Grapes, Ghosts and Florida’s Wine History

By: Mia Cabana

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When I think of American wine, it’s hard not to instantly associate it with “Napa,” “California,” or even more generally, the vaguely mystical “wine country” — a phrase that instantly conjures visions of acres of rolling green vineyards under an intensely blue sky.

On the other hand, thinking of Florida reminds me not of grapevines and rich, deep soil, but of white-sand beaches and citrus groves and palm trees cloaked in a fine mist of humidity.

So it was no small surprise to learn that the first wines produced in North America were, in fact, made some 450 years ago in the area around what is now Jacksonville.

An ill-fated colony of French Huguenots had settled there with questionable success — British Admiral John Hawkins reported in 1565 that the Huguenots were on the verge of starvation but had managed to produce “20 hogsheads” of wine from the muscadine grapes native to the region. Shortly thereafter, that same group of colonists faced a greater threat than drinking on an empty stomach. Massacre at the hands of the Spanish effectively wiped out the French Huguenot presence in Florida, putting an end to France’s attempts at colonizing the Atlantic coast. Wine production migrated north, ultimately taking hold in colonial North Carolina and Virginia.

The French Huguenots may be long gone, but the muscadine grape still thrives in Florida, most notably in Manatee County, south of Tampa. Bunker Hill Vineyard & Winery, under the direction of owners Larry and Leonora Woodham, grows seven varieties of muscadine, from which they produce red, white, rose and sparkling wines.

Leonora explains that the thick skin of the muscadine allows it to survive in the Gulf Coast’s typically balmy climate. The Woodhams do not blend the fruits of their labor with other varieties of grape, nor do they practice the technique of grafting more traditional old-world grapes onto their muscadine root stocks. Bunker Hill doesn’t filter its wines, so at least a year of aging precedes bottling. Considering all these factors, it’s possible the medium-dry wines produced at Bunker Hill may be the closest available in the 21st Century to those 20 hogsheads of wine that Admiral Hawkins recorded more than four centuries ago.

Bunker Hill has one other communion with the past: The Woodhams and others have noted an unexplained presence on the premises, which seems to manifest itself in a number of eerie ways, including locking the Wine Cave door from the inside. The Woodhams state that there is no malevolence in this thirsty ghost and they believe it is happy — after all, who wouldn’t be delighted at the prospect of spending eternity in a sun-soaked Florida vineyard?

Bunker Hill Vineyard & Winery

8905 Bunker Hill Road, Bunker Hill

941-776-0418

bunkerhillvineyard.com

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