Ellijay vineyard brings home medals in California wine competition

  • Engelheim Vineyards owner Gary Engel with four varieties of his wine that were awarded medals in the recent San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. The Ellijay vineyard’s Sweet Molly, a white Traminette wine, placed highest with a double gold medal win. (Photo by Michael Andrews)
by Michael Andrews

Wine made from grapes grown in Gilmer County held its own with some of the most reputable vineyards in the U.S. at a January competition in San Francisco, Calif.

It was the first time Engelheim Vineyards owner Gary  Engel entered the prestigious wine judging competition held each year by the San  Francisco Chronicle newspaper. Going on the judges’ opinion of his product, it probably won’t be the last.

“This is the first competition of any kind I’ve entered.  We’re very blessed,” said Engel. “We sent the wines out there and they competed in blind taste tests. The judges didn’t know where they came from.”

When all the sipping and swishing was done, four Engelheim Vineyards wines had placed highly with the 2013 Sweet Molly –– a Traminette variety named after the Engel household’s border collie –– earning the highest honors with a double gold medal win. The double gold honor is earned by receiving a unanimous rating from all panel judges.

“According to these judges, it’s the second best wine in the entire country (made from) a white American hybrid grape,” explained Engel, who said Sweet Molly sells for $21 a bottle.  

The vineyard’s 2013 Traminette and 2012 Merlot both earned silver medals, while its red Trilogy, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot grapes, brought home a bronze.

“Nobody thinks Georgia can grow a decent Merlot because the grapes are difficult to grow here. We’re trying to change that” said Engel. “(Ours) competed against Napa and all these places out there whose forte is Merlot. There were probably between 1,000 and 1,500 Merlots (entered).”    

Engel, a retired full Army colonel, said the Chronicle competition is the largest judging contest of American wines in the world. The 2015 contest received 6,417 entries from more than 28 states.

“Any (vineyard or brand) you could think of –– Opus One, Rutherford, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Gallo  and all these different wineries out in California. That’s who we were competing against,” said Engel. “We did pretty good for some old southern boys.”

Engel didn’t expect such a warm reception. His vineyard, planted on 10 acres off Old Highway 5 in the south end of Gilmer County, produced its first grape harvest in 2011. Twenty-two tons of the fruit were harvested there last year.

“I knew we had good wine, but I didn’t think  we had much of a chance. We just opened in  September,” said Engel. “Obviously, people that are much more knowledgeable than I am think we have good wine, too.”

The Alabama native put a simple spin on  growing good wine grapes in an area of north  Georgia better known for its apples and peaches.

“If you know farming, a lot of it is common sense. If you can grow apples here, you can grow grapes,” he said.

The current wine boom in Georgia, where at least 20 vineyards and wineries are up and running with three in Gilmer County alone, is overdue by almost a century.

“Georgia used to be the sixth-largest producer of grapes in the country. That was until Prohibition came along and they stopped growing them,” said Engel. “(People) are starting to grow them here again and there’s tons of opportunity.”

Engel said he hopes to give back to the local community as his brand  grows.  

“We have men and women from halfway houses in Ellijay that work out here in the vineyard.  We’ve had very good success with (them) coming out here helping to bottle wine or whatever needs to be done,” said Engel.

The vineyard will be celebrating the competition honors with an upcoming food and wine pairing event at its Bavarian-style tasting room.

“We’ll (be celebrating) this news at our first Winter Feast and Wine Pairing event on Friday, Jan. 30,” Engel said.

The aspiring wine entrepreneur thanked Joe Smith, a longtime  Georgia winemaker and owner of Serenity Cellars in Cleveland, for helping produce the Ellijay vineyard’s award-winning varieties.

“He and I did it together,” said Engel.  “(Joe) also makes wine for Yonah Mountain Vineyards and does a lot of consulting around the country.”

Engel doesn’t hesitate in thanking a higher power for getting his new business off to an encouraging start.

“I couldn’t have grown the first grape, except God gave it to us. That’s where these grapes come from, not from me,” said Engel.
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