“It’s a hobby that went wild,” smiled Kathy, co-owner of the Grapes of Kath vineyard, just off of SR 66.
The couple decided to put an arbor up in their yard in south Sebring so they could enjoy homegrown grapes. Then people started asking them if they planned to make wine, Roger recalled. “A lot of people,” he clarified.
They finished building the arbor and their vineyard, and then started into hobbyist winemaking. “We put a few rows out there and it just grew,” said Kathy.
The Gillers don’t sell their wine commercially. Instead, they sell their grapes, fresh or frozen, give winemaking classes and support, and sell winemaking supplies from a small shop in front of their home they call “The Pour House.” Inside this outbuilding is also where they ferment their own wine. They currently have four big containers of aging wine protected from the sun by T-shirts.
They also give classes to individuals, couples or small groups who want to learn how to make their own wine. And how does one make wine? A printed handout describes the entire procedure from start to finish.
You start by heading out into the six-acre vineyard to pick your grapes, or you can purchase frozen grapes from the Gillers. They’ll run them through the crusher, sell you any supplies you need, tell you what to do next and help you troubleshoot any problems you might have.
The grapes can also be foot stomped. “We had a foot stomped bunch of grapes that won a gold medal from the Highlands County Grape Growers Association,” said Kathy, who has several bottles of award-winning hobbyist wines on display in the Pour House.
But you’ll have to wait until at least August to harvest any of the Gillers’ grapes. This year, their frozen stock ran out for the first time ever, said Kathy.
That’s because the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Division of Food Safety conducted a test of the grapes and found no pesticide residue on any of the fruit.
“We have 100 percent chemical-free grapes,” Kathy stated. The Gillers don’t use pesticide, they fertilize with organic fertilizer, and they only use herbicide to keep weeds down.
When aphids appear, they are washed off with soap and water.
The Gillards grow 13 varieties of native Florida muscadine grapes as well as bunch grapes like the Conquistador, Lake Emerald, FAMU 99 and a Greek variety, said Kathy.
The grapes come in all colors for making white, red, or blush wines.
Roger’s favorite is a dry red that he sips cold at the end of the day while enjoying the view of his vineyard. Indeed, on a breezy spring day with the vineyard as your view, the property has a distinct Mediterranean feel.
The Dry Noble wine (made from the Noble grape) has a high alcohol content and you can feel the warmth right away as it goes down. The Sweet Noble table wine is light and fruity and very popular.
Kathy’s shared her favorite: “We make a port wine from the muscadine that is absolutely wonderful!” That strong, sweet dessert wine gets its flavor from the addition of blackberry brandy.
Indeed, winemakers can get creative with all types of fruits to flavor their wines, including strawberry, grapefruit, loquat, starfruit, and more. One of the benefits of making your own wine is being able to tweak the flavor to suit your palate rather than trying to find something at the store that you like, Kathy said.
Another benefit is that homemade wine doesn’t contain added sulfites or other chemicals used in commercial wines.
And she should know. Kathy has been president of the Highlands County Grape Growers Association for more than 10 years. The approximately 32-member organization holds local wine judging contests and shares information about winemaking.
Kathy fields calls, helping to answer the questions of other wine hobbyists. She and Roger have also donated wine to an American Cancer Society dinner and do free tastings at art gatherings and other local events.
And while there are no grapes on the vines or in the freezer at the moment, that doesn’t mean they aren’t still busy. Throughout the winter they prune the vines. Soon, Kathy will begin propagating young plants, expanding the vineyard to meet the needs of what she expects will be another busy season when the grapes are ready to be harvested in August.
“It’s a lot of work. There’s always something that needs doing,” she said. “But at the same time, it’s a labor of love. We enjoy the whole thing,” she added.