But just off a winding main road in Choccolocco Valley is White Oak Vineyard – one of only a few wineries in Alabama – owned by husband-and-wife business partners Randal Wilson and Dana Davis.
With a newly renovated facility, White Oak Vineyard opens its doors on Fridays and Saturdays for wine tastings and tours of the 20-acre property.
The wines produced at White Oak Vineyard – and at wineries throughout Alabama – provide a distinct, local flavor that Wilson says sets him apart from the rest of the wine industry. “We have what a lot of people are looking for,” he said.
Wilson grows a variety of French hybrids, including Villard Blanc, Seyval Blanc, Chardonel, Norton and Chambourcin. He imports some grapes from outside sources.
He grows a lot of red and white muscadine grapes, which produce sweeter wines.
The vineyard also markets Southern flavors with peach and blueberry wines, which are local favorites, along with muscadine jams, jellies and syrups.
Wilson and Davis started the winery nearly seven years ago, just a couple of years before Wilson retired from a 30-year career with the U.S. Department of Agriculture – something that instilled a passion to cultivate land, he said.
Though a vineyard wasn’t always part of the plan, it soon became something they both wanted to do once they settled in Calhoun County, after living in California, Nevada and on the Alabama Gulf Coast.
“I always like working on the land,” Wilson said. “There’s a connection a lot of people have with it, and it’s hard to describe. You like seeing things grow.”
Wilson and Davis bought their property in 1996, and since then it has evolved to rolling hills of grapevines, along with a few other gardens of berries, hot peppers and vegetables.
Within the last year, Wilson and Davis updated their facility, building it to LEED standards and making it as eco-friendly as possible.
White Oak Vineyard is just one of about 10 vineyards across the state, according to Lee Beadles, president of the Alabama Wineries and Grape Growers Association (AWGGA).
While Alabama wines do produce a distinct flavor, Beadles said it’s hard to compare wines from one region to the next because there is such a variation in soils, climates and winemaking procedures.
“Different grapes grow better in different parts of the country,” he said. “Alabama and other Southern states grow primarily muscadines, and thus make mostly sweeter wines, which is what people want in this area.”
Grapes like the Black Spanish and Norton – Norton is a grape that Wilson grows – are now being introduced to Alabama, and produce flavors that are comparable to a merlot from, say, California, explained Beadles.
The AWGGA and Auburn University are heading up an effort to plant new strands in the state. Elina Coneva of Auburn is working with three grape selections that were developed by UC Davis’s breeding grape program to be resistant to Pierce’s Disease, a common killer of grapes.
The grapes being introduced are European or vinifera, something Coneva predicts will give Alabama grape growers new opportunities. “European grape production in Alabama and the entire southeastern region of the U.S. has not been successful, if at all possible, up until now, because the Pierce’s Disease pressure in our region is high, and vinifera grapes are sensitive to it,” she said. “I believe the new grape introductions could change the face of the grape and wine industry in the state.”
While the wine industry may be changing, Wilson enjoys his constant: cultivating the land and yielding the grapes.
“You take grapes that were growing and you go through all the process and then, at the end of the day, you’ve made wine from it,” he said. “That’s a very unique feeling.”
Recommended local wines
Randal Wilson of White Oak Vineyard shares some of the wines he’s particularly proud of:
• Scarlet, a “very well done muscadine.”
• Villard Blanc, which “I would recommend to anyone who likes a dry white wine. It’s very unique and very well done. I’m really proud of it.”