When William J. "Sonny" Hardman 92M 98R leaves his hectic pathology lab in Athens for weekends at his picturesque second home in rural Clayton, you might think he'd spend his time relaxing, maybe hiking or fishing, taking in the view of rolling Georgia hills.
"This past Saturday," said his wife, Mary Ann Hardman, as she served chicken-and-strawberry salad on a recent summer afternoon, "Sonny got up at a quarter to five and labeled five or six cases of wine. Then he pruned the vines from seven in the morning until seven at night--in the rain. The man works."
Hardman's hobby, winemaking, is hardly a restful pastime, but it is a far cry from his high-tech laboratory--which is just what he had in mind five years ago when he bought the parcel of rich Georgia soil that would become Persimmon Creek Vineyards. He planted each one of his first six thousand vines himself, which ripened fully the following summer--a year earlier than expected. That season, he sold out of his first harvest of Seyval Blanc.
"The number one reason I did this was to have a place to get away from medicine," he says. "When I'm here, I feel like I'm a million miles away from the lab. It's a great stress relief."
Although Hardman appreciates a fine glass of wine, what drew him to winemaking was its predecessor, the grapes.
"I've always been fascinated with pictures of European vineyards," he says. "I'm more interested in the horticultural aspect of winemaking. To me, it's more of a botanical setting than just another crop. What I like about the vineyard is that it looks like it belongs here, not something that's forced and out of place."
Persimmon Creek is the quintessential family business. During the growing season, Sonny spends weekends and most of his spare time working in the fields, planting, pruning, spraying, and generally coaxing the grapes to achieve their sweetest potential. In addition to helping in the vineyards, Mary Ann greets tour groups and any guests that might stop in, oversees the tasting room, and also works on marketing and distributing the wines. Their eleven-year-old son, Mitchell, helps cork and label each bottle; his younger twin brothers, at seven, help out where they can, which might include just riding around on a tractor with one of the few hired hands. Even the wine label is not computer-generated, but created by an artist friend.
Hardman produces four distinct wines: Seyval Blanc, Riesling, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. While all the Persimmon Creek wines are now being served at a number of high-end restaurants, including the Ritz-Carlton and Bacchanalia in Atlanta (as well as at Emory functions), the vineyard is becoming known for its Riesling, a sweet wine usually considered appropriate for dessert. Hardman thinks his Riesling may be popular because it's not cloying, just smooth and fruity. Eventually he hopes to produce about three thousand cases of wine each year--and that's all.
"I want to stay a small, boutique winery," Hardman says. "This is almost a 100 percent family operation. I want to produce the best wines possible for people who truly appreciate wine. The personal touch makes a difference."
Hardman says he based his business plan and marketing approach on how he runs his pathology lab, one of the only independent labs in Georgia. He keeps the business small and offers superior service, accessibility, and a quick turnaround of accurate results. And despite the pointed differences between running a pathology lab and making wine, he says his chemistry background has proved invaluable to learning the process. "Everything I learned in medical school helps me out downstairs," he says.
"Downstairs," the garage-like space where the Hardmans used to store tractors, has now become a winemaking center, wine cellar, and tasting room. Everything is immaculate. Gleaming silver tanks await the grape harvest as barrels of last year's wine continue to age in neat rows. All the equipment was chosen by Hardman with great care; the barrels are imported from France, the corks from Portugal. The tasting room is comfortable and inviting, its dramatic coolness a welcome respite from the steamy heat outside.
Hardman expects to gather some forty tons of grapes this year, making for a feverish few weeks of winemaking in the fall. "Last year, we were bottling wine as people were buying it," he chuckles. "What this boils down to is really hard farming. You have to love it, otherwise you'd be miserable."
But as Hardman holds a glass of his own Seyval Blanc up to the light and eyes it with some satisfaction before offering it to a guest, it's clear that miserable is one thing he is not.--P.P.P.