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Uncharted Terroir – How One Winery’s Legacy of Entrepreneurship & Innovation is Reinventing Muscadine

Uncharted Terroir – How One Winery’s Legacy of Entrepreneurship & Innovation is Reinventing Muscadine

Sweltering summer temperatures had begun transitioning into its more temperate counterpart – autumn. With the final essence of White Oak and pine still drifting through the air, signals of cooler air were on the way. A welcoming change of pace to the perpetual suffocation that a southern summer can afflict on land workers in the state of Georgia. A needed relief for Simone Bergese, Executive Winemaker of Chateau Elan Winery & Resort. His men still had several hundred vines to remove from the property’s estate vineyard. Every inch required complete removal. From the root up – not one inch of vitis vinifera was salvageable.

The Entrance at Chateau Elan

In every sense, Chateau Elan Winery & Resort is a formidable yet unconventional paradox within the world of wine. Located in the United States Southeast amongst the Blue Ridge foothills of Braselton, Georgia sits a sprawling 3,500 acre European style resort, spa, and winery inspired by a sixteenth-century chateau in the Loire Valley of France. While the landscape is breathtaking, the geographical positioning in many instances is considered impractical for viticulture. The climate alone is something of a pandora’s box for Pierce’s disease – a detrimental and growth prohibitive bacterium spread by the sharpshooter insect. A disease which thrives in warm weather, ravishes vinifera, and oftentimes requires a surplus in pesticides to combat. Leaving in its wake, a trail of chronically plagued vines and substantial loss in profits for vintners.

Even amongst the aforementioned hurdles, the juxtaposition of winery to appellation relationship is compounded further by an additional factor: Muscadine. A hardy, thick-skinned grape with a controversial reputation dating back to 1562, whose story is pivotal to the current success of the Chateau Elan winery.

Nevertheless, in 1981 when serial entrepreneur and founder of pharmaceutical giants Mylan Laboratories and Elan Corporation, Don Panoz set out to establish the first-of-its-kind winery in the foothills of the Northeast Georgia mountains, there were two non-negotiables: failure and Muscadine. While it’s said that Panoz garnered his original inspiration for Chateau Elan from a moment he shared with his wife tasting Muscadine wine, the luxury resort and winery Don envisioned was centered around his quest to grow high-quality vitis vinifera grape varietals.

Ground Breaking at Chateau Elan

Yet in 1981, the undertaking of a winery this magnitude in the Southeast (specifically Georgia) – had not been achieved since well before prohibition. Most notably, when in 1896, 12,726 acres of land located in Tallapoosa, Georgia enabled the output of nearly 1.6 million pounds of grapes. A feat that took place only after 400 Hungarian immigrants, who understood the ins-and-outs of viticulture, were willing to relocate to the southernmost part of the United States to support the production of. Even so, the management of terroir in such a climate like Georgia presented insurmountable risk. Risk that was well documented and would require extensive knowledge relating to the strategies of vine-management to mitigate long term.

At the time, a plethora of research existed indicating that European vinifera grapes grown in the Southeast could face dire consequences. There had been some recorded success of hybrid strains, but nothing could match that of the native Muscadine. In fact, as many experts concluded, the Muscadine was considered an optimal choice. At least that’s the advice that George Vanderbilt’s son, William Cecil, received as far back as 1971 from a number of universities including NC State, Cornell University, and the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California at Davis as he was surveying the possibility of growing similar varietals at the Biltmore Estate just a few hours north of Chateau Elan. Neither William nor Don were much interested in utilizing Muscadine, but who could blame them?

To understand both men’s discernment against Muscadine, is to know the history and economics behind Muscadine –  the south’s most infamous grape. Depending on how one views Muscadine, it’s a grape that, for all intents and purposes, could be considered a vintner’s dream. This species of grape is fairly inexpensive to manage and cultivate, requiring as little as 100 days from harvest to glass. And, for the sake of being southern, thrives in a hot and humid climate. If that weren’t enough, Muscadine vines are blessed with a natural resistance against diseases like Pierce’s Disease. However, this blessing also comes at a price for Muscadine. In layman’s terms –  the minimal effort to produce Muscadine, greatly diminishes its potential returns. To-date, vine management production efforts are most appropriately (and favorably) geared towards the cultivation of vitis vinifera and other exotic vines. Why? Simply this: when cultivated at the highest degree, vitis vinifera can yeild greater profit margins for vintners – a concept that doesn’t exist without merit – and the reason for why so many vineyards ( even those in the southeast) flock to one varietal or another across this species. In addition to requiring highly specialized environments, the prerequisite to manage vitis vinifera oftentimes takes years of training, dedication, and capital from vintners and property owners. A disparity that is markedly distinguished from the lack of investments in Muscadines, year-over-year.

Ground Breaking at Chateau Elan

It is, without doubt, that the surplus of accessibility to Muscadine has played a significant role in the stigmatization of its bottled contents. Nevertheless, as luck would have it, ease and accessibility of supply would not be Muscadines’ only detractor. Having been known for its history as a ‘backyard-growers’ wine, it’s no wonder that nostalgia associated with the word Muscadine is generally paired with prohibition-era recipes that only great-grandfathers pass down for generational enjoyment. And in the spirit of what it means to be a backyard-chemist, somewhere packed inside a southerners recipe-book will lie the evidence for Muscadines’ second most notable pitfall: flavor.

From the vine, Muscadine carries a set of very unique and distinctive characteristics. By nature, it’s a decidedly funky grape. Complete with thick-skin, fat seeds, and a pulp-heavy texture, this bittersweet jewel requires nothing short of an open minded palate to savor. Yet it’s important to note that this in no way means Muscadine is an inferior grape, simply, misunderstood. For many years, methods around Muscadine wine included use of excessive quantities of sugar in each batch. Intended to enhance the flavor, in many instances the addition of excess sugar only complicated the final product and diminished the Muscadine’s essence and natural potency.

Undoubtedly, Don welcomed the challenge of creating a self sustaining winery that could produce top of the line European vinifera. Even as skepticism rolled in from the surrounding Braselton community, Don’s innovative spirit and determination only grew stronger. By year two the first vineyard had been planted. And by 1985, Chateau Elan had not only released its first vintage but had opened its doors to the public. Yet, these successes in viticulture would be some of Chateau Elan’s only few until 2012, nearly 30 years later when appointed head winemaker, Simone Bergese, joined the family. As a number of the European varietals struggled to hang on, it became apparent to Don that he would have to diversify the Chateau Elan portfolio. From 1986 until the late 2000s, Don willingly hedged his investment in the existing property. With the expansion of the resort and conference center, production facility, and world class golf course, tennis, and equestrian center, Chateau Elan grew as a touted destination not only regionally, but internationally. The success of this diversification strategy played well for Don throughout the years, even as the winery took a back seat. With a number of world class amenities including the Chateau Elan Spa and culinary experiences, the resort would only be further enhanced by one of Don’s most prolific endeavors – the Petit Le Mans.

Simone Bergese at Chateau Elan

Then, in 2012, the call came; the ambitious Simone Bergese was on the other line. The recruitment team at Chateau Elan was on the hunt for an Executive Winemaker. Highly energetic and innovative, little did they know the pairing couldn’t have been more kismet. Having grown up in Alba, a town within Piedmont, Italy, Simone was on a path to become a winemaker. Over the years, Simone had trained as an Assistant Winemaker at several wineries in Barolo and Barbaresco regions, and later relocated to Australia where he further expanded his knowledge base. In 2003, he became Chief Winemaker at Patria Winery, and in 2006 became Executive Winemaker at Firriato Winery.

With an expansive breadth and depth of small to large batch winemaking and vine management practices across a variety of terroir, Simone’s experience would be instrumental in the transformation of Chateau Elans’ Winery.

In Part 2 of this series, I will reveal how Simone Bergese elevated Chateau Elan into an internationally acclaimed and award winning winery, and his plans for the winerys future.