Alabama's Oldest Winery: Jim Eddins of Perdido Vineyards
“A visit to Perdido is a must for any Alabaman considering becoming a winegrower, and of course, for the wine-minded tourist.”
-Lucy Morton, Winegrowing in Eastern America (1985).
The term “wine pioneer” is cliché, and we are probably just as guilty of overusing it as other wine media outlets. However, Jim Eddins of Alabama’s Perdido Vineyards is indeed a wine pioneer. We have chatted with winemakers who have battled hostile local governments or started a winery where none were before, but none of them have to deal with the hostility Eddins did when he started the first Post-Prohibition Alabama winery in the middle of Southern Baptist country.
Jim and his late wife, Marianne, started their vineyard in 1972 after moving to Jim’s native Alabama. Marianne was a New York native who met Jim when they both worked at IBM in Maryland. Before that, Jim, an engineer, served over twenty years in the military, including stints in Korea and Vietnam, and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel. The winery opened its doors in 1980, after several years of selling grapes to another winery. Farm wineries weren’t allowed in Alabama until the 1979 Alabama Native Farm Winery Act, and Jim played a large role in its passage. He fought tooth and nail against its repeal, but despite his tenacity it was repealed in 2001 due to lawsuits from out of state distributors. Through hurricanes leading to crop failures, an attempted foreclosure by nervous banks who thought the state would outlaw wineries, state regulators who are more zealous than most, and other trials and tribulations, Jim and Marianne saw it all.
Perdido is located in Baldwin County, on the Gulf of Mexico just east of Mobile. German and Italian immigrants settled the area and were the backbone of the Pre-Prohibition Alabama wine industry, but the French who came before them had already figured out vinifera would not grow there due to Pierce’s Disease. The most prominent winery of the era was Bartels, which reestablished itself after Prohibition but moved just across the Florida border to Pensacola before closing in 1979 (the details of which you will learn in this interview).
Today, Alabama has fourteen wineries, all of them small. Out of state imports account for around 99% of all wine sales. Only in the last few years has the state allowed the sale of Alabama wine at festivals, customer delivery, shipping, or for wineries to again sell directly to stores and bypass distributors.
As you can see from the interview, Mr. Eddins is as charming as he is knowledgeable. He is bound and determined to knock down those who stand in the way of Alabama wine. Now in his mid-80s, his memory is sharp as ever, and he has the history of the Southeast wine industry firmly inside his head. If he lived closer, we could easily spend hours with him, preferably with some of that muscadine brandy he keeps mentioning. He said at the end of the interview, “can you delete any four-letter words that were said? Those were just for emphasis.” Which is funny because he didn’t use any.
Mr. Eddins also said, “thank you for the interview and writing down my answers. A lot of this stuff hasn’t been written down before.” That’s a shame, and let’s hope an enterprising writer beats a path to Perdido’s door and writes down the complete story.
As always, this interview is edited for clarity and flow.
Good morning, thanks for sitting down with me.
Good morning, we are honored that you selected us to interview, and we were very impressed with the questions. You ask good questions that deserve good answers.
Tell us about the broad strokes of Perdido today.
Well, we’re a vineyard, a winery, a distillery, along with some non-alcoholic products. To explain that, in 2001 the Alabama Farm Winery Act was repealed. So, what do you do with 30 years investment and property? Well, I threw the state officials out of my place and converted it to vinegar production, but I never really stopped the wine production. It created a whole new type of product for us, vinegars made from the local fruits and vegetables, non-regulated by the state, though they tried. Being engaged in all three of these lines, it makes for an interesting mix.
We have the capability here now to go from the vineyard to the table with multiple products including 15-20 wines, 15 or so vinegars, and currently four distilled spirit products, all rum.
The original vineyard was 50 acres. We gave that up in a reorganization, but it is still in the family. But the vineyards have been severely damaged by three hurricanes and lack of management. When the state repealed the Farm Winery Act, they basically threw us under the bus. But that did not mean we couldn’t source the fruit that we needed from elsewhere. The vineyard loss was a blow for captive production, but it didn't mean we were out of business. We had enough wine inventory to sustain it. And we've had relations with other vineyards and wineries all over the southeast and always have backup in case the various states change in law like Alabama did abruptly.
Tell us about that change in the law. This is the first time I am aware of state just repealing its Farm Winery Act.
Yes, they repealed the 1979 Act. They repealed it in secret, no debate, no notice. Just suddenly, everybody received a letter from the Alabama Beverage Commission that there were no more farm wineries. To give you a bit of history, in 1937, Alabama enacted their liquor laws and said you could get a manufacturer license, and it allowed distilled, fermented, brewed, and rectified spirits for the tiny sum of $1,000. So, it was never illegal in Alabama after 1937 to produce wines, the state simply wasn't allowing it. When I came along, I read the law and insisted that they obey the law or face a lawsuit for disobeying the law.
Then in 2001, there was a shady deal and they repealed the Farm Winery Act. They claimed they were doing it because they had to, but it ended up crippling us.
Editor’s Note: In 2001, the Alabama Legislature did repeal the 1979 Farm Winery Act due to court rulings that struck down the tax advantages and lower licensing fees in-state wineries enjoyed. But there was more. Farm Wineries were restricted in ways far beyond tax advantages, such as no longer being allowed to directly sell to stores and restaurants. Some costs and taxes went from $25 a year to $10,000 a year, and since all Alabama wineries are small, distribution channels were basically eliminated.
There are references to two other Baldwin County wineries that actually pre-dated you, but I am having trouble finding out more about them. What can you tell me?
Those existed before Prohibition. They didn't have licenses. They just had operations on their farms. They were operated by the Germans and Italians who had settled in this area. But the biggest one, the Bartels Winery, was bodily thrown out of Alabama in the 1930s by the local constabulary, and the winery had the US Marshals protect them and escort them to move into Florida, which was only a few miles away.
The other operation, known as the Hegendorfer Winery, was in downtown Elberta in a building now occupied by a diner called The Roadkill Cafe. There were rumors of a third one, but we've not been able to find more. In the Prohibition era, wine took the brunt of the “evils of alcohol” fanatics here. And so politically and socially, they were extremely suppressed.
Ed.: The tale of a winery being banished from a state and escorted across state lines by the US Marshals sounds fantastical, but if it was going to happen in any state, it was going to be 1930s Alabama. The Wines of America, 1st Edition (1973), notes Bartels has three acres of grapes in Florida and an additional thirty in Alabama. Wine wasn’t the main draw at Bartels, apparently their fried chicken dinner was, with wine made downstairs and sold for fifty cents with your meal. I did confirm Bartels did exist in Alabama before Prohibition, but the only reference I found about the move was Bartels “had migrated to Pensacola to serve a market ripe with aviators from Pensacola Naval Air Station.” Sadly, even in the best wine history books, the wineries of the Southeast are treated with scant attention, and wineries long gone are given even less.
How did you come to open Perdido?
The owner of Bartels, Ralph Weaver, when I first met with him, he made the remark that he was selling his wine faster than he could make it, meaning he did not have enough fruit. And I said, “well, I don't understand that. Baldwin County has such a huge agricultural economy, why isn't someone growing grapes for you?” And he got very sober looking, and he said “Son, the Germans and the Italians lost both wars, prejudice keeps them from growing grapes here.” They couldn't even buy fertilizer. I said I didn't feel that way about it and asked how much he was paying for grapes.
I had been growing grapes in Maryland before moving back here, the French American hybrid and Labrusca varieties that would thrive there. And the price at that time was around $65 a ton. Well, he said $325 a ton and I said “Well, in that case, you make me a long-term contract and I will grow the grapes for you.” So, in the latter years that Bartels operated, it was exclusively my fruit coming from Perdido.
My wife was my life partner for 51 years. She was a chemist and a biologist, and I built her a great big laboratory to exercise what she had learned. She had a great nose and great palate, better than my own, and I miss her greatly. I also made the vineyards so I could get her a decent bottle of wine. I was extremely embarrassed I couldn’t get my bride a decent bottle of wine in Alabama.
In 1979, I was delivering fruit when I discovered Mr. Weaver had suddenly died. He was inside a wine tank and I found him. And that ended the contract. When I called the authorities to notify them, the ATF in Atlanta told me, “You are to stay there to maintain security, we will leave Atlanta within the hour and come down to you.” Five hours later, two agents drive up, they don't announce who they are or ask who I was, they just changed the locks and put up a sign that said “keep out by order of the ATF.” It was locked up for 23 years. Half my crop was in that winery and the other half was still in the field with no place to process it. So that was pretty abrupt.
But I learned a very important lesson there. He was a sole proprietorship and he had agreed to sell me the winery. Within 10 days after that agreement before we could draw the legal documents, I found him dead. We thought he was electrocuted, but it was just a sudden massive heart attack that lasted 10 seconds. So that's why I had to start a winery. I didn't have any place to sell the fruit off 50 acres of grapes. So that is when I applied for the farm winery license, 1979.
But at that time there wasn’t an Alabama Farm Winery Act.
There was a fight about that like I mentioned before where I threatened to sue the state. But the legislature then said we will write a separate law, known as the Alabama Native Farm Winery Act, to levy the taxes. The beer distributors, who were all we had in the private sector at the time, they immediately protested because they didn't want more competition. The ABC sold wines at the time in their state stores, but the beer distributors had a freer hand. So, they immediately wanted to limit production, how much you can make, what alcohol level and whatever else you can do. But they also wanted to make sure that Mr. Gallo did not move to Alabama and suddenly start selling wine and put them out of business. Well, Mr. Gallo had better sense than that, and he never moved here. But he respected what I did, we made an agreement, and his distributors were instructed to sell my wine also.
But the Farm Winery Act was anathema to a monopoly, and the beer guys hated it. And then we got further legislation that allowed wine sales in supermarkets, restaurants, and package stores. Well, the wines of the world rushed in, and the beer guys, like I said, didn’t want any competition in Alabama. So, they began to whine and complain there was unfair taxation and so forth. See, Alabama had 35% of the retail price as tax. That's not a very good way to tax, instead of by the gallon, because the government can measure the volume, but the government can't decide what they sell it for. So that left a lot of room for finagling. But this is what was behind the Act, and from 1979 to 2002 we operated under that Act.
When it was repealed, there was no option for farm wineries, but I also had a manufacturer’s license I got in 1985 when I was selling to the ABC stores. The state had asked me to get one so I could process apples for the state. Alabama had 1400 acres of apples, and a surplus, and so I made apple brandy and apple wine. When the winery license was issued to me in 1979, the governor's first words to me were “If I give you the license, you have to buy the apples.” So, the state bought my wines and sold them and allowed me to make distilled spirits from apples out of state and bring it back without penalty. Later, supermarkets and restaurants started selling wines, and I expanded there.
Ed.: Alabama, like a few other states, has state-run liquor stores, or ABC stores.
What did you do before you started Perdido?
I've been a career civil environmental engineer since 1962 and am still in active practice. In that career, I have designed many commercial operations including for foods like yogurt, mayonnaise, chemical plants, as well as restaurants and other facilities handling food, so I was pretty well equipped to build a winery. Building a winery in three and a half weeks was something I could do to keep from losing the crop.
I also spent 20 years in the Marine Corps and four in the Navy. I was a combat engineer, so I learned to build with people shooting at me. So, when the politicians and the bankers and the lawyers and the preachers started telling me I couldn't do it, I just said stand back out of the way (laughs).
You describe Alabama, but there wasn't much else in the Southeast then either.
No, the closest wineries were 500 miles away. Bartels was in Pensacola about 40 miles away, and when he died and they shut the winery, to process my fruit, I would have had to ship it a long way if I could sell it. So, my options are not good. That's why I built my own winery. Sheer necessity.
You build a winery in less than a month to save your crop. You're the only winery around. It must have been very lonely and intimidating.
Well, as I said, I was an experienced professional engineer. And I knew the codes and regulations and had worked all over the country. I bought tanks from three bankrupted Borden’s Milk processors. So, my stainless-steel tanks were not wine tanks but milk tanks I converted to make wine. I don't make any apologies for that; they still work after all these years.
The scene has changed greatly in the Southeast. If you think about the United States, and the winemaking regions, immediately upon repeal (of prohibition) in 1933, California and New York State enacted legislation to re-establish an industry and benefited from that. Then the West Coast, Washington State, the Midwest, they had wineries. But the Southeast because of politics and religion were totally wiped out of winemaking knowledge. People didn't even dare speak about it. If you wanted to have some fun, all you had to do was come down and announce you’re going to build a winery, and the fun would start.
Tell me about those early years at the winery.
The winery was in 79 and the vineyard in 72. So, we had followed the culture of vineyards with contract production of fruit for our winery. But I made every effort to learn all I could about winemaking because Mr. Weaver was in his late 70s, early 80s. As a Marine, I know good well that the next bomb could get the general and you better know what's going on. We went to mechanization, pioneering this effort in the South. I became a charter member of the Grape Board Association for the Southeast, bringing wineries from the surrounding states together.
There was movement to establish vineyards, but a vineyard is simply the sound of one hand clapping, you got to have wineries to process your fruit. Other states were ahead of us, like Mississippi, which became the 18th state to have farm winery legislation. One of the things I told the legislature when they were debating the Farm Winery Act was that Alabama had beat Mississippi in football, but we didn’t have a winery like Mississippi did. And they just couldn't stand that so they decided maybe Alabama should be the 19th state to have a winery. You got to understand the culture here. We just elected a football coach to be a Senator.
Tell me some things you did in those early years.
Oh, wow. That's a loaded question. The things I've tried to do. I had an agreement with Dr. Olmo, with University of California at Davis, who was handling the Viticulture and Enology Division. He had a 30-acre muscadine vineyard. The first time I met him, he asked me where my vineyards were, and I said Perdido, Alabama. He said what are you going to call it, and I said Perdido Vineyards, and he said “Oh my, that’s a terrible name! Do you know what that means?” I sure did, it means lost or abandoned in Spanish.
But it turns out Dr. Olmo had a totally different view in the 1970s of the muscadine grapes than most other people had. He had this vineyard where he was trying to force the cross breeding of vinifera and their well-known flavor with the muscadine’s resistance against Pierce's Disease. Everybody in California was terrified of Pierce’s and there is no known cure. Dr. Olmo explained to me this was a scientific effort of somewhere between 50 and 250 years to develop better American varietals that would have the winemaking qualities that the world accepted but also have the disease resistance.
He asked me if I would plant the crosses that he made, and he had thousands of them, under field conditions and tell me if they succeeded or not. If I did this, he would teach me how to make better wines with the muscadine. He also believed the muscadine is the superior brandy grape, and he had the brandy to prove it. I mean, like kissing a baby it was so good.
Well, over the years, I planted many, many vines that he would ship to me. Many of them promptly died, succumbed to Pierce's Disease. As long as Dr. Olmo lived, I kept up this relationship of trying to grow the plants. Some maybe are still alive out there. But basically, nearly all would not reach production. You can call that a failure, but I don't. I'm an engineer that says just because it doesn’t succeed the first time doesn’t mean it's a failure, that's a learning lesson. So, we tried to make better plants.
I welcome the opportunity to talk to you about this. This is not in a book somewhere, but maybe we get some of it down so that others may benefit. There’s been a lot of effort to do the vinifera and the crosses here, and the work I did maybe helped California.
Ed.: Dr. Harold Olmo (1909-2006) played a pivotal role in resetting the California wine industry after Prohibition. He also traveled the world seeking out native grapes, as well as hybridizing many varietals, most notably Ruby Cabernet. He more than lived up to the nickname “The Indiana Jones of Viticulture.” There is much discussion of his work combatting Pierce’s Disease, but the Alabama connection has not been discussed before to our knowledge. His papers are currently being digitized for all by UC-Davis, and perhaps we will gain greater insight into this.
How many years before you thought Perdido was going to be successful?
Oh, about a day (laughs). The day Mr. Weaver told me the price he was paying for grapes and I stuck out my hand, I never considered I would fail. When you meet a challenge, you figure out how to get through it, that’s the combat engineer in me. You either go around the obstacle or you go under it or you blow it up so you can keep on with the battle.
These grapes were here when the first Europeans arrived, and the Indians greeted the settlers with Scuppernong, which means “sweet tree.” Alabama in the 1880 census was the 8th largest wine producing state. What happened? Politics and religion are the enemy of the vineyard. We can’t have all those immigrants, those Germans and Italians, making that wine and serving it in the church communion, they said. But me, being from here, there wasn’t much they could do with me, and they just had to learn to live with me. It never entered my mind I wouldn’t succeed, that’s just not a Marine.
Still, there were many challenges.
A lot of people will tell you they want to do this, but they don’t have the vision or dedication to see it through all the obstacles. The largest bank in Alabama foreclosed on me. They came in and said I was out and they were running my winery. A few weeks later, I asked their attorney if they had a license to make wine, and he said it was none of my business. So, I turned them in for bootlegging, and the ATF was out here in no time. And I got my winery back.
The 1937 law said you could distill, but it was a challenge to get past the politics and religion. I noticed in your interviews, you ask about the state university systems and whether they are supportive, and that's a very good question. In 1948, they stopped teaching fermentation at Auburn University under the pressure of the legislature who were upset that industrial biology included discussion on how to make alcohol. So, we ended up with food science students who were half-educated. Our state university system was actually suppressing teaching this information, and it took a long time to get that back. Other states didn’t have that problem.
What are some misconceptions about Alabama wine?
Most of the misconceptions are generated by the competition and the importers. They say you can’t have a good wine in Alabama. That’s just stupid. We have the #1 football teams, the #1 beauty queens, don’t tell us we can’t make good wines. Me and other wineries are proving every day we can.
The preference of the Southerner has not been taken into account. When they stood in front of the grocery wine shelves, they didn’t know if the wine was red, white, dry, or sweet. They would come to the winery with a bottle of Chardonnay and say “this wine is sour.” That wine wasn’t sour, but it was dry. So, I would give them some of my wine, and they said that’s the wine they wanted. Keep in mind, we didn’t have the chance to pair wines and food in restaurants for a long time due to politics and religion. All the wines they could buy were mass-produced ones that were forced in here.
You look at a 120-foot-long grocery shelf full of wines in an Alabama supermarket, and there’s not a nickel worth of difference in any of them. But you go to the end cap, and you find Perdido’s muscadines, there is a difference and there is a market.
We have Southern foods that lend themselves to muscadine much better than vinifera. Take a highly seasoned redfish, that will wipe out a lot of rosé wine, but it won’t knock out mine. You have to understand the local consumers and their preferences and their cuisine.
Tell us about your fellow Alabama winemakers. What do you say to people who want to start a winery in Alabama?
I get that a lot. Right now, I have a young man who wants me to teach him to make blueberry wine because of all their surplus fruit. He lucked out a little, this year, Alabama passed a law saying you can make wine in a dry county, but you still can’t sell it there. So, he has to go to a wet county to sell, so it is still hard. Where does that type of nonsense come from? But I said I could teach him, and I am. I have produced award winning wines here and he can too.
My policy is to encourage anyone who wants to start a winery to start one because we can overcome this with the numbers. We have had the pioneers here, many setbacks, and a lot of us died before we did what we wanted to do. I am getting to be the Last of the Mohicans out here that have brought it forward.
Will Alabama always be primarily muscadines?
No, I think Dr. Olmo may be correct, and we will have improved varieties. The quality of grapes will continue to improve. Here, the main grapes are Magnolia, Carlos, and Noble, and those came from North Carolina. The problem here is that most of the research into grapes has been restricted to table grapes. Table grapes and wine grapes is like dairy cattle versus beef cattle. You can eat a steak from a dairy cow and milk a beef cow, but it won’t be the best of either. Our wineries have been handicapped by that, but we share with each other and it’s getting better.
Another old Marine who I loved dearly who is no longer with us, he succeeded with a small planting about six acres of vinifera in Northeast Alabama. Up in the higher elevations, there's a different climate than we have here on the coast. In terms of business, to me, I looked at why would you want to beat your brains out trying to produce Cabernet Sauvignon when the stores are flooded with it from everywhere in the world. Why not make a different kind of wine? The muscadine has a lot of potential and the spirits do as well.
But I would also say maybe we shouldn’t forget muscadine so fast. It has very high levels of antioxidants, much higher than any other type of wine, and it has been here from the beginning. In our rush to find the next big thing, we shouldn’t rush over muscadine. I am an extremely strong advocate for it.
How do you keep your passion after all these years?
Easy. I thrive on challenges; it gets my juices up. Maybe it’s the Marine in me. Give me a challenge, be it a bayonet, the government, or the weather, I am going to try and overcome it. It makes me live longer and healthier. Then, when I go and drink my stuff, I think about those sunny days and what we did to make it happen.
The words of Dr. Olmo run through my head constantly, that the muscadine is the superior brandy grape. So, I have been trying to make it, and get there on a legal commercial basis, and I am around a year away. He never had this attitude it wasn’t good. I have great respect for people like him. I don’t have that much respect for marketeers who want to tell me that something in a valley in France or Spain is better than what we have.
Where do you see Alabama wine in ten years?
Leon Adams, the author of Wines of America, visited here a number of times, and we shared a lot. I don’t know if you know his book or not, but he knew people in every state and had sections on every state. He had great hope for our state, and I do too. We just have to work at it and the naysayers can just sit back and watch. There will be a winemaker out there who will do it.
I enjoyed the interview you had with the Lake Ridge winemaker, Jeanne Burgess. I knew her as a teenager. Her father, Foster, was an engineer too, so he and I were good friends and had a long association. It was really a joy what she had to say and the questions you asked. We are real proud of her. She has succeeded far beyond anything Foster ever dreamed of when he started growing grapes. Florida is a totally different business climate, and they were using grapes to replace citrus that was lost to disease and freezing. Florida is extremely knowledgeable when it comes to the juice business, and that helped them when it comes to wine. But we could get there as well with a little help.
Alabama inflicts a lot of wounds on itself for no good reason. We need good legislation. We need university support. And we need sensible taxation. Why is wine taxed more than beer? You can make high alcohol beer and it is taxed lower than the same alcohol wine.
Ed.: Leon Adams (1905-1995), called “the seminal wine historian in 20th Century America” was the author of four editions of The Wines of America, which is a necessary and fascinating text for anyone who wants to understand the state of the wine industry as it existed in all 50 states in the 1970s and 1980s. We are indeed familiar with him, refer to his books a lot, and consider him one of the patron saints of this website.
Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give your younger self?
What I would say is “Go ahead! And if you don’t like the way it is, change it!” I would tell myself the same thing I told myself when I was 17 and asked my Dad to sign for me to join the Marine Corp and he wouldn’t. He told me, “If you want to do it, you sign for yourself.” And I did. If you want to make wines or grow grapes, just go ahead and do it.