Jules Berta gazes over his vineyards, the vines naked of fruit but lined up in deliberate rows like soldiers waiting for the command to grow. It is winter, and the promise of the next spring harvest is reflected in Berta’s eyes.
“The grapevine has many enemies, ” Berta says. “They have to be babied and coddled along in order to successfully grow. It’s a tough business, and you’ve got to be on your game. It takes a lot of perseverance, and sometimes things don’t work out. But like my old Uncle Joe used to say, ‘Next spring, God will give you another chance.’ That’s the way it goes with the grapevine.”
Berta and his wife Becky own and operate Jules J. Berta Vineyards in Albertville, a city of 21, 000 residents in northeast Alabama known as the fire hydrant capital of the world.
The couple also runs a small winery on the property, selling two dozen types of homegrown wines, ranging from red and white viniferas to fruits and muscadines.
Thanks to the climate atop Sand Mountain, the Bertas were among the first of Alabama’s winemakers to successfully grow vinifera grapes and bottle their own vinifera wines, producing chardonnay, riesling, merlot, petit syrah and others.
“We’re at 1, 100 feet, and the elevation helps to control some of the disease vectors, ” says Berta, who also works full-time as a diesel mechanic at a local company.
Berta’s nickname for the establishment is The Mad Hungarian Winery, an acknowledgment of his family’s heritage and link to winemaking dating back to the 1800s. Berta’s father, a freedom fighter that escaped from behind the Iron Curtain during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, immigrated to America in 1959 after a stay in an Austrian refugee camp.
While the father planted the first vines in 1987, he died in 2005 without realizing his dream of starting a winery. His son, however, refused to let the dream die with his father.
When the Bertas opened up the winery in March 2008, they faced an uncertain future. “We weren’t really sure how it was going to go, ” Berta says. “We were happy to keep the lights on at first, but then we found we could actually reinvest in better equipment, buy more tanks and expand our operation. We’re not blowing anybody’s doors off, but we constantly grow at a nice, even pace. We’re constantly reinvesting in the business and the property.”
Becky estimates 90 percent of the winery’s customer base hails from a 25-mile radius with the remaining 10 percent comprised of out-of-state visitors who find it on the internet and a sizable military contingent from Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville.
Signs of progress in the form of landscaping projects dot the 27 acres of property at 1409 Darden Avenue, which include more than six acres of vineyards and two lakes. The Bertas plan to create an aesthetic environment for hosting events, such as parties and weddings. They already have hosted two weddings.
The Bertas are the only two employees at the vineyards.
“We decided to dive in head-first and see how it goes, ” says Becky, who quit her job as a restaurant manager to oversee the winery full-time.
The couple is pleased with the success of the business so far, saying they reached their three-year production and sales goals in the first year. Repeat customers are the foundation of the winery’s sales growth.
“I think the success is from how people are treated when they come here, ” Berta says. “When they leave here, I want them to have had a good experience.”
The Bertas credit word-of-mouth advertising for fueling their business, located a stone’s throw off U.S. Highway 431. The couple erected a road sign in December along the busy route.
Jules J. Berta Vineyards also participates on the Alabama Wine Trail, a coalition of 10 members of the Alabama Wineries Association. Visitors can receive a passport for the wine trail and a free wineglass once the passport is stamped by the participating wineries.
“It’s very successful, ” Berta says. “It’s helped immensely. There’s no negative about it. People have fun with it. Who doesn’t want to get a free wineglass?”
Becky says the most difficult hurdle for small Alabama wineries and producers is state law. She is hoping House Bill 418, which would allow farm wineries to distribute their products in state, is passed by the Alabama Legislature during the upcoming session in February.
“We could double our sales immediately if the law was changed, ” Becky says. “We’re the largest controlled state in the country. We pay the largest permit fee in the country. If we could get the law changed, we could grow, we could hire people and Jules would be working here full-time at his business. We just want to level the playing field.”
Berta agrees. “The potential for sales and output is there, but I’ve just got my hands tied, ” he says. “It’s a shame because that’s more revenue for the state and the city of Albertville. It’s a win-win situation for everybody.”
Planning a Visit?
Jules J. Berta Vineyards
Monday – Saturday
10 a.m. – 7 p.m.
1409 Darden Ave., Albertville
By Lionel Green