UF's hand stretches across Florida vineyards
Published: Saturday, April 19, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 18, 2014 at 7:42 p.m.
ST. AUGUSTINE — April 2 was the sixth time Tim Fannin and his wife, Andrea Lavorie, had toured San Sebastian Winery in St. Augustine, but it was the first time they saw the wine they love being bottled.
Fannin, a 60-year-old from South Deerfield, Mass., said they visit the nation's oldest city a couple times a year to see family and briefly escape the cold, eventually making their way to San Sebastian to sample the winery's different products before buying a case.
What is usually a quiet, guided tour quickly turned into an assembly line of hissing machinery.
After Fannin walked up 20 stairs to the catwalk above the factory, he looked down and watched the wine being bottled. The bottling aerated the room in a deep, fruity cloud as employees filled, corked and sealed San Sebastian's Port Ruby, which is barrel-aged for one year.
Four employees pushed about 28 to 32 bottles through the production line, which was the size of a large dining room table, every minute and boxed up about 115 cases in an hour, at 12 bottles per case.
After seeing and smelling the bottling, Fanning said he wished he had the same setup at home.
Of the dozen or so different wines San Sebastian makes, only a handful are bottled at the St. Augustine location: the Port Ruby, Cream Sherry and 2-year Port. Most of the other bottling takes place at its Clermont vineyard.
One wine in particular that's bottled there is made from hybrid grapes bred out of the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences program in Apopka.
One of the program's hybrid grapes, called Blanc Du Bois, was crossbred to thrive in Florida's humid climate and to resist Pierce's disease, which kills grapevines and is caused by a bug called a glassy-winged sharpshooter.
"They go and they actually feed on the vine. When they do that, they basically leave behind a disease," said Charles Cox, president of Seavin Inc., the company that owns San Sebastian Winery.
Some grapevines are resistant to the disease, and some are not, he said. But what IFAS researchers also were looking for was a grape that would make a drier wine — the Southeast is more suited to growing sweeter muscadine grapes. Researchers blended those characteristics together and made a grape that was more acidic and could thrive in Florida.
Director of Winemaking Jeanne Burgess said the Blanc Du Bois wine — named after Emile DuBois, a winemaker in Tallahassee in the late 1800s — has an aroma of apricots and offers a spiciness that people recognize as a grapefruit. It pairs well with seafood and is light on the palate, she said.
Burgess, who has been with the company for 31 years, has had a longstanding relationship with UF's IFAS program.
"We evaluated 11 different varieties (of grapes), and Blanc Du Bois was the one that captured our interest," she said.
She said the program has been strong in developing grapes for white wines and hopes to see it come out with grapes for red wines in the future.
And that is exactly what IFAS biologist Dennis Gray said the program is working on, along with making grapes with higher levels of disease resistance.
"One of our biggest pushes is to make a fungal- and Pierce's-resistant grape variety," he said.
Although Gray didn't have a hand in making the Blanc Du Bois grape, he said he did share an office with the man who did: John Mortensen. IFAS researchers have been proud to watch Blanc Du Bois win in competitions across the U.S. And what's most interesting to him about that grape is that it might never have happened.
"It was almost not released because the fungal resistance is poor," Gray said — a problem that plagues many vineyards across the world.
He commends Jeanne Burgess and Gary Cox, the founder of Seavin Inc., for developing a good market for wine production in Florida.
"Jeanne and Gary Cox were the pioneers, showing that you can really make a good business in growing grapes and wine," Gray said.
Although the bottling for Blanc Du Bois took place in January, Burgess said she expects the harvest for the next batch to occur in the third week of June, during the rainy season when it's hot outside.
A harvester drives over the trellis and shakes off the grapes without tearing the vine. Then, a thin, balloon-like membrane squeezes the juice out of the grapes, the juice goes though racking — transferring the wine from one container to another to clear it of sediments — and then ferments to make alcohol.
At San Sebastian, the fermentation can take up to two years inside oak whiskey-bourbon barrels for its Port wine. The charred layer on the inside of the barrel adds an amber coloring, and during that time, the 52-gallon barrels can become wet on the outside because they naturally leak.
Winery attendant Marshall Peters said people talk about Jim Beam's Devil's Cut — whiskey that's squeezed out of the barrel wood — but at San Sebastian, he talks about the "angel's share."
"We talk about the drops that come out of the barrel, and the angels surround the barrel, grab that drop and go back to heaven," Peters said.