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Heart surgeon to convert ranch into big-time winery

Will area wine lovers soon sip North Suncoast Cabernet Sauvignons, Land O'Lakes Lambruscas or Pasco County Pinot Noirs?

Don't laugh.

Despite its associations with citrus, Pasco County is about to branch big time into viniculture with this year's opening of Fort King Winery on a cattle ranch northeast of U.S. 41 and State Road 52.

St. Petersburg heart surgeon Dr. J. Crayton Pruitt, who owns the 3,600-acre ranch, plans to convert his 3,000-square-foot weekend home into a winery equipped with fermenting tanks, bottling machinery and a tasting hall. The first bottles should be available for purchase within a year.

Pruitt and his partner, Earl Kiser, owner of Eden Vineyards & Winery near Fort Myers, will truck in grapes and juice for the first few vintages. That will give their own vines, to be planted this year on 14 acres of the ranch, time to take root.

"It will be three years before our vines will be making significant amounts of grapes in the quality needed to make good wine," said Pruitt, whose locally grown fruit could produce up to 60,000 bottles of red and white wine a year.

Kiser's existing winery, the southernmost federally licensed wine producer in the United States, specializes in six styles fermented from hybrid, disease-resistant grapes engineered by Florida scientists.

The grapes are known by names such as Lake Emerald and Conquistador. They are a cross between the vinifera species, the kind in almost all California and European wines, and indigenous American grapes common to the gulf coast.

Florida's year-round warmth encourages a bacterial blight called Pierce's disease that tends to wipe out the purely European varieties. The disease has stunted the state's wine industry, although eight wineries now operate from the Panhandle to Fort Myers.

"Florida has a dismal past, an adequate present and a promising future," Kiser said of the state's status as a wine region.

The winery is part of Pruitt's plans to develop his ranch into a 1,300-home golf course community. Although the winery will be up and running before the subdivision, the partners see nothing awkward about mixing agriculture and suburbia.

"It's a damned good selling point. Wineries have a romance about them. People like to live near them," Kiser said.

Using a combination of Pasco grapes, out-of-county fruit and imported grape juice, Pruitt and Kiser hope to make Fort King Winery a destination for tourists.

They already have visions of harvest festivals, wine-stompings, tastings and concerts.

"Are we making world class wines? No," Kiser said. "I make wines that people enjoy."