Tasting Room Manager Sean Wilborn examines a collection of sangiovese grapes from the test vineyard at the Chateau Elan Winery in Braselton on Tuesday. The winery and resort has had a complete renovation of its facilities and vineyard. Updates include new wines, wine bar and improved equipment. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)
Chateau Elan's winery receives renovations
Tasting Room Manager Sean Wilborn talks about the renovation of its facilities and vineyard, updates include new wines, wine bar and improved equipment at the Chateau Elan Winery in Braselton.
BRASELTON — If you’ve noticed that the vines at Chateau Elan Winery and Resort have gotten smaller, it’s not your imagination.
In the past year, the Braselton stop has given its vineyard and winery a major renovation — everything from the plants to the product.
“This was once just a gift shop and place to do tours,” Tasting Room Manager Sean Wilborn said. “Now it’s a wine bar and a fun place for locals to come — not just tourists passing through. We want the community to know that it’s another venue for you.”
In the past year, the Braselton destination has revamped its entire winery team, including hiring an international award-winning winemaker, Simone Bergese. It also tore down the winery facility, put in new equipment, gutted the vineyard and replanted the 30-acres.
With Bergese on board, the winery has reinvented its branding. He has created new wines for all taste buds.
“We’ve made big investments on equipment and agreements with other growers (in South Georgia and California) so we can have good premium grapes to have a really nice product every vintage,” Wilborn said. “Our wine brand is well-known, the experience has been here for a long time and now it’s time to really focus on being a prominent quality.”
What started out as an idea in 1981, Chateau Elan planted its first vineyard in 1983 and bottled its first wine in 1985. From there, the rest of the resort was built around the grape vines.
Now 30 years later, the venue was ready to get back to its foundation: grapes.
“Now we’re coming back full circle from where we began, which is the winery and vineyard,” Wilborn said. “We’re going back to our roots as far as really putting the main focus, investments and personnel in creating the very best product that we possibly can. We’re not just going for the best wines in Georgia … we’re really going for the best wine experience on the East Coast.”
Since Chateau Elan is smack-dab in the middle of the South, it harvests what grows best in the region: sweet muscadine grapes. There are other varieties of grapes on the property to create several reds and whites as well.
Southerners know about the typical super sugary taste of muscadine wine, but Bergese, an Italian, thought of other ways to breath life into the grape. He worked with the fruit for several months, leaving them in French oak barrels to bring out new flavors.
“The poor ‘ol muscadine has never seen so much love in its life,” Wilborn said with a laugh. “I guess we like our wine like our tea — sweet. But we wanted to part consumers from that idea when they see muscadine wine that it’s not super sweet.”
So Bergese came up with a product that had never been on the market: a muscadry wine in both off-white and pink. Besides the dries, there are other options like the Duncan Creek, Summer Wine, Spring Blossom and Autumn Blush varieties. The wines use the Southern grapes, but it isn’t going to give you a sugar buzz.
“I am product oriented but with ears open to the world,” Bergese said. “I make wine to inspire people. It is about creating an emotional experience, not just a glass of wine.”
With the creations, Chateau Elan secretly started entering them into wine contests.
“We weren’t really sure if it would be well-received,” Wilborn said.
And the winery was pleasantly surprised.
From the 2013 International Women’s Wine Competition held in Sonoma, Calif., the team took home Best of Class and Gold for the 2012 Chateau Elan Pink Muscadry, and Silver for the 2012 Chateau Elan Muscadry and 2012 Chateau Elan Duncan Creek.
A week later, the team learned they had won additional awards. At the 2013 Indy International Wine Competition, they were awarded Double Gold and Best in Class in the White Muscadine category for the 2012 Chateau Elan Duncan Creek, Double Gold and Best in Class in the American Blush/Rose category for the 2012 Chateau Elan Pink Muscadry, Gold in the Naturally Flavored Category for the 2012 Chateau Elan Summer Wine, and Silver in the White Muscadine category for the 2012 Chateau Elan Muscadry.
Although the winery staff was thrilled, they know it all comes down to the grapes, according to Wilborn.
“From the start, it is a cycle of Mother Nature,” he said. “It really is a farm-based and agricultural-based industry. Everything we do, we live and die by what the Earth gives us and we try to do everything we can to adjust to our growing regions.”
Chateau Elan’s consumers have taken a chance on the new muscadries, too. So far, it has been a positive response.
“We brought a group to the hotel a few weeks ago and I actually came back to buy gifts,” Jaime Austin of Atlanta said. “I tried out the muscadines. I’m not a muscadine wine fan, however the Summer Wine, I would drink it. The muscadry wines, I was shockingly surprised. It was totally not what I was expecting.”
The word has also spread out of the state. Tim and Janie Miller traveled from Lake Toxaway, N.C. to celebrate their anniversary at the resort.
“We’ve heard a lot of good things,” Janie Miller said, who is the self-proclaimed wine drinker. “The muscadry looks interesting. I can’t wait to try it.”
The other additions to the winery include tours for $10 per person and a wine bar, which is made from a massive slab of mahogany Wilborn found in Florida.
“It just became a hit and I was not taking it home from that point on,” he said. “It is here to stay.”
The wine tour includes — well, a tour — as well as a wine tasting at the end of the walk-through, which is accompanied by cheese from Sweet Grass Dairy and bread with olive oil from Georgia Olive Farms.
The wine tours are offered several times a day seven days a week.
At the end of the year, the winery gift shop will get a facelift for an updated ambiance.