Athenians are getting restless. The urge to travel has been frustrated by coronavirus, and countless trips have been canceled or postponed. Baking, Netflix binges and jigsaw puzzles are pale substitutes for the joys of seeing the world and savoring its bounty.
For those who’d like to enjoy the rolling hills, wineries and food of Tuscany, we may have something of a solution here in Northeast Georgia. A mere 70-mile road trip lands visitors at the doors of Montaluce, an imposing Italian villa perched on a slope surrounded by 18 acres of vineyards overlooking the North Georgia mountains. A travel agent friend with a surprising amount of time on his hands and frustrated by the current lack of travel opportunities joined me on the trip where, if you get a glass of wine and squint just right, you can picture yourself thousands of miles away. You’d never imagine that you were deep in James Dickey country, just up the road from a meat and three. Was that banjo music we heard?
The edifice was originally built as a clubhouse for a real estate development of Italian villas on small lots, but the Great Recession took care of that idea, and only a few homes were built. Montaluce’s new owners, also in real estate, ambitiously changed the clubhouse into an elegant, full-service restaurant that would lure wealthy Atlantans for an afternoon or evening of Italian food and Georgia wine.
Montaluce is also a working vineyard that produces a surprisingly wide collection of grapes on its 18 cultivated acres, and winemaker Craig Boyd creates wines ranging from complex reds to lighthearted, quaffable rosés; a fruity raspberry mead fermented from honey that might bring to mind a Jolly Rancher; and its most popular, a sweet apple wine. Boyd has serious wine chops, as evidenced by his degree in enology and viticulture from University of California-Davis, as well as his stints at wineries in other unlikely wine regions, such as Arizona and South Dakota.
From the monumental entrance, the villa opens up into an opulent, high-ceilinged restaurant fitted with Old World architectural elements, such as heavy wooden beams and ceilings, rows of Palladian windows, massive iron chandeliers, an immense bar and highly polished, stained concrete floors. Lunch is prepared by Christopher Matson, the executive chef, who studied classical French cooking at New York’s International Culinary Center.
Still in sheltering-in-place mode, we donned our masks and ventured onto the spacious outdoor terrace that frames views of the vineyards and surrounding countryside with the large arched openings of an Italian colonnade. The views of the dense forests of North Georgia reach as far as Blood Mountain, more than 20 miles to the northeast.
With the higher altitude and the treetop height of the terrace, refreshing breezes soon welcomed us, along with a wait staff out of the pages of a J. Crew catalog. My friend ordered the Centurio red, with its “strawberry, floral, perfume and cola aromas with a hint of earthiness,” and I joined him with a lighter Sangiovese. We were soon served a Tuscan flatbread, large enough to share, slicked with a sweet balsamic glaze and ornamented with a fluffy meadow of peppery arugula ($18.)
Service is leisurely. The entrées arrived—coriander-crusted pork tenderloin with roasted fennel and citrus saffron foam ($28) for your writer, a rich pasta bolognese ($24) for the travel agent—and were promptly dispatched. The broad expanse of a colorful French fruit tart dotted with blueberries and raspberries soon followed, and it too quickly disappeared. Wines by the glass run $7–$22.
I checked my phone and, sure enough, the temperature in Athens was nearing 90 and was only 78 where we sat. That alone seemed worth the price of admission.
Wine lovers can sample five of the winery’s offerings with the Montaluce Flight, with patrons choosing from 11 wines for $30 per flight, and you walk away with a souvenir Montaluce glass. Another option not listed on the website is a two-and-a-half hour walk through the vineyards with a winemaker and a tour of the winery, with a wine tasting, for $45 on Saturdays and Sundays only.
Wines are also available at the wine shop located at the entrance to the restaurant. Prices range from $28 for their apple wine to $82 for their 2017 Reserve Malbec. A selection of charcuterie rounds out the wine shop’s offerings.
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