Florida Focus: Jeanne Burgess of Lakeridge Winery
Florida isn’t often the first state one thinks of when it comes to wine, but its history goes back over 500 years, in what is likely the first instance of wine grapes in what is now the United States. Depending on your source, Spanish missionaries or the competing French Huguenots were the first to bring European vinifera to the area. While we may not know who was first, we do know the results. The vines died a few years later, victim to what we now call Pierce’s Disease.
However, there were plenty of native grapes around, and the story of Florida wine became that of muscadines, the family of large thick-skinned grapes almost always made in a sweeter style (Florida also makes plenty of non-grape fruit wines, but that’s a future story). While there are only a few dozen wineries in Florida, the vineyards are quite prolific, catapulting the state into 14th in national wine production. The residents are even thirstier, with Florida ranking 3rd in national wine consumption.
We wanted to know more about winemaking in the Sunshine State, and the natural person to turn to was the doyenne of Florida wine, Jeanne Burgess. As Vice President of Winemaking Operations at Lakeridge Winery, Jeanne has been making wine for nearly 40 years. We were delighted to sit down with her and discuss her wine journey, Lakeridge, and muscadine wine. As always, the interview is edited for clarity and flow.
Tell us how you got into wine and your journey to Lakeridge?
My dad was an amateur and later professional winemaker for many years and I grew up with muscadine grapes and muscadine wine. I went to Mississippi State University for their winemaking program. I already had a degree at that point, so it was basically just a year of taking courses specific to enology and viticulture.
I was going to work at Dad’s winery after I had graduated but instead went to work for a small winery called Florida Heritage for a few years. Then I went to work for Lakeridge, and have been here for around 38 years. The original company was in Tallahassee for eight years under the name Lafayette Vineyards, and then we moved all the operations to Clermont and changed the name to Lakeridge Winery and Vineyards. The corporation is Southeast Vineyards Incorporated, and we now own two wineries, Lakeridge, as well as San Sebastian in St. Augustine. I am in charge of winemaking for both.
Tell us about a mentor of yours.
Dr. Richard Vine at MSU. He mentored me through my first few years of winemaking when he was cellar master at the A.B. McKay Enology lab. While a student, I also worked at the lab, doing the day-to-day operation you would expect to do at a research lab.
Starting out, I was just trying to wrap my mind around the whole field of enology, and I asked him so many questions. Some were pertinent, but I am sure some were just off the wall. Finally, after a period of several weeks of humoring me, he took his glasses off, looked at me and said “Jeanne, winemaking is an art with infinite variables.” It took me a long time to appreciate that really good advice. No matter what, if you think you have figured it out, something is going to be different.
(Editor’s note: Dr. Vine left MSU to join the faculty of Purdue University, where he played an instrumental role in Indiana wine and the careers of many, as mentioned in our interview with Purdue enologist Jill Blume).
Tell us the broad details of Lakeridge. History, number of gallons made a year, number of employees.
We are the state's largest. We started in 1989 in the Clermont location. We grew slowly, starting with tastings, education, festivals, to the point where we were able to distribute in 2003. We then added San Sebastian. We crush around 2,000 tons a year. We now make around 390,000 gallons a year, and half of that comes from our acreage. We also purchase additional juice from other states, mostly vinifera from the West. We employ a bit under 100 people at both places.
Tell us about the Florida winemaking scene when you started.
That was around 1981. It was a small but burgeoning industry, and that really appealed to me. There was a huge rebirth going on, with a lot of people like my dad getting in the industry, helped by government tax incentives. It was a tightknit group of 7-8 wineries, the universities, and some government people. Over the last forty years, the growth has been very steady and metered.
We are the third largest wine consuming state in the country, but the wineries haven’t kept pace. Wineries have come and gone. I can’t really explain why we don’t have the same type of industry that North Carolina, South Carolina, or Georgia has. Those states have a ton of small wineries, with a few big ones. Lakeridge has proven you can succeed in this state, but for some reason, there are just a handful of us. I think there are thirteen Florida farm wineries producing from Florida fruit, and a total of 23, with the others bringing in wine from elsewhere and selling it here.
(Ed.: The Florida Wine website now lists 25 wineries in the state.)
The 1979 Florida Farm Winery Act really boosted the industry, and you were right there for it. Tell us more about that.
It was really helpful, until the Bacchus decision ended any preferential treatment to in-state wineries. When that tax break went away, the state created a viticulture council that really looks at ways to try and build the industry. They take half the tax money collected on wines and put it in a trust fund. The council decides how that money is spent on industry research and development.
(Ed.: Jeanne is referring to Bacchus Imports, Ltd. v. Dias, a 1984 Supreme Court case ruling unconstitutional alcohol taxes which discriminate in favor of local products.)
What percentage of your sales are from the tasting room/distribution/mail.
We have a distributor as well as our own distributor license, so we can sell and be sold anywhere in Florida. Wholesale is around 40% and growing, 50% at the winery, and the rest is mail sales. This past year threw those numbers off obviously, with wholesale and mail rising.
What are some misconceptions of Florida wine?
“Well, you know you can’t grow grapes in Florida, so how could you possibly make wine?” (laughs). Or “is all the wine made from oranges?” I came into the industry with those lines, and I still hear them today. But over those forty years, things have changed for the better. People are much more open to local products. Wine has been demystified, and people want to drink more than Chardonnay. Most people, once they have tried them, they enjoy our wines. But exclusively dry wine drinkers will struggle, because most muscadines do require a bit of sweetness to really bring out their best.
Tell us about making muscadine wine. What is easier and what is harder compared to vinifera or hybrids?
We make wine from the Welder, Carlos, and Noble grapes. Carlos is the go-to white muscadine grape. It is very aromatic, with lots of tropical, melon and pineapple notes. Welder is very productive, and similar to Carlos, but a bit different. We use it primarily for a juice product we make. Any extra we have is blended with the Carlos. Noble is the red muscadine of choice around here. It has an amazing flavor profile, just a blast of raspberry, strawberry, and blackberry. Noble is 50% of our sales. If all muscadines were like that, we would be set.
No matter what wine you are making, there are challenges. Muscadines have lower sugar content, coming in at 13-15° Brix (Ed.: Brix is the sugar level of the grapes and thus how winemakers measure the potential alcohol content of a wine before fermentation). You have to chaptalize (Ed.: add sugar) in order to get to 11-12% ABV. I don’t think that is a negative, but it is the reality. They just don’t come in at 20° Brix. The grapes can have nutrient deficiency issues, so we have to add nutrients to get a really solid fermentation to keep the yeast from struggling, since that can produce off-odors in wine. Our red muscadine doesn’t have a highly stable color, so we ferment it on the skins, and will augment the color. Muscadines have very thick skins, and don’t give up their juice easy, so we have to add rice hulls to help us keep them separated and get all the juice we can, but they still are lower yielding than vinifera or hybrids.
(Ed.: Rice hulls are commonly used in the juice, brewing, and winemaking industry to aid in filtration and pressing. They contribute no flavor or color to the finished product and remain stiff in the pressed solution, thus acting to open up the pressed material and maintain good flow.)
For the readers who may not know, tell us why vinifera often struggle in the Southeast United States.
They don’t just struggle, they die. Throughout the Southeast, and in parts of Southern California, Pierce’s Disease effects the vines. Basically, it is a bacterium spread by insects that clogs up the vine’s vascular system and kills it. The vines look pretty disheveled by year three, and they die by year four or five. So non-native varieties don’t do well here. We have developed Pierce-resistant varietals, but you have to be pretty selective about those. You still need something that can tolerate the heat, the humidity, and the hurricanes.
We did grow hybrids for nearly thirty years, but we just didn’t see any traction. We were losing our crop every five years no matter what we did. I understand why people are so excited about them, because so was I, but for us, the market and economics just isn’t there. So, we just replanted them with muscadines, which sell better anyway.
Do muscadine wines have similar growing season to northern grapes, where they are harvested in the fall, followed by a winter dormancy period?
At least to the south-central part of the state, there is a dormancy period. Around the Miami area and south, it doesn’t get cold enough for a dormancy period, but we don’t have growers down there, only as far south as Tampa. We have never tried to force them into a dormancy and crop them twice like some regions around the world do, but instead prefer to leave them to their natural cycle.
Are muscadines suitable for aging?
The best thing about them is they are young wines. They are fresh and fruity and suitable for hot weather drinking. As a recommendation, we say drink them within three years. After that, the fruitiness will diminish.
I noticed a lack of fruit wines on your wine list. Any reason why?
Our philosophy is to offer a diverse portfolio but to focus on what we do well. We haven’t ventured beyond muscadines except to bring in some of the things our customers have asked for such as a dry red and a dry white that we can’t make from muscadine.
The port-style you make appears to be from muscadines as well. How do muscadines transition to these styles?
The port is made from Noble. It gives it a totally different flavor by fortifying it. We then age it in whiskey barrels for around eight months. It diminishes the fruity character of the wine and makes it totally different and is very popular.
Tell me how Lakeridge is coping with COVID?
The wholesale business really sustained us. People were still drinking; they just weren’t coming here to get wine, and that was a big adjustment. Shipping really increased. Once we could get people in, we did tasting stations and sessions where people could separately taste. We had to stop our festivals, but we have recently returned to “Weekends at the Winery.” It isn’t a big production, just some food and music, people are spread out inside and on our grounds. We are luckily big enough to allow people to spread out and feel comfortable coming out.
Pre-COVID, describe a typical busy day at the winery?
For the busiest days, those are major events like our three-day Seafood Festival. We would see upwards of 15,000 that weekend. For a normal Saturday, we would see around 1,000 people.
Do you have a supportive university system?
We actually have two universities that work with grapes, Florida A&M and University of Florida. They get a lot of the research grants from our trust fund. Often, they work with each other and an actual winery so they are doing it in the real world as opposed to a test plot somewhere. Workshops are routinely offered, and they come to our annual conference, which allows us to catch up on what is going on. They are very communicative and reachable by phone.
Tell me about your fellow Florida winemakers. Are they a collegial bunch? How well do you all work together?
We are pretty spread out in this long state. When I need advice, it is from a winemaker in a larger winery, and they aren’t very close to us. We do get on the phone or email if one of us is having a problem, and advice is freely given. But the distance keeps us from being as close as they are in some states.
Where do you see Lakeridge in ten years?
I mentioned the metered growth, and I want to continue to see that. We will be keeping our customers happy, as well as educating a new generation of customers. I don’t see enormous changes, but automation and technology will play a bigger role. Whether we continue to grow in terms of volume, I am not sure.
Where do you see Florida wine in ten years?
I would love to say we are going to have twenty new wineries, but I have been hoping that for the last twenty years. I just want the wineries here to be successful and profitable.
Jeanne is about to start her first enology class at MSU. Knowing what you know now, what advice do you give your younger self?
I am a perfectionist, always have been, and it has served me well in this industry. But I would probably tell myself not to sweat the small stuff, and most of it is small stuff.
Is there a question no one asks you but you wish they would?
People don’t ask much about the diversity of the job. It isn’t just about making wine, it is about mentoring and growing personnel, it is about engineering bottling lines, lab work, chemistry, and horticulture. There is always something new, and that has really kept me engaged all these years. Once you think you have it figured out, it changes.
What do you drink when you go home in the evening? You can’t say one of your wines!
I love sparkling wine, usually brut. I am not too picky as to who makes it. I have enjoyed sparkling apple wine as long as it is dry. I also enjoy Sauvignon Blanc and Petit Sirah. I do love to try different wines from other areas. Whenever I travel to competitions or other states, I always try and do that.