One of these days, Apalachicola could be home to its own wine, made from a vineyard featuring the cultivation of the muscadine grapes that have long grown wild here.
That was the pitch made to city commissioners last week by representatives of the Florida A & M University’s Center for Viticulture and Small Fruit Research, who outlined an ambitious demonstration project that would be set up on 15 acres of city-owned land west of town, off Pal Rivers Road.
“We’re never going to be California, we can’t grow Chardonnay or Merlot here,” said Dr. Violeta Tsolova, director of the viticulture center. “You just go and grow whatever you can, and do a beautiful product,” she said.
A visit by Dr. Frederick Humphries, one of Apalachicola’s most favorite sons and former FAMU college president, set the tone for the Oct. 3 city commission meeting. He and Mayor Van Johnson have long been in talks about an Apalachicola-based FAMU outreach, and the vineyard proposal has emerged as the most detailed and concrete proposal yet envisioned.
Humphries made clear from the outset that FAMU continues to pursue the establishment of an academic program in Apalachicola, but that that ambitious project, which would involve millions of dollars in investment, will be proposed for funding out of Triumph monies, stemming from the Restore Act, which are administered in Tallahassee.
“Hopefully we can get the facilities done to develop a nursery program,” said Humphries. “It’s still on the drawing board and still something we’re going to do.”
In addition, he said FAMU’s College of Architecture is continuing its work on “a rendering of what we hope the future of housing will be in the Hill district.”
The viticulture project, known as the Apalachicola Vine Institute, he said, would be in keeping with the grapes which have long flourished, often referred to as scuppernongs.
“When we were growing up in Apalachicola it was not uncommon to see all kinds of things growing wild in the community,” he said, referring to red berries, blackberries, Japanese plums, and figs, as well as grapes.
“These things were wild and nothing was done commercially,” Humphries said. “We think we ought go back and see if we can put on a natural growth in this area and hopefully to have an Apalachicola wine produced from the land in Apalachicola and Franklin County.
“The merits of it will be quickly achieved. A working sustainable enterprise will be a good thing,” he said.
Humphries, Tsolova, and Dr. Robert W. Taylor, dean and director of land-grant programs for the College of Agriculture and Food Sciences each outlined a different aspect of the of the proposed demonstration vineyard.
Tsolova, who delivered her remarks in an accent characteristic of her native Bulgaria, said vineyards have been successful, to varying degrees, in Defuniak Springs, Gulf Breeze and Panama City Beach.
“With one vineyard here you can see how much you can do,” said Tsolova. “Everybody wants a healthy diet, and everybody is for very much turning back to the land. Native grapes are very healthy.”
She said a 2010 change in Florida tax law has helped the wine industry grow to the point where it is ranked seventh in the nation in wine production, and second in wine consumption.
“I’m afraid to say what kind of sales we are doing,” she said.
Tsolova stressed the health benefits of grapes, and noted that Georgia is the leading producer, among 12 Southeastern states, of muscadine grapes and wine.
“Grapes are the most nutritious fruit in the world,” Taylor said. “They say it’s good for your heart. The purple color comes from a pigment, a chemical, and those chemicals fight cancer, and fight high blood pressure.”
The academics also showed off a table full of grape jerky and other sweets made from the muscadines, which commissioners and the audience had a chance to sample.
“There is a lot of other value-added products,” said Taylor. “This is an opportunity to start a business right.”
City commissioners warmed up to the project, and no opposition surfaced to the proposal to set aside 15 acres of city-owned land, 10 for a vineyard and 10 for a u-pick fresh fruit option, with good sun, soil and drainage, near a main road. Nor was there any resistance to the idea that the project could lead to greater development of the local workforce.
As a measurable outcome, the vine institute proposal said the training could lead to “150 residents completing one or more learning opportunities within three years,” and to training 20 Apalachicola residents to be workers in the viticulture industry, with the capability of “managing, working and sustaining the acreage at the end of three years of experimentation.”
FAMU agreed to secure funding for $5,000 per acre to establish the vines, and to provide the manager, technical assistant and faculty support to train the staff.
But the sticking point emerged when discussion opened on the city providing a drip irrigation system after clearing the land, a task that even with county or city labor, could run as high as $15,000 to $20,000.
“We don’t have the money, we don’t have five dollars to do it. You can’t get blood out of a turnip,” Johnson said.
“Or a grape,” added Commissioner Jimmy Elliott.
“I think it’s a good idea to try to develop it,” Elliott said. “If we can grant these 15 acres I’m excited about it.”
The city commissioners unanimously backed the project but stopped short of approving the expenditure of the irrigation system.
“We’ll find a way to do it,” said Humphries.