By Teri Greene
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ant to tour the wine country? There’s no need to book a trip to Napa Valley. Raise a toast to the wines of Alabama as laid out on the Alabama Wine Trail.
Wine is created in and flows through the state in rural enclaves far off well-traveled roads, often at the end of long stretches of highway and gravel driveways.
There are 13 active wineries on the Alabama Wine Trail – up from eight when the trail debuted — the oldest one established nearly 35 years ago, others reaping the first fruits of their labor, and plenty in between, winding their way from the hills of the north to the southern coastal area.
In 2006, with the introduction of the brochure outlining those locations, the reality was made visible. You can find the trail at www.alabamawinetrail.net or, for updates, www.facebook.com/alabamawinetrail.
“We got involved in the early stages trying to create a statewide wine trail,” says Tami Reist, president of that Decatur-based Alabama Mountain Lakes Association, which teamed with The Alabama Wineries Association to create a point-by-point guide to Alabama wineries and wine-related events in the state.
Getting folks to follow three trails — the Plateau, the Valley and Ridge and the Coastal Plain — may lead to a lot of people seeing Alabama in a new light.
Visit just a couple, and you’ll get a sense of both the diversity and the dedication of these vintners.
Wine has been Jules J. Berta’s family business for generations in his native Hungary. In 1993, Berta planted his first vineyards in Albertville, Ala. In 2005, on five acres of a 50-acre spread, he and his wife, Becky, officially opened the vineyard and winery. It sits at the end of a country road in the state’s mountainous region.
Like most points on the trail, this is a start-to-finish establishment, tended by family.
Enter the warm, inviting shop where the Berta wines are available for sale and tastings. Walk through a pair of doors and you’re surrounded by dozens of silos of closely monitored Berta wines. Just outside are countless rows of vines. Justin Bailey, Becky Berta’s son, who with his brothers help run the business, knows the exact location of the grapes that produce each cultivar — even on an overcast winter day, with each branch gray and bare.
A small median of land divides the white grapes from the red.
“Here are our Cab sauvignon, Cab francs,” Bailey says, pointing to the right, where rows of Cabernet, Merlot, Blaufränkisch, Petit Syrahs and other reds bloom in April.
The expertise and passion have spread to a new generation in the family. Bailey respectfully refers to the grapes, the wines, the rows and the vineyard itself as “she.”
“She’s beautiful when she’s in bloom,” Bailey says of the vineyard in late summer. “You can see the different color reds, whites; Chardonnay will be in gold.”
Unexpected treasures with help from local farmers
People don’t expect to find such non-native grapes as Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet and Sylvaner – a white grape that, in this state, is grown only at Jules J. Berta — thriving in north Alabama. It all has to do with the distinct soil here.
“It’s sandstone and limestone, mixed into one,” Bailey says. “When you get down further into the dirt, the soil here is just about identical to that in Hungary. It’s very sandy, so we excel.”
Most of their wines are made with fruit from local farmers, says Becky Berta. “Alabama folks want to know where the fruits are grown that go into their wines. And I love that about our customers, because we have educated them from opening day of our winery about how we process the fruit wines.
“They love knowing some of the farmers where we get the fruits. We know how hard these farmers work, and their outlet for indirect sales of their fruits can be hard to locate, so that’s where we step in. They contact us and we purchase the fruits whenever possible. We get strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, apples and watermelons from local farmers. We have even done a mead (honey wine) where the honey came from Valley Head,” she adds.
The array of Berta’s “proper wines” impresses regular visitor Jim Rhodes, a retired Air Force officer who moved back to Alabama after living in France, Italy and Oregon’s wine country. He said the place is brimming with visitors year-round. One is his friend Diana Kennedy of Birmingham, daughter of a California winegrower. Her reaction to the Berta Merlot?
“I had yet to taste anything grown and vinted locally that I would dare introduce to my family. Well, this is it! I am so impressed with this wine, and trust me when I say, that’s no easy task.”
Becky Berta chooses the whimsical labels for the wines, which also include fruit-based varieties. The most popular are the winery’s signature Merlot; a blackberry Merlot called Dog at Large; Sylvaner, named after its rare white grape; Love Shack, a chocolate Merlot, and the lemon Bullfrog.
“In the summertime, you can’t beat her,” Bailey says of the latter. “She’s very light, clean crisp and refreshing. She’s amazing.”
Savor local flavor
The wineries on the trail are widely diverse because of the state’s range of terrain. They are open to guests year-round. It’s best to check the establishment’s website before you go. On the site for Hodges Vineyards in Camp Hill, proprietors Earl and Elke Hodges, who opened in 2011, point out that GPS devices cannot locate the site. They offer easy-to-follow directions that will get you there. Take heed.
At most wine trail locations, guests see where wines are bottled and roam the grounds. And of course, they taste. The samples are half-ounce and quarter-ounce, as regulated by the state. If you fall in love with a wine, it’s best to buy it on-site. Wines can be ordered online, but shipping is roughly $6 to $10 per bottle.
Every stop at a winery earns a stamp on your wine trail passport. After eight stamps, you receive a wine glass bearing the names of all the vineyards and wineries on the trail.
That includes the one that started it all. Alabama’s southernmost winery, Perdido Vineyards, is also its oldest. Jim Eddins and his wife, Marianne, established 50 acres of native Muscadine grapes in 1972. In 1979, Perdido Vineyards became Native Farm Winery No. 1 in Alabama, the first since Prohibition was lifted. The same year, its Sweet Muscadine was the named the Founders First Vintage.
That all came after mass protests from the local religious community and a resulting string of rejected loan applications to open the winery.
Eddins, 79, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and Vietnam War veteran, is a die-hard advocate for Alabama-made wines. His current mission: “Uncork Alabama,” an effort to lower taxes and spread availability of wine produced in the state.
Here, the Muscadine produces both traditional and fortified wines. The Alabama Legislature only approved wineries’ sales of fortified wines, which range from 16.5 to 19 percent alcohol per volume, in 2010. Perdido’s fortified varieties are 25-year-old muscadine wines with locally-grown fruit, including cherry, blackberry, blueberry, satsuma and black currant.
On a chilly afternoon, couples gathered inside the winery as Kathy McMahon — “not a sommelier, just a neighbor” — poured from bottles bearing labels created by area artists. With every sip, visitors get brief history and science lessons. The wines’ names recall local lore, and tasters learn of the delicate science to cultivating a Muscadine wine to resemble, for instance, a Riesling or a White Zinfandel, or creating dry wines from the naturally sweet grape. Eddins, a civil and environmental engineer by trade, has mastered the science. He also creates award-winning vinegars with high antioxidant content.
His vision, one shared by the folks who laid out the Alabama Wine Trail, is to celebrate and spread the wine created in Alabama.
“I’m trying to educate my friends and neighbors,” he says. “You cultivate our people, our land, and you go for excellence.”
Becky Berta says all the wineries support each other and share the cost of the souvenir glasses and rack cards.
“It would be great if our beautiful state would get involved in promoting us by way of road signage and such,” she says. “Other states do this for their wineries and that would be a great start. The wine trail could really catch on then. We, too, are Alabama the beautiful!”