3332 Blue Jay Road, Guyton, GA 31312, (912) 728-WINE
Hours are: Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m.
Sundays from 1-5 p.m.
Watermelon Creek Vineyards
2977 Mt. Zion Church Road, Glennville, GA. 30427, (912) 654-0107
Hours are: Mondays and Tuesdays by appointment only
Wednesdays-Thursdays from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m.
Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m.
Georgia Grown agri-tourism trail.
For a complete list of Georgia wineries supported by Georgia Grown visit, www.georgiagrown.com/find/agritourism/wineries
To learn more about Georgia wines visit the Georgia Wine Producers website at: www.georgiawineproducers.org
In the small community of Watermelon Creek, near Glennville, the morning sun beams down on a row of grape vines. The vines glisten from the spray of their daily morning watering. The plump fruit hangs in clusters. Across the field of grape vines is an expansive open field, a pond and historic structures from the 1800s. There is the old family commissary store, the family’s main house, barns and carriage house. At the end of the main drive, the brick building, which welcomes visitors, is open for the day. Inside the main building the walls are adorned with family portraits, retelling the story of the land from the humble beginnings to now — reinvented and successful.
Charles Tillman grabs a laser pointer while his wife Deborah pours a glass of their finest wine. Customers listen as Tillman talks about the eight generations, all from his family, that plowed the land before him.
"These days they come for the wine but stay for the history," he says with a proud and heartwarming smile.
In Guyton, a group of mallard ducks walk across the driveway. The team is headed straight toward the pond for a swim to cool down from the spring heat. An outside covered patio is filled with folks talking about daily events and the work week to come. The quaint store is packed with visitors, some new, mostly regulars, all perusing the selections of the day for a sample.
"It gets like this on Sundays since we are only open for a few hours," Barbara Utter says as she waits on a couple from Texas. "It gets crazy sometimes."
Georgia Wine Country boasts more than 50 wineries in the state. These vineyards and wineries are giving the folks on the west coast a run for their money in terms of producing award winning wines and vineyards. Sixty-five percent of these Georgia wineries are located in the northern Georgia mountain region, with the majority nestled in or near the historic city of Dahlonega.
However residents of Liberty County don’t need to drive that far.
Barbara Utter is co-owner of Butterducks Winery along with her husband Bill. The Tillman’s own Watermelon Creek Vineyards. Both families have a passion for what started out as a hobby. And both wineries are the only two, family-owned and operated wineries, located within a 45 minute drive from Liberty County.
Ducks and a hobby gone wild
On a recent Sunday afternoon the store and wine tasting room of Butterducks Winery is packed with customers all vying to taste a variety of wines made from grapes and fruit.
"I call this Bill’s hobby out of control," Utter says as she finishes a sale and wishes her customer a good day.
Bill and Barbara Utter bought their 20 acre property in 1988.
"We moved up here to start our family," she says.
She says Bill was in the grocery business and often came home stressed out from work. "He made wine as a hobby," she says taking a second to look around the store, making sure all her customers were being attended. "We’ve been home brewing for about 20 years and when we went on vacations we would visit as many wineries as we could."
Once retired the couple got more involved in Bill’s hobby.
"We were out in Washington State one day and he threw his hands up in the air and said, ‘I want to do this,’" Barbara Utter explains. "It took him two years to talk me into it, but it is the best thing we’ve ever done. We went to wine conventions for probably seven or eight straight years before we opened. "Bill took enology classes and I took marketing."
Family and another unique hobby is how the couple came up with their company eventual name. Bill and Barbara have two children whose first names also begin with B — Beth and Brent.
"So the ‘Butter’ part is all of our first initial and last name," Barbara says, noting it came together when her husband was logging into the internet and creating a username. After entering "Butter" she says his mind drew a blank as to what should follow until he looked out the window.
"The ducks were swimming by so Butterducks was our internet name long before we even decided to do a winery. And as you can see Bill has always been a duck (stamp) collector," she says pointing out the vast collection of duck stamps that hang along the store’s wall. "He used to be a duck hunter in his early days but now he raises ducks on our pond. We have mallards...it was only logical to incorporate it in."
In March 2016, Butterducks Winery celebrated their 10 anniversary.
"It’s a crazy business. It has been more than we ever dreamed," Barbara Utter says.
Their plan was to be open on the weekends and travel the remainder of the days. But producing wine from scratch is time consuming and intricate, meaning their travels are not as often as they thought.
"There is a lot of chemistry involved," she says laughing and recalls how her husband thought he would never need chemistry after high school. "He thought he would just be able to multiply his recipes by 100 but that is not how it works. We were hoping to produce about a 1,000 cases a year. Right now we produce 3,500 and it is still not enough. We are outgrowing our facility…lots of growing pains."
But Bill Utter studiously honed his craft and all of Butterducks wines are made on the premise under his watchful eye.
"Being married to a perfectionist has always been a challenge but now that he is a wine maker…it doesn’t come out and into the bottle or to the consumer if it is not up to his standard," she says with pride. "I think that says a lot."
Adjacent to their store is their 1,600 square foot tank room with 18 stainless steel tanks.
"We started with just fruit wines for South Georgia…but Bill was interested in, as all wine makers are…see they believe it is not wine unless made from grapes, so that’s when we started our chardonnay," she says. "We have dry wines, semi-dry, semi-sweet and super sweet. There is something for everyone."
All of the fruit wines produced at Butterducks Winery use fruits that are 100 percent Georgia grown. They have peach, pear, blueberry, strawberry and blackberry. Their muscadine and scuppernong grape wine varieties are also made with Georgia grown grapes.
But in order to make some of his chardonnay varieties, the couple get some of their grapes from the north coast of California.
"They come in on a refrigerated truck and we use only full fruit…no water, juices or concentrates," Barbara Utter explains.
And the experts have taken notice. Butterducks Winery entered the Wines of the South competition held at the University of Tennessee, which is held annually and the couple says they’ve done well.
The most recent wine competition they entered was a Georgia Trustees Wine Challenge held in Savannah.
"We entered 10 wines and all 10 medaled," Barbara Utter says, noting they had golds, 2 silvers and 5 bronze medals and as an added bonus, they earned three prestigious recognitions.
"Our Duck Call Blush which is our semi-sweet strawberry (gold medal) went on to win best fruit wine in Georgia," Barbara Utters notes. "Our Riesling went on to win best white wine in Georgia. And our Decadent Duck Call, which is our chocolate infused merlot, went on to win best dessert wine in Georgia."
Bill Utter walks into the store, checks the inventory and makes a note if what needs restocking. He greets a few customers briefly talks with his wife and returns to the tank room.
"We live on the property…we built our dream home and Bill built his dream winery. So the work commute is easy," Barbara Utter says laughing. "We are so humbled by the people that come in and tell us that it’s just the most wonderful wine. The smiles of the people when they walk out the door is enough for me but when you can hang a medal around the bottle…it is worth all the hard work."
Drink wine, learn history
By 2004 Charles Tillman wanted out of the real estate business and turned his attention to the land his family settled and owned since the early 1800s. The original family plot once comprised 20,000 acres of deeded land from the U.S. Government. Many heirs of the land sold away their plots, but Tillman says he was determined to buy back as much of his family land as he could.
"Right now I have 131 acres here and I am about to buy another 160…we once owned everything from here to the river on this side of the highway," Tillman says. "I convinced my wife that it was a good thing to keep her pharmaceutical job and let me come work on the farm. I came over here in the beginning of 2004 and started cleaning up, not knowing what I was going to do with the land…I started working on the old house….and started resurrecting the 17 old outbuildings…this was a jungle then…nothing like you see it now. I spent six months digging out the fish pond…it had gone into neglect."
In 2006 Deborah Tillman took her husband to Palm Springs California. She had a quick business meeting to attend but the couple was going to make a vacation trip out of the rest of their week.
"We rented a red convertible Mustang and we drove up to Sonoma Valley and while there we went through all the tours," Charles Tillman says. "I was listening to this young guy tell his story…I started thinking about my 131 acres…so when we came back we began to research what kind of vineyards you could grow and wines you can make."
The couple sought out the advice of Bill Utter from Butterducks Winery in Guyton and Charles Cowart who owns a vineyard in the southwest corner of the state.
"But when you build a winery there is not blue print, no foot print, no counselor, no franchise you just learn as you go," Charles Tillman says with a laugh. "Charles Cowart was a big help as was Bill Utter. So we started with a roof, only a roof 100 feet long, 50 feet wide…I began to try and lay out rooms in here."
Tillman says he painstakingly built the store and has been restoring the entire property himself. As for making the wine, they soon learned they needed a bit more help.
"We made homemade wines just playing with the grapes and trying to get our feet wet for about three years before we made our commercial wine," Charles Tillman says and notes they couldn’t get the chemistry quite right. "We knew then we had to hire someone who knew what they were doing."
Deborah Tillman learned about a wine expert during a business trip to Myrtle Beach and the couple soon hired Tom Payette.
"As a consultant he asked us what we wanted," Deborah Tillman says. "He suggested five wines to start with…He handles the chemistry…we send our wines to a lab in Napa Valley to get analysis…from grape to cork, the wine has been analyzed about six times to ensure consistency, quality and flavor. He relies on our input and we rely on his expertise."
The couple hired Payette in 2011 and sold their first bottle in 2012.
"We were bottling our first vintage and the store technically wasn’t put together but we had people stop in…they saw the gate open and were curious…they drove in and came in and we were here bottling looking like wrecks…and they wanted to buy wine...we had a tasting and ever since that first month the business has paid for itself," Deborah Tillman says. "We put in the initial investment but the bills are paid for by the business."
Charles Tillman says they started out with four wine tanks with a 3,000 gallon capacity but they went high tech.
He says the tanks are stainless steel tanks and all of his tanks are jacketed, meaning they can control the temperature inside the tank as well as the wine cellar.
"And we have improved our equipment," he explains. "We recently bought a wine press and a new corker."
In a short period of time Watermelon Creek Vineyards earned accolades. At the Georgia Trustees Wine Challenge the couple’s dry white muscadine called the Stafford Ferry’s White, won Best in Class and received an honorable mention. They also received a gold medal for their Mill Pond Blush.
"We entered competitions in Chicago, New York, North Carolina and the one in Savannah. And we’ve won medals in all of them," Deborah Tillman says with exuberance. "The Chicago Beverage Tasting Institute voted our Ohoopee River White wine as the best dessert wine in the state of Georgia in 2012.
She says they are looking to develop a muscadine port with hints of chocolate for their next new wine release.
"It’s been stimulating and exhilarating but you can’t be lazy and you must love it," she says. "It’s not just a passion for wine…and I love wine…But the real passion here is the land."
It’s the history of the family-owned land that lights Charles Tillman’s eyes and drives his desire.
He offers a tour of the ranch and talks about the intricate details and years he has spent bringing the old family farm back to life authentically as possible. The couple have horses and occasionally offer carriage ride wine tastings. Often they ride the carriage together around the ranch — wine glass in hand.
Their award winning wine is equally matched by the splendor of their gift shop. The two-story brick structure also encompasses their wine tank room, kitchen, dining area and banquet rental facility. An outdoor patio lounge on the second floor provides a scenic view of the vineyard.
Deborah Tillman enjoys listening to her husband retell the story of how his family land came to be. From the humble beginnings of living off the land to the restored glory that showcases its history and delectable wines, she says it’s surreal to be enveloped in the environment.
"When I came here with Charles to work on the weekends we had no clue we were going to do this," she recalls. "We didn’t know we were ever going to live here….we just thought fix and keep the old house…save it from falling down and come out here and camp. We had a waterfront home in Richmond Hill with the modern comforts of everything…everything was paid for and we would go out on the boat…but I said I would rather be here on this land…I felt like it was an enchanted property and I started looking at the house and all the work he had done…I said to him, you have to realize that your DNA is in these boards. Your family has trod on these hardwood pine floors for eight generations. We were meant to be here."