While Florida is known for its world famous oranges and strawberries, one may not really think of its vineyards, but John Beckwith, amateur winemaker, begs to differ. Originally from South Carolina, Beckwith always enjoyed gardening, but with over five acres in Lithia, he jumped at the opportunity to plant a vineyard, so he joined the Grape Growers Association of Florida and dug in.
Beckwith now grows Blanc du Bois grapes, a hybrid species which produces crisp, sweet white wines with hints of citrus and floral flavors. It’s one of a few species that grows well in Florida because of its resistance to disease/pests and tolerance to humidity.
“In California, the temperatures drop at night, and that prevents the grapes from maturing as quickly. West coast grapes are ready in the fall, but I harvest over the summer. I could tell you the weather this week, but also last year, or the year before it,” Beckwith said with a smile, and as a small batch winemaker, he needs to stay in tune with nature.
Someone once told him, “Great wine is made in the vineyard,” and he considers himself a steward rather than a winemaker. The quality of this year’s vintage depends so much on conditions out of his control. The wildlife and weather do not always cooperate.
For that reason, Beckwith holds our local farmers in high regard. His vineyard is a labor of love he shares with friends and family, who often help him harvest and crush the grapes when they’re ready. However, his livelihood isn’t tied to his hobby. As a software engineer, he enjoys growing his grapes and 50 tomato plants in his spare time, but he understands the hard work it entails when a frost threatens your crops.
“I remember the severe frosts of 2009 where farmers worked all night to keep watering to insulate the berries and save their harvests, their sources of income. My heart broke for them,” he said.
Over the last few years, Beckwith’s vineyard yields between 5 and 10 gallons of wine. Because of Florida laws, he never sells his wine, but he prefers to share it. His friends receive wonderful Christmas presents and he’s even made a few custom batches for some weddings.
This year, he entered his wine at the Florida State Fair, where there were a total of 10 Blanc du Bois entrants, and his took the silver medal. Hopefully the best sip is yet to come.