Local Wineries Emerge as a Growing Presence in Alabama's Wine Industry
The term "wine country" is not often associated with Alabama's humid climate and terrain, but two vineyards in the Auburn area are quickly making a name for themselves in the state's emerging wine scene. Whippoorwill Vineyards in Notasulga and Hodges Vineyard and Winery in Camp Hill are both members of the exclusive Alabama Wine Trail, which recognizes 13 of Alabama's most respected wineries.
Tim Watkins, owner and operator of Whippoorwill Vineyards, said his love for producing wine began at an early age.
"I've been making wine since I was in high school," Watkins said. "It started as a competition between me and my dad. We had some vines in the backyard, and we would always fight over which vines made the best fruit. It was just always a fun competition."
Watkins said he became consumed with the desire to further his wine production business and began thinking about transitioning into a larger operation.
"After we started losing some of our older vines, we decided to plant some new vines, and then a few vines turned into a lot of vines," Watkins said.
After planting most of their vineyard in 2005 and allowing the grapes to be cultivated and fully matured for wine production for a few years, Whippoorwill became a fully functioning winery in December 2009. They now boast a 15-acre vineyard with enough variety of grapes to produce at least 11 types of wine, ranging from sweet to dry and everything in between.
"We have three types of white wine and several reds. We also make two blush wines as well as a blackberry and a strawberry wine," Watkins said.
Earl Hodges, owner of Hodges Vineyard and Winery located off Highway 280 in Camp Hill, had a similar experience when deciding to turn his part-time hobby into a fully functional operation. Hodges now produces 13 wines, including red, white, blueberry, blackberry and apple varieties.
"I had been doing a little experimenting with wine making in Marshall County, where I live. But Marshall County is a dry county, so I couldn't build a winery up there," Hodges said. "So now we've got about 70 acres (in Camp Hill), most of which will be planted with grapes, and we've invested more than $1 million into it so far."
Luke Garner, manager at Hodges Vineyard, said the effort required to keep a fully operational vineyard and winery running smoothly far exceeds the financial investment. In addition to basic maintenance, such as landscaping, Garner oversees vine planting and training, as well as the chemical spray and fertilizer programs.
"It's an intense process," Garner said. "It all starts with the grower. There's so much that goes into producing a good grape that people don't always realize. It's a lot of work."
With such an investment comes the expectation of making a profit, but Hodges said there have been bumps in the road along the way.
"The problem that most of the wineries are having in Alabama is finding someone to distribute their wine to," Hodges said.
Due to strict state legislation, Alabama vineyards and wineries are not allowed to sell their wine off premises without going through an independent distributor. In many instances, large wholesalers are unwilling to take a chance on selling wine from smaller operations.
"That's our big hurdle. We need to be able to distribute enough wine ourselves, if we can't get a distributor to do it, to be able to at least break even," Hodges said. "In order to make money and have a real wine industry, we need to put Alabama wine in all of the supermarkets in the state, not just a select few (wines)."
With an increased interest in touring local wineries around the state, Hodges and Watkins both encourage any adults of legal drinking age to stop by their vineyards for a free tasting. Whippoorwill is open to the public Thursday-Saturday, and Hodges Vineyard and Winery's tasting room is open from Thursday-Sunday.