Above: Tiger Mountain Vineyards in north Georgia produces awarding-winning wines. Photos by Julie E. Bloemeke.

When three Tiger Mountain wines won silver medals last year at an international wine competition in California, vineyard co-found Martha Ezzard knew Georgia wines had come up in the world.

Tiger Mountain sceneryThe 2017 Los Angeles International Wine Competition received over 3,000 wines from 999 wineries located from France to Portugal to South Africa to Italy to California’s esteemed wine country. Tiger Mountain’s 2015 Sweet Petit (late harvest Petit Manseng), 2014 Tannat and the 2016 Rosé each medaled, thrilling Ezzard because “Tiger Mountain was competing alongside wines from Napa and Sonoma wineries [in California].”

The Tiger Mountain winery, located on about 90 acres between Rabun Gap and Tallulah Falls in northeast Georgia, began as a dream 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 relinquishing city life called “The Second Bud,” believed a winery would provide a way to save the Ezzard family’s farm, land that had been in his family since the 1930s.

Martha Ezzard
Martha Ezzard, co-owner of Tiger Mountain Vineyards.

“Our chief aim,” she said, “was to save the family farm. It was part of John’s soul; he’s a farmer at heart.”

The property had most recently been used as a dairy farm. The Ezzards wanted to grow something, but they weren’t 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 recalls 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.”

Another Georgia vintner — David Harris, previous owner of a small winery in Habersham County — recommended that John seek advice from Dennis and Sharon Horton, owners of Horton Vineyards in Charlottesville, Va.

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. The varieties were selected by John, following Horton’s advice to cultivate grapes for fine dry wines. It turned out that the French grapes and the Portuguese Touriga grew comfortably in southeastern climate and soils. Tiger Mountain Vineyards was the first vineyard in Georgia to make this move, concentrating on the fine dry wines over the sweeter varieties such as muscadine.

Tiger Mountain vineyard sceneIn 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 said. They sold the first harvest to the Hortons.

That same year, 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.

In 1999, Tiger Mountain 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 blended wines: the five-grape 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.

Tiger Mountain winesShe is 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 popular Rabun Red.

The winery now offers visitors more than just a place to see and talk about grapes. There’s 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 and 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 also are held on the property.

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.

Julie E. Bloemeke is a writer and poet based in metro Atlanta.