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Couple didn't wait to pursue winery dream

By ANDREW SKERRITT, Times Columnist
Published September 14, 2007

Terry McKnight, 51, pours fermented grapes into a press with the help of his brother-in-law Cal Lyons, 46. The whole process has turned into a family venture with grandparents, and children chipping in their free time to help do everything from mowing to harvesting.
[David Degner | Times]
[David Degner | Times]
Janis McKnight (left) and Kelly Johnson pick grapes at their vinyard, the Strong Tower Vineyard and Winery. The vinyard has a square quarter mile planted with a few different varieties that are used to create their wines.

[David Degner | Times]
Fermenting grapes sit in a vat ready to be pressed at the Strong Tower Vineyard and Winery.

The Bible says Jesus turned water into wine, but many modern day believers tend to shy away from the fermented stuff. No beer, no wine. That's conventional wisdom, not the kind that deters Spring Hill couple Terry and Janis McKnight from pursuing their retirement dream.

"I want to make wine fit for the wedding Jesus was at," quipped Terry, who with his wife owns and operates Strong Tower Vineyard & Winery. The name by the way, has a biblical reference: Proverbs 18:10, if you care to look it up.

Scriptures are rich with the language of the vineyard - wine, pruning, grapes. The rules for caring for the crop almost sound like lessons for life.

"Without pruning, there is no fruit the next season," Terry said.

He has been married to Janis for 31 years; three of their four children are grown. The couple's life and faith have been intertwined since they first met on a college mission trip to Nicaragua in 1974.

Although, they've always enjoyed wine at dinner, they never thought of creating a winery until they visited the Biltmore Estates vineyards in Asheville, N.C., years ago. Why not a vineyard? Why not Pasco?

Some people talk about all the great stuff they'll do when they retire, then they retire and ... poof.

Terry didn't wait until retirement. While he still worked as a chiropractor, he studied grapes and wines; he experimented with all kinds of soil. Muscadine grapes thrived on the sandy soils of Florida. Vineyards like Florida Estates Winery in Land O'Lakes were evidence that it could work.

Five years ago, he planted grapevines on pasture land he bought on the Spring Hill side of Pasco, near where the Suncoast Parkway was planned. Afternoons and weekends, the couple drove from their home in Tarpon Springs to tend the vines. When they built their house next to the vineyard three years ago, they included space for a store so folks can come in to sample and buy wines.

Not everything went according to schedule. Strong winds from the storms of 2004 slowed the development of the grapes. But now the vines are finally mature. This year, the vineyards produced a bountiful crop. At 5 tons of fruit an acre, they have far more grapes than they need for the Ison rose, pinot noir and blanc Du Bois wines they produce. So for the first time, they've opened the vineyards for folks to come and pick their own muscadine grapes.

"We want people to be able to bring their children and enjoy the vineyard," she said, as we stood in one of the quarter mile long rows of deep purple muscadine grapes. Even though the Suncoast Parkway is less than 100 yards away, standing in the 51/2-acre vineyard makes you feel momentarily like you're somewhere else. Napa Valley, perhaps.

"You smell the wine as you walk through the vineyard," said Janis, 51, who helps run the wine shop. Strong Tower Vineyard is a family passion. Terry, 52, retired last year. He does the heavy work with lots of help from the children and in-laws.

"They come and go," said Terry of his cadre of helpers. "They know I'm out there."

Yes, toiling in the vineyard.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at 813 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is

Fast Facts

If you go

Strong Tower Vineyard, u-pick grapes, 17810 Forge Drive, Spring Hill, noon to 6 p.m. daily, call 352-799-7612.

[Last modified September 13, 2007, 22:30:42]

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