The portion of the Buford along Friendship Road may seem like an odd place for a winery, but Sean Wilborn and the staff of Cloudland Vineyards and Winery have taken ten acres off Bogan Road and turned it into a haven for wine connoisseurs and casual consumers alike.
From this spot, Wilborn and his staff can grow approximately 70 tons of fruit for red and white wines. Each step of the wine-making process, from vine to barrel to bottle, takes place on Cloudland property.
Standing in one of the few shaded spots of Cloudland, Wilborn gestures to the rows of vines with a look of pride- the vineyard has been a decade in the making.
“I started making wine from kits, and then I’m like, ‘no, I can’t make wine from kits, I gotta make wine from grapes,’ so I started buying grapes, and then I’m like, ‘no, I can’t buy somebody else’s grapes, I’ve got to grow my own grapes,’ and so now, there’s all that,” Wilborn said, stepping aside to point to the vines. "I remember tasting that first glass of wine and realizing, this is everything I love in one thing...being outside, making something, so I got really excited about it."
Crafting the perfect wine takes time- Wilborn planted the first vines at Cloudland in 2015 and did not fully open the winery to guests until October of last year. He said he chose the ten acres of Cloudland for several specific reasons: the property sits on the Eastern Continental Divide, providing immediate water drainage; there is a constant breeze; plenty of sky and a higher altitude than other portions of the area.
Each of these factors create the perfect environment for what Wilborn calls the “holy grail of Southern grape growing”: the Lomanto grape.
Wilborn explained that the Lomanto grape was almost extinct when he discovered. Originally grown in a Texas vineyard by a man named T.V. Munson, many of the vines were destroyed during the Prohibition era. Fortunately, a university later purchased the property and revived a surviving Lomanto vine.
Today, Wilborn is one of only three commercial Lomanto grape growers in the United States, the other two in Texas and Arkansas. The grape creates a red wine that, according to Wilborn, is extremely popular among educated wine drinkers.
"It's a really exciting thing for us in the South because Chianti has Sangiovese, Napa has Cabernet Sauvignon, what does Georgia have? We're growing all these same grapes that everybody else in the world is growing but is that our grape?” said Wilborn. “Let that region be known for that grape, let our region be known for equally inspiring and premium quality wines...so Lomanto is it."
Cloudland staff take extra precautions to ensure their grape crop is protected and of the highest quality. Vines with grapes on them are covered in bee nets to prevent even the smallest insect from getting through.
"My goal is for every single berry to be perfect...we use a bee net, it's a little bit more expensive but the net mesh is so tiny even the smallest leaf hopper can't get in,” said Wilborn. “The benefit for us is that obviously no bird damage, no wasp damage, but then also it allows us to not spray, so we don't spray any insecticide ever on the vines."
Once the grapes are ready, they are picked, de-stemmed, crushed, sent to a tank for fermenting, then left to age. Wilborn said red wines age for around a year, while white wines can age in two to six months.
Arguably the best part of wine making is tasting the final product. However, for Cloudland staff their customer’s experience while drinking their wine is just as important as the wine itself.
"We're so big on experience. My time in the industry, the biggest takeaway I got was that's the key- the guest experience,” said Wilborn, explaining that many people expect vineyards to be fancy or overwhelming. "That's a veil of snobbery that has shrouded wine for so many years and we want to just drop that veil of snobbery, make it inviting, make it fun."
There are no expectations or dress codes at Cloudland, the public is welcome to visit the winery any time during the hours listed on their Facebook page. Visitors can come with their questions, try out a glass of wine and relax while listening to live music.
“We want it to feel like your favorite best friend’s backyard, that’s what we’re going for…we wanted you to feel like you’re at a backyard barbecue, your favorite place, laid-back in a cool chair outside among the vines,” said Wilborn.