Meet some of the folks that make up Georgia’s wine industry

Visitors and viticulture

Meet some of the people tied to the Georgia's wine industry
Tyler Barnes

Photograph by Ben Rollins

The Maverick Winemaker

Tyler Barnes became a winemaker by accident.

“Honestly, it was my day off,” he says of his first day working at a vineyard. “I wasn’t even planning on putting on pants that day.”

His brother-in-law, Tristen Vanhoff, had recently become head winemaker at Montaluce Winery, and convinced Barnes to come work odd jobs at the winery. During their daily commute, Vanhoff began planting the seeds that would grow into Accent Cellars, a “renegade urban winery” just outside of downtown Dahlonega.

Vanhoff, who holds a degree in oenology from his native Australia, trained Barnes in winemaking, and Accent opened in 2017. Today, the two have a full production facility on-site that enables them to experiment with new technology. (Vanhoff left Montaluce and joined Accent but is now also the winemaker at Yonah Mountain Vineyards.) Not content to go the traditional route, Barnes has been fermenting his latest wines in Flexcubes, made of a permeable polymer. They’re more sustainable than the admittedly “sexier” stainless steel tanks or oak barrels, and they give the winemaker greater control over the amount of oxidation the wine undergoes.

“Tradition is all well and good, but you don’t have to stick to strict tradition and lean into the mystical,” Barnes says. “I can’t stand marketing that tries to mystify wine.”

Barnes and Vanhoff source the fruit for their wines from all over the country, including many areas in North Georgia, though they don’t necessarily focus on creating Georgia-grown wine, as it can often be difficult for the state to grow enough fruit to meet demand. Primarily, they choose wine based on what they’re interested in and what they want to drink.

“Tristen and I are both ruthless pragmatists,” Barnes says of his winemaking philosophy. “Fundamentally, what we’re talking about is crushed-up fruit with fungus thrown into it. I don’t cure cancer for a living; I just make good wine.”  —Kaitlin Pease

Meet some of the people tied to the Georgia's wine industry
Pamela Borgel

Photograph by Ben Rollins

The Survivor

So, about the name. Milton’s Painted Horse Winery and Vineyards is also a horse farm, where children have long decorated horses with nontoxic finger paint at birthday parties. Its owner, Pamela Borgel, grew up visiting her grandfather’s farm down the road, and raised her own family on the 20-acre property.

The riding students’ tradition inspired the name, but the symbolism also reminds Borgel of the Native American practice of painting horses for battle—as her own success has been a bit of a victory cry. The first (and only) woman to start a winery by herself in Georgia—which is also the only farm winery in Fulton County—Borgel launched the venture in 2018 when she drove her grandfather’s 1950 Ford 8N tractor through a pasture just to “tear something up” during a moment of personal trauma. “It was very cathartic,” she says. “I plowed for like three days without an intent.”

She pondered what to do with her newly plowed field and decided to try grapes—planting 300 vines, familiar varieties like pinot noir and chardonnay, only to realize later those grapes would not flourish in her local climate. But working with a UGA viticulturist, she soon found varietals that thrive despite summer heat and low altitude, and she also began importing grapes from the West Coast. John Bowen, her first winemaker—introduced to her at church as a “guy who makes wine in his basement”—turned out to be an expert with a dozen national and local medals to his credit, who promptly won three statewide medals for Painted Horse.

The winery, now managed by KJ Bell—formerly the head winemaker at Kaya—and the stables are both prospering. Borgel, who is currently president of the board of the Georgia Wine Producers Association, cultivates more than 1,500 vines. When the City of Milton at first balked at her hosting events on her farm, she opened a facility in Alpharetta—but now operates tasting rooms at both locations.

The business has taught her that, “we can overcome personal trauma and struggles and go on with life,” she says. “It just takes hard work, determination, and faith.”  —Betsy Riley

Meet some of the people tied to the Georgia's wine industry
La Tanya and Chuck Eiland

Photograph by Ben Rollins

The Tour Guides

La Tanya Eiland, a native of Compton, California, first became fascinated with winemaking as a student in the 1970s, when her grandmother sent her to visit Italy. Back home, her interest matured along with Southern California viticulture, inspiring her and her husband, Chuck, to organize weekend tours. Though they would sell out 150 seats at a time, the couple kept their corporate jobs, which brought them to Atlanta in 2013.

It wasn’t long before they were exploring Georgia’s Wine Highway, observing there were no tours from Atlanta. So, they bought one van—La Tanya promising Chuck they’d “keep it small.” Now the “retired” couple owns six vehicles and uses 15 drivers. Their Pop the Cork Wine Tours was recently voted the second best wine tour company in the nation by the readers of USA Today.

The Eilands offer catered public and private tours, usually aiming for three wineries at a time—the “sweet spot” that allows guests to relax (and not get overserved). They depart from Dunwoody, Tucker, or Stone Mountain.

Coming from California, La Tanya prefers dry wine, but she discovered “there’s a palate here for sweet wine”—likely due to native muscadine grapes. However, varietals like chardonnay, Norton, petit manseng, and even malbec, which yield drier wines, are now growing in the Georgia mountains. And local winemakers are importing grapes from California or upstate New York. “They will literally fly out to California and pick the grapes that they want shipped, and do all of the processing here,” says La Tanya. The ever-growing variety allows the Eilands to customize itineraries to customers’ tastes. Daylong excursions start at $170.  —Betsy Riley

Meet some of the people tied to the Georgia's wine industry
Eli Marie Rodriguez and Marlon Castiblanco

Photograph by Ben Rollins

The Innkeepers

Eli Marie Rodriguez and Marlon Castiblanco call it the “celebrity effect.” When they’re exploring their adopted hometown of Clayton, locals keep asking, Are you the new owners of the Beechwood Inn? The previous owners, David and Gayle Darugh, were beloved by the community for their hospitality—a not-so-well-kept secret among North Georgia oenophiles, who made the 100-year-old inn home base for exploring nearby wineries. Rodriguez and Castiblanco moved here after 30 years in Miami. With their two daughters in or entering college, their nest was almost empty, and—like many people—they started rethinking their future during the pandemic. So, they decided it was time to pursue their longtime dream of owning a bed-and-breakfast in a small town. A nationwide search led them to Clayton. With Beechwood, “we had the good bones of the physical house, but also the great business that David and Gayle had established,” says Rodriguez.

The couple love Clayton, but they’re still learning about life in North Georgia. Seven inches of snow fell last January, just weeks after they’d moved north, stranding them and 10 guests for three days. And, this spring, Rodriguez noticed an unfamiliar type of fast-growing “ivy” threatening to take over the front garden, discovering it’s called kudzu.

But hospitality is nothing new to the couple. Rodriguez’s career has been in international sales and marketing for boutique hotels, and Castiblanco has worked in television traffic and operations in the U.S. and Latin America. The inn, built in 1916, already had welcoming features like high ceilings, generously sized bedrooms, a “secret” garden, and a wide, inviting front porch. So, the new owners have focused on redecorating. The updated spaces are a charming mix of old and new. You can chill in a hammock, spin vintage vinyl records, or hook up your EV to the Tesla charging station out back.

They’ve also kept the Darughs’ “Wine-thirty” tradition, gathering with guests at 5:30 to share stories and savor Beechwood Inn wines, bottled for them by Habersham Winery.  —Betsy Riley

This article appears in our November 2021 issue.