Small winery aims to meet ‘gold standard’ the old fashioned way

Published on: October 4, 2012

Wine bottles become sun-attracting glass accents in a wedding arch at Woodhams. Photo Melody Jameson

Wine bottles become sun-attracting glass accents in a wedding arch at Woodhams. Photo Melody Jameson


DUETTE – There’s a winery here built by hand, with an eye always on reducing its carbon footprint, on repurposing and renewal, on preservation and protection.

It’s not likely ever to be large or automated or Disneyesque.

Tucked away in this tiny community near the county line defining Hillsborough and Manatee, it’s the life’s work – quite literally – of Lenora and Larry Woodham. They came to it after lengthy managerial careers in the contemporary worlds of commercial real estate and retail commerce.

What they do now, essentially, is grow grapes and make wine the old fashioned way. They also share this passion every day, seven days a week, with tastings and tours and talk about a subject that many Americans once considered solelythe purview of the persnickety French and those upstart Californians.

Actually, though, their Bunker Hill Vineyard and Winery is part of a Florida pedigree which dates back 450 years. It has been reported that the first wine ever made in the United States was fermented from Scuppernong grapes by French Huguenots in 1562 near what would become Jacksonville. Today, wineries by the dozens, many with vineyards, dot the Florida landscape and maybe 35 of them are Certified Florida Farm Wineries. Woodham’s Bunker Hill is among that select group.

Woodhams, their offspring launched and looking at retirement from stressful jobs, stumbled on the 23 acres abutting the north side of Bunker Hill Road about 15 years ago. In a very rural setting, it contained both wetlands and uplands as well as a comfortable two-story home. Neither of them, by virtue of the social sides of their careers, were strangers to wine. Somehow, a vineyard fit the picture. They planted the first vines – a few varieties of Muscadine grapes — in 1998.

Growing grapes for wine is not a short term proposition, but an endeavor requiring patience and careful tending. On the other hand, Larry Woodham believed the thick-skinned Muscadines that do well in Florida’s sandy soils also can make outstanding wines. A dozen years after planting those first vines, he could point to bottles supporting the contention.

As the couple nurtured their vines, they also began putting into practice many of their personal principles. They left a substantial portion of the acreage in a natural state, specifically to serve as protected habitat for the wildlife pushed from phosphate mining lands to the north. It is home now to mammals, birds and reptiles, many of them endangered, Woodhams attest.

And, over time, as they perfected their wine-making formula for the assorted grape varieties and other fruits, the devotion to the native wildlife would be reflected on Bunker Hill Winery labels. Today, for example, there’s the Foxy Red made from the red Noble grape, Country Cat, a rose’ coming from the Black Beauty grape, and Wild Hawk, another red made with the wild grape. Each is a Muscadine variety.

Then there’s the Forest Keeper based on the white Magnolia grape and Sandy Hill made from the white Darlene and Florida Coral, a rosé produced by the Supreme, all of them Muscadines.

In addition, the developing vintners began experimenting with other fruits: Key Lime, orange, cherry tomato, blueberry, grapefruit, pineapple, strawberry, mango, blackberry, Florida lemon, even coconut. Each in time has been added to the Bunker Hill line, right down to Gator Tale Elderberry, made from the venerable but now rare wine fruit. Lenora Woodham suggests that both a sweet potato and a dandelion wine could join the line-up shortly.
This weekend, Woodhams will introduce more newcomers for their fans, friends and visitors. From noon to 5 PM on Saturday and Sunday, they plan to offer tastings of the new apple, spiced apple and sparkling apple wines just coming out of the wine cave.

The entire winemaking process takes place on the Woodham property. Almost all of it done by hand. After hand-picking the fruit during multiple harvests, it is washed, pressed with the skins, given the specific additives such as yeast and/or sugar necessary for fermentation and ultimately transferred by hand to large glass carboys, left to age undisturbed for at least a year in the climate-controlled cave.

When bottled, those bottles are hand filled, hand corked, hand sealed, hand labeled. All of the Woodham’s wines are unfiltered for more body and flavor, none are blended and each is made with retained fruit skins to heighten both flavor and antioxidant content. There’s a lot of “goodness stored in the skins,» Larry Woodham asserts.

In the process, Woodhams also focus on making the operation “green.” The vineyard drip irrigation system, for example, is solar powered, the winery buildings are built of steel to ensure reuse if the structures should ever be dismantled, only real corks close the wine bottles to avoid oil-based plastics and all Bunker Hill bottles are sealed with genuine hot wax which can be recycled. Yet another recycling practice is collection of discarded wine bottles from restaurants and from customers, many of them useful for another bottling after sterilization.

And the bottles that cannot be wine containers again are repurposed in some very creative ways. One of them is a concrete wall imbedded with old bottles and topped with half bottles carrying candles that can light the path to the tasting room during evening events. Another is Lenora Woodham’s wedding arch, also a concrete structure containing green and amber and blue bottles through which sunlight may shine as the Notary Public conducts marriage ceremonies and vow renewals surrounded by the greenery of the vineyard. A bride approaching the arch from between the green vines makes a spectacular sight, she says.

The wine masters even can provide use of a private two-bedroom home on the acreage for the wedding party or as a secluded honeymoon setting. – along with a complimentary bottle of choice, of course.

The Woodhams, both native southerners with an affinity for the land and a strong interest in environmental protections, make it clear their vineyard and winery are very much “about Florida.» There is no reason Florida cannot become a premier wine producing state, Larry emphasizes. And the objective at Bunker Hill is not mass production,» he adds, but rather “ to be known as a creator and producer of the gold standard in Florida wines.”

More information about Bunker Hill Vineyard and Winery can be accessed on the internet at Email Woodhams at
Copyright 2012 Melody Jameson