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Italian family winery offers Hernando patrons a glimpse into another way of life

BETH N. GRAY | Special to the Times Joseph Sparacia takes his turn among his siblings, tending the tasting room at Sparacia Witherell Family Winery & Vineyards north of Brooksville.
By Beth N. Gray, Times Correspondent
Wednesday 12 September 2018 05.51

BROOKSVILLE — Ten acres of tender vines atop a high Hernando County ridge are growing toward fruition, but Joseph Sparacia and his siblings couldn’t wait for a sip of their grapes. With Joseph’s wine recipes in hand, they bought the best of Florida’s muscadine crop, contracted the pressing, concoction and fermenting, and opened Sparacia Witherell Family Winery & Vineyards just north of Chinsegut Hill.

Joseph, 70, the eldest of four siblings, is spearheading the effort. The youngsters grew up in Brooklyn under the vino tutelage of their father, Frank Sparacia, a wine importer. They grew up with wine on every dinner table. Joseph grew with wine as the focus of his life since age 14, when he first peddled his father’s wares door-to-door.

The local family vineyard of 1,200 vines, planted in 2016, won’t bear fruit for another three years.

"We’re growing the roots," Joseph explained, to establish a robust system to support heavy fruiting.

While fewer than 500 acres across Florida are devoted to commercial grape production, according to the University of Florida Institute of Foods and Agricultural Services, muscadine grapes grow well here. They are native Florida vegetation. The family will plant another eight acres of muscadine cultivars within the year.

Sparacia makes no apologies for muscadine wine’s sweet taste.

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"(Consumers) say they like dry, but they drink sweet," he said. Indeed, a 2015 survey by Sonoma State University and Wine Business Institute found "fruity" leads the list of favorite wine tastes, followed by semi-sweet and smooth. Muscadines deliver on all counts.

While awaiting harvest, the Sparacias have embraced Florida’s agritourism concept.

The family opened a spacious Italian-designed tasting room that seats 30, next to a paving-stone patio with umbrella tables that accommodates more than 100. Their view over the fledgling vineyard, from one of the highest elevations in Florida at 275 feet, is of soft and hardwood forest that rolls to another ridge, meeting the horizon toward Ocala.

"It’s most rewarding," said Joseph, "how people find such a sense of peace up here. It’s conducive to meeting new people."

That serenity, conviviality and a glass of wine have kept people coming back since last November’s opening. The Sparacias — sister Maria Witherell, brother Angelo and his wife, Chris, plus Joseph — have added Wednesday evening open-mike cabarets, Friday night red, white and blues jazz fests, catered Italian dinner fiestas and three-night weekend food truck assemblies featuring everything from lobster rolls to tacos.

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Under current licensing, glasses of wine are offered as free tastings. Patrons can buy a bottle, for $13 to $15 generally, and stay for friendly imbibing. Snacks and meals are catered, although a food handlers’ license is in hand.

Sparacia Witherell’s "First Family of Wines" — a white, a rosé and a red — bear the collective label, "Cash Flow."

"We have to pay the mortgage, you know," Joseph said, with a grin.

More telling is a quartet of wines featuring heritage familial labels, described by Joseph Sparacia: Duet, a rosé of deep floral bouquet, celebrates sisters Maria and Roseann; Fratelli, Italian for "brothers," a premium white with wildflower fragrances, remarks on Joseph and Angelo; Enseime, Italian for "altogether," captures Sunday dinners at Aunt Rose’s with a red with a sweet touch and long-lasting fruitiness; Honeymoon, commemorating love, a marriage of grape and honey in a bottle to share. Fruit wines round out the offering.

The tasting room segues into a high-tone gift shop featuring wineglasses, wine coolers, gift boxes and baskets of wines.

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Joseph Sparacia, acknowledging his belief in challenging every minute regardless of one’s age, is planning to add a craft brewery and distillery within a couple of years.

While others help staff the tasting room-gift shop and special events, sister-in-law Chris declares of Joseph Sparacia: "He’s the design guy. He’s our visionary."

Contact Beth Gray at graybethn@earthlink.net.

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