Florida Focus Part 2, Sarah Aschliman of Island Grove Winery
One of the great things about American wine is that the rules are often a little more flexible than European wines. It’s only champagne if it comes from the Champagne region of France, otherwise it’s just sparkling wine. With that in mind, fruit wine, or wines made from fruit other than grapes, are a staple in Florida. (In some areas of the rural US and Britain, non-grape fruit wines may be called “country wines”.) Everything from citrus to pineapple to mango to the various berries will find their way into a bottle of Florida wine.
In last week’s interview with Jeanne Burgess of Lakeridge Winery, we promised you a story about non-grape wines. So, we were delighted to sit down with Island Grove Wine Company General Manager, Sarah Aschliman, to discuss her wine journey and Island Grove. Located outside Gainesville, with an additional tasting room location near Orlando, Island Grove makes a wide selection of fruit wine, most featuring blueberries. In just ten short years, Island Grove has grown to the point where most of its wine is sold wholesale or direct shipping, and the odds are good if you are in the Southeast, you will soon see it on a shelf near you. The interview is edited for clarity and flow.
Tell us about your wine journey and opening Island Grove.
We started a 40-acre blueberry farm when I was young, in the late 80s. Over time, it grew into a large commercial farm, with around 1500 land acres, with 400 acres under blueberries. We are the biggest commercial organic blueberry farm in Florida, and one of the larger blueberry farms in the state. We start picking in January, with peak harvest at end of April, and are done by mid-May.
We have a cull rate out of the fields, meaning we have excess fruit that is non-perfect looking or surplus. We are a 95% fresh market, meaning we don’t process the fruit, such as turning it into juice, dehydrating or freezing it. It is just sold fresh direct to consumer. That is fairly unusual; for example, in Georgia, 50% of their crop is processed. So, there isn’t a huge avenue to do something with your fresh fruit if you have a surplus. You could have fruit that doesn’t look perfect, but still tastes great, or you may still have 100,000 pounds of fruit still on the bushes after the price drops beyond our cost to harvest. In the late 2000s, we were deciding what we wanted to do so all the fruit doesn’t go to waste. Wine seemed the most logical option. We found a really good fruit wine maker, and here we are.
Tell us a mentor or someone who helped you out a great deal in the industry.
My dad. I have three art degrees, and I was a creative director at a toy company doing a bunch of international brand campaigns after I graduated. I did that for ten years or so when Dad called and asked me to join him in starting a winery. I have met a lot of powerful and smart people in this industry; but at the beginning, I was in it alone with him and it was learn it as you go.
You are a bit unique in that we are used to second-generation winery owners, but you are a second-generation farmer who started a winery. Your father knew agriculture, but he didn’t know anything about starting a winery.
You have two products here that are consumer products, and they are the same but different. Food is a consumer product to a degree, and that is what he has known this whole time. If you are a farmer, and a big farmer in particular, a lot of time you sell your fruit and it is resold in other channels you do not have to worry about. We would sell our fruit to a broker; all you have do is grow it and get it to them. When you start a winery, it is also a food, but you have to sell it yourself. Learning how to grow the brand and our reach was something he didn’t need to do before. But, my background in toy sales and marketing, that was similar and gave me a leg up on how to do that.
Why the name Island Grove?
That is our town actually. Our address says Hawthorne for 911 purposes, but we are a speck of a town called Island Grove. There isn’t even a traffic light, and the only store is our wine store. The town used to have citrus groves and mud farms with celery and sugar cane, but those are gone now. We also used to be surrounded by swamp and it was like an island, but the water table has changed now, so people who come here today would be confused by the name.
Tell us the broad details of Island Grove. Acreage, case production, and number of employees.
We have 65 people employed total, five in the winery itself, with the rest in the nursery and farm. We are also a big grower of blueberry plants, which we sell to other growers. We make roughly 200,000 bottles a year right now. I don’t mention cases right now, only bottles because it sound more impressive, but soon I will talk in cases (laughs). We have 18 wines right now, and several come and go, but we do focus on blueberry wines.
(Editor’s Note: Wineries are divided by volume into five categories- large, medium, small, very small and limited production. 200,000 bottles a year is 16,700 cases. Island Grove would be a “small winery” with a case production between 5,000 and 50,000 annually.)
Many people who don’t like fruit wines often like blueberry, most likely because blueberries are relatively high in tannins.
Yes, and they have beautiful color. Since we have the luxury of so much fruit, we use a lot of fruit in our wines. It creates a rich body you won’t see from concentrate or other wineries who use less fruit. We also ferment on the skins. Blueberries are also high in antioxidants. We had our wines tested a few years ago at the University of Florida, and they have higher antioxidants than even most red wines.
Is there a fruit you have tried to make wine from and it just didn’t seem to work for you?
Not necessarily, since we did make it work eventually, but strawberry took a while to master. Strawberry can be stinky in the fermentation process, and it loses its color easily. We do a strawberry Riesling, as well as our sangria. Citrus is also a challenge. Pressing citrus is a challenge, as the rinds will throw off your flavor, and the high acid makes fermentation a challenge.
What is a misconception of Florida wine?
A lot of people won’t try Florida wine because they don’t like muscadine grapes, which is our native grape. We don’t grow or make muscadine wine, because we prefer instead to focus on blueberries and other fruit. A lot of our fellow winemakers are big muscadine producers, and they make some great wines. You want people to appreciate what grows in their state and what is local to them. In Florida, a lot of the battle is teaching people vinifera doesn’t really grow here, but the grapes and fruit that do are really wonderful. We are unique in Florida because a much higher percentage of our wineries, around half, are fruit wine as opposed to grape based.
We understand that in Florida we are in a different arena. We have different things to make wine out of than the rest of the country. But there’s a lot of good wine here.
I asked Jeanne Burgess about the collegiality of the Florida wine industry, and she said, and I am paraphrasing here, it is hard to stay in touch because Florida is such a long state, there are fewer wineries, and the wineries aren’t close to each other geographically.
I absolutely agree, and it’s all due to location. We are really spread out. Pick a county in California and there are hundreds of wineries. And we have a couple dozen in the whole state, and even fewer with distribution.
I have been a board member on the Florida Wine and Grape Growers Association for a few years, and one of the things I wanted to do was have more collaborations and talks besides our annual meeting. Since we have made that a priority, we have picked up the phone and talked a lot more to break out of our isolation.
How has COVID impacted Island Grove?
We closed our production facility to visitors. The tasting room on Highway 301 is still open. My husband runs that operation, and it’s where our guest interaction is happening. Our Kissimmee location has outside gardens and two tasting bars, and it’s more spread out and suitable for visiting right now.
We’ve been fairly lucky. Kissimmee took a big hit because we host a lot of weddings and events. On the wholesale and distribution side, which is where I mainly work and where 80% of our sales come from, we have been really busy and actually made more wine than ever. Most of our sales are through grocery stores, and that’s been an increase with everyone eating at home. But a lot of our material costs have risen, especially glass.
We were focused on distribution before COVID, which made weathering this storm manageable. So many of our friends with smaller wineries had all their eggs in their tasting room basket and they couldn’t ship. It’s been rough for several wineries.
Where do you see Island Grove in ten years?
I see us in about five to ten more states. I want us to be a regional winery for the Southeast. Online shipping will greatly expand. We want to keep making innovative wines, and the sales will follow.
Where do you see Florida wine in ten years?
I don’t know. It is evolving. A lot of younger people are joining the industry and they are doing some interesting stuff. We are seeing a lot of urban micro-wineries. I don’t necessarily see a lot of Big-Ag wineries coming in. Cider is becoming a force. But we aren’t on the same growth scale as Florida breweries or distilleries.
What advice do you give women who want to be part of the wine industry?
Rely on networks. Don’t be afraid to talk to people, and find people who are doing the same thing you are. I have found some really good networking groups with women in the last few years that have helped a lot. Women business owners, women in alcohol groups. Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and call another winery.
Sarah is working at the international toy company and you get the call from your dad saying “let’s start a winery.” Knowing what you know now, what advice do you give your younger self.
I would tell myself to jump in and don’t be afraid to take some risks when it comes to marketing and creating a brand. Growing a brand is tough work, but I went very safe at the beginning. I wish I had gone out of the box from the beginning. We have done that in the last five or six years, with canned wine, funky labels and innovative wine blends, and it has paid off.
Is there something about wine that people often get wrong?
I think sometimes it is lost that at the heart of it, wine is made by an artist winemaker using fruit that a farmer gets up every day to tend and sometimes is up all night caring for. It is an amazing thing, and don’t take it for granted. Two really passionate professions came together to create this product.
What do you drink when you go home at night? You can’t say one of your wines!
Dry cider has been a frequent drink lately. Hopefully, you will see some cider in our product line soon.