A Monroe County landmark came down last week when the Happy B Farm Winery on Bunn Road, the first retail winery in Georgia, was demolished.
In 1980 the late Alton “TA” Bunn created what was thought to be the state’s first retail winery since prohibition. He started the winery because he was growing so many tomatoes that he couldn’t sell them all.
“He could grow anything, but he grew thousands of tomatoes,” recalled his friend, Forsyth attorney Ashley Hawkins. “Every one of them turned out.” Hawkins said they drank coffee together every morning and Bunn mulled starting a packaging operation for all those tomatoes. Then he decided to make a little bit of tomato wine and see if he could do that instead. He liked the result and decided to open a winery. There was only one problem. Bunn learned that it was illegal to make and sell wine as a retail operation in Georgia. So Hawkins began working the state legislature and was able to change state law to allow retail wineries. They are now a thriving industry in the state, but Bunn’s was the first.
Hawkins said after Happy B opened, people would come by his office all the time and ask how to get to the winery.
“They loved it,” laughed Hawkins, adding, “I couldn’t stand it.”
Bunn’s daughter Sheryl Bunn, who now lives in Atlanta, said she suspects people liked the 12 percent alcohol at just $3-$4 per bottle more than the actual taste.
“It tasted like sour tomato soup,” said Sheryl. “Some people went for it for the price and because it had some alcohol in it. I don’t think they got it for the taste.”
Bunn’s only surviving brother, one of 12, Forsyth insurance man J.T. Bunn, said the tomato wine didn’t taste like tomatoes. J.T. Bunn said he thought the clear golden wine tasted like champagne.
A front page story in the May 14, 1980 Reporter heralded the new business with the headline, “State’s first retail winery opens locally Friday”. TA Bunn, who also serves as a Monroe County commissioner, told the Reporter’s Wendell Ramage that he grows about two acres of tomatoes that make 5,000 gallons of the wine. He said it takes about 6 weeks of fermenting and processing to turn tomatoes into wine in white oak barrels he bought in Albany.
“It will have a healthy kick to it,” TA Bunn promised.
TA Bunn told Ramage that he had already bought grape vines to do grape wine and if that went well, he might add watermelon and cantaloupe wines and maybe even sake.
Alas, Bunn began having heart problems and died three years later. Then his widow had to sell the property to pay off some debts associated with the winery, said Sheryl Bunn. Recently the current property owners decided to clean the old winery off the property, and they hired Bunn’s great nephew, Phillip Bunn, to do it. Phillip said they found lots of bottles of the old tomato wine inside.
While the winery itself didn’t last long, the change it brought to state law has given Happy B a legacy that stands today. Sheryl Bunn recalled that a few years ago she was working for a property management company in Atlanta and helping a new tenant, Habersham Winery, move in.
“I proudly said that my daddy started the first winery in Georgia,” recalls Sheryl.
The owner didn’t hesitate before responding: “Happy B Farms! I remember your daddy going to the state capitol wearing boots, khakis and a straw cowboy hat to change that law!”
“I was beaming,” recalled Sheryl, “because somebody knew who my daddy was.”