Georgia’s Winemaking Families
By Jane F. Garvey
Families and wineries seem to be joined at the umbilical cord. The relationship can be a fruitful one that works smoothly, or it can be rocky. Many know the story of how a family ruckus led to Robert Mondavi’s departure from the C.K. Mondavi winery that bore his father’s name and to his founding of Robert Mondavi, which he operated with his sons. A true pioneer, he made American viticulture history.
Robert passed away at age 94 in 2008, but not before founding Continuum Estate in 2003 with his son, daughter, and grandchildren. His grandsons, Carlo and Dante, launched RAEN in 2013 to produce Pinot Noir from Sonoma Coast.
Georgia’s wineries are assembled by families and governed by them, for the most part, with a few exceptions such as Montaluce and Chateau Elan. But in North Georgia at Wolf Mountain, the team is practically the entire family, from founder Karl Boegner and his wife Linda, who is the wedding planner, to their daughter Lindsey and her husband Stephen Smith (hospitality manager and tasting room manager respectively) and son Brannon, vineyard manager and associate winemaker.
Today, Karl still approves the final blends, but Brannon has grown into his role as winemaker. “Brannon now is suggesting changes in protocol making even better wines than when I was making them by myself,” says the obviously proud papa.
The fact that Wolf Mountain is a family project was no accident. “I wouldn’t have done this without family to be a part of it,“ says Karl, adding “I wouldn’t have done it for my own ego. Without family, it’s a self-limiting situation.”
But how does he manage to keep familial peace?
“The best thing is to put your children into responsibilities that don’t overlap. Then, their total focus is between me and them on their particular responsibilities. That’s how you eliminate a lot of strife.” Sure seems like sage counsel for any family-run business.
In South Georgia, families are getting into the wine act across the region. Charles Cowart and his son Charles have branched out from Still Pond’s Muscadine wine operation to produce a handcrafted vodka. Near Nashville, Ga., Ed and Andrea Perry operate Horse Creek Vineyards, producing estate-grown Muscadine wines and some vinifera from out-of-state sources.
But at RoseMott Vineyards at Gin Creek, nearly every sibling and offspring is involved in making this winery project happen. Two brothers, Richard Erman “Richie” DeMott and Doug DeMott, were 10 years apart in age, but the early death of their father, Max, at age 41, brought Richie home to look after the family.
The brothers began planning a different future for the family farm, and launched Gin Creek Plantation in Hartsfield, Ga., near Moultrie, in 1998. With a lake, restored 1940s shotgun cottages for guests, and a pastoral setting, they began a thriving wedding business.
Then came phase two: Vineyards replaced tobacco. First Muscadine, but then Blanc du Bois, Lenoir, Lomanto, and a few rows of Norton, paving a new path for viticulture in South Georgia. Turning the tobacco barn into a tasting room, they opened the venture to a crowd of visitors in May 2014.
But then Richie died suddenly this June, leaving his recently wedded wife, Cindy, a widow. Only a few weeks before, he was on the phone to me animatedly describing his plans for a Jasper tasting room. His brother Doug, still working on getting his wine legs up to speed, is going forward with that plan.
“He was my brother, my partner, and almost like my father,” says Doug of his late brother. The youngest of the siblings, Doug was just eight years old when their father died.
Richie’s heirs were his two children, ensuring family involvement going forward. Max Erman DeMott II and Kelli DeMott Williams, who works for Georgia Grown, now are Uncle Doug’s business partners. Max, named for his late grandfather, is a University of Georgia graduate in plant pathology, a background that’s essential for confronting the disease pressures that south Georgia’s climate visits upon those daring enough to engage in viticulture there.
“He works with me hand in hand with the grapes and the wine,” says Doug of his nephew, adding: “He’s my partner now.”
Although not all the family works on the property, many do. Doug’s wife Christina works in the office, as does sister, Rhonda Sauls. Rhonda is wedding director and floral designer with Cindy. Doug’s daughter, Meaghan Butler, manages the tasting room in Thomasville.
As the DeMott family scrambles to recover their footing, keeping the viticulture going is a major goal, along with continuing the lucrative wedding business. Serenity Cellars’ owner, Joe Smith, who consults with many of Georgia’s wineries, comes a couple of times a month to taste the wines and see what’s needed, says Doug.
As Georgia develops new viticulture traditions, more and more family-centered wineries are on the planning boards. From Farmer’s Daughter and Sally’s Creek Winery & Vineyard in Mitchell County (South Georgia) to newly-opened Fainting Goat near Jasper, couples and siblings are working to bring to life the next phase of Georgia’s viticulture heritage.
- 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.