My momma raised me Baptist, and while that didn’t stop me from dancing or cussing, it did keep me in the dark on cultural touchstones such as “The Simpsons,” Texas hold ’em and muscadine wine. The first time I even heard of muscadine wine was as an adult, listening to a Jason Aldean song. Determined to catch up on my Alabama heritage education, I once tried to sip my way through the entire Winn-Dixie muscadine wine section. I did not get very far.
Muscadine wine has a reputation. A bad one. It’s like the fruitcake of the beverage world: You give it and get it as a gift, but it’s unclear if anyone ever consumes it. Made from hardy, heat-tolerant grapes native to the South, muscadine wine often tastes overpowering of concentrated fruits like ripe bananas and bruised apples; a few sips are enough to give you a stomachache.
But my original taste test was years ago and since then picking scuppernongs (the Native American term for bronze-colored muscadines) has become one of my favorite fall activities. Each season my mother loads all of the kids into her Honda Odyssey and drives us to a vineyard in Elberta to pick grapes and feed chickens. There’s a temporal pleasure to snitching ’nongs and popping them into your mouth like little gumball-sized plums; the skin is thick, the insides floral and gooey.
I was ready to give our homegrown wine another chance. So last weekend I took a road trip to Perdido Vineyards (perdidovineyards.net) in North Baldwin County, the first farm winery to open in the state after Prohibition. Prior to that, Alabama was the eighth largest wine producer in the country and muscadine was the wine of choice. In fact, Virginia Dare, made from scuppernongs, was the most popular wine in America in the 1900s. But Prohibition made the indigenous industry illegal and put it underground until Perdido Vineyards came along.
Perdido Vineyards’ 50-acre compound is located right off Interstate 65, and the winery has a bottling facility that triples as a retail shop and tasting room. It’s open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., six days a week (closed Sundays). Inside the small shop, a friendly woman poured me a glass of alcohol-free white muscadine juice and began telling me the story of Perdido Vineyards. The juice was refreshing, earthier and fruitier than your typical Welch’s.
Owners Jim and Marianne Eddins established their vineyard in 1972, but were unable to get a winery license or mortgage to build their facility until 1979. They had a formidable opponent in Baldwin County, it seemed — the Baptists.
The shop lady poured me another glass of muscadine juice, this one red. The red juice was made with its seeds and skins, so it was a touch more bitter than the white version. According to the shop lady, who has been the Eddins’ neighbor for the past 30 years, teetotaling officials and New Testament-thumping bankers fought the couple’s business plans. But Jim, a tough former Marine, argued he was being persecuted on religious grounds and took his complaint all the way to President Jimmy Carter. The Legislature ultimately sided with Jim, and this year Perdido Vineyards celebrates its 40th anniversary as a winery.
Today, the winery has a dozen traditional “table wines” available, which include reds, whites and rosés that are differentiated by their grape blends and how long they are barrel-aged before bottling. These are the ones you’ll find on the shelf at Winn-Dixie. They also produce fortified fruit wines such as satsuma and blueberry, which have a higher alcohol content.
The shop lady let me sample a few for free and I was impressed with the dessert wines: Marianne, a sherry-like wine that would add a salty, nutty element to a creamed soup, and Bodega Mauvilla, a port-like wine that’s rich and heavy, with notes of berries and chocolate, and perfect for after-dinner sipping. The winery also produces fruit and vegetable vinegars like fig and tomato, and recently released a rhum agricole, which is made from local sugarcane juice (as opposed to rum, which is made from molasses).
I picked out a few bottles that I will give away as holiday gifts — in the name of heritage, not hate — and grabbed some of the alcohol-free white muscadine juice, too. It’s the kind of refreshing fall beverage that would be right at home on a Thanksgiving table or at a Baptist potluck. I think my mother would approve. I did stop at Wind Creek Casino on the way home, though, and lost $12 in a slot machine. That, she would not approve of.
Alyson Sheppard is Lagniappe’s resident hangover specialist and Boozie’s most unreliable Baldwin County spy. Find her on Twitter: @amshep.
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