Interview: Dean Gunter of Florida's Dragon Flower Winery
What happens when two creative, hardworking, restaurant professionals dip their toes into wine making? You get Dragon Flower Winery, located about 45 minutes north of Orlando, in Summerfield, Florida. Owners Dean Gunter and Maggie Peacock have managed to create a small, but growing winery oasis in just five short years. Tackling most of the tasks themselves, they aren’t afraid to get dirty, even if that means building the tasting bar themselves. They’ve already carved a niche in the wine world with their own estate varietals, along with other local fruit, mead, and unique recipes. Their passion for Florida, wine, and local agriculture are obvious to visitors.
We were happy to sit down with Dean (Maggie was unavailable that day) to discuss his wine journey, opening Dragon Flower, and why he isn’t scared to tell people exactly how he makes his hibiscus wine.
This is the third in our series on Florida wine. See our previous interviews with Jeanne Burgess of Lakeridge Winery and Sarah Achilman of Island Grove Winery for more information on a state full of talent and drive. Dean had the advantage of reading our interview with Jeanne before we sat down with him, so you will see that referred to often. As always, the interview is edited for clarity and flow.
Tell us about your wine journey and how you came to open Dragon Flower?
My wife and I came from the restaurant industry, we were very familiar with the service and wine part of the hospitality industry. I was asked to manage John Christ Winery in Avon Lake, Ohio, and so we left the fine dining scene in Orlando and we went up there. We learned how to run a winery, make the wine, everything that went into running a winery, and we loved it. A winery allows you to create an experience and meet great people who want to enjoy great scenery and just have fun. But we wanted to go back to Florida, and that was the thing we had to figure out. We were able to find this property near The Villages and here we are. That was about eight years ago and it took us five years to open the place.
Running a restaurant, waiting tables, and running a winery. Those are all incredibly hard professions that unless you have done them, you have no idea just how hard they are. What is the transition like to go from fine dining to a winery?
There are a lot of similar components, but it was a transition to go from serving and bartending to being the General Manager of a winery. Running the operation, doing the reports, ordering, when you compare a restaurant to a winery, wineries are going to be more relaxed, and people tend to go explicitly for the experience. We have a food license we obtained over COVID, but being a restaurant is never going to be our main thing. There are just too many complications when you bring a restaurant into the mix and we prefer to just focus on the winery.
Is there a mentor who deserves a shout out?
The winemaker at John Christ Winery, Jack James. He is no longer the winemaker, and is now around 75 years old. He made 13,000 gallons of wine a year basically by himself, with only some help during the bottling process. That is fairly common in the industry. He taught us how to make wine. We self-educated after, figuring out how to get creative, but he really took the time to show us how it was done. He didn’t have to do that, and could have easily said, “I make the wine, you run the business.” That relationship really showed us how it was done and made us realize it was possible for us to do this.
Let’s talk about the broad strokes of Dragon Flower. Acreage, varietals grown, cases produced, and number of employees.
We have 5 ½ acres, 2 ½ of which are grapes that are still young. The rest of the property is our home, our warehouse, back patio, and the rest of the winery. It is all one big rectangle.
We grow two varietals. Blanc du Bois, which is a white hybrid which has a bit of muscadine DNA in it. It typically produces a dry wine. The other is Southern Home, a red hybrid with much more muscadine DNA. They are both resistant to Pierce’s Disease. The Blanc du Bois has some vinifera in it, so it can be problematic, and a lot of people told us not to plant here. I know you spoke to Jeanne at Lakeridge, and she ripped ten acres of it out of the ground. I figure with just a bit of an acre; I should be able to keep a close eye on it. I wanted to grow something I could not purchase. I can buy Carlos and Noble, which are the main muscadines here, from a lot of people, but not these.
We make around 1,250 cases a year. We have one employee who works weekends behind the bar at the tasting room, and we have two other part-time employees. It is mostly just Maggie and I, and we only recently hired some more help.
You and Maggie run this winery together. What are your individual responsibilities?
We do the winemaking together, and have fun doing the creative side together. Maggie was handling a lot of the tasting bar, but has backed away a bit since we hired some help. She handles the internet and social media side and all the promotional matters. I handle the banquets and parties and some of the tasting room. It’s a really good partnership.
Why the name Dragon Flower?
My mother-in-law gets the credits for that. She has a huge green thumb, and she just moved next to us on another five acres, which is perhaps a future growth area for us. She loves to grow dragon fruit, and loves the flowers they produce. She was shooting us some ideas and that name just stuck.
You’re the third Florida winemaker we have chatted with, and it seems somewhat fitting to end with you. Jeanne Burgess at Lakeridge makes mostly muscadines with a bit of vinifera. Sarah Aschliman at Island Grove makes mostly fruit wines. You do a bit of everything. Vinifera, muscadine, fruit, and even some mead. Tell me the advantages and disadvantages having such a varied lineup.
Coming from a fine dining background, it was all vinifera there. Going to Ohio allowed us to try some hybrids, meads, and different fruits. A really big seller we have is hibiscus. I discovered hibiscus tea around ten years ago and found a recipe for hibiscus wine. That was a real gateway to trying something different. But we also want to pay homage to Florida agriculture. That is why we make things like orange blossom honey mead. Right now, my parents and neighbors are in the back cutting peaches from a local farm to make peach wine. We want to use Florida agriculture and encourage our customers to support that. But we also need to touch everyone’s palate, and that means a variety of dry, semi-sweet and sweet offerings so everyone can find something they like. We also want to try and anticipate the day that Pierce-resistant hybrids are available here.
The disadvantage is that we are three years in and are looking to already expand our production room because we are outgrowing our space. When you make a lot of different types of wine, you only have so much room. That means we aren’t able to keep all the popular wines available year-round.
A more practical advantage of making mead is honey doesn’t have a season, and you can make it whenever your fermenters are empty because fruit isn’t in season.
Absolutely. Late summer and early fall our muscadines come in, and then in September and early October vinifera is available. In February, it is strawberry season, April blueberries, peaches May. So, as we empty our tanks to bottle, we can time that. Mead and hibiscus, I can make year-round.
When I spoke with Jeanne Burgess about the process of making muscadine wine, she said fermentation can be struggle without proper nutrients. I immediately thought of mead when she said that, as mead will likewise struggle to ferment if not supplemented properly.
Yes. The first time I made mead was up in Ohio. The fermentation went straight through. So, when I made 120 gallons, it was bubbling, but the sugar wasn’t dropping. I then researched it and figured out the honey was lacking nitrogen. Apple wine and hibiscus can likewise be fickle that way. An addition of DAP will solve that, followed by nutrients once fermentation is vigorous. Grape wine is typically pretty smooth though.
Ed.: DAP is diammonium phosphate, commonly used in brewing and winemaking to provide yeast a source of nitrogen. It is often not necessary for vinifera or hybrid fermentations. Just like with most things associated with fermentation, knowing when and how much to use is a matter of science and art.
You’ve had your doors open just three years, with a five-year preparation phase before that, so the process is still very fresh in your mind. Tell me about that process to just get the doors open.
It required a lot of trust in each other. It was long and stressful. We basically made everything in our tasting room, from the tables to the bar, because we simply didn’t have the money to buy them. We had to learn to be contractors to save money.
Doing all this built a lot of resolve and character in us, and when you go into our winery, you see that character reflected in our furnishings. You can see we made things you just can’t purchase in a store.
Our established sign says 2015 because that is when we got our actual manufacturing permit. One of the first wines we made was some muscadine juice we got from Lakeridge, and we didn’t completely know what we were doing. I had a small truck and we didn’t know if it could hold the weight and I am hauling 55 gallons of juice at a time to our winery, which wasn’t even fully drywalled at the time. We thought we would be able to open shortly after that, but it took another 2 ½ years to finally get there.
Those legal hoops are a huge burden for wineries. Tell us about the support you received from the state of Florida to open a winery.
They have been very supportive. From the Department of Professional Business Regulations, who is always there to answer any questions, to the TTB (Ed.: Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau), to our county, everyone was very welcoming. There are a lot of hoops to go through, but you understand, since we are serving alcohol. It took us a long time because we just didn’t have the money and this was new to us.
Tell me the education you have to give Florida consumers that is different than what you had to give Ohio consumers?
With theConcord, Niagara, and Catawbas that are grown up in Ohio, those are sweeter and many consumers gravitate towards them. People are kinda surprised there are grapes at all here. Or they are familiar with muscadine and think that is all we have. Someone like Lakeridge, they are huge and make a fantastic quantity of great muscadine, and they get a lot of visitors. It is very common someone comes to us having already been there, but our experience is going to be different. We are all very different from each other. You can go to six Ohio wineries in the same day and your experience will be very similar, but with Florida we have a greater variety.
Are you shipping or doing wholesale yet?
We just got our license to ship. It is not a big part of our business yet. We don’t do wholesale yet, as we still don’t have enough production for our tasting room.
How did COVID affect Dragon Flower? Nearly everyone else I have spoke with had a wholesale license that shielded them somewhat from the downturn.
We were lucky to still be able to sell wine to go. Our bar was shut down for five months, and that was hard because that is where people come in and taste the wine and decide if they like it. This started in March, so at least we had four months of strong seasonal sales and our busiest time of the year just behind us. We also had two years of regular customers who really saw us through. People were so gracious in supporting us with carry-out.
Tell us more about your hibiscus wine. We see hibiscus in mead and beer, but hibiscus wine is pretty rare.
We do two versions, a semi-sweet which is our most popular wine, and we also make a dry sulfite-free version. I cannot come close to making enough of it. We were getting the dried flowers from Egypt, but we just sourced them from a Florida farm. That goes back to our commitment to highlight Florida agriculture.
It is not a simple process. You have to spend twelve hours making the tea outside in the sun with propane burners. The tea has no sugar content, so you have to add sugar to get to around 12% ABV. It would be completely organic if I used organic sugar. We never intended to make hibiscus wine, but it just came together.
We are very open with how we make it. Some wineries, you ask them any question about their process for something uncommon like this, they act like it is a trade secret. I will tell people from start to finish on how to make this wine. If they want to make a big batch, more power to them. I think people appreciate that candor.
Where do you see Dragon Flower in ten years?
Always progressing, and always putting money into the business to make the place better. The world and the speed at which it moves with social media encourages you to grow fast, but we are going to grow at our own pace. I want to do what we can handle with a small staff. We also need to get to 60% of our products coming from Florida agriculture to be Farm Certified, and we are getting there. Hopefully we will have more acreage, and we want to get to the point where we can make fully sparkling wine.
Where do you see Florida wine in ten years?
I see it being super fun. A wine trail is needed and would be a great addition, and there is some work on that now. I would also personally like to see our grape industry develop. I went to a conference over a year ago discussing California hybridizing their vinifera with around 3% muscadine to become resistant to Pierce’s Disease. I love muscadines with their fresh taste and the quantity they produce, but I would really love for us to grow vinifera.
Ed.: While we may think of Pierce’s Disease solely as a Southeast United States issue, it has also taken hold in parts of California. Thus, California researchers have been vigorously studying the issue, and have come up with several resistant varieties that show great promise.
Dean and Maggie are in Ohio, and you’ve made the decision to go back to Florida to start a winery. Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give your younger self?
We actually talked about this question a lot last night. Like I said before, the time it took us to open up, it built so much character and made us stronger. I wouldn’t change a thing. Sure, I could have done a few things differently, but that whole process was so worth it.
Ed.: Questions are submitted in advance to those we interview.
What do you drink when you go home at night? You can’t say one of your wines!
My favorite drink is actually Diet Coke. I drink a lot of it, way more than I should (laughs).