By Doc Lawrence –
TALLAHASSEE. Mission San Luis, the award-winning archeological restoration less than a mile from Florida’s Capitol building, is a top tourist destination. Once, it was the western outpost of New Spain where conquistadors, Franciscan monks and Apalachee Indians lived, worked and worshiped in harmony.
Later, the same land was also the site of a mighty winery, Chateau Du Bois. Founded by Emile Dubois, a native of France, by 1890 he had the largest vineyard in Florida with more than 100 acres planted, making over 6,000 gallons of wine annually with sales in nearly every state generating an estimated annual income of $1 million. In addition, he shipped thousands of pounds of grapes all over the country and had a burgeoning nursery, supplying about 65,000 grape vines to growers. “He was like the Johnny Appleseed of Florida grape growing, spreading the good news,” said Florida winemaker Jeanne Burgess.
I met Julie Bettinger, the gifted writer and a descendant of Emile Dubois for a Mission San Luis tasting showcasing Florida wine history and today’s fine wine. Led by Peggy Evans who represents Lakeridge and San Sebastian wineries, we sampled Sunshine State wines. But one stood out: Blanc Du Bois. The grape used to make this wine is a hybrid developed by the University of Florida in 1968 that was first cultivated in Tallahassee’s Lafayette Vineyard, before the owner moved operations to central Florida. According to Ms. Bettinger, “they wanted a marketable name – preferably one with a story behind it [and] took the Dubois story off the shelf, blew off the dust and re-introduced it with the new grape. Wine made from Blanc Du Bois has since won international awards, including double gold medals in 1998, 2001 and 2002.”
John Seago, the owner of Louisiana’s Ponchartrain Vineyard and Winery, introduced me to Blanc Du Bois-made in his own style-at the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience several years ago. Describing it as a wine “comparable to white wines from Alsace, it remains a mainstay in Ponchartrain’s portfolio and is served in some ranking gourmet French Quarter restaurants.
Blanc Du Bois is grown from New York to Texas and is suited for challenging climates particularly in the Deep South. It serves the same culinary purpose as other fine white wines like Loire Valley notables Sancerre and Vouvray: food friendliness, particularly with fresh Florida seafood. Chilled, it is an outstanding aperitif and suggests raw oysters.
The tasting was the finale of my amazing, eye-opening North Florida journey to the farms, inns and restaurants in lovely places like Madison and Monticello including a visit to Bradley’s, the country store in Centerville where the butcher named Rabbit offered me samples of delicious smoked sausage. Mission San Luis, like the missions along Florida’s Spanish Trace, is historically tied to wine. From St. Augustine to Mission San Luis, wine was first introduced into America.
Emile Dubois’ pioneer contributions, thoroughly documented by Julie Bettinger, and honored by Jeanne Burgess and Lakeridge, puts to rest the myth that great wine cannot be made in Florida. Consider that in 2010 Lakeridge Winery garnered 42 medals from eight different international competitions including the Los Angeles Wine Competition, the Sunshine State has made giant inroads. “I feel like a parent whose kid just graduated from college with honors,” said Jeanne Burgess about the awards.
Wine enjoyment is a component of the taste experience. I pour Blanc Du Bois on special occasions, often silently toasting Emile Du Bois for what he accomplished.
Virginia’s state grape is Norton, closely associated with Thomas Jefferson. Wines of the same name are delicious. Florida should rightly declare Blanc Du Bois as Florida’s own and stamp it with the official designation. It’s an honor overdue.