The Little Winery That Could

Originally published in ‘Zalea Magazine August 2007.

Oddly enough Paul Giamatti, a frumpy character actor, is responsible for our nation’s blossoming crush on wine. In the 2004 Oscar darling Sideways, Giamatti plays Miles Raymond, a middle-aged novelist racked with self-confidence issues. Raymond’s defeatist personality has a savant, an unbridled passion for wine. In one scene he describes his favorite varietal, Pinot Noir, saying, “Only someone who takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression.”

Of course Raymond’s discourse is actually a cathartic description of himself, but the unintended result of this scene is that Americans are now obsessed with Pinot Noir. Part of the movie’s domino effect on pop culture has been an upsurge in interest in the wine country. Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, and the North Coast are swarming with tourist.

But one does not have to leave the Gulf Coast to see a real working winery; there are seven of them right here in Alabama. The oldest, Perdido Vineyards (22100 County Road 47) is in Baldwin County. The South has a wine tradition of its own in Muscadine grapes. These native grapes are larger and heartier than their European cousins plus they have seven times more of the precious antioxidant, reservatrol.

Reservatrol is an amazing chemical that is believed to keep cells from turning cancerous. Other benefits stemming from reservatrol include controlling the inflammation of cells and it stops the spread of malignancies. It is also thought to be the source of the “French paradox” – despite enjoying a high cholesterol diet, the French have astonishing low rates of heart disease.

Mike Bailey, general manager of Solo Vino (West Rd.) in Mobile features wines from Perdido Vineyards and is leading the charge to stock them in every locally owned grocer and restaurant in the area. Bailey helps out Perdido proprietor Jim Eddins at the north Baldwin winery, but he is not the only one. According to Bailey, “lots of folks volunteer because they want to see this part of our heritage preserved.”

Todd Hicks, the brew master at Hurricane Brew Pub in downtown Mobile (Dauphin St.) also lends his time and expertise to help Mr. Jim. He provides the locally crafted beer that is used to make the Casa Perdido Malt Vinegar which took gold in 2006 at the Mostbarkeiten in Carnthia, Austria. In 2005 they also captured the gold with their Elberta Gurkenessig (a cucumber vinegar), and in 2004 scored bronze with their White Muscadine Wine Vinegar.

Like Bailey, Hicks feels that we need to support our local artisans, of which he is one. Businesses like the Brew Pub, Sweet Home Cheese Farm (Elberta), the many apiaries in the area, et al are the epitome of home grown. They are owned locally and use local ingredients to make products that reflect the bay area persona. At the forefront of this group is Jim Eddins and his little winery.

Perdido was the first winery in the state and as such has seen its share of adversity for that is the burden of being the first to do anything. Eddins’ battles with various governments have left him skittish about bureaucracies. Greed and inefficiency, the two strongest attributes of any bureaucracy, often combine to the detriment of the citizenry they were originally created to protect.

On more than one occasion armed agents have invaded Eddins’ vineyard because of something as asinine as a clerk misfiling paperwork, but the biggest obstacles have been natural. Flooding and high winds are hard on the grapes. As Bailey can attest grapes thrive on difficult circumstances saying, “They love stress.” But hurricanes Ivan and Katrina were far more than just “stress.” Ivan nearly destroyed the vineyards and the winery, Katrina stripped the newly recovering vines of every single grape at the peak of harvest.

Still, Perdido Vineyards presses on making high quality muscadine and scuppernong wines, amazing vinegars, and the refreshingly pleasant muscadine grape juice. The juice is higher in life extending antioxidants than that of regular grapes and lacks the thick, syrupy texture of commercial juices. It is a vastly superior fruit juice than what most of us are used to.

Fine vinegars and grape juice are just the beginning of the innovations at Alabama’s oldest winery. This winter they plan on clearing out the vines, transforming this little patch of South Alabama into a picturesque setting not unlike those one sees when touring the Tuscan countryside. A stately gazebo set on a hill overlooking the vines will become a wedding chapel of unmatched beauty and a gift shop is also in the planning. All, of course, after the necessary permits, licenses, and other sundry authorizations have been attained, after all Caesar must be sated.

Perdido Vineyards is open Monday through Saturday 10 – 5.

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Stuart is a celebrity chef, food activist and award-winning food writer. He penned the cookbooks Third Coast Cuisine: Recipes of the Gulf of Mexico, No Sides Needed: 34 Recipes To Simplify Life and Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor." His recipes have been featured in Current, Lagniappe, Southern Tailgater, The Kitchen Hotline and on the Cooking Channel.

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