County clears way for winery in South Dade
By Samantha Joseph
Miami-Dade County expects to welcome a winery next month as new ordinances allow alcohol production in agricultural zones.
Schnebly Redland's Winery expects to sell its first bottle of locally pressed wine, made from tropical fruit on its 96-acre farm in South Dade, by Feb. 14, said its owner.
"Most people do not think of vineyards and wineries when they think of Florida, (but the state) has a $5 million viticulture industry," said Jennifer Parsons, public-affairs director for the Dade County Farm Bureau, based in Homestead.
Schnebly joins 15 other wineries in Florida. But until a month ago, Miami-Dade agricultural laws did not allow wine production.
On Dec. 2, county commissioners approved a plan to let farmers make and sell wine from locally grown fruit.
The amendment requires winery operators to cultivate large groves or vineyards on at least 10 acres but limit wine production to about 250,000 gallons per year.
"For us, it's just another venture," said Peter Schnebly, who co-owns the winery with his wife, Denisse.
The Schneblys have operated Fresh King, a produce company in the Redlands, for 11 years, selling packed fruits and vegetables to retailers and gourmet restaurants across the country.
They thought a winery would allow them to use overripe fruits that they now discard to create more than 114,000 cases of wine.
Fresh King grows mangoes, passion fruit and guava and is the country's largest producer of lychee, an Asian nut that will become the main ingredient in its wines.
"We don't have a single grape wine here," Mr. Schnebly said.
The venture is expected to create 30 jobs by summer. Annual sales - including those of wine, fruit and fruit trees - are projected to exceed $13.8 million.
Minutes away from what looks like a real estate stampede in South Miami-Dade, a small company represents the county's first effort to meld farming and tourism.
Just west of Homestead, where developers have converted thousands of acres of farmland to prime real estate, the new business offers an idea that could help stem the loss of agricultural land.
When it opens next month, Schnebly Redland's Winery will introduce agri-tourism to the county as a tourist attraction in a rural setting.
It's the start of an effort public officials say could keep farming an attractive option for landowners in the last real estate frontier in one of the nation's fastest-growing counties.
"I really jumped at the opportunity" to help preserve farmland, said Dennis Moss, vice chairman of the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners. "At the end of the day, it may prove to be the way to make the land valuable enough so farmers aren't tempted to accept these very, very lucrative offers to sell to developers."
Longtime resident and banker A. "Buster" Castiglia says the area has changed beyond recognition. His bank, which specializes in real estate lending, has been doing brisk business in South Dade. "Builders can't build fast enough," he said. "Low interest rates only fuel the demand."
Economic conditions that encourage ownership and overcrowding in the northern parts of the county have led developers to turn their attention south.
In Homestead, just west of the Redlands, where the new winery stands, more than 12,000 homes are under construction, city officials say.
The city's population grew 10% to about 35,000 from 2000 to 2004. It will double in the next five years, estimates Charles LaPradd, planning and economic development administrator in Homestead.
"The growth's going to continue well into next year," Mr. Castiglia said. "You simply won't recognize the area."
Since 1995, Commissioner Moss has led efforts to create local wineries. In 1997, he co-sponsored an eco-tourism conference at Florida International University to promote the idea.
Nothing happened until December 2003, when Denisse and Peter Schnebly invested about $300,000 in equipment to expand their produce company in the Redlands by adding a winery to utilize overripe fruit.
The couple own Fresh King and had planned to open a winery before they learned that local laws made no provision for such a business.
The discovery led to a series of meetings with public officials, including former Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas and Mr. Moss, who sponsored the ordinance to allow alcohol production in an agricultural zone.
One year later, on Dec. 2, the county approved the change and Schnebly Redland's became Florida's 16th and Miami-Dade's only winery.
"Our idea is to have people come on out, tour our property and try our products," said Mr. Schnebly.
It's an idea borrowed from California's Napa Valley, where farmers have merged tourism and agriculture to attract 5 million visitors each year to wineries and vineyards.
"If we got just a portion of the tourist interest that they have there, certainly you can see the potential we'd have here," Mr. Moss said.
One month before it is scheduled to open - and before it has received its license to sell liquor - Schnebly Redland's Winery has booked its first tour group, Napa Valley's Wine and Food Institute.
The tour is one of several events the company has planned for the year. Its agenda includes up to six festivals to bring chefs, restaurateurs, wine lovers and other tourists to its 96-acre fruit orchard and winery.
By summer, the winery is expected to create about 30 jobs in packing, retail and other areas. At full capacity, it is projected to produce about 114,680 cases of wine and generate about $13.8 million in sales annually.