By SHANNON STONE
Montaluce Winery and Estates, located in Dahlonega, Ga., is continuing to push toward being a garden-to-table winery and restaurant. It is responding to a trend that is becoming increasingly more prominent in society, the trend of being organic or “going green”.
Tristan Vanhoff, the head winemaker at Montaluce, crouches over to closely analyze his grapes. His senses indicate to him that the aroma, color and firmness of the grape are right where they need to be; they are perfect.
The emerging trend for organic consumption continues to spread across the country at rapid rates. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s article, “Recent Growth Patterns in the U.S. Organic Foods Market,” the organic movement started in the early 2000s and is now reaching more people nationwide.
According to agricultural news website Farm and Dairy, “The U.S. organic industry now encompasses a record-breaking 18,513 certified organic farms and businesses, according to new figures released by the USDA, a 245 percent increase since 2002.”
Gardener Graig Medon and Vanhoff work alongside the rest of the winery’s staff to ensure that all ingredients Montaluce produces are as fresh and as natural as they can possibly be. Their efforts are profoundly geared towards using natural methods on their quarter-of-a-mile garden and 25-acre grape vineyard, rather than using chemicals to protect the crops. The harvest team seeks to continue to learn about and attempt new natural solutions for nourishing and protecting their crops as well as constantly finding new ways to grow as agriculturalists.
Marketing and retail director, Joseph Hummel, said years ago that Montaluce thrived on people investing in Montaluce real estate. Then, the wines were primarily imported because the company didn’t specialize in Georgia wine. He simply wanted to make sure wine was an accessible amenity for the homeowners.
In 2010, two years into the economic collapse, Montaluce made a slow turn towards focusing more on the culinary aspect, the restaurant and the winery. This is when Montaluce started its garden and was able to produce the higher quality product that it produces now.
Medon chose a luscious and spacious quarter-mile area on the Montaluce property and began to build an entirely new garden from the bottom up. He built the raised beds by hand, put in drip-water arrogation systems for each new raised bed and then filled each bed with organic soil. The luscious harvests followed almost immediately after, according to Montaluce’s online blog. In addition to the new gardening space, Medon also redeveloped the existing 2-acre garden.
Hummel said that during the transitional period in 2011, they took on an entirely new brand and target market, which is now a more general public. Montaluce staff wanted their company to be viewed as a place to visit for fine farm-to-table wine and cuisine.
The Montaluce team now imports everything from about an 80-mile radius, Hummel explained, with the exception of specialized items such as Kobe beef, from Kobe, Japan, or lamb rack from New Zealand.
“We help out the small farmers,” Hummel said. “We use a lot of dairies from Georgia to provide a lot of the fine cheeses we use.”
With the local imports and homegrown produce, the Montaluce staff was able to really amp up the menu.
Austin Ricconi, the executive chef at Montaluce’s restaurant, Le Vigne, studied at the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena, California.
“It was a really exciting thing for Montaluce to trust me with a whole new way of doing food,” Chef Ricconi said. “It’s like here are all these unbelievable ingredients, have fun.”
“At Le Vigne, Chef Ricconi’s personal style is reflected in the artistry of his distinctive way of presenting familiar local ingredients with an innovative elegance,” according to the Montaluce website.
After revamping the garden and, in turn, being able to revamp the menu, they were able to carry the new techniques over to the wine as well.
“It was then that the winery began producing a finer-quality Georgia wine that showed off the soil and agricultural developments,” Hummel said.
“We do our best with what Mother Nature in Georgia gives us,” said Vanhoff. “We are producing a lot of complex and delicate wines now that the fruits are finally starting to mature. We are able to produce crisp, mineral, rich wines from the soil we have in Georgia.”
Hummel explained that all of these efforts have required hard work, including 60 and 70 hour work weeks, but he said that these long work weeks are what really helped push them through the transition.
“If you were to drop this place in the middle of New York or Chicago, one of those other known food locations, I imagine it would be quite different,” Hummel said. “We are having a little bit of a harder time being in a rural community.”
Hummel explained that the city of Atlanta is a city for culinary excellence. However, outside of the city, culinary standards decline significantly. Where Montaluce is located, in Dahlonega, Ga., standards for fine cuisine are simply not prominent in the community.
“Thankfully, our clients travel,” Hummel said. “We see people from all over the country; we get a lot of people from Atlanta who would like to get away for the weekend. That’s why we do as well as we do.”
The Montaluce staff is willing to try new, innovative things. If the new ideas do not work, them plan to try again. Montaluce is an evolving and growing business because of the way new leadership is responding to a growing, organic trend.