What a Difference a Year Makes

By Claire Livingston

I’ve said for a number of years, kinda half-joking, half seriously, that when I retire, I’m going to move to North Georgia and buy a winery. Long story short, an opportunity presented itself about a year ago, and here I am, owner of Cavender Creek Vineyards and Winery in Dahlonega, Ga.

People always ask, “So, is your background in winemaking?” My response is an emphatic, “Oh, no, I didn’t know anything about grape growing or winemaking when I bought this place.” My Ph.D. is in anatomy and cell biology, and for more than 20 years, I’ve been teaching human anatomy and related subjects to college students.

So you might wonder why I got from “the ankle bone is connected to the leg bone” to discussions about brix and fermentation. The short – and easiest – answer is that I love wine! Reason enough, right? I love the art of it, the science of it, the history, culture and socialness of it. Why, I’ll bet you’ve got a glass of it in your hand right now while you’re reading this piece and perusing this beautiful magazine.

Cavender Creek is the youngest of five vineyards in Lumpkin County and was founded by Raymond and Donna Castleberry. Though they were retired school teachers, farming was their background and in their blood. Wine was their passion. In 2006 they bought 15 acres, just north and east of Dahlonega, and Raymond began the arduous task of planting four acres of vines himself: first Norton, then Cabernet Sauvignon, and finally Petit Manseng. In 2009 he produced his first vintages, and in 2011 opened the tasting room.

About the time that I decided to investigate the possibilities of buying a winery, Raymond and Donna had decided to retire again. Now they were ready to stop working so hard and spend more time with the grandchildren. Through a great realtor and a number of phone calls, Raymond and I found each other.

Over the next several weeks, I came up to visit, each time asking questions, observing the operations, even working in the tasting room. One day, I asked Raymond to walk through the vines with me. I said, “Raymond, I’m a single woman with a dog. Can I do this by myself?” He assured me I could. So I said, “I want to buy your winery” and he said, “I want to sell it to you.” We shook hands and the rest, as they say, is history.

Yes, it was scary at first. Even though I’m a typical strong, independent “Southern Woman,” (‘nuff said, right?) there were moments when I contemplated the enormity of what I was doing and questioned my sanity. But Raymond had assured me that day in the vines that he would not let me fail. Thankfully, Raymond and Donna stayed on this past year to teach me the business and make sure that I, and my staff, continue to be as successful as they were.

There was so much to do and so much to learn. Just getting federal, state and local permits to produce and sell wine took months. Many times I would come home after a long day and read late into the night about growing the vines, harvesting the grapes and making the wine.
The sale was finalized in late summer of 2015. The very next week, we jumped right into harvest and processing.

I can’t believe it’s been a year, but what a year it’s been! Yes, there have been lots of ups and downs, but we’ve sailed through them with grace and grit. My team of young folks is on fire! We’ve won seven medals for our wines. And this fall, readers of the local newspaper, “The Dahlonega Nugget,” voted ours as the Best Tasting Room in Lumpkin County.

I can now talk grape-growing and winemaking with the best of ‘em. My palate has gotten more sophisticated so that I now appreciate wine and its subtleties — I now appreciate the tastes of coffee and food more, too. And I am amazed that in such a short year, I have made so many good friends, as evidenced by the packed tasting room at my recent anniversary party.

I am truly living my dream. And with my love and passion for this earth, the vines and my team, the future of Cavender Creek Vineyards and Winery will be even brighter in the years to come. That line from Robert Frost’s poem keeps running through my head as I write this: And I, I took the [road] less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.

Yes, what a difference – a life-changing difference – a year can make.