Feature: Grape Expectations

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Maraella founders overcome personal obstacles and defy naysayers to become Alabama’s first winery to produce a cabernet sauvignon.

Story and photos by MEREDITH CUMMINGS

When Jim Lee was growing up near Hokes Bluff, Ala ., his mother, Jennie Lou, would make fruitcakes that were legendary in these parts. To keep those fruitcakes moist, she soaked them in wine made in a butter churn and allowed her 12-year-old son to help. He has been making wine ever since.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]Now, at the age of 72, Jim presides over Maraella Winery as the founder and vintner.

He remembers his mother telling him, all those years ago, “I think grapes are a special gift from God. Humans and all animals love grapes. More grapes are grown on this earth than all other fruit combined, and grape vines will grow almost anywhere.”

But the road to producing fine, hand-crafted wines was anything but smooth or even straight. It was filled with twists and turns, tragedy and triumph.

Jim grew up, moved away to enlist in the Marines in 1960 and eventually married his high school sweetheart, Sandra Mae. They had four sons: Scott, Greg, John and Tim. Jim went into a business unrelated to wine.

In 1985, when Greg was a junior at the University of Alabama, he was in a car accident and suffered a brain stem contusion. The Lees have taken care of him at home for the past three decades. Then, in 2010, youngest son Tim died from a liver disease.

The strength and resilience of the Lee family and how it endures tragedies is apparent in the juxtaposition of the family’s laid-back attitude and its relentless commitment to success. It is obvious to any visitor that this is a place and company that love built.

It was during a 2004 trip to Napa and Sonoma in California that Jim’s past, present and future intersected. He had retired from publications and technology industries and missed working. His visit to California vineyards convinced him to try his hand at starting a winery in Alabama.

In March 2005, Jim purchased 1,600 vines from Herrick Grapevines in St. Helen, Calif., a few miles north of Napa Valley. The harvest of Sept. 4, 2012, yielded eight tons of fruit, resulting in 760 gallons of wine, and Maraella opened for business.

The family had to endure the naysayers. Almost everyone told Jim and Scott, who handles much of the day-to-day operations of the facility and vineyards, that they couldn’t grow cabernet sauvignon grapes in Alabama – it’s simply too hot and humid here. Though the wetter climate results in the grape leaves having to be trimmed more often those grown in drier regions, the family has only lost two vines to Alabama’s relentless humidity in the past decade.

“I learned a long time ago that dedication and hard work can overcome a lot of obstacles,” Scott says, looking out over the family’s vineyards. “From a family standpoint, it’s been an opportunity to make something that’s ours. That’s where the passion comes from.”

The winery feels further removed from the city than it actually is – just a hop and skip from Gadsden, Ala. And while Scott is a lifelong learner when it comes to wine, the best school is his family home.

“I live out here,” he says, motioning to the vineyard. “It’s the best education in wine.”

And the winery has already received a great deal of praise and accolades.

Lorie Holloway, general manager of Maraella, points out that the winery was awarded three medals at the 2014 International Craft Awards Competition in Los Angeles and one medal at the 2014 Artisan Awards in San Francisco.

The Appalachia Foothills Carlos (white muscadine wine) brought home a gold medal, while the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2013 Riesling brought home silver medals at the 2014 International Craft Awards Competition. The Appalachia Foothills Carlos received a gold medal in the 2014 Artisan Awards.

The refined-but-relaxing facility has grown quickly from 450 square feet to 4,500 square feet. A patio-in-progress outside allows visitors to sit and enjoy a view of the vineyard while they taste wine, and a pavilion serves as a gathering place for parties, weddings and other celebrations. The cozy tasting room is a great place to kick back on a rainy day with friends.

“We want people to be able to come by, sit outside the vineyard and have a glass of wine and some cheese,” Scott says.

Though the winery offers Southern sweet wines, Scott says the goal is to bring more traditional wines, such as chardonnay and cabernet, to Alabama.

Maraella Winery produces blueberry, sweet white, sweet red, dry muscadine, chardonnay, zinfandel, cabernet, rosé and riesling wines. “We’re trying to introduce traditional wines to Alabama’s people,” Scott says. “We would like to bring a traditional, viniferous background to the state. That is our goal, so that people can experience that.”

He says it’s his father’s “example and positive attitude” that have served as a hallmark of the winery’s character.

Scott also touts Alabama’s small businesses – specifically wineries – supporting one another as a key to Maraella’s success.

“Our industry works hard to come together, and I think we’re making progress there,” he says. “We are real excited about this. It’s a product that we grow here and make here, but we don’t expect that to happen overnight. We do need the support of our brothers and sisters in the state of Alabama.”

Maraella seems to be gaining that support. Every year, when harvest comes in September, community members rally and pitch in to help the family. In 2014, more than 70 people came out to help, a true community event. (This year, Jim Lee had open-heart surgery, and the family kept the harvest low-key.)

Even the winery’s name comes from the closeness of family. It’s a combination of Scott’s four daughter’s names. Starting with the youngest granddaughter, Jim chose to use the first two letters in each one’s middle name: AnnaMae, Bella Rae, Savannah Elise and Jessika Lauren to come up with Maraella, the winery name.

There will be no additions to the winery’s name, but wines will continue to be added, and the Lees hope they will flourish. Scott points out that when he travels abroad, he tries to drink wine from the area he’s visiting. “If I’m in Slovakia, I want Slovakian wine,” he says.

Scott says he wants Maraella to be able to bring that same sense of local flavor and community to the palate of people passing through Alabama. He knows it’s a long-term goal. “This is a marathon,” he says. “It’s not short term.” Maraella wines are available at

Maraella Winery in Hokes Bluff, Ala.,Vintage 1889 in Fort Payne, Ala., and ABC stores in Centre, Fort Payne, Scottsboro and Guntersville in Alabama. For more information, see maraella.com.[/s2If]