A weekend in wine country — sounds idyllic, right? But we’re not talking about California or France. There’s an oenophile’s paradise in Georgia that’s just a 90-minute direct flight from Tampa, no change in time zones required.
Welcome to Château Élan Winery & Resort, a multi-dimensional property about an hour northeast of Atlanta’s airport. There’s a full-service 276-room inn, a spa with 14 of its own overnight guest rooms, a golf club overseeing 45 holes on wooded courses, and an impressive conference center.
But the heartbeat of Château Élan is wine.
After living in Central Florida for 14 years, I was surprised to learn that award-winning wines in a beautiful destination are just a short trip away. In the spirit of curiosity, I visited the resort last November on the heels of its $25 million head-to-toe renovation.
From grape to glass
First, I needed to understand how this winery came to exist in Georgia. The story goes like this: Dr. Don Panoz and his wife Nancy wanted to bring a taste of Europe to the South by building a château-style resort around a winery. Others shut him down. “You can’t grow grapes in Georgia!” they told Dr. Panoz. “Watch me!” he said.
The vineyards were planted and the first vintage released before The Inn (the inn’s formal if generic name) welcomed its first guests in 1985. The Panozes grew the resort and established a level of service that cultivated loyal guests over the decades. But 30 years later, the wine was in need of support. Panoz hired the Italian vintner Simone Bergese in 2013, who ripped out all the vines and started from scratch.
Bergese led our small group on a tour of The Winery, a castle-like building atop the highest point of the gently rolling landscape. It is the first thing you see after turning in to the property. Within it are a state-of-the-art production facility, a beautifully designed tasting room and wine bar, a full-service restaurant called Marc and a cooking school that teaches students how to pair wine with food.
Bergese’s goal, he says while we stand on an overlook of the wine production area and its enormous stainless steel vats and stacked oak barrels, is to make healthy wines, using only grapes from where they are meant to be grown. To do that, he exclusively planted muscadine, “the only grape native to the Southeast,” from which he’s created six wines. For most of the other 22 wines on his list, Bergese hand-selects the vinifera grapes to use from farm vineyards in California.
It may sound complicated, but Bergese is like a conductor, bringing these complex elements into harmony. His vision for Château Élan wines has since garnered more than 300 awards.
After the tour it’s time to taste, and for this our group is fortunate to have Cecilia, a native of Argentina, as our tasting guide. “You could say I was born with wine in my blood,” she tells us as we stand in front of our respective stations, each one set with a white wine glass and a cheese and charcuterie tray — a worthy opt-in, if for nothing more than to soak up some of the alcohol (I sip rather than spit my way through the flight).
We look at the wine and learn from its color (gold means it’s been aged in oak), its body (thicker skins of red grapes result in a thicker body), and aroma (liberated as wine swirls and breathes). “The first taste is a shock in your mouth,” says Cecilia. Everyone sips and nods their heads. “The second and third sips are when you really begin to taste the wine.”
We start with the Chardonnay Reserve. “White wine needs to be drunk cool,” she says. Whites at 40-55 degrees and reds at 62- 68, she explains. “Warm wine will taste bad.” I am reminded of how much care is required to give each bottle the respect it deserves until it reaches the glass.
After a full evening in The Winery, where we also get to experiment with blending and bottling our own wine, we finally sit down at Marc and dine on dry-aged ribeye paired with the Tempranillo Reserve.
A short brisk walk back to The Inn on this fall evening is welcome — though a few of us are sidelined along the way, drawn inside Paddy’s Irish Bar, where a singer with a guitar and a “favorites” song list has the place hopping.
Finally it’s time for bed, and I’m grateful The Inn is within view of the pub. The lobby, fresh off its renovation, is welcoming, with a carved limestone fireplace at the center of a cozy configuration of caramel-colored leather sofas. Beyond it there’s a soaring glass-roofed atrium lit both by sunlight and a new chandelier with 1,400 hand-blown bulbs from the Czech Republic. The restaurants, bars and the entrance to the 40,000-square-foot conference center all open off the atrium.
Beyond the tasting room
The next day is devoted to health and fun. Yoga in the barrel room at The Winery, a cooking class at the Viking Culinary Studio where chef Lindy teaches us to make hummus from boiled peanuts, followed by an entire afternoon at The Spa.
The Spa is a “hotel within a hotel” on a secluded part of the wooded property where guests never have to change out of their bathrobes, whether dining in the airy Fleur-de-Lis restaurant, lounging by the fire in the intimate lobby or using the spa or salon facilities outside of the extensive facial and body services offered in the 35 treatment rooms.
Those staying overnight in one of the 14 Spa Suites have 24/7 access to all of the facilities (and scheduled fitness classes), so if you’re in the mood for a eucalyptus steam or to swim laps in the indoor heated pool with resistance jets at midnight, you’re in luck.
Braselton: A trolley ride away
It’s easy to explore off campus. Braselton is a 10-minute drive or Uber ride away (or 22 if you ride the free trolley that cycles through on weekends). The tiny downtown is an exemplary case study in adaptive reuse, preserving the buildings of the past by filling them with businesses of the present. The efforts in recent years have resulted in a vibrant little hub packed with a sense of place evoking an early 20th-century farming town. It’s also a fine place to shop for antiques (the Antique and Artisans Festival is April 24-26 and attracts some 300 vendors) and upscale resale furnishings at House of Boykin.
The former Braselton Brothers mercantile is a brick warehouse where you can shop for clothing, gifts and olive oil, refuel with authentic French crepes at the Galloping Galette or book a table for a fine-dining experience at the Cotton Calf. Across the street, the former cotton gin is now Braselton Brewing Company and a one-time gas station is The Local, offering casual table service and a cocktail menu. Tiny white clapboard buildings that may have been part of the original Braselton family homestead house a bakery, pottery studio and other passion projects of Braselton entrepreneurs.
The Panoz legacy
Dr. Panoz brought more to Braselton than wine and hospitality. He also brought sports car endurance racing by founding the Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta and the Motul Petit Le Mans, which has been raced every October since 1998.
Panoz and his son established their own motorsports company to build custom cars capable of competing alongside the major manufacturing teams such as Mercedes, Lamborghini, Porsche and Ferrari. You can visit the Panoz Museum just five minutes from Château Élan to see models past and present and learn more about the legacy of endurance racing.
Every October, Château Élan is a hub of action during the Motul Petit Le Mans (this year it’s Oct. 7-10). For car enthusiasts, there couldn’t be a better time to lounge on the terrace in front of The Winery. Last fall, a Pagani purported to be worth $21.5 million was photographed on the lawn at Château Élan during the Petit Le Mans.
Wine country, right away
No need to flag Château Élan Winery & Resort as a “someday” trip. If there’s room at The Inn or The Spa, you can go today. Hop on the next flight to Atlanta and call Cooper Global Chauffeured Transportation to drive you there.
If you envision buying cases rather than a few bottles, then consider driving. Château Élan is a day’s drive from Tampa Bay.
For owners of performance sports cars, the most compelling reason to road trip rather than fly is the chance to drive your own car on the Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta during Track Days, hosted year-round by different Car Clubs and manufacturers.
Château Élan: chateauelan.com
Braselton: visitbraselton.com, braseltontrolley.com/route.html
Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta: roadatlanta.com, panoz.com
Cooper Global Chauffeured Transportation: cooperglobal.com