“I give everyone hugs,” Dante said as he came up with open arms and embraced me. He did the same to my friend.
“Nice to meet you,” we both said, pleasantly surprised by the gesture.
I was using a much-delayed Christmas gift, “a wine hike for two” from Georgia Wine Hiking that my friend had found on Groupon. We realized the gift was about to expire, so alas, here we were, uncertain of what the “wine hike” would entail. I was secretly hoping for wine tastings along the trail.
We were wary at first, as the GPS directed us through the winding small towns of North Georgia’s countryside. We arrived rolling down a dirt path that led to a padlocked gate. After re-consulting our GPS, we officially arrived at the Visitor Center of Victoria Bryant State Park, a modest 475 acre park near Franklin Springs in North Georgia.
Now here we were, congregated in the parking lot outside waiting as the remaining members of our group trickled in. As each group arrived, mainly couples, Dante greeted them, “Are you Mike and Sarah?”
“Uh, no- Jeff and Lisa.”
“Ah! Welcome!” and he gave them a hug.
When we set out on the trail, Dante had no shortage of icebreakers and brainteasers.
What was one thing everyone needed to know about your companion?
What is at the beginning of everything, the end of time and the middle of a sentence? (the letter E!)
And at one point as I had unintentionally picked up the pace, Dante made me recite my favorite salmon recipe while everyone caught up.
During our 5.5 mile hike, Dante was needle that threaded the group together, building a sense of bonhomie, so that by the end of our journey we felt like a loosely knitted scarf. One guy was going to Australia to get his MBA (he also conveniently left his shoes at home and did the whole hike in flip flops), another worked in UGA’s College of Business, and one lady was a competitive horse jumper.
But perhaps the most interesting person on the hike was Dante himself. Beyond his jollity, his hobbies and background were equally intriguing. Born in Persia, he spent time in Colorado before coming to Atlanta in 1995. While his career lies in engineering and IT consulting, Dante is passionate about the outdoors. He lives on a farm outside Athens, where he practices organic gardening and raises chickens and other farm animals. He leads his wine hikes twice a week, and also guides wine kayaking trips. What is most ironic is the fact that Dante does not actually drink wine.
As it turns out, there was no drinking wine while we hiked. Our hike at Victoria Bryant State Park was fairly easy, with minimal inclines, however we did work up an appetite (and thirst) by the end. Dante provided us with a picnic, which included carrots, kale and arugula from his garden. Then we caravanned to the winery, which was about 20 minutes away.
Boutier Winery & Vineyard is a humble roadside spot in Danielsville, Georgia. The owners, Victor and Mary Boutier, bought the winery 10 years ago.
“He’s the wine maker and I am the wine drinker,” Mary told me. She herself is from Ireland.
The winery is woefully underrated. Despite its size, 4.5 acres, they turn out 1500 cases per year. They ship nationwide, even to California, and some of their wines have won awards. The red and white varietals are familiar, blends of cabernet sauvignon and merlot and dry Riesling. But it was the Georgia fruit varietals that kept filling up our group’s glasses.
Perhaps serious wine aficionados would not enjoy “Funky Monkey Juice”- a banana wine made from banana paste, or the “Kick Ass” where dark chocolate ages with orange juice, but they had our group swooning. One in particular, the “Peach o Peno” blended Georgia peaches with jalapenos. It will only be a matter of time before Mexican restaurants in Atlanta start serving up glasses of this. You get peach on the front and a subtle burn of jalapeno on the back, which makes it an excellent companion for chips and salsa. Some of their wines are available at Kroger supermarkets.
If you want to go:
There’s currently a Groupon out for the hike. Register your certificate at Georgia Wine Hiking. Don’t let the outdated website deter you, this is a humble experience well worth it. Dante himself is a unique character with a beguiling personality, and Boutier Winery will open your eyes to the quirky, yet approachable wines that Georgia has to offer.