John McMillan – A Path to Alabama Wine Dominance?

Agriculture Commissioner John McMillan thinks folks in Alabama should be thinking more seriously about the state’s share of America’s $162 billion wine industry.

McMillan’s office recently sent out an op/ed piece to several news outlets around the state, including Business Alabama, in which the commissioner laid out some of the potential
lenges and rewards in chasing Big Wine.

Right now, Alabama wineries produce only 31, 300 gallons of wine a year, compared to California’s 667.5 million gallons of annual production. So we have some catching up to do.

Part of the problem, McMillan concedes, is Alabama’s outdated and restrictive approach to regulating the industry. In 1979, while in the Alabama House of Representatives, McMillan introduced legislation that became the Alabama Native Farm Winery Act, trying to help the state’s vintners to become commercially viable. The Alabama Legislature repealed this law in 2001 in reaction to a court ruling that led to removal of special excise tax advantages for wine made in the state of Alabama.

As a result of that action, today there are about 50 licensed alcoholic beverage manufacturers in Alabama, nearly all are small businesses; most are start-ups. Combined, these 50 companies produce less than half a percent of the wine, beer and liquor consumed by Alabamians.

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Last year, the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control agency initiated a pilot project for one year to help in-state wine and beer producers market their products in state-owned ABC stores. This could create more demand for Alabama-grown grapes and other fruits used for wine-making, including apples, blueberries, peaches, blackberries and improved grape varieties. There’s also plenty of land for grape cultivation in Alabama, McMillan notes, especially in the hilly and mountainous regions where rocky soil with the right amounts of sunlight and rainfall can produce an abundance of grapes and other fruits needed for wine and other alcoholic beverages.

The wine industry has a few ideas of its own, in terms of what legislation would get things moving. According to the Alabama Wine Trail website, being able to sell at retail in tasting rooms would help, along with being able to sell to all retail license holders. Selling at wine festivals is on their wish list, along with a production cap of 50, 000 gallons a year for a farm winery.

“It makes perfect sense to give the ‘hometown advantage’ to Alabama entrepreneurs who take the risks and make the sacrifices, ” says McMillan. “The upside — creating jobs and improving our economy — is too good to pass up.”

Text by Dave Helms

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