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A fermented find

A vineyard and winery in Florida? Yes, a rustic jewel in Chiefland produces liquid - and scenic - therapy.

By LOGAN NEILL, Times Correspondent
Published July 15, 2005

CHIEFLAND - Immediately after the woman walks through the door, Max Rittgers has her in his sights. He goes back to tallying his business log while she wanders through the building. Finally, she stops by the counter.

"I've driven by here a hundred times, and I finally decided to see what this place is all about," she says to Rittgers.

It's a tale Rittgers has heard thousands of times. He beams a knowing smile.

"Well, we finally caught you, didn't we," he says to the woman.

Rittgers makes no hard sales pitch. He prefers that his visitors amble about. If they're in the mood to buy something, that's fine. If not, so be it.

For the past 20 years, with the greatest of ease, Rittgers has been luring such curious travelers off busy U.S. 19 in Levy County into his Dakotah Vineyards and Winery. There are no garish signs, no outlandish statues to pique the interest of passing motorists. Rather, people seem drawn to the novelty of a family vineyard smack-dab in the middle of a state not generally known for producing wine.

Inside the iron gates, Rittgers and his son, Rob, have created a world all their own. Surrounded by 12 acres of muscadine grape vines, their daily endeavors revolve around raising and harvesting their hybrid scuppernongs, which are the basis for the seven varieties bottled on-site.

The operation goes far beyond the simple Florida roadside business that the Rittgers first planned in the mid 1980s. The immaculately maintained grounds are filled with wildlife, and the attraction has the look and feel of many of the stately family wineries found in northern California.

Inside the main building, classical music plays softly while visitors browse through the large selection of items for sale, as well as the family's immense collection of antiques and ancient Indian artifacts displayed along every wall. The winery and cellar, with its gleaming stainless steel vats and high-tech bottling machines, offers fascinating insight into what is one of the state's leading producers of wines.

By maintaining the humble roots of his business, Rittgers thinks he has built a venture that is a joy to work at every day.

"People appreciate that we're a part of old Florida that seems to be fading more and more with the passage of time," he says, referring to a time when farmers routinely sold their homegrown fruits and vegetables from small highway stands.

How did the Dakotah Winery start? Not long after buying the property, a few miles south of the Suwannee River, Rittgers, a native of South Dakota who tired of his job as a family counselor, decided to try his hand at starting a U-pick grape business, planting the first of the 6,000 vines that would eventually cover his property.

Although the first crop had a small yield, Rittgers was encouraged by the interest in his product. He moved his family to the property and went to work expanding his venture.

The self-contained operation makes use of both modern and time-tested technology. For instance, irrigation is done using a combination of windmills and solar-powered pumps, which bring water from the ground into the vineyards. Sheep and domestic geese keep the arbors trimmed and weed-free, allowing the family to get by without expensive and toxic pesticides.

"My philosophy is that if your product lacks integrity, then how can you possibly get people to believe in it?" said Rittgers, who pointed out that most of his sales are to repeat customers.

These days, the winery, which is named for Rittgers' home state, and which translated from its American Indian origins means "friend," is still mostly staffed by Max and Rob and other family members. Customers who come in are politely greeted and invited for a fresh sample from the vineyards.

"We don't rush anyone," Rob Rittgers said. "We invite people to come and spend some time just wandering around."

Although visitors are no longer allowed in the vineyards, for liability reasons, they are able to get an up-close look at the muscadines on lush arbors along patios and verandas. Gardens and ponds out back provide a welcoming place to watch the winery's resident wood ducks and other birds.

As summer progresses, Max Rittgers keeps an eye on his next crop, which he will start harvesting in mid August.

"It's our favorite time of the year," he said. "That's when we get to celebrate all of our hard work and effort. And we love having people to share it with us."

Logan Neill can be reached at lneill@sptimes.com or 352 848-1435.

IF YOU GO

The Dakotah Vineyards and Winery is at 14365 NW U.S. 19 in Chiefland, about 4 miles north of the city limits. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon until 5 p.m. Sunday. For information, call 352 493-9309 or visit www.dakotahwinery.com

[Last modified July 15, 2005, 00:37:14]


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