Florida winemakers enjoy fruits of labor

Published: Sunday, December 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, December 1, 2002 at 12:33 a.m.
DEFUNIAK SPRINGS - 1564 wasn't a very good year for grape growers in Florida.
The French Huguenots who settled along the St. Johns River near what's now St. Augustine planned to grow the first grapes in the New World to make the wine they drank so much in the Old World. It didn't work, as native disease spoiled the harvest.
2002 was a much better year for grape growers and winemakers in Florida. In fact, wine making here is experiencing a period of unprecedented growth, helped by a rainy year and more people spending money on pleasures at home rather than travel following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"We can sell as much as we make," said Bob Paulish, president of the Florida Grape Growers Association. "It was definitely a good year."
Winemakers are profiting and the industry is growing - although the familiar European grapes most wine drinkers know still can't handle the native bacteria.
While the Huguenots were unlucky with Old World grapes, they, and later the Spanish, turned to a native grape, the Muscadine, that had developed immunity to the disease that destroyed the French grapes.
Thus, the first wine ever made in America was made in Florida, where few today know there's a wine industry at all.
At the Chautauqua Winery, beside Interstate 10 in DeFuniak Springs in the Florida Panhandle, vintners just finished six weeks of making 175,000 gallons of grape juice, much of which will be sold to out-of-state companies and wineries. The rest will go into Chautauqua Wines.
Chautauqua can't even grow all the Muscadines they need to meet demand. They also bring in grapes from vineyards in neighboring states. Sales have increased more than 15 percent a year since Chautauqua opened in 1990 and this year is expected to be at least that good, said Steve White, the winery's manager. And this year the weather cooperated.
"We didn't have any late frost, and a late frost is what hurts you in the wine industry," White said.
Just a few years ago, only a few wineries operated in Florida, said George Demetree, the state Department of Agriculture official in charge of marketing the state's wines. Today, there are 13.
And the wineries, for the first time, are making money, said Dennis Gray, a grape botanist at the University of Florida. "Every grape growing in Florida . . . is sold. We don't grow nearly enough. If you put in a vineyard right now, you'd make money."
Earl Kiser, who owns Eden Vineyards Winery near Fort Myers in Southwest Florida, won't say how much money he's making - but clearly he's optimistic.
"I opened another winery. Does that tell you anything?" Kiser asked. "Business is good."
His new winery in Pasco County - Florida Estates - is one of the latest.
Eleven of the wineries qualify as "Florida Farm Wineries" and get marketing help from the state. They have to welcome visitors for tours in addition to being working wineries. Last year, $175,000 in taxes paid by wineries went into a trust fund for billboards along the highway and other state marketing, mainly an Internet site.
One Florida Farm Winery is the Dakotah Winery along U.S. 27 in Chiefland, southwest of Gainesville. Owner Max Rittgers sells plenty of Muscadine wine. "I can't tell you how much - lots," he said. But he runs the vineyards as more of a respite for people to enjoy the placid scenery.
"We're not in the wine business or in the grape business," Rittgers said. "We're in the peace and romance business."
Kiser's Eden Vineyards doesn't use Muscadines, but the other type of grape grown in Florida, thanks to botanists such as Gray. It's called a Florida Hybrid Bunch Grape.
That's the type of grape used to make Blanc Du Bois at the state's top winery, the Lakeridge Winery in Clermont west of Orlando. Its owners also run the San Sebastian Winery in St. Augustine, near the site where the French and the Spaniards made the first wine here.
"Over the years I've taken quite a few 'wine people' by the Clermont winery and . . . they'll pick up the Blanc and they'll stop," Gray said. "The Blanc Du Bois is a very good quality white wine by any standard."
Muscadine wine - like that made at Chautauqua and Dakotah - is far different than anything California wine aficionados are used to. Florida wine is sweeter.
"Some people don't like Florida wines because they're on the fruitier side," said Chautauqua's White.
Many Florida wineries sell other types of wines - either importing the grapes or the juice and bottling the wine here, blending juices with other foreign ones, or simply importing familiar wines and bottling them.
Florida officials don't keep track of how much wine is produced in Florida or what its dollar value is, because while growing, it's still a cottage agricultural industry.
Gray said that may not remain so. Between residents and tourists, "we have a huge local market," he said. "The future's probably pretty bright."

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