After you cross into north Georgia, a forgettable stretch of Interstate 85 runs through Gwinnett County before it backs up with Atlanta traffic. Get off at Exit 129 in Braselton and take a right, then an immediate left. An elegant resort is just beyond the hedges, hiding in plain sight.
When you spot boxwood topiaries that spell “Château Élan,” you’ll know you’ve arrived. Continue through the entrance and make your way through the manicured grounds dotted with grapevines and roses. Straight ahead is a building with hipped roofs and arched windows that looks like a 16th-century French manor.
That’s Château Élan, the largest commercial winery in Georgia. The 3,500-acre property also has a 300-room resort, three golf courses, eight on-site dining options, a pool, and a spa. It’s had a few expansions over the last four decades, the most recent a $25 million renovation in 2019.
Château Élan is a three-and-a-half-hour drive away and a prime spot for an adults-only weekend centered on food and wine. Come with an open mind and try a few varieties you’re sure you don’t like. Chances are good you’ll surprise yourself and discover a new favorite. Remember the four steps to wine tasting—see, swirl, smell, sip—and whatever you do, don’t go home empty-handed.
Private villas overlook the golf course at Château Élan.
The resort offers a mix of guest rooms, private villas, and spa suites. The Inn at Château Élan has 300 suites equipped with free-standing tubs, robes and slippers, and 48-inch flat-screens. Common areas have soaring glass ceilings, grand staircases, and cozy fireplaces; outside are a pool and hot tub (open April through October), fire pits, and cushioned patio furniture to curl up on with a book or glass of wine. The two- and three-bedroom villas sit along the golf course and are within walking distance of the Château Élan Clubhouse. Each unit has a full kitchen and fireplace and can sleep up to six guests. The spa suites inside the Château Élan Spa Mansion overlook a sparkling lake and come with your choice of a two-person air jet tub or waterfall shower.
Wine is certainly the main attraction, but the resort also has eight on-site food options. Versailles Restaurant & Bar, inside the Inn’s glass-top atrium, serves all three meals, including a weekend breakfast buffet. Paddy’s Irish Pub, a nod to co-founder Nancy Panoz’s heritage, offers traditional Irish fare and live music in the evenings. Marc Restaurant is the upscale chophouse inside the winery. Make it a multicourse experience and ask your server to recommend a different Château Élan variety to pair with your Seared Crab Cakes or Ribeye Steak Delmonico. If you schedule a spa day, visit Fleur de Lis and choose from a lighter menu that includes Superfood Muffins, a Vegan Tofu Scramble, and recommended wine pairings (natch). For a grab-and-go option, stop by Le Petit Café & Boutique at the Inn and pick up a coffee, pastry, or sandwich. They’ve also got a retail section with bottles of Château Élan’s signature wines.
Book a wine bungalow and kick back in a glamping-style tent.
Visit the tasting room to sample wines by the glass and purchase a few bottles or schedule a wine tour and learn about the history of Château Élan (see sidebar). If you came with a group, book a wine bungalow and kick back in a glamping-style tent stocked with a “bungalow basket” full of gourmet snacks, plus one bottle of Château Élan Reserve Collection Wine or Château Élan Muscadine Wine. On Wednesday through Sunday, have afternoon tea in the atrium and enjoy tea sandwiches, pastries, and loose-leaf teas. (Seatings are at 2 and 3 p.m.) If you want to get outdoors, explore the property on a complimentary bike, or practice your swing at Château Élan Golf Club. Book a massage or facial at The Spa at Château Élan and stay for a glass of bubbly in the hot tub.
Treat yourself to a facial or massage at The Spa at Château Élan
Partners in Wine
Braselton wasn’t exactly a wine destination 42 years ago when Don Panoz and his wife, Nancy, opened Château Élan. Don had already founded the pharmaceutical company that invented the nicotine patch. In 1969, he moved his family, which included the couple’s five children, from Pennsylvania to Nancy’s native Ireland. There, he created Élan Corporation, a Dublin-based drug firm. Don and Nancy frequently visited north Georgia, where Élan Corporation had a research laboratory.
On one of their trips, the Panozes sipped muscadine wine, a sweet variety unique to the South. They’d come during that miniature season between summer and fall, when the weather is magical, and couldn’t understand why more grapes weren’t grown in the region. The climate seemed perfect.
They were told over and over it couldn’t be done in Georgia. They did it anyway.
They planted varieties of Vitis vinifera commonly grown in Ireland. But the red clay soil wasn’t optimal, and the grapes that had thrived in Europe faced disease in Georgia. The wine was less than awesome, but the accommodations at Château Élan were nice, so people still came. Don, a serial entrepreneur who built racetracks like Road Atlanta in 1996, shifted his focus to hospitality and brought on Simone Bergese to head up wine operations in 2012.
Bergese understood something his predecessor didn’t: A Southerner’s palate is accustomed to sweet tea that makes you diabetic and muscadine wine that tastes like candy. So he ripped up Don’s original vineyard and planted muscadines to make sweet wines like rosé and moscato. He bought additional muscadine grapes from other Georgia farms and shipped in vinifera grapes from California for guests who don’t like their wine to taste like syrup.
Today, Château Élan has more than 30 wines produced with grapes grown in Braselton, south Georgia, and California. Their bottles are sold at Publix, Kroger, and Total Wine, and they’re among the most awarded wineries on the East Coast.