Editor’s note: This is the first in a seasonal series documenting wine from start to finish in North Georgia.
Story by Bekah Porter Sandy
Autumn is ushering itself in with a gentle breeze that dislodges the saffron and claret leaves from the sugar maples and tulip poplars that guard the grapes.
Craig Kritzer senses the season’s changes and wonders if fall will bring rains. Or perhaps the first chill will serve as a false start that will give way to an encore of ripe sunshine.
The former Atlanta lawyer welcomes them all, as the breeze and the leaves and the rains and the sun alike contribute to the word that defines his view as a premiere viticulturist.
“Terroir,” he says, accenting the letters in such a way that there is no mistaking the term’s French origins. “It means a sense of place.”
For the founder and owner of Frogtown Cellars, this concept drives him to embrace all that North Georgia’s abundant geography and geology has to offer. When Kritzer picks his grapes — whether it be the first or the last of the 23 varieties grown on the 57-acre vineyard — he expects those vibrant orbs to carry flavorful and fragrant notes of the Appalachian region’s singular environment.
“You can taste the Earth in our wines here,” he said.
And it’s a taste not offered anywhere else in the world.
When Kritzer and his wife, Cydney, fled their corporate lives in 1998, they harbored an atypical vision: to be an estate vineyard that produced premium wines made with premium grapes. In other words, they wanted to create quality wine that could stand tall next to any wine crafted anywhere else on the planet, and they wanted to do it using only the grapes that they grew themselves on their property.
“I hate to say that it’s a dying art, but…,” Kritzer said. “The truth is that most wineries are segmented, in that they either are grape growers or wine makers. But to be an estate winery, like we are, you must grow all of your grapes and then make your wine out of your own grapes and none other.”
So the Kritzers do just that: grow their grapes, develop their own wines from their grapes and work hard doing it all. And in the fall, they do it more than they do any other time of the year.
While autumn might seem to be the sleepy season that tapers off into the stillness of winter, it serves as anything but to the workers at Frogtown Cellars, which is settled halfway between Dahlonega and Cleveland.
“Fall at our vineyard can be described by one word — work,” Kritzer said, before deciding to add a few adjectives. “Hard work. Long work. Late work. Round-the-clock work.”
Harvest begins the last week of August and runs through the first weekend of October, and because of the Kritzers’ commitment to the terroir philosophy, the grapes find themselves evolving into wine hours after being plucked from the vine.
“We want to create wine from the grapes the same day we harvest them,” Kritzer said.
This dedication translates into Cydney spending time with her husband in between tasks.
“During the fall, Craig’s busy every single day, whether he’s harvesting the fruit, making the wine, racking it off, deciding what it needs, what it doesn’t need, what type of oak he’s going to use,” she said. “Vineyards are very intense this time of year.”
The grapes travel bifurcating paths, depending on their color. White grapes are pressed and fermented. Red grapes encounter a more involved evolution. They bypass the initial pressing endured by the white grapes and instead are ran through a destemmer crusher, which separates the grapes from the stem. The purple and red clusters are then carried along a conveyor belt, sorted and poured into a cold stainless steel tank where they will ferment whole.
Kritzer then drains the tank of the grapes’ juice, and the leftover skins will be ran through a crusher, which extracts the grapes’ final offerings. At that point, Kritzer becomes an artist. He determines which juice would work best in which type of wood barrel, the whole time thinking of which combination would best produce the taste of terroir.
This process — harvesting to crushing to fermenting to barreling — occupies Kritzer’s every waking hour from August to mid-December. At that point, the juices are tucked into their barrels and rolled out of sight, not to be considered until that fall breeze cycles through winter’s bite to spring’s warm sunny tendrils.