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Wine tripping in Georgia: a day's trip.

Donald and Nancy Panoz have given a new look to the Old South. They have developed a winery and recreation resort 30 miles north of Atlanta - in the scenic north Georgia country. Judging by the thousands of visitors (250,000 last year) their marketing perspective is vastly popular.

The complex is called Chateau Elan. There is a 16th Century French chateau style central building, a state of the art winery, two restaurants, a wine museum, free tours and wine tastings daily, an 18-hole golf course (with more coming), petite chateaus for visitors, homesites with golf course views and 200 acres of vineyard. All of this on a 2400-acre holding in Barrow, Hall and Gwinnett counties located on a major north-south freeway - I-85 at exit 48.

The first vineyards were planted in 1983, under the aegis of German-born and educated Ed Friedrich, who previously had been a winemaker/manager in California and Arkansas and who was the first to make soft" (low or no A.C.) wines when he was at San Martin winery in northern California. After Friedrich's untimely death due to cancer the winemaking responsibility at Elan fell to a Frenchman, Jean Courtois.

The winery was founded in 1984 and since then has won 135 medals in various competitions.

The founder and chief executive officer of Chateau Elan is Donald Panoz, 55, (his wife, Nancy, is president). Panoz, who got his first exposure to wine by watching his Italian grandfather make wine at home, also is founder and CEO of a pharmaceutical research, development and marketing company, Elan Corporation, headquartered in Ireland with subsidiaries on the Continent, the Pacific Basin and the U.S. One of these subsidiaries is in the scenic mountains of north Georgia at Gainesville.

Georgia was not known as a wine state (there are eight wineries now). But Panoz, knowing of the mild climate of north Georgia from visits to his business in Gainesville, attributed this to the area's English and Scottish background of whiskey making rather than wine .

He has planted Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Seyval Blanc and Chambourcin cultivars. All but the last two are vinifera; Seyval and Chambourcin are French American crosses. In addition to the 200 acres of mostly vinifera there are muscadine vineyards.

There is sufficient rain to make irrigation unnecessary, but a vigorous spray program is essential because of high humidity. The number of vines to the acre is half that in most California plantings because of the need for maximum airflow around the vines due to the humidity.

The preventive spray program is every other week from the beginning of April to the end of July. The spray involves Bayleton, Captan, and Rovzal as fungicides and Sevin as an insecticide.

Reducing the number of vines makes yields lower. The vinifera tonnage in the 1991 harvest was 152 tons.

Wine production has grown from 35,000 gallons in 1990; there are projections of 150,000 gallons annually by the turn of the century. Fruit supply is augmented by purchases from other Georgia growers and other states, including California.

The first production was in 1984: 2100 cases each of Johannisberg (White) Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc and Ruby Cabernet, plus 2,000 cases of Duncan Creek Muscadine.

Distribution is mostly in Georgia and Tennessee. The brand can be also found in Bermuda. Four restaurants have it on their wine lists in New York City and two 4-star restaurants serve it in Dublin, Ireland.

The percentage of wine sales at the Chateau and through distribution channels is about 50-50.

The winery is by any measure the largest and best known in the state. It has a visitors center open daily and offers an art gallery, meeting rooms, wine tours and tastings, plus a retail store, banquet rooms, picnic areas, a seven-mile cross-country horse pace course, nature trails, a pavilion-concert area in addition to the wine museum and two restaurants.

Of the latter, Cafe Elan is an open air bistro with eight entrees and a Sunday brunch buffet. Le Clos is formal dining with prices from $36 per person on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings only, with reservations and a coat-and-tie requested.

American style food at reasonable prices can be found Tuesday through Sunday at the golf club house.

Chateau Elan has banqueting for groups with customized menus for receptions, corporate meetings, weddings, wine seminars and fund-raisers. Audio-visual is available for business sessions.

Special events are scheduled throughout the year, with summer concerts and galas on occasions such as New Year's Eve and the annual November Vineyard Run.

The resort employs 140 people, with the winery as the focus, but that number likely will swell with completion in May of 1992 of The Spa, combining European style facilities and American health promotional activities plus 14 luxurious overnight accommodations.

On the drawing board is an Inn at Chateau Elan, with lodging, conference facilities, graphic services, computer lab and business services. A second 18-hole championship golf course is planned plus a 9-hole par 3 course; construction on the latter is scheduled to begin late in 1991. The attention paid to golf is because Panoz is an enthusiastic player in both the U.S. and Ireland, where he likes the Athlone Country Club near his pharmaceutical plant; it makes prescription drugs only including two sold in the U.S.: Cardizem and Verlan, both for the heart. Panoz has a 19 handicap index.

The chateau is massive, its 60 feet from ground to roof peak encompassing 28,000 square feet; it stands on a hill just off the freeway. The interior is designed to portray an open air French market, complete with street lights, carts and murals. Four murals are focal points, one depicting the history of winemaking, a second showing a French train station and a third picturing a Paris city square. The fourth mural decorates the outside wall of the chateau in the Le Pavillon area and depicts an evening in Paris.

Architect was Garland Reynolds, Jr., of Atlanta and Gainesville. The building is not a copy of any one French chateau, but borrows from a number built between 1500 and 1756. This early Renaissance period was known for its country houses with simplicity of form. Roof slopes, door and window treatment and archway proportions were selected for adaption in Ch. Elan. Building materials for the walls were concrete blocks instead of limestone; the roof is fiberglass shingles instead of slate.

The French winemaker-Jean Courtois - comes from a family of vintners that owns a 75-acre vineyard near Chateauneuf-du-Pape, where they produce Cotes du Rhones Village Vinsobres (some of the vines are 80 years old).

When Donald Panoz was on a tasting tour of the Cotes du Rhone in the early 1980s the two men met and hit it off. The upshot was that Courtois accepted an offer to head the winemaking staff in Georgia and brought his wife and youngsters to America in 1984.

Thanks to Friedrich and Panoz he found a state-of-the-art winery and an owner dedicated to perfection. He learned he had to modify his growing techniques to the Georgia climate, which has more rain than he was used to - and more humidity. To solve erosion threats, Courtois recommended grass planted between the rows to hold the soil. To get the fruit up where the wind can dry out the frequent rain, wires hold the vines 52 inches off the ground. This also lets in more sun. Harvest is by hand, generally in August. Courtois said:

"What appealed to me most about working in this American winery is what appealed to me most about America: it offered the most modern technology and a willingness to experiment. Although I respect tradition, I feel it is important to improve on it."

Courtois finds the same tastes in wine in America as in France - " the world is much smaller and trends in wine - as in food or art--catch on quickly, spreading across America at almost the same time they do in Europe. One major trend is toward a subtle, fruity, elegant wine which is complex but not so powerful that you need to wait 10 years before you can enjoy it."

Besides Chardonnay, White Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon, Chateau Elan produces two flavored muscadine wines from the grape native to the South. Summer Wine, with a peach flavor, is about $4-5 retail and Autumn blush, with a raspberry flavor, is the same price. Both muscadine wines are popular with visitors.

The vinifera ranges from $23 a bottle to a low of $8. Some of the wines are labeled "American, " if most of the fruit came from other states, and some are labeled "Georgia" if the fruit is estate-grown or from other growers in the state.

Chateau Elan is the third winery - so far as Wines & Vines knows--to have a golf course in connection. The other two are Chimney Rock in the Napa Valley and Sumac Ridge in British Columbia.

The Georgia establishment is the only one with 18 holes plus a golf school, however; the other two are each nine holes.

When last visited, Sumac Ridge - in the Okanagan Valley of B. C. - combined its tasting bar with its golf starter's station. Chimney Rock has its golf headquarters well separated from the winery but you can buy its wine by the glass in the lunch room.

Chimney Rock started out as an 18-hole course, but when Hack Wilson purchased the course in the Seventies he planted grapes on half the course. Wilson built the winery in 1987.

Not only is Chateau Elan a full-sized course with a rating of 73.6 and stretching 7,030 yards from the championship tees, but it has a regional Golf Digest school. It is a public course, with a green fee of $35 a day plus $10 for a half-cart.

Besides the championship tees the shorter tees are green, white and Burgundy.

A nine-hole auxfliary course scheduled for fall 1991 completion, is for walking only, is close to the spa, hotel, conference center, the chateau/winery and the championship course. A second 18-hole course is scheduled for construction soon.
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Publication:Wines & Vines
Date:Feb 1, 1992
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