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December 22, 2014

Uncorked When wine came to Alabama

Powerhouse company started from the back of a 1969 orange VW

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Posted: Tuesday, July 8, 2014 6:24 pm

Ever wonder how all that wine makes its way to the shelves of your grocer or wine store? Until the early ’70s, it didn’t get  there at all.

Wine, what little there was of it in wet counties in Alabama, was available only at state ABC stores.

Shortly after it became legal for entities other than ABC stores to sell wine, a distribution company called International Wines was started in Birmingham by two brothers, the late Rud Yeates Jr. and current owner Charles Yeates.  

Now called International Wines and Craft Beers, it is one of Alabama’s oldest and largest family-owned distributing companies.

(Since Prohibition was repealed in 1933, states have generally operated under a three-tier distribution scheme: The first tier is made up of producers. The second tier is occupied by distributors like International, which supply wines to the third tier of retailers.)

The Yeates boys did not enter the wine business on a whim. In an era when most Southerners grew up on the table wine of the South — sweet tea — the Yeates family drank real wine. The Yeates patriarch, Rud Yeates Sr., had taken up wine as a hobby in the early 1960s. He regaled his family with stories of wine and the history of the vine, and allowed the boys to have sips of the wondrous beverage at family dinners.

In the 1970s, still drinking wine at age 96, Rud Sr. came up with the idea for the brothers to start a distributing company. He was worried the two might not make their way in the world with degrees in art and design.

I recently caught up with Charles Yeates to congratulate him on the 40th anniversary of the founding of his company, and to reminisce about changes in wine over the past four decades.

The Yeates brothers received their license to operate from Treasury’s Bureau of Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade  in January 1974. They started as a two-man team making deliveries with a 1969 orange VW square-back station wagon. “Obviously we did not have a business plan,” Yeates said.

Initially, they brought in many French, German and Italian wines — including the state’s first Argentinean wine, a 1964 Chateau Vieux Tinto that sold for $1.99 a bottle.

California wines were merely a blip on the radar  in 1974. There were only 18 wineries in Napa at the time, according to Yeates.     

On top of that, Chateau Lafite Rothschild — which now commands more than $1,000 per bottle — sold for less that $25 in 1974. Top Burgundies went for less than $10 per bottle.

Currently, the priciest bottle stocked by International is a Burgundy, 2010 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti “La Tache,” retailing for $3,500 per bottle. That the most expensive bottle stocked is a pinot noir might have something to do with the fact that Yeates is a pinot lover from way back.

Among International’s more popular wines are their own private labels from their wildly successful Wine Liberation Society branch, which sells brands including Travaux, Union Hill, The Ordinary Wine Company, Old School Red, Schell Creek and Fiddle Creek Cellars.

International currently employs a staff of 85 and distributes more than 2,500 different brands of wine and craft beers across Alabama from a 50,000-square-foot, temperature-controlled warehouse.

Asked if he has a favorite among those 2,500 brands, Yeates answered that he is always looking for new varietals and brands, but admitted that one can never have too many good Champagnes or Burgundies.     

In recent years, distributors have been under attack by those who favor direct-shipping of wine to consumers. I asked Yeates if he sees any threat in this movement. Answering philosophically, he said, “I have always thought that — until someone invents a transporter beam that just cost pennies to operate — a company is needed to move products in bulk to hold cost down, especially with rising cost of fuels and energy. And those who do it efficiently and with enthusiasm and intellect will be successful.”

As to those who order wine directly, bypassing local retailers, he is equally philosophical. “I have always felt that whatever inspires someone’s interest in wine will eventually come around and help our business out. Why dampen someone’s passion?”

When Yeates looks back over the past 40 years, his proudest achievement is that he was a part of introducing a wonderful culture to Alabama. He quickly gives credit to his staff, which now includes his son, Jesse, but the company’s success would not have been possible without Yeates’ vision — even though he didn’t even have a business plan starting out.

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