The Appalachian Wine Festival: Hiawassee, Georgia

by Sarah Birdsong

The Appalachian Wine Festival in Hiawassee is an annual event featuring local vineyards and connoisseurs alike. Newly relocated to the Atlanta area, I was eager for the chance to explore the surrounding countryside. Luckily for me, Other!Sean and Nicole had a weekend in the mountains planned with friends and family. If local wine wasn’t enough to lure me, the prospect of a weekend in the mountains was.

Hiawassee, Georgia: a Brief History

Hiawassee is located in the north of Georgia. A member of the Appalachian family, Hiawassee is composed of valleys bounded on all sides by the faulted marine remains of an ancient ocean floor outcrop, screened by floristic province. Located north of Atlanta on U.S. Hwy 76, it is adjacent to the North Carolina State line.

Its name, and the Georgia section of the river Hiawassee, is derived from the Cherokee Ayuwasi word meaning a “meadow-like place.” Comparatively, the Creek Muscogee call it Koasati and Hitchiti, Mvskoke for “copperhead.” Indeed, the Hiawassee is famous for its copperhead population. Additionally, if you are able to locate a 17th-century map of the area, you might find it called Eufasee, Eufassee, Euphasee or Quannessee. Each of these words find themselves as strange transliterations of Ayuwasi.

An early iteration of Hiawassee, the Euphasee.

Places to Stay in Hiawassee

It was a warm June evening when I arrived in Hiawassee. After wending my way through the foothills creeping into mountains through Cleveland and Helen, I stopped at the Tree House Lodge to meet with my party. Because of the mountainous region, my GPS signal ebbed, laboring to retain its connection. As a result, directions to the lodge were reminiscent of a pre-Garmin time in my life when landmarks ushered you to your destination.

“Follow the road until you pass the Mount Zion Church sign and go a mile beyond that. At the children-at-play sign, turn right. You will follow this road into the first driveway on the right. Be sure to remember these directions because you will lose GPS signal along Scataway Road.”

Nestled in a thick fringe of woods by a narrow creek, the Tree House Lodge features all the hallmarks of a traditional mountain cabin; vaulted ceilings accented by knot-choked walls of pine, a stone fireplace, and rustic bruin decor to match. Comfortable and welcoming in equal measure, the lodge would be my home for the extended weekend. Conversely, my party had arrived a two days before I had, visiting with extended family and enjoying a cool respite from the heat in Lake Chatuge. That night, we enjoyed a group prepared meal and toasted marshmallows by the fire, complemented by homemade wine.

The next morning found us excitedly turning the lodge over in preparation for our day. After a breakfast of freshly made biscuits, eggs, and the customary mimosas, we began our journey to the Appalachian Wine Festival. As the gravel ticked the undercarriage of our vehicle, my host issued the following warning around a grin:

“Be sure to take it slow, Sarah—there are many wine vendors here, and the fairgrounds are larger than they look.”

Things to Do in Hiawassee: the Appalachian Wine Festvial

It was a sunny June morning with little overhead shade, prompting my party to carry a parasol or two. Located by the Lake Chatuge shores, the festival featured a unique old world experience with multiple vendors spanning either side of the main street. Indeed, it reminded me much of Deadwood, South Dakota, in its design. The buildings’ countenance detailed drab stucco and lumber slat, built around grassy knolls under sparsely wooded overhang. Beyond the constructed fairgrounds rose the northern mountains, leading to Asheville and Chattanooga.

The tickets total at $35 per person, which grants you open access to the festival and all the free wine samples you can handle. After receiving our customary wine glasses engraved for the year, we made our way down the line, sampling vendor after vendor. My favorite aspect of the Wine Festival was the chance to talk with the winemakers, to hear their stories about their beginnings, and how they got to this point in their journey. Listening to the stories of their grapes, the creation of their wine, and the level of care and detail that went into every bottle is one of the crown experiences of the Festival.

I have a preference for crisp yet sweet dessert wines. There was no shortage of wine fitting this description, particularly as we were in peach country. With this in mind, I and my friend Jian were able to find a peach wine slushie vendor. In hindsight, this may have been our undoing. Shortly after imbibing in this treat, Jian and I found ourselves napping in the backseat of our chariot, dozing off our buzz.

When we awoke, found ourselves delivered to a vineyard.

Places to See in Hiawassee: the Hightower Creek Vineyards

The Hightower Creek Vineyards is a family-owned winery tucked within the Blue Ridge Mountain range of the upper Hiawassee Highlands. Founded in 1995, it boasts seven acres for wine production with old-world vinifera side by side with its Native American and French American hybrids.

To me, wine is something special. It should be as much an adventure as it is a time for relaxed conversation. It’s a chance to slow down and take in the world around you. You might think me traditional in my preferences, and you would be right. I prefer my wine free of contrived technique.

Late afternoon was upon us as our vehicle came to a stop in the gravel lot before the acreage. Along the length of the trellises wound ropes of grapevine, dense in strand and cluster. Music trickled from the windows of the winery, customers milling in and out of its doors. Picturesque in its aesthetic, the Hightower Creek Vineyards retain a classic approach in their delivery. As such, the winery separates itself from modern conventions of drinks served in mason jars with unusual pairings that you might find inside Atlanta. Quiet, charming, and simple in its approach, the Hightower Creek Vineyards made for an exceptional end to our trip.

ADDITIONAL READING

I have compiled a list of additional resources regarding this entry and its contents for researching the topics therein:

Explore Georgia: if you need a little primer on where to find places to stay and other attractions to check out, take a look here.

Helen, GA: you’ll arrive in Helen before Hiawassee and there’s no reason to not stop off!

Mercier Orchards: if you enjoy cider like we do, the Mercier Orchards provide a wonderful opportunity to retrieve a tasty bounty of apple cider.

The Hiawassee Antique Mall: it might be obvious by now, but I love antiques! Check it out!

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