HEFLIN — Keith Roberts said it was magical that his winery won the coveted Alabama winery of the year at a recent competition in Huntsville.
“I never dreamed we would pull a rabbit out of a hat like this,” Roberts said on Monday.
Located in Heflin, High Country Cellars also won other awards at the competition, including best sweet white wine and best muscadine wine in the state for his Sweet Scuppernong variety.
Roberts’ winery has been open for just five years but he’s already collected numerous awards and accolades for his product.
Roberts, 62, said the annual wine competition — put on by the Alabama Commercial Wine Competition LLC — was held Sept. 29, attracting more than 2000 participants to Big Spring Park in Huntsville to celebrate the offerings from Alabama’s 24 wineries.
Roberts said he was “very humbled” to win winery of the year considering that he went head-to-head with older and well-established wineries in the state — some have been in business for more than 30 years.
Roberts’ scuppernong wine, which uses white scuppernong grapes that he buys from another winery in Cleburne County, is crafted from a recipe he’s been using for 13 years. Before Roberts opened the winery he had been making wine for eight years, perfecting his craft and learning from his mistakes.
With no vines of his own, he buys all the raw material from elsewhere. “I’m too old to be a farmer,” he said.
Roberts makes and sells more than 60 varieties of wine including semi-sweet, sweet, dry and chocolate wines.
“Nobody I know anywhere at all makes as many wines as we do,” Roberts said.
“Our number-one selling wine is a thing called Skeeter Piss,” Roberts said.
Roberts said Skeeter Piss is the winery’s flagship — a soft and sweet wine which uses a combination of apples, pears and peaches.
Roberts said he’s often asked how long it takes to make wine.
“I’ll say, ‘when the good Lord gets done with it’, I don’t make alcohol, God does,” Roberts said.
Roberts said last summer he started about five different batches of wine at the same time and after six days he checked on the vat of the winery’s best seller, which he thought had gone bad as it did not look right. After testing the batch with a hydrometer — a device that measures various parameters for wine making — the fermentation process had already finished.
Roberts was amazed that it only took six days for the winery’s flagship wine to ferment, as the other batches started on that same day took upwards of 4-12 weeks.
Roberts said that his wine is ready to drink once it’s bottled and as a general rule he does not age it, except for the varieties that sit in oak barrels to give them a smokey bouquet.
Roberts points to the varieties of aged wine from California as an example.
“It’s so rotten, it’s so vile, it’s so bitter that you can’t force it down your throat and people pretend they like that?” Roberts said.
“If you have to age your wine you’re doing a bad job,” Roberts said.
Roberts said that wine will deteriorate over time because it does not have enough alcohol to preserve it like distilled spirits, which can last forever.
“People who say that they have bottles of wine that's 20, 25, 30 years old? I assure you that wine has turned to crap,” Roberts said.
The Sweet Scuppernong wine that won Roberts two awards is currently sold out, but he said he will have about 120 cases ready by the middle of November in time for the holidays. A recent customer who tasted the Sweet Scuppernong wine liked it so much he bought the business’s entire stock, according to Roberts.
Roberts said his customers rave about the Sweet Scuppernong wine.
“What most of my customers describe it as is ‘this is me, an 8-year-old kid in my grandparents’ orchard or vineyard’ and they’re picking the scuppernongs and eating them off the vine and this reminds them of that childhood. I hear this so much,” he said.