April 2007
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Does Wine Making Have A Future In Alabama?

Grapes Will Grow In Alabama, But Bureaucratic Restraints May Limit The Winemakers Profits

 
Jim Eddins shows a customer a bottle of grape juice.  
By Ben Norman

When Jim Eddins started his Perdido Vineyards in 1972, he only planned to grow grapes and sell them to a winery in Pensacola, Florida. He was doing relatively well producing grapes on his fifty-acre vineyard in Perdido, in north Baldwin County.

"Things were going pretty well up until 1978 when the owner of the winery died. All of a sudden the winery was closed and padlocked. I had part of my grapes in the winery and part of them still on the vines and didn’t know what I was going to do with them," says Eddins.

Eddins says he never planned to go into the winemaking business, but faced with no market for his grapes, he had a choice of losing his investment or making wine. "I scrambled to get a license and legislation passed so I could sell wine," says Eddins.

Eddins says when he first attempted to get a license for a winery, he was told he couldn’t get one because making wine for sale was illegal in Alabama. "After being turned down, I researched the law and found that it said that if seventy-five percent of the fruit was produced in Alabama, the license shall be issued. After some haggling, I finally was issued a license," says Eddins.

 
  Jim Eddins stands in front of an antique wine tank.
"I harvested grapes, and sold my wine without much problem for twenty-five years. Then about four years ago, legislation was passed that made it illegal to sell wines to retail outlets in Alabama. Before this legislation, I sold wine to retail stores and even to the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board to be sold in their retail stores. I can now only sell wine at my winery," says Eddins.

Eddins says that people are only going to drive so far to buy wine. This, and the fact that not everyone enjoys alcoholic beverages, has made him and other wine makers diversify to some extent. "We now produce and sell grape and apple juices for those who prefer a non-alcoholic beverage. I sell a good many grapevine cuttings to people who want to grow their own grapes for making jelly, juice and wine. We also produce and sell several types of vinegars here at our retail outlet," says Eddins.

According to Eddins, wine making in America dates back to when the first settlers arrived. The settlers in America brought several varieties of grapes from their native countries with them, but the grapes died because they couldn’t survive the diseases of the New World. The Indians introduced the settlers to the native wild grape, or scuppernong. Indians gathered the scuppernong, which means "sweet tree," and enjoyed the fruit and juice from it. The Europeans found that wine could be made from the wild scuppernong and immediately found in the wild grapes a product of international trade. Many of today’s improved varieties evolved from these wild grapes.
Eddins says he considers himself a farmer first. "I buy my fertilizer and other vineyard supplies from Tony James and the other courteous employees at Atmore Truckers Association in Atmore.

"I also enjoy educating people about making wine and establishing a vineyard. But I feel that the future of winemaking in Alabama will never reach its full potential until the state’s wineries can sell their product directly to retail customers in Alabama and other states," says Eddins.

Randall Wilson, who produces quality wines at his White Oak Vineyards near Anniston in Calhoun County, agrees with Eddins that Alabama wine making potential will never be reached unless the restriction on selling to retail outlets is abolished.

"If you look at winemaking laws nationwide, you will find a lot of displeasure in the way things are set up. There is an antiquated three-tier system where the manufacturer has to sell to a distributor and the distributor sells to the retailer. The more progressive states have sort of debunked some of these antiquated laws," says Wilson.

"Here in Alabama we cannot sell to a retailer. I can sell you wine if you come to my winery but I can’t sell it to a store in your town. Up until about four years ago we could sell anywhere, then a series of lawsuits resulted in a ruling that said states could not discriminate in the amount of taxes charged between local and out of state manufacturers. Here in Alabama there were some threatened lawsuits that caused the legislature to repeal the state’s Native Farm Winery Act," says Wilson.

Wilson says Alabama wine producers used to have to buy a fifty-dollar license, but it now costs a thousand dollars for a manufacturer’s license. Alabama winemakers can sell out-of-state, but in most cases they will have to sell to a distributor. In the past, Alabama winemakers have been somewhat challenged because it is almost impossible to get a distributor to handle their wine.

"Without the ability to go directly to the retailers, it really makes it difficult to make a profit marketing wine in Alabama. We are never going to reach the full potential that growing grapes and making wine could add to Alabama’s agriculture until this issue is resolved," says Wilson.

Wilson says there are parts of Alabama, especially the higher altitudes, that are conducive to excellent grape production. "If you get up to around eleven to twelve hundred feet above sea level, the grapes do much better because a disease known as Pierce disease does not over-winter well. Research is being conducted now to enable us to grow more disease free grapes at lower elevations," says Wilson.

Alabama grape producers have proven that Alabama has the climate and expertise to produce fruit and wine, but it may be up to the politicians to determine if the winemaking industry in Alabama will survive.

Jim Eddins can be reached at www.perdidovineyards.com or 251-937-9463 and Randall Wilson at www.whiteoakal.com or 256-231-7998.

Ben Norman is a freelance writer from Highland Home.