,  Malbec, Tannat, Cabernet Franc – all grown in North Georgia. Originating in southwest France, Petit Manseng does very well on the US east coast, including Georgia. In France, it’s typically made as a sweet wine, but here, including in Georgia, most examples are dry.

Petit Manseng wines won the top award, called The Oglethorpe Trophy, in 2015 and 2016; they were from Tiger Mountain Winery (2015) and Stonewall Creek Vineyards (2016), both in Tiger, near Clayton. Cavender Creek in Dahlonega also makes wine from this grape, and entered it in the competition this year for the first time.

The trophy is named for James Edward Oglethorpe, the founder in 1733 and first governor of the Georgia colony, which was tasked by the colony’s trustees to grow grapes and make wine. Thus, they are the genesis of the competition’s name.

This year also marked the first-time participation of several new wineries: Trillium Vineyard in Bremen; Ott Farms & Vineyard in Ellijay; Bear Claw Vineyards in Blue Ridge; and Accent Cellars in Dahlonega. Two new meaderies also joined the competing line-up: Etowah Meadery in Dahlonega and Beecraft Mead Company in Dawsonville.

Important grapes making excellent wines include French-American hybrids, such as Chambourcin, Seyval Blanc, Vidal Blanc and Traminette, and American hybrids, such as Norton (a/k/a Cynthiana), LeNoir, Lomanto, and Blanc du Bois. The 2017 Oglethorpe winner was City Winery Atlanta’s “Gone with the Vin,” a dessert wine made from Vidal Blanc grown in Georgia at Three Sisters Vineyard in Dahlonega.

In addition to gold, silver, and bronze medals, as well as the grand award, The Oglethorpe Trophy, the competition awards a series of top awards for best vinifera wine, best wine made from an American hybrid grape, best fruit wine, best dessert wine, best fortified wine, best rosé, best mead, best hard cider and best wine made from Muscadine grapes. These awards, designed and made by Smyrna’s Lillie Glassblowers, a family-owned studio, capture the essence of the honor.

A variety of Georgia companies and in one case a prominent Georgia family sponsor the awards. Recognizing the best wine made from American hybrid grapes the  Thomas McCall Award is sponsored by the DuBose Porter family, because it’s named for their ancestor. Thomas McCall was a Revolutionary War hero and pioneering winemaker and viticulturalist from the Dublin area.

Other awards are named for similar historic figures in Georgia’s wine history, and sponsors include Isom’s Nursery (Best Muscadine); SNA Manufacturing (Best Non-Georgia Grown Wine);  FMB Advisors (Best Dessert Wine);  Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association (Best Fruit Wine); The Norton Insurance with Central Insurance Company (Winery of Distinction). Georgia Grown sponsors the Oglethorpe Award, while Georgia Wine Producers and the Georgia Trustees Wine Challenge sponsor several awards each.

This year the competition marks the passing of one of its co-founders, H. Parks Redwine II, with a new award for best vinifera red wine.  Despite the loss of a guiding spirit, the Georgia Trustees Wine Challenge moves forward with more plan – and more banquets – for the coming years’ competitions.

  • Jane Garvey is a writer and wine instructor living in Atlanta. She holds the Certified Specialist of Wine credential and has written and taught about wine for more than 20 years.


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