White Oak, situated just off Highway 9 near Iron City, is the brainchild of husband-and-wife team Randal Wilson and Dana Davis. They started the vineyard in 1998, after Wilson retired from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Wilson was not a novice to grape-growing. He knew the amount of hard work and long hours involved. He holds a degree from California Polytechnic State University, where he was introduced to all technical aspects of grape growing.
Last week, I joined Wilson for an update on happenings at White Oak.
Wilson produces around 2,000 cases of wine a year. His newly expanded facility will allow him to produce 5,000 to 7,000 cases a year, a necessary expansion because Wilson has entered into an agreement with the state’s largest distributor of fine wines and spirits, United Johnson Brothers, to distribute his wines across the state.
White Oak has state-of-the-art facilities not unlike those in Napa or Sonoma. There are enormous stainless-steel storage tanks, temperature-controlled fermentation tanks, bottling apparatuses and other accoutrement necessary for winemaking.
On the blazingly hot day I visited, the temperature in the winery and tasting room was 65 degrees without air conditioning. The cool temperature is the result of Wilson’s ingenuity and his personal version of a geothermal cooling system.
The main production room abuts the side of a mountain that cools the back wall to basement temperatures. Wilson stores cold well water pumped from deep in the earth in two large tanks at the back of his property. This water is used for irrigating vineyards, but it is also pumped through 870 feet of pipe snaking it way under the floor of the new facility to provide cool temperatures for wine production and human comfort.
Wilson is duly proud of his expanded facility, but seems most excited by the possibility of growing vinifera grapes — the classic wine grapes of Europe — thanks to research at the University of California Davis and Auburn University’s experimental agricultural station in Clanton.
The major reason vinifera does not survive in our area is Pierce’s Disease, a bacterial infection spread by bugs that feed on grapevines.
Because Pierce’s is a global problem, UC Davis has used genetic engineering to develop vinifera strains that appear to be Pierce-resistant. The university bred a Pierce-resistant native grape of Mexico with popular vinifera varietals like chardonnay and cabernet.
These experimental vines are genetically 97 percent vinifera. They are planted on Beringer’s property in Napa. Wines from these grapes have been favorably reviewed in blind wine tastings and exhibit the same traits as wines made of 100 percent vinifera.
Some 300 of these vines are also planted at Auburn’s Clanton operation and will soon be released to growers. In preparation for this release, Wilson has been planting Dog Ridge rootstocks to which he will graft cuttings of Pierce-resistant vinifera from Auburn.
Vinifera table wine is a definite possibility in the future of White Oak, but meanwhile White Oak, under its Southern Oak label, produces outstanding local wines from French hybrids and native fruit.
I am particularly fond of two of Wilson’s white wines, one from chardonnel and the other from villard blanc. These show Wilson’s skill as a maker of dry wine.
Especially surprising is the blackberry wine from estate-grown blackberries. This was remarkably smooth, did not taste like pancake syrup and performed somewhat like Port.
Try these wines for your Fourth of July celebration, or choose from others including a sparkling wine made from muscadines.
If you go: White Oak Vineyards is at 1484 Dry Hollow Road, Choccolocco Valley, Anniston, 256-231-7998, www.southernoakwines.com. Open to the public 1-6 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday.