Island Grove Wine Company Rounds Out Offerings of Blueberry Nursery
by MATT COBBLE
photos provided by ISLAND GROVE WINE COMPANY
If someone tells you they are planning a trip to “wine country,” your mind likely conjures up images of the French countryside or Napa Valley. But there is an option a little closer to home— Alachua County. Unlike California and Europe, the key crop for Florida’s wine country is not grapes, but blueberries.
Island Grove Wine Company started as an offshoot of Island Grove Ag Products, a nursery and supplier of blueberry growing paraphernalia with 200 acres of blueberry plants in Island Grove, a small community near Hawthorne, in the southeastern area of Alachua county. The farm also extends across the county line into neighboring Putnam and Marion counties.
In 2010, Island Grove Ag Products was looking for a way to make use of berries grown but not otherwise sold, which led to an out-of-the-box solution. Or perhaps an into-the-bottle solution.
“It’s been a value-added product from the blueberry operation,” says Sarah Aschliman, general manager for Island Grove Wine Company.
The wine operations have grown into a 10,000-square-foot facility, where machines can fill up to 900 bottles per hour with any of their 16-plus varieties of wine. “We have more varieties in development, and some of the existing ones may be retired,” Aschliman explains, “but not all of them are available at once.
And of those varieties, half or more will include juice from berries grown on Island Grove’s bushes.
“Our wines are blueberry driven—these are our most popular varieties, our top sellers,” Aschliman says.
Blueberries are naturally high in polyphenols such as anthocyanins, which are responsible for the berry’s namesake hue. Research studies into these polyphenols suggest that they have both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which may play an important role in helping to lessen the inflammatory processes associated with chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease, cancer, and age-related cognitive decline. Fortunately, most of those will survive the fermenting process and end up in the wine, giving it health benefits similar to red wine.
For curious connoisseurs, Island Grove offers guided tours of the facility and full operation, from bush to bottle, and everything in between. Or at least, that’s what’s normally available.
Due to the current pandemic situation, the winery tours are canceled until restrictions are lifted. Aschliman reports that “with increased demand for product, the supply chain issues we are seeing nationwide, and safety concerns from the virus itself, we made the difficult decision to suspend the winery tours.” Luckily, other activities are available.
The property is also home to a historic cracker or shotgun house, known for its distinctive floor plans of three to five rooms, in a row, with no hallways. This particular house, a four-room model, dates to 1897. There was so much Florida history in the house that when the property was acquired by Island Grove, they knew they had to preserve it.
“We use it for events, weekend getaways, and we auction it off a lot for charity events,” Aschliman says.
For those who might like to work up a thirst before imbibing, Island Grove also plays host to the annual Sangria 5K Dash in November. The race meanders through the blueberry fields and the oaken woods on the Island Grove property, beginning and ending at the historic cracker house.
The Sangria 5K has included a virtual component for years, for those unable to attend in person for whatever reason. In the midst of our nation’s current situation, the virtual race may prove more of a draw this year. Additionally, should local, state, or national mandates preclude the in-person race, the entire Sangria 5K will be virtual. Both the on-site and virtual races benefit the Heart of Florida Youth Ranch. “We’ve had great participation, and we hope our participants will follow us online,” Aschliman says. “It will be a hard decision to make, but we will make the decision for everyone’s safety.” Island Grove expects to make a final decision on the race format on September 14, two months from the event itself. Aschliman gave reassurance, “anyone who is signed up for the physical race will be automatically transitioned to the virtual, if we have to go that route.”
Island Grove Wine also operates two satellite properties, which feature their wine products among other unique experiences.
Minutes away from the winery is the Island Grove Wine Company Tasting House. Alongside the Island Grove Wines, visitors can enjoy craft beer from local partners, cheese from local creameries, or sample locally produced honey. They also regularly host Art Nights, featuring the works of local artists, and two unique Escape Nights, themed to either finding lost loot in a 1930s speakeasy, or searching for artifacts to ransom a kidnapped professor.
As a response to COVID-19, the Tasting House has begun taking online pre-orders for drive-up pickup, a service they are calling “Wine-1-1.” Aside from local ordinances requiring facemasks, the Tasting House is still operating as usual.
For those along the I-4 corridor and may not wish to travel so far, the newest Island Grove location, Island Grove Wine Company at Formosa Gardens in Kissimmee, offers many of the same experiences while also offering a beautiful botanical garden setting, a bistro menu for dining in, and a nightly view of the Walt Disney World firework display.
Formosa Gardens is operating on a limited schedule, only open to the public Friday through Sunday. They are able to host private events, mostly either previously scheduled, or rescheduled from during the shutdown.
Select Island Grove Wines are available from certain retailers throughout the state of Florida, (listing is on their website, IslandGroveWineCompany.com), and their full inventory can be viewed and purchased for shipping anywhere in the state of Florida.