Into the World of Alabama Winemakers & Grapegrowers Association

05/12/2019 Kimberly Miller, President of Alabama Winemakers & Grapegrowers Association talks about her role, and how AWGGA is helping wineries in Alabama.

We’re here with Kimberly Miller today, President of Alabama Winemakers & Grapegrowers Association (AWGGA). In conversation with Miller, she shared insights about AWGGA, and how they are working to help winemakers and grape growers in Alabama. 

  1. Tell us a little about yourself and your journey in the wine industry

My fiance Richard Bearden and I purchased a home in north-central Alabama back in the summer of 2017.  It's out in the country with a large lot.  Not long after moving in, we realized we had tons of blueberry bushes on our property, thanks to the previous owner, and we decided we should try our hand at making wine.  We thought it would be fun, and it would keep a lot of fruit from going to waste. 

It turned into a mini-obsession where we have made wine out of just about every fruit imaginable - our best batches have been plum and strawberry.  We plan to open a winery to use as supplemental income during our retirement years.

  1. What exactly is Alabama Winemakers & Grapegrowers Association?

Alabama Winemakers & Grape Growers Association (AWGGA) popped up in a web search while I was in the researching phase of our winemaking obsession.  AWGGA is a non-profit organized to encourage and support winemaking and grape growing as viable agricultural industries in the State of Alabama.  This would include promoting Alabama wineries and educating members about winemaking and grape growing.  We help advertise all of our Alabama wineries through our web and Facebook pages. 

Aside from bringing new business and members to the commercial wineries on a monthly basis, AWGGA will represent any Alabama winery in the festival setting should they wish to participate in one of Alabama's wine festivals but are unable to spare employees for that purpose.  Our members will volunteer to attend and represent the winery by pouring free samples to festival attendees.

We are always trying to help our wineries get involved with more festivals to get the word out about their wonderful Alabama wines.  Most people don't even realize that we have so many wineries right here in Alabama!

  1. As President, what’s something new you’ve implemented at AWGGA?

During my presidency, I have implemented a monthly wine tasting for members at a different Alabama winery each month and have been instrumental in the AWGGA representing some wineries at festivals for their first time.  During our monthly tasting events, the host winery provides our members with a free tasting and some wineries have even gone above and beyond with light refreshments or lunch.  It's always a lot of fun participating in these events and festivals. 

AWGGA Spring Conference

Image: AWGGA Spring Conference

  1. What are some of the challenges that you face at AWGGA?

Alabama wineries are each very unique business.  We have some very large wineries and some very, very small wineries.  Some have distributors and some do not.  Some want to branch out into more retail opportunities and some prefer to keep their wineries as a personal interest where all sales are handled at the winery.  Some wineries have full-service restaurants where you can choose from many different types of foods, some have specialty items such as pizza and slushies, and some do not offer food choices at all.  It is difficult sometimes to try to represent all these very unique wineries because their goals are so different.  The ABC Board can be a huge obstacle for wineries, and there are several laws in place that harm our wineries and inhibit their growth and potential to prosper.

  1. What are some of the programs set in at Alabama Winemakers & Grapegrowers Association to help winemakers and grape growers across Alabama?

AWGGA offers monthly events for our members to get together and discuss their successes and obstacles in their respective winemaking and grape growing ventures.  These events, since taking place at a different Alabama winery each month, give the members an opportunity to also discuss their personal situations with the winery owners and operators - people who are succeeding on a larger scale - which can be very helpful, especially to that first starting out. 

In addition,  each year there is a Fall Workshop and a Spring Conference that provide speakers to discuss topics from pests and diseases that affect our vines and the winemaking process to less critical but informative issues such as wine pairings.  We offer competition for our amateur winemakers as well where the wines are assessed by certified American Wine Society judges (or those very close to completing the process of becoming certified) and awards are given out each year at our Spring Conference.

AWGGA Spring Conference Luncheon

Image: AWGGA Spring Conference Luncheon

  1. How does a typical association meeting look like?

Most of our meetings are informal and take place at a winery where we are sampling the goods, so to speak.  We have been known to hold a meeting at a more random venue (such as one that hopes to become a winery one day) and all the amateur winemakers bring bottles of their homemade wine for everyone to taste and critique.  The formal AWGGA meetings take place at the Spring Conference and Fall Workshop and a few times a year we just get together at a local pub to have a formal meeting and discuss the event coordination, association business, etc.

  1. What are some of the things you’re working on currently as an association?

We have been trying to get a few laws changed. 

One example is the Small Farm Winery Bill (SB234) which would have allowed small farm wineries to self-distribute table wines to licensed retailers and sell directly to consumers.  This would have cut out the need for distributors who charge the wineries for doing something some wineries would prefer to do by themselves so they can keep their profits. 

Similarly, SB274 would have allowed a licensed wine manufacturer to direct ship to Alabama residents.  Despite an overwhelming approval by the state House of Representatives, the direct shipping bill died when Senator J.T. “Jabo” Waggoner, in his role as Rules Chairman, refused to allow the bill to go to the Senate floor for a vote.  We have "rallied the troops" to try and get him to change his position in 2020, requesting help from anyone who will reach out to Chairman Waggoner.

Kimberly Miller, President, AWGGA 

Image: Kimberly Miller, President, AWGGA

Yet another bill (SB269) would permit wine and beer festivals to allow retail sales of wine and beer by the wineries directly.  It appears that even though the majority of chairmen are willing to vote these bills through, a few of our representatives refuse to allow it, citing more research and special committees are needed to determine whether passing them would be a good idea. 

The passing of these bills would help our wineries to grow and prosper.  The only ones who may be harmed by their passing would be the distribution companies, and I would venture to say that even if every Alabama winery dropped their distributors, it would not significantly change the profits of the distribution companies.  Of course, this is only my opinion, but it's a common one throughout the Alabama wine industry.

  1. So tell us, Kimberly, what are you going to be drinking this holiday season?

Well, I have at least a bottle of wine from every winery in Alabama and I have my favorites from every single one!  For fear of leaving one out, let's just say I prefer a white or blush, semi-sweet to sweet wine, and here in Alabama, that means I have a LOT to choose from.  Alabama produces much more than just muscadine and fruit wines these days.  There is definitely a perfect wine or two or three right here in our own backyard for every wine lover.