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Author's story of starting a family-run winery is a fine blend

Posted: 3:55 p.m. Friday, Dec. 6, 2013
By Jill Vejnoska - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The first real blast of wintry weather feels as close by as the mountain that serves as the namesake for John and Martha Ezzard's Tiger Mountain Vineyards. Yet if the Rabun County husband and wife are fretting over a prediction of snow and its possible impact on the grapes that produce their award-winning Petit Manseng, Malbec, Cabernet Franc and more, it's not apparent.
For one thing, it's November. This year's harvest is already done.
And when you've uprooted a way of life halfway across the country and planted a different one here with no guarantee it'll take, not only do you learn to keep the occasional cold front in perspective.
You also gain added appreciation for being in the throes of a shared "second bud," which Martha Ezzard explores in her new book.
"We had always talked about coming back here, maybe, someday," Martha says, sitting in the couple's updated version of a farmhouse on 100 acres the Ezzard family has worked for five generations.
"We wound up with a whole different direction in life," John quietly marvels.
Clearly, the bluejeans-clad pair are a long way from their doctoring and lawyering days in Denver. In grape-growing, a "second bud" sometimes comes along to replace a first bud that's fallen victim to low winter temperatures or late spring frosts. As a metaphor for survival, perseverance and unexpected growth, it's pretty darned good. As the title of Martha Ezzard's book, it's perfect.
"When I started writing, I meant it to be about the land and I really wanted to write about saving a family farm," she confides on this blustery morning while her husband is still outside ministering to his beloved vines. "But as time went by, I realized it was just as much about encouraging people to take a big leap of faith, whatever it is."
The landings weren't always smooth, as "The Second Bud: Deserting the City for a Farm Winery" (Mercer University Press, $25) makes entertainingly clear. A full-bodied tale of the couple's personal and professional journey toward a shared goal, it also contains intriguing notes of drama: the commuter marriage that began to show signs of strain as time went on; the steep learning curve that carving a European-style vineyard out of a onetime dairy farm in the Deep South entailed; the record deep freeze in April 2007 that led to a sobering conversation about possible options while they waited to learn the extent of the damage (including: "sell the farm and winery").
Even John Ezzard didn't know the whole story until recently.
"I never knew Martha felt that way until I read the book," he admits about the parts where his wife of 50 years writes of her growing resentment at juggling responsibilities in Atlanta and Tiger for years, then facing other stresses when she moved to the farm full time in 2003. "I had thought Martha would have trouble adjusting to full-time, non-city life."
She'd jumped first, leaving Colorado after 23 years of raising three children and practicing law in order to join The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's editorial board in her native Georgia. John wasn't far behind. A urologist who'd already begun making regular visits to little Tiger (current population: 406) to check on his elderly father and the farm, he soon came up with a plan: He'd give up his Denver practice just as soon as his partner (the couple's son-in-law) found a replacement, and then move to Tiger for good.
His goal: keeping the farm family-owned and working. His unexpected idea: planting a vineyard to grow fine European wine grapes, aka vinifera.
"If it's such a great idea to grow wine grapes this far north in Georgia, why isn't anybody else doing it?" Martha writes was her initial reaction.
In the early 1980s, Chateau Elan in Braselton and Habersham Winery in Helen had opened, mostly making the sweeter Muscadine and other wines from grapes native to the Southeast at first. Some three decades later, a North Georgia wine district stretching across the top third of the state encompasses more than 20 wineries and vineyards and produces varietals more often associated with France - Cabernet Franc, Viognier, Malbec � and other parts of Europe (Touriga, Sangiovese).
Yet the idea was still new enough in 1995 that John Ezzard had to go to Virginia to consult with the owners of a vineyard and get cuttings of their Horton grapevines for planting. Later, when potential competitors started popping up closer to home, it was actually a cause for celebration. And not just because there's now a Rabun County Wine Trail to attract publicity and visitors.
"The more wineries there are, the better winery you're going to be," John Ezzard explains.
Tiger Mountain Vineyards survived the 2007 frost and began racking up some important reviews and awards (most notably, Best of Class, Gold Medal for its 2011 Petit Manseng at the prestigious Los Angeles International Wine & Spirits Competition). The refurbished 75-year-old barn where John grew up milking cows recently opened as a restaurant. Several years ago, the Ezzards' daughter, Lisa, moved back from California to join the business and ensure the family farm would be worked by a sixth generation.
Near the end of the book, Martha recounts the moment when she realized this story would have a happy ending. It's several months after the big frost, and against all odds, the petit manseng has sprouted new shoots. They leave the vineyard holding hands.
Reminded of that moment now in their reimagined version of a farmhouse, the couple smile at each other.
"He was so excited the Manseng was coming back," Martha says. "I felt better because John felt better."


Tiger Mountain 2008 Cabernet Franc Reserve wins
over a French Chinon Cab in blind tasting!

Partners John and Marilyn McMullan toast the Tiger Mountain winner!
The French and the North Georgia Cabernet Francs had common characteristics.

Yves Durand, Master Sommelier, staged a "battle of the Cabernet Francs" recently at the Peachtree Chaine de Rotisseurs dinner at the Druid Hills Country Club. In a show of hands following the blind tasting, a clear majority of the wine lovers, aficionados and collectors in attendance voted for Tiger Mountain over the 2010 Domaine de la Haute Olive; Chinon AOC. There were positive comments about the deep cherry aromas in the nose of the Tiger Mountain wine, but winemaker Dr. John Ezzard noted the French Cab had nice mid palate body and a smooth finish.

Tiger Mountain Vineyards Wine Tasting
- Yves Durand, Master Sommelier 3/8/2012

2008 Cabernet Franc Reserve:

"Rich and forward concentrated blackcurrant aroma. Mouth-filling entrance, full of extract, silky texture, delicious flavors of cassis. Great long lingering finish. This is a superb Cabernet Franc, one of the best Georgia red wines I have ever drunk. Drink now until 2020." 18.75/20

2008 Norton:

"The Norton grape is the oldest cultivated American grape. It is not from the vitis vinifera European family but a descendent of the American vitis aestivalis family. My experience with Norton wine is extremely limited but wine is wine and some Bacchus beverages you will like and some you will not. Gazing at the wine, I noticed a deep inky dark black color. I thought "this is surely an American grape." Deep earthy sharecropper aroma, mouth-filling, full of extract, rich chewy texture, dark jammy red fruit. Round and well-balanced. Long and persisting aftertaste. A great wine that I will take over any Zinfandel any day." 17.75 to 18/20

Tiger Mountain Vineyards - One Incredible Tour!
- p.kelley, Southeast Vino 8/19/11

What impresses me so much about this winery is that they aren't trying to make vintages that compete with Napa. Instead, they are creating wine that offers something beautiful and different. Thus being true to the art of winemaking, but making their own statement as well.
Some of the more spectacular vintages we tried today were the Norton, Touriga Nacional, Tannat, and Malbec. All remarkable, all well priced and all grown locally. Combined, they provide more than ample reason for sites like this one to exist. Georgia wine has really started to rock and it is exciting as hell! ...Special thanks to Jonathan Engel, tasting room manager, for spending quite a bit of time with us today, discussing the processes, struggles and successes that Tiger Mountain Vineyards faces each season.

Tiger Rosé tops the French
- Ulysses and Lourdes Arteaga, wine club members 7/5/11


We just came back from a trip to Aix-en-Provence to visit some of the wineries and taste their famous rosé wines. Tiger's Rosé wine can easily compete with the award wining rosés of Aix-en-Provence. Will be visiting Tiger Winery in the end of the month and of course buying more rosé wines. Love Tiger's Rosé wine!

Tiger Mountain TNT - a great food wine!
- Randall Murray,The Gainesville Times, 5/4/11

"The primary grape used in the production of Port is Touriga Nacional. Coincidentally, this grape is popular in Georgia wine county, with a number of northeast Georgia wineries, producing a dry red wine from Touriga Nacional. Tiger Mountain Vineyards in Rabun County offers a full bodied dry red called TNT - for Touriga Nacional and Tannat, a grape with origins in southwest France. It's a great food wine and stands up to hearty meat dishes."

TMV partner John McMullan receives UGA honor


John F. McMullan, partner in Tiger Mountain Vineyards, was honored recently at a university luncheon in Athens with the prestigious Alumni Merit Award. This is the 74th year the award has been given to a UGA graduate who has demonstrated outstanding support for the university in addition to achieving superior professional leadership.
He and his wife, Marilyn, have been active in Atlanta wine organizations for many years; both are members of the Tiger Mountain Vineyards Board of Directors. McMullan serves as Chief Financial Officer of the winery corporation.


Award Winemaker John Ezzard and Martha relax on the new patio at TMV's red barn to celebrate the news that Tiger Mountain's 201l Petit Manseng won a gold best of class and received 91 points at the 2012 Los Angeles International, one of only 103 such awards out of more than 3,000 wines entered. The rare white varietal, pioneered by Ezzard in North Georgia, won the first Jefferson Cup ever awarded a Georgia wine in last year's Jefferson Cup Invitational. The 2009 and 2010 vintages won consecutive silver medals in the San Francisco International.
In the metro area, Petit Manseng is sold (or can be ordered) at Whole Foods stores and is served by the glass at the Season 52 restaurants in Buckhead and at Perimeter as well as at Nikolai's Roof and Woodfire Grill in Atlanta; also at Fleming's Prime Rib and Steakhouse at Perimeter Center. The Lake Rabun Hotel and Grapes and Beans carry the wine in Rabun County. It may be purchased at Tiger's satellite tasting room, Naturally Georgia and is served at Corkscrew Café, both in Dahlonega. In Hiawassee, Bacchus Wine Shoppe carries it and it's available at Tastings of Blue Ridge in Blue Ridge.


Tiger Mountain Vineyards elegant dessert wine, Sweet Petit, is a late harvest Petit Manseng.


Sweet Petit is filled with delicious honey, apple and melon flavors. The Sauterne-like wine won a silver medal in the 2011 American Wine Society competition and in the 2011 Jefferson Cup Invitational.

TMV 2012 Rosé now available!

Our popular Rosé has won three medals; the San Francisco Chronicle wine competition, the Jefferson Cup Invitational and the American Wine Society competition. Rosé pairs with a variety of salads and light cheeses and pastas as well as spicy foods with an Asian flare. Come by the tasting room for a sampling, and get a bottle while you still can. Last year's vintage sold out before August.


UGA intern James Sieb, hard at work in the Norton.

Recognizing the growing North Georgia wine industry, Dean Scott Angle of the University of Georgia College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences joined with the Winegrowers Association of Georgia to create an internship program, now in its fifth year. The college also holds viticulture courses in Cortona, Italy each spring. This year Tiger Mountain will host its fifth intern. UGA interns have also worked at Stonewall Creek Vineyards, Blackstock Vineyards and Winery, Wolf Mountain Vineyards, and Yonah Mountain Vinyards. Cartacay Vineyards and several others are planning to host interns this year.

UGA intern Griffin Hans
UGA horticulture major Griffin Hans at work in the vineyard.
UGA intern Phil Stice
Intern Phil Stice works during the 2010 crush. Phil is now employed by Caymus Vineyards in Sonoma.

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