Northwest Florida’s Glass is More Than Half Full
Regional wineries are a close-knit business community with a shared passion
Wine is for toasting. So go ahead and lift a glass to Florida. As it turns out, the Sunshine State has the longest winemaking history in North America — it only makes sense that the vines rooted here predate those in California, the No. 1 producer of wine in America.
According to historians, wine and the art of winemaking emerged with the Europeans on Florida’s shores. French Huguenots who settled North America around 1562 made wine from the abundant wild muscadine grapes they found growing near the present-day St. Augustine/Jacksonville area. This is the first recorded reference to wine made from grapes grown in the New World. Since that time, grape growing and wine production in Florida has continued to develop as an industry.
Fast-forward 450 years, and though the number varies depending on who you ask, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services there are 27 certified wine farms in Florida. The number rises to nearly three dozen if you include retail winery businesses without farms.
Typical wine production is measured in gallons, and Florida wineries range in capacity from 1,000 to 75,000 gallons, placing the state sixth in annual gallons produced in the United States.
In Northwest Florida, there are currently seven wineries (some certified wine farms and some retail businesses) producing and selling Florida wine. As the story goes, after repeated failed attempts to grow vitis vinifera varietals more ecologically suitable clones of the indigenous muscadine or vitis rotundifolia were developed, with the help of the University of Florida, during the 1920s and ’30s. The hearty disease- and pest-resistant muscadine, grown only in Southern climates, remains the main grape harvested here. With some of the highest antioxidants of any grape, muscadine wines have the added bonus of robust health benefits.
From the muscadine grape come several varieties called Carlos, Noble and Magnolia. These grapes are, by nature, sweeter than European varieties, and the wines produced are generally sweeter as well. That said, winemaker Henry Kelley of Northwest Farms Winery in Crestview clarifies, “It’s a misconception to say fruit wines taste overly sweet. Our blueberry wine, for example, has a sweetness, but it’s not blueberry Kool-Aid.”
It’s easy to find out if you like Florida wine, because all of the wineries offer free tastings of their wines. In addition to the muscadine varieties, some harvest Conquistador, a Florida hybrid bunch grape, as well as Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Along with fruit wines that showcase Florida’s bounty, from berries to citrus and even mango and pear, some also make fortified wines such as port and sherry, as well as sparkling wine.
Wine is the core business for the wineries in Northwest Florida, and though some of them sell wine online, most of the wineries sell direct to customers — local residents and visiting tourists — fresh from the farm from their doorsteps and gift shops.
Speaking to local winemakers reveals them to be a close-knit circle with a shared passion for the sweet (and not so sweet) business of harvesting Florida fruit wines. Below is a “tour” of the wineries in the Northwest Florida region.
Monticello Vineyards & Winery
Cynthia Connolly is the real deal … and so is her wine. With a Ph.D. in agricultural education and agricultural engineering, Connolly, 64, though modest about it, is indeed a wine expert.
“It was all with a vision to be right here in this spot,” she says. “I just had to travel the globe and back to get here.”
As a devotee of clean living, she walks the talk of Monticello Vineyards & Winery — her certified organic wine farm situated on a 50-acre farm called Ladybird Organics in the Red Hills region of Jefferson County. In fact, like entrepreneur Jacque Perrin of Château de Beaucastel, who was the first winemaker to experiment with organic and biodynamic farming in France’s Southern Rhône Valley at the turn of the 20th century, Connelly was worm casting and composting on her organic farm in 1989, four years before the U.S. Department of Agriculture even developed standards for it. For this vigneron, it’s only natural.
“To do something other than organic farm sort of baffles those of us who do it,” she says. “Organic farming is a different system or paradigm. A regular farmer considers what chemicals or fertilizer to apply, while an organic farmer thinks of the system and how to work in harmony with the natural balance of prey and predators to achieve a healthy balance of soil life that is sustainable and really does work.”
It’s also curious to Connolly that to earn and keep an organic designation from the state, farmers bear the burden of proof.
“We have to spend hours during intense inspections providing affidavits and showing all we are doing, whereas conventional farms don’t have to say what they are doing or reveal how much they are genetically modifying or anything else,” she says.
Despite the fact that organic farming is a “a natural marvel” that she hopes will one day be the rule and not the exception, Connolly stays her course and explains that keeping things simple is cost-effective in the long run. Though Florida land is a challenge, understanding the soil leads to healthier plants that yield more fruit. She points to a state-of-the-art irrigation system valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars that stands idle.
“I do not irrigate anymore. In fact, I don’t think I have in 10 years,” she says.
Though Connelly has a 1,000-gallon wine capacity, she chooses to limit what she grows and sells only what she produces, which is 18 varieties of 100 percent organic fruit wine. Selling wine is about 90 percent of her business.
The farm produces other citrus; micro greens; persimmon; pear; other fruits such as mulberries, blueberries and figs; and nuts. When she has time, Connelly supplements with consulting and workshops on vineyard establishment, organic farming, certification and other agriculture-related topics.
“I love teaching,” she says. “I am passionate about this, and I love sharing it with other people. It sometimes only takes a few little things for the lights to come on and for people to then begin to get their hands in the soil.”
After 26 years of traveling the globe at various schools and jobs in order to make her vision a reality, Connolly still relishes the challenges Monticello Winery brings.
“Farming is a commitment,” she says. “It is not like a dot-com or simply something you pay for like a storefront. It is something from the ground up, and that is a commitment . . . more like a marriage.”
There is a science to perfecting the art of wine. And since 1990, George Cowie has applied his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in food science from the University of Arkansas to his role of winemaker at Chautauqua Vineyards in Crestview.
For Cowie, 50, winemaking is all about the intrinsic connection to the land.
“The wine business is agriculture first and foremost,” he says. Having good land in a great location is a bonus, and being located near the off ramp for Interstate 10 and County Road 331, Chautauqua has both.
The largest winery in Northwest Florida, Chautauqua uses state-of-the-art European equipment for what Cowie describes as a three-pronged wine business: retail, wholesale and custom grape crushing.
George Cowie uses 1,980 gallons of barrels for oak aging some wines at his Chautauqua Vinyards.
Jennifer G. Photography
The winery was constructed in 1989 and boasts more than 70,000 gallons of temperature-controlled, stainless steel casks and 1,980 gallons of barrels for oak aging. Cowie is particularly proud of the 12,000-liter wine press custom-built for Chautauqua by the Scharfenberger Company of Germany.
“It’s the Mercedes Benz of presses,” he says. It’s also the largest press of its kind east of the Rocky Mountains.
Because muscadine grapes grow in clusters, Cowie says they are easily harvested with a mechanical grape picker.
“Three men can harvest 30 tons before lunch,” the winemaker says. The process moves quickly, and the grapes are pressed within hours of being picked to ensure the best quality wine. “You can’t make it any better than it is the moment you pick it,” Cowie says.
After crushing and chilling, the juice is clarified, cultured wine yeast is added and the fermentation process begins. The white wines are generally fermented at cool temperatures, around 50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit, to capture aroma and flavor. Reds are then fermented “on the skins” for several days to extract the flavor and color from the skin of the grape. Red wines usually are fermented at a cool 70 degrees. Both white and red wines ferment until all sugar is converted to alcohol, this itself ending the fermentation process. The wines are then allowed to settle, and any blending that is done happens at this stage. Finally, the wines are clarified and stabilized in preparation for bottling. Grapes harvested in the fall are made into wines, which are typically ready for bottling the following spring.
Chautauqua sells about 10,000 total cases of 14 different varieties of wine each season.
“For people who are surprised to hear there is Florida wine, we have a broad product line — we have muscadine wines, but we also have chardonnay, merlot, blueberry and blackberry fruit wines and port, sherry and dessert wine,” Cowie says. “It’s hard to find someone who comes through who can’t find something they like.”
Chautauqua sells wholesale to one or two retail stores, but after wine retail, the bulk of its revenue comes from leveraging its capital investment in equipment to crush between 600 and 1,000 tons of grapes each year.
“The machine only sees action during crush season, but you own it 365 days a year, and the chillers aren’t used continuously, but you must have them,” Cowie says. “We figure it costs the same if we’re crushing Chautauqua grapes or someone else’s, so you have to use your resources.”
Cowie says the cost and the uncertainty of the weather in Northwest Florida just prior to harvest time makes the business end of winemaking here “daunting,” but when a customer leaves with a case of Carlos or Noble wine made from muscadine grapes, it’s all worth it.
“What’s gratifying to me is that what sells the most, what people walk out the door with cases of, is what grows on Florida soil, in Florida sun, what we’ve had care of from the ground up. That’s gratifying.”
Three Oaks Winery
Three Oaks Winery is located in Vernon, a small, rural town about 30 miles north of Panama City and 10 miles south of I-10. It is owned and operated by Byron and Lucretia Biddle, who started the winery in 1996 after semi-retiring from numerous business ventures back home in Panama City.
“We sold everything and started this farm with a vine given to us by one of Byron’s viticulturist friends,” Lucretia Biddle says. “Now we have award-winning wines, and we do pretty well — one of our customers buys seven cases of it at a time.”
On their 11 acres, the Biddles grow their own line of grapes, including the Conquistador bunch grape and the muscadine grape, which produces a wine that is smooth to the taste and refreshing. The oldest Northwest Florida winery on record, they have the capacity to yield about 3,000 gallons of wine a year.
The 70-somethings wholesale to a couple of hand-picked local restaurants run by folks they know, but the bulk of their business is direct to consumers. The Biddles usually sell out to tourists from Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee visiting their gift shop, The Grapevine, but due to ongoing road construction, the business is down.
“We generally do well, but the traffic has slowed business by 75 percent,” Byron says. “It is supposed to be done by 2017, so we hope to get through until then.”
The Biddles say they run a “controlled” farm, meaning they purposely keep it small. Byron enlists his grandson to help during harvest, and the couple counts on fellow wine farmers when they need to.
“I have had five businesses, and the camaraderie in the wine businesses is unbelievable,” Lucretia Biddle says. “There is no jealousy. No backbiting. Everyone looks out for one another.”
Northwest Farms Winery
Henry Kelley may be a new face to wine farming, but after helping Greg Evers’ Akers of Strawberries farm in Crestview part time for years, he’s no stranger to working the land. He purchased the Yellow River Winery from Okaloosa County Commissioner Nathan Boyles at the beginning of 2015 and has already made a number of changes toward realizing his business goals. The first was to refresh the brand name.
“I want Northwest Farms Winery to leverage the local aspect,” he says. “We are located in Northwest Florida, and our wines are produced with fruit from this area.”
What Kelley isn’t changing is the wine, which sells well. Northwest Farms has capacity for several thousand gallons a year. Although the winery was closed when we caught up with him, Kelley said he had 4,000 bottles ready to be sold. Summer Crush, Feelin’ Peachy and Little Beau Blue are a few of the catchy names of the wines bottled there. And soon there will be a new offering made from the Florida sand pear.
“We don’t believe anyone has made wine with it before,” Kelley says.
Kelley isn’t quite ready to quit his day job in community affairs for the Okaloosa County School District, so he is managing his winery in the evenings and on weekends.
“It’s a hobby right now, but I plan to hire a manager and someone to run it,” he says.
At this writing, he also plans to relocate the retail store perhaps to a city that does not currently have a wine retail shop, such as downtown Fort Walton Beach, where Kelley grew up.
“My dream is to be a part of the tourism economy,” Kelley says. “People do come here for the beaches, but they eventually come off the beach, and I think this concept will do well there.”
Old Oaks Winery
Bridget Keegan began making wine for family and friends from vines on her 10-acre farm in Holmes County more than 25 years ago. In July 2012, Old Oaks Winery became recognized as a Certified Florida Farm Winery. It produces a number of grapes: Blanc du Blois, Champanel, Lomonto, Carlos and Black Spanish. Now, Keegan sells her old family favorites — Pumpkin, Red and White table wines. The Red Table wine is a blend with Champanel, and the White Table wine is a blend made with Riesling.
Wineries That Drink in the View
Tourism pairs well with wine. In fact, wine tourism is leading the growth of the wine industry in many regions of the country. According to MKF Research — a leading source on the U.S. wine industry — there has been a “dramatic increase in destination wineries and wine trails.” Part of the $90 billion industry includes 30 million wine lovers sipping, swirling and sampling their favorite vintages across the nation.
Here in Florida, wineries hope to capitalize on those looking to “drink in” the fruits of the local coastal lifestyle.
Two Northwest Florida wine businesses are well positioned to do so. Emerald Coast Wine Cellars, a “sister” retail center for Chautauqua Vineyards & Winery located on Scenic Highway 98 in Miramar Beach, and Panama City Beach Winery, located on Thomas Drive, are not wine farms, but both sell award-winning fruit wine and hundreds of wine-themed accessories and custom gift baskets out of their retail shops at enviable locations near the Gulf.
Emerald Coast Wine Cellars, managed by Melissa Webster, is a bonded winery that could produce on site but chooses not to. Instead, the Miramar Beach-based boutique shop is a retail showroom for 16 Chautauqua wines that range in price from $7.95 for Emerald Coast Sugar Sands white or Emerald Coast Sunset red to $25.45 for Vanilla Sherry and Chocolate Port. You can shop for dozens of wine-related products, gadgets and accessories from muscadine grape juice, syrup and grape seed oil to battery-operated, lighted wine-bottle stoppers. The store offers free daily tastings of all its wines and takes orders for custom gift baskets for all occasions.
Panama City Beach Winery was opened in 2000 by Kay and Larry Honeycutt and soon became a refreshing alternative to the beach. The Honeycutts leverage their place in the Sunshine State by proudly marketing their approval from the Florida Citrus Commission to use the coveted “Florida sunshine tree” label on their citrus wines. The label is fitting for their premium specialty wines, which are made from 100 percent pure Florida citrus juice.
In addition to citrus, Panama City Beach also produces wines from bananas, blackberries, carrots and cherries. A newer product is called Cool Freeze. Inspired by the beach, Cool Freeze is designed as a frozen treat to cool tourists after a day on the water. All the wines are sold on site and online and can be shipped throughout the country.
The Future Looks Sweet for Florida Wine
Wine is said to speak of its community and history. If Northwest Florida is any indication, the wine industry here, though small, is still worth raising a glass to in celebration. Why not? Wine, wine grapes and ancillary industries create employment and new market opportunities in rural communities. In fact, wine sales in the United States have grown by nearly 25 percent since 2001. Florida has increased in the number of wineries by 19 percent, according to Wine Growers of America.
And by all accounts, the market for wine is growing. MKF Research reports that all generational segments are increasing their wine consumption. Because Americans are increasingly seeking opportunities to socialize, wine has a high level of consumer value. This translates to retail patterns, meaning you can purchase it in more and more locations, including restaurants, which are increasing their quality of wines (and wine lists) to keep up with consumer demand.
Land in Florida and in towns across the United States that was once flush with tobacco, cotton and other crops is now a fertile home to grapevines. By its very nature, wine and grapes are long-term investments and therefore potentially offer long-term employment opportunities. Wineries and vineyards have intense capital and credit requirements that can run $15,000 to $35,000 per acre depending on the region, grapes and planting pattern. And with the first saleable crops not appearing for three or four years, revenue may not be earned from wine sales until one to three years after that. Add in agricultural risks from weather, disease and pests and it’s an industry relatively few financial institutions have a comfort level with. Consequently, beyond their grapes, growers and wineries have a tough row to hoe.
The future of wine in Northwest Florida, if not the nation, may depend on planting seeds — educational seeds. Studies show the growth of viticulture and oenology research has not kept pace with the expansion of the industry across the country.
But with Northwest Florida’s benevolent winemaking experts willing to teach and share, the built-in tourism destination and the increased consumer demand pouring into the market, might the region be well positioned to attract a few more winemakers in order to sell a bit more wine before its time?
Unlike manufacturing or service enterprises, vineyards, once planted, cannot be outsourced to another country offering cheaper labor, a better business climate or tax incentive. Wine is inherently tied to a particular place. So here’s to wineries literally rooted in Northwest Florida — may they grow and prosper.