Unwind: Jabe Hilson - A man among the vines

I first heard from Jabe Hilson about a year and a half ago via email. He dropped by one of the restaurants – a cold call – to see if the beverage director might like to taste his wines. I wasn’t around, but he left with my card. The message he sent – in which he told me a bit about his Clayton winery, Noble Wine Cellar – was noteworthy for a couple of reasons.

Although my inbox is constantly peppered with email salvos from national brand managers, importer reps and distributor salespeople, I almost never see contact from winemakers in my home state. But simple rarity wasn’t the only thing about Jabe’s email that caught my attention. A couple of phrases suggested he might really be thinking through what he was doing in Clayton, and that he had a sharper-thanaverage sense of his role in a budding culture. He hoped his wines were “maintaining a sense of connectedness,” and that he believed “in North Georgia’s potential to be a grape growing region of renown, as it once was.”

He added, “I am proud to be making wine in Georgia.” I scheduled a tasting with Jabe in Atlanta, and within seconds of shaking his hand it was clear my suspicions were correct. In many ways, Jabe cuts the ideal figure of farmer-philosopher. He is tall, and wiry, with a brown country beard and thin circular spectacles, and he emits the feeling of another time, like he might have been born a century earlier.

As he was working the corkscrew into a bright bottle of Traminette, he said something that seemed very important, and it framed everything I’ve thought about Jabe and his wines ever since.

He said, “I’m not trying to make wine from California. I’m trying to figure out what Georgia wine can be.” That sentiment may not sound like much, but a whole life’s work of implications will flow from that decision. After all, the South is a tricky place to grow grapes. There isn’t any reason to assume that its wines could – or should – ever taste like wines from anywhere else.

That sense of variety and specificity of place is something that causes people like me to fall in love with the subject in the first place. Jabe’s perspective is surprisingly uncommon. Most of the East Coast winemakers I’ve met seem to want to iron those differences out. It’s the reason so many are skeptical of hybrid grapes (i.e. varieties with both European and American DNA), and one of the reasons why a glut of trucked-in California juice makes its way into bottles that claim Southern origin. But Jabe doesn’t seem afraid of making unusual wine.

In addition to a few European grapes, he also works with hybrids, like Traminette and Chambourcin – all of which he farms himself on vineyard land just across the state line into North Carolina (but still within the AVA of Upper Hiawassee Highlands) – then borrows space at Montaluce Winery in Dahlonega to vinify the wines. Lately, he also has experimented with brewing mead. The enterprise for him seems to be an exercise in growing as a craftsman first.

“You take what you feel like you do well, and keep developing those skills,” he said, when we spoke recently. “At this point, I’ve never really had formal education in wine, and I don’t know what I would even do with it.”

The craftsman motif makes sense with Jabe’s background. He studied art at LaGrange College, and worked as a graphic designer before taking a job at Tiger Mountain Vineyards in Rabun County. That work resonated firmly with him, and hearkened to Jabe’s deep roots in Thompson.

His earliest ancestor fought in the Revolutionary War, was paid in land and taught himself to be a Georgia cane farmer.

“Georgia has such a rich agricultural history. I spent my life around it, and yet I never really knew how drawn I was until I got that first real job in agriculture,” he said. “It really sucked me in.” Unlike many winemakers, Jabe is not an egoist. Instead, he sees himself as a small part of a longer process of cultural development, one that may extend well beyond his own experience.

“You can work a lifetime and not feel like you learned anything,” he said. “How many vintages are you going to have in your life? I wish I had someone with 20 years of experience working next to me, that I could always have over my shoulder. “But one of the cool things for me right now is that my 8-year-old son, Fenton, is really interested in what I do. You start a legacy.” Jabe remains soberly optimistic about what’s possible with Noble Wine Cellar and Southern wine at large.

“We can be exactly what we want to be, and we don’t have to cheat to get there,” he said. “It just will take time, and devotion, and the right kind of vision to get it done.”

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