Alabama Wine Country: Real or Imagined?
By John McMillan
When you think of American wine making and vineyards, chances are your mind turns to California where 90 percent of our nation’s wine is produced. Alabama is probably the last place people would think of when it comes to the production of wine.
The fact is that Alabama could well become a viable wine producing state if a number of factors fall into place. It’s a big IF, but well worth considering given the rapid expansion of America’s wine industry, now at $162 billion and growing rapidly.
Alabama wineries currently produce only 31,300 gallons of wine a year. Compare this with California’s 667.5 million gallons in annual production and you begin to realize the enormous potential for economic growth and opportunity.
Some three centuries ago, settlers on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts planted vineyards and began commercial wine making. Throughout the nation up until Prohibition began in 1920, there were several hundred thousand acres of wine grapes whose production supported a thriving wine-making business.
Prohibition’s effect on American wineries was devastating as most vineyards ceased production; those that didn’t switched to growing table grapes. California and New York were about the only states whose legislatures in the 1930s and 1940s responded to revive wine making. As a result, they now comprise nearly 96 percent of all wine made in America.
In 1979, while in the Alabama House of Representatives, I introduced legislation that became the Alabama Native Farm Winery Act, the start of sensible laws that enabled vintners in this state to become commercially viable. The Alabama Legislature repealed this law in 2001 in reaction to a court ruling that led to removal of special excise tax advantages for wine made in the state of Alabama.
As a result of that action, today there are about 50 licensed alcoholic beverage manufacturers in Alabama, nearly all are small businesses; most are start-ups. Combined, these 50 companies produce only .4 percent of the wine, beer and liquor consumed by Alabamians.
Last year, in 2014, the Alabama Alcohol Beverage Control agency initiated a pilot project for one year to help in-state wine and beer producers market their products in state-owned ABC stores. More needs to be done to assist our Alabama producers, because when they’re successful there is a corresponding jump in demand for Alabama-grown grapes and other fruits used for wine-making, including apples, blueberries, peaches, blackberries, and improved grape varieties. All are grown in Alabama.
There are ample areas for grape cultivation in Alabama, especially in the hilly and mountainous regions of our state. This is where rocky soil with the right amounts of sunlight and rainfall can produce an abundance of wine grapes and other fruits needed for wine and other alcoholic beverage making.
To jump-start this sector of our economy we will need a thorough review of state revenue laws and other regulations that protect wine, beer and liquor distribution at the expense of Alabama producers. It makes perfect sense to give the “hometown advantage” to Alabama entrepreneurs who take the risks and make the sacrifices. The upside – creating jobs and improving our economy – is too good pass up.
John McMillan is Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Agriculture & Industries. You can contact him at email@example.com.