Natural Times, October/November/December 2014
By Michele Hatton
A block from the coast in Panama City Beach, Florida is a modest building housing the locally owned SeaBreeze Winery. Walk in and an attendant will ask if you’d like to taste their complete line of award-winning Muscadine wines. Say yes! She will usher you to the tasting area and offer you samples of every available wine. Along the walls of the winery hang photos of the wine-making process: glistening clusters of grapes, rows of leafy green vineyards, colossal harvesting machines and crates brimming with picked fruit. It is a pictorial education, made all the more pleasant with revitalizing sips of wine.
The tasting area is surrounded by a small shop full of novelty items for sale. The door adjacent to the tasting area, however, leads directly into the core of the winery. There you will find eight stainless steel fermentation tanks (each accommodating 2,000 gallons of fermenting grapes), de-stemming machines, grape-crushing equipment, and a bottling apparatus. Go ahead and ask if you can tour this part of the winery—it is open to the public.
Owner Lynn Webb opened the winery in 2003 and now sells to 45-50 retailers around North Florida, from Pensacola to Tallahassee down to Apalachicola. After years of making Muscadine wine in their home, she and her husband decided to grow their own grapes and opened Kyotee (Coyote) Vineyards in Bruce, Florida in 2000, 35 miles due north of the winery. They now own 100 acres of lush Muscadine vineyards surrounded by Florida forest that not only supplies grapes for SeaBreeze Winery, but for other wineries in the state as well.
SeaBreeze winery specializes in wine made from four varieties of Muscadine grapes. Refreshing and fruit-flavored, many of the wines have won multiple awards. “There have been some really, really bad Muscadine wines made over the years,” says Webb. “We and the other Florida wineries are trying to overcome that reputation.” So, what is the defining difference? SeaBreeze wines aren’t syrupy sweet—they taste like a juicy piece of fruit with a dash of spirits. “Muscadine grapes actually have less sugar than Chardonnay grapes,” claims Webb. “You are tasting the fruit.”
The Muscadine grape is native to the Southeast and tolerant of heat and humidity. The United States Department of Agriculture Research Service says, “They’re resistant to pests and diseases, including Pierce’s disease, which can wipe out other species of grapes. This species is [also] very resistant to phylloxera, an insect that can kill the roots of grapevines.” Webb states that her vines are “basically growing in beach sand. We thought it was a nice place to have a vineyard because they don’t like to get their feet wet.” And since these grapes grow in loose clusters (unlike tight bunches common to other grape species), air can circulate around the grapes reducing the likelihood of fungal disease. “What they need is irrigation and fertilizer,” says Webb.
Muscadine grapes have been cultivated for over 400 years but have been harvested wild for centuries by Native Americans who used them for cooked dishes and drying. Early European explorers, spotting them growing wild in North Carolina, were taken aback by their numbers. A captain with Sir Walter Raleigh’s expedition wrote that the vines were “...so full of grapes...in all the world, the like abundance is not to be found.” By 1565, the production of Muscadine grape wine in Spanish Florida was in full swing.
SeaBreeze carries ten different varieties of Muscadine wines, a port, a sherry and two fruit wines (blueberry and blackberry). The “Island Red,” a full-bodied, tart-sweet fruity wine, is hands down their best seller. “It pays the bills,” claims Webb. The Blueberry, another favorite, has an intense full berry flavor. The American Port, a Gold Medal winner, is imbued with hints of sun-dried raisins—a drink to be shared on the beach at sunset.
New Leaf Market Co-op carries seven different varieties of SeaBreeze wine: Breeze Blush, Island Red, Island White, Blueberry, Blackberry, Port and Sherry. Isn’t it time you gave them a try?