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LORAN SMITH: Tiger Mountain Vineyards offers smorgasbord of hospitality

FEATURES COLUMN: No better service than at Tiger Mountain Vineyards

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of two installments; Part 2 will run July 30.

Just seven tenths of a mile north of this town of 316 residents and no traffic light, you blissfully arrive at Tiger Mountain Vineyards. Located on Old U.S. 441, this address becomes increasingly more prominent as the reputation of the winery consistently rises like the sun over the easterly outreaches of Rabun County.

At the outset, there is lamentation that space constraints won’t allow justice to be done to this classic winery and its founders, John and Martha Ezzard, and their partners, John and Marilyn McMullan of Atlanta.

John Ezzard — a urologist who boasts stints in Athens (he played high school football with Fran Tarkenton) and at the University of Georgia (undergraduate work), the Medical College of Georgia (graduate work), Presbyterian Hospital in Denver (internship), Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. (military obligations), and the University of Missouri (residency) — ultimately found his way back to the farm he grew up on. However, he didn’t want to grow vegetables on the family farm, which he and his siblings inherited from their father, William T. Ezzard, who initially cultivated an apple orchard and then operated a dairy. Ezzard senior was mostly a military man and was occupied by World War II, Korea, and Viet Nam — a great American.

John’s wife Martha is a journalism graduate of Georgia with a masters from Missouri and a law degree from the University of Denver. While John was practicing medicine, she worked as the press aide to Colorado Gov. John Love and later was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives and subsequently the Colorado Senate. When they became empty nesters, she found herself bored with law and began to revert back to her journalism roots, which led to a position with the editorial staff of the Atlanta Journal–Constitution. Soon she was living in Atlanta, enjoying fulfillment in newspapering, an award-winning editorialist. Before long, John was spending a month practicing medicine in Denver and a month in Tiger cultivating his vineyard.

The next move for John was to leave Denver for good with Martha maintaining her relationship with the newspaper and spending weekends in Tiger. She writes about all this in her book, Second Bud, which led to her being named Georgia author of the year. Martha is a competent writer, and her book tells an interesting story — a reminder that the human aging process, as is true with the aging of wine, should result in personal fulfillment. There is no question — the Ezzards have, emotionally and professionally, gotten better with age. You walk though their vineyards and spend time with them, and you simply feel good.

Through the McMullans, we became acquainted with the Ezzards. A recent retreat to Tiger included a visit in the Ezzards’ contemporary home, which has a Tuscan flair and a humbling view in every direction — much like the invigorating views you get from a bay window in San Francisco. Pause and let your mind’s eye run ungoverned and you see the vineyards of Bordeaux, St. Émilion, and Pomerol. Or maybe those of Napa, Sonoma, or Paso Robles.

I’m a wine aficionado, not an expert, but the ravings of others set the Ezzards and their vineyard apart. John was not a trial and error vintner. He read and he researched. He believed correctly that his family farm had the soil for wine cultivation. Rabun is one of the wettest counties in the state. It rains, it stops, and the sun comes out, which means than John doesn’t have to irrigate. All the while, the abundant sunlight is doing what it needs to do to produce the best grapes for quality wine making.

Spend time at the Tiger Mountain Vineyards with the Ezzards and the McMullans and you become immersed into a smorgasbord of hospitality, accented by the fruits of their vineyard, which have resulted in award-winning wines like Petit Manseng and Cabernet Franc Reserve. The atmosphere, the history of the place, and the warmth of its owners are powerfully impressionable. Tiger Mountain Vineyards is one of the most delightful stories of enterprise in our state. This calls for dinner and celebration. Stay tuned.

Loran Smith is co-host of “The Tailgate Show” and sideline announcer for Georgia football. He is also a freelance writer and columnist.