Defying both the economy and the tastes of high-end wine drinkers, Larry and Lenora Woodham have opened a new Florida winery.
The five-acre Bunker Hill Vineyard is located in Duette, near Tampa. The Woodhams have developed the vineyard over the past dozen years, and grow seven varieties of Muscadine grapes. They recently started bottling their own wine, and produce ten different labels. Bunker Hill is an Environmentally Responsible Winery, and the Woodhams store and age their products in glass carboys, “eliminating the need to harvest majestic oaks” (and presumably also eliminating the need to pass along the majestic price charged for oak casks).
Florida wine traditionally has received little respect from connoisseurs, mostly due to the fact that traditional vinifera grapes (such as Chardonnay, Cabernet or Pinot noir) can’t survive in the state. Instead, vintners turn to hybrids (such as Stover or Blanc du Bois), or the Muscadine varieties grown by the Woodhams, which include Nobel, Magnolia and Black Beauty. A great deal of the production is sweet wine, although there are impressive dry versions of Blanc du Bois to be found.
Still, the Florida wine industry is thriving. It began in the 1970s, when Earl Kiser purchased hybrid cuttings from the University of Florida and founded Eden Vineyards in Alva. There are now 26 wineries throughout the state, producing close to 300,000 gallons annually. Many are small, family-owned operations similar to Bunker Hill. The Rosa Fiorelli Winery, near Bradenton, opened in 1998. Rosa and her husband, Antonio, emigrated to Florida from Sicily and were struck by the similarities in soil, climate and landscape; like the Woodhams, they grow a combination of hybrids and Muscadines.
Florida’s largest and most impressive winery is Lakeridge, located near Clermont. Lakeridge wines are available at local retail outlets (Publix, ABC and Total), but most of the bottles are sold direct to consumers at the winery. It has become a destination unto itself, offering tours, tastings, a banquet facility, and a full schedule of activities including a jazz concert series and harvest festival.
Part of the interest in regional wine is undoubtedly due to the growing locavore movement, in addition to the desire of families to travel closer to home. A great deal is also due to the attitude of vintners such as the Woodhams, who filter all their wine naturally by gravity and age it in bottle for one year before release. “Handcrafted wine is our trademark,” runs their motto, “Exceptional taste is our pledge.”