Wineries — like the vines they depend on — are sprouting up around Alabama and bearing fruit for state tourists and rural economies.
With U.S. wine consumption up almost 40 percent in the last decade, the future is bright for small wineries like Perdido Vineyards in Perdido, Alabama.
“These (winery) owners are entrepreneurs who have invested in Alabama and made a commitment to improve the quality of life, and it has been appreciated by the public,” said Perdido Vineyards’ owner Jim Eddins, who opened the state’s first farm winery in 1979. “We have a younger generation that is hardworking, talented and intelligent. They’re going to work to make Alabama a better place.”
Although small vineyards account for just 6 percent of wine sold to American consumers, the appetite for craft and artisan beverages is uncorking potential for small businesses like Whippoorwill Vineyards in Macon County.
Tim and Vickie Watkins, who operate the family-owned winery, said their passion for farming, family and spreading agriculture’s message drives them to succeed in a niche market.
“I’ve always loved farming,” Tim Watkins said. “Whether it’s chicken, cows or cotton, my family has always been in farming.”
Taking a page from a book written by Eddins, the Watkinses took a leap of faith after reading about family vineyards in 2006. Today, their 32-acre, 2,000-vine operation is among 13 wineries on the Alabama Wine Trail.
Tim Watkins said his initial focus was developing healthy vines.
“You have to train the vines to grow a certain way,” he said. “The first three years are really labor intensive because you have to work with the vines, prune and train them before they start producing.”
The Watkinses use an old blueberry harvester to pick several tons of fruit in late summer or early fall. The fruit is crushed and stems removed, and the fruit processed further before it’s bottled.
The 10 Whippoorwill wines — from dry Cynthiana to sweet Confederate Rose — have earned a total of 29 medals. The Notasulga winery debuted its wine to a larger audience in 2013 through the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board’s local winery pilot program.
Through success, sweat and setbacks, Vickie Watkins said all farm products, whether cotton, poultry, soybeans, catfish or wine, come from the same place — hard-working farm families.
“Always support your local folks,” advises Vickie Watkins, who also is Tallapoosa County Farmers Federation secretary. “You might go to Wal-Mart and get it cheaper, but it won’t be better.”
While the state is a relative newcomer to the industry, like a bottle of muscadine wine, Eddins and the Watkinses say Alabama wineries will only grow better with time.
Rodney King, owner of Mark’s Mart near Selma, sells local wines in his store. Famous for his chicken swirls and other specialty meats, King said locally grown wines are a nice addition for his customers.
“I think tastings at wineries around the state help promote the appreciation for local wines,” he said. “When someone visits a winery, the owners typically tell them what stores carry their wines. Locally grown wines are popular all year, but especially around the holidays. People love to buy them for gifts.”