CULLMAN, Ala. (AP) — Getting paid to drink wine and visit exotic locations doesn’t seem like it could be a career, but that’s exactly how Cullman native Heath Porter describes his job.
Porter is the owner of Heathen Wines & Wine Tours, and hosts tours around the U.S. and to other countries to offer guests an insider’s perspective on wines and spend some time with winemakers at work in their vineyards. He also recently launched his own Heathen Wines label, with two wines currently available for sale and more in the works.
Porter grew up in Cullman, and got his start in the food industry by getting a job washing dishes at Cracker Barrel. After he graduated high school in 1990, he made a move to Hawaii and stayed in the restaurant business, working as a cook, busser and server all the way up the ladder to general manager.
“I knew I wasn’t going to go to college, I didn’t have the money and I never liked school, so I said ‘I’m going to move to Hawaii’ and stayed in the business,” he said.
Along the way, he continued to teach himself about wine and food, and worked at several resorts as a sommelier. He used that knowledge to eventually go into business for himself hosting tours to national and international wine hot spots.
Once he decided to start his own business, the name came easily.
He said people had been calling him “Heathen” since he was 10 years old — for obvious reasons — so when it came time to start his own business and then branch out into wines, he decided to stick with that name.
When the pandemic struck, wine tours came to a halt, and while he was still hosting virtual wine tastings over Zoom video calls, he had a little too much time on his hands — which led to what Porter described as maybe the riskiest decision he could have made during the pandemic.
“Obviously when you eat, drink and travel, when the pandemic starts, you lose your entire existence,” he said. “I thought to myself, ‘What’s the stupidest thing you could do? I know, I’ll start my own wine label like a moron.’”
Of course, making your own wine is made a little easier when you have a rolodex and phone filled with contacts who rank among the best wine experts and chefs in the world, and after he began reaching out to some of those friends and receiving an emphatic “no” in response, one of them reconsidered — and decided to make the leap with Porter.
“I started the red blend with a friend of mine named Chad Melville who owns one of the best wineries in California, and we did the Syrah-Cabernet blend,” he said. “The next thing you know, I made 200 cases and people actually liked it, which was like encouraging the fat kid with cookies.”
After the successful launch of his Cuvée Cremisi blend, Porter said he looked to a previous restaurant project with Melville that had not panned out but had produced a Chardonnay, so he put the Heathen label on that and began selling it as well.
So far, the reviews of his wines have been good from the wine experts who have sampled them, Porter said.
“It’s been really well-received,” he said.
Porter is not resting on his laurels with just two wines, however, as he is currently working on a new red blend and is in conversations with people in Italy, New York and Washington about possibly making a new white or a sparkling rosé.
Porter said tours have started to pick back up again, with a few already scheduled for 2022, but working on his private label gives him something else to do and provides some additional income while there is still some uncertainty. Plus, working on a project like that prevents him from making any other questionable decisions.
“I’m not good with free time. Any time I have free time I end up starting a restaurant, taking over a huge resort or I just do something that’s magnificently stupid,” he said.
Heathen wines can currently be found in Cullman at Werner’s Trading Company and the All Steak Restaurant, and can be ordered online and shipped to 35 states — including Alabama — on vinyawine.com.
The latest Heathen Wine Tour information can be found at heathenwine.com, or the Heathen Wines Tours Facebook and Instagram pages.
Porter said he tries to come back to Cullman at least two or three times a year to see the family he still has in the area and catch up with old friends, and it also gives him a chance to see some of the support that he is still receiving from city residents.
He hosted a wine tasting at Werner’s last week and then made a stop at the All Steak before heading back out of town, and said he was surprised at the turnout from lots of people who are cheering him on from home.
“I think it’s really cool to get that kind of support from your hometown when you don’t really ask for it or have a clue it’s really going on,” he said.
Visiting infrequently also makes sure that he doesn’t wear out his welcome among those who have invited him over, Porter said.
“I get invited a lot of places once,” he said. “It’s one of those things where maybe they’ve forgotten what an idiot this dude is, and it doesn’t hurt that I always show up with really good booze.”