PHOTOS: Tony DeSantis
California may have the best wine grapes, but Central Florida has the best blueberries. And Florida’s newest winery, Whispering Oaks, is proving blueberries can become great wines with Sumter County’s terroir.
Ask Johannes Vanderwey, who grew up on a 2,000-acre dairy farm in Idaho and later became CEO of his own recycling company, as well as an inventor of recycling equipment. After many business trips to Florida, he knew where he wanted to settle permanently.
“Somewhere warm,” he says with a big smile. “I bought a farm to have a nice place for horses. What I didn’t know was that it costs four times more to feed a horse in Florida than back home.”
The horse pastures were replaced with 40,000 blueberry bushes when Vanderwey and his wife Panpailin bought a 58-acre farm near Oxford six years ago.
“This place was for sale on my birthday, and it was a perfect location for flying in and out of Tampa,” he says. “I was still running the company, which was based in Oregon, at the time.”
That all changed when the first crop of blueberries came in three years ago. Vanderwey sold his business and decided it was time to retire … sort of. He wanted to return to the land and to the kind of life he had growing up with a tight-knit family with parents who’d emigrated from the Netherlands.
“Being raised on a farm, we ate and worked together,” he says. “We did everything together. I missed that the most. This blueberry farm brings my family together. My wife, two of my daughters and my son-in-law are here.”
He sold berries in farmers markets and operated a “you-pick-’em” enterprise, but wanted to make the farm sustainable year-round. Blueberry season runs from March to May and making blueberry wine would provide year-round income.
Vanderwey invested in state-of-the-art Italian equipment and the old horse barn became an artistically decorated wine tasting room and visitors center. He says his smartest move was hiring Brent Trela, a winemaker who has an extensive global clientele and served as an assistant professor at Texas A&M University’s viticulture and enology program.
“He’s a master at his craft,” says Vanderwey. “His resume, contributions and accomplishments read like a who’s who in the world of winemaking.”
Making wine from blueberries is not without challenges: Harvest is only about three months long and the fruit ripens quickly. Whispering Oaks freezes its handpicked blueberries and stores them so wine can be bottled throughout the year. Freezing is not a bad thing.
“Freezing the berries produces more flavorful juice and better color,” Trela explained to a recent tour group.
After the berries are thawed, they are crushed and put into small open tanks with yeast for the primary fermentation. After this stage, the juice is separated from the skins and sediment, which is fed to some very happy goats on the farm. The juice is transferred to large stainless steel tanks where it is fermented for 28 to 35 days. After the final fermentation, the juice is separated to make four different flavors of wine: Sensationally Sweet, Delightfully Dry, Mildly Wild and Sangria.
“We use two pounds of blueberries in every bottle of wine,” says Vanderwey. “They are not watered down at all so you get a full flavor. Plus blueberries are very high in antioxidants so this is a wine that is good for you.”
During the grand opening in late November, Vanderwey poured 1,700 bottles for more than 7,000 people who visited the winery during the three-day celebration. Most everyone was surprised at the quality of the wines, which are similar to pinot noirs and merlots.
“I’m European and I’ve never tasted blueberry wine before,” says Tony Kennea, who moved to The Villages from England. “The Sensationally Sweet has a very good nose, which is unusual for a semi-sweet wine. I like all of the flavors.”
Kennea added that many people probably would not know they were drinking blueberry wine during a blind tasting.
“Whispering Oaks uses a good process to make the wine,” he says. “You can tell by the clarity and viscosity.”
Villager Doreen Jerz was served Delightfully Dry at Thanksgiving and also was pleasantly surprised.
“Wine is a part of every dinner meal for us,” she says, “and I would be pleased to serve this wine to my own guests.”
Whispering Oaks Winery is open from 11a.m. to 7p.m. Tuesday through Sunday for free tours and tastings. The wines sell for $15 per bottle. For information, visit winesofflorida.com.