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Florida's Got Something To Wine About
Article and Photos by Kathleen Walls

Florida Vinyard
A lush Florida vinyard
Being as far south as it is and predominantly semi-tropical, you wouldn't think Florida would have many wineries. Think again. Florida has an abundance of fine wineries. Since the most commonly used grape used for table wines, Vitis vinifera. will not grow in a semitropical climate. Consequently Florida wineries have to depend on two options or a variation of them; either import the traditional grape or develop a wine from the varieties that do grow here or use other fruits and even vegetables to produce wine.

 There are several species of bunch and Muscadine grapes native to Florida; in fact, the southeastern U.S. has the greatest genetic diversity of grapes worldwide. The first recorded reference to wine made from grapes grown in the "New World" was by letters from French Huguenots in the 1560s. They told of makeing wine from wild Muscadine grapes growing at what is now St. Augustine. Florida's wine producing days are deep rooted.

Black Horse Winery
Black Horse Winery
Florida's treasure trove of wineries range from tiny one-person operations to huge companies with acres of their own vineyards. One of these small jewels is Black Horse Winery in Orange Park just outside Jacksonville. It's an oasis of relaxation on busy Kingsley Road. Owner and winemaker Kiyoko Fiedler, sponsors poetry readings, local writers meetings, live music and other community events.

She has a small but very efficient wine making area on site that she is proude to show off if you just ask. Some of her best wines are combinations of grapes and other fruit such as apple or peach. Black Horse Winery doesn't serve food but you are welcome to bring your own and enjoy it with her very special wines.

Another small winery in Florida has long roots. Tangled Oaks Vineyard & Winery, located in the little town of Grandin, is owned and operated by the DaCasto family, whose ancestors were winemakers in Calosso d'Asti, Italy for well over 100 years. The DeCastros, father and son, have transplanted this love of the grape culture as the first winery in Putnam County.

entrance to Lakeridge Winery
The entrance to Lakeridge Winery
By contrast, Lakeridge is Florida's largest winery. It opened in February 1989 in Clermont, Florida on 127 acres of former orange groves. As you learn in the Lakeridge video, it was a long time dream of Mr. Gary Cox. He began with just a small five acre test plot and evolved to this huge operation. They produce 1500 cases of sparkling and table wines per day using Florida hybrid bunch and Muscadine grapes.

Lakeridge Winery wine awards
Lakeridge proudly displays award winners

 

 

 

They offer complimentary tours and wine tasting at their over 28,000 square feet facility. Our tour guide gave a very educational presentation about how wine is made at Lakeridge. You can also enjoy a video presentation, viewing deck, gift shop and picnic area seven days a week. They often host events such as arts and crafts festivals, jazz concerts, harvest festivals, grape stompings. Their wines consistently win awards.

Lakeridge was proud to receive three silver medals for Southern Red, Blanc du Bois, and Southern White, and two bronze medals for Proprietors Reserve and Sunblush at the 2013 Los Angeles International Wine & Spirits Awards held May 15-16 at the L.A. County Fair.

The wine business in Florida is not new. Discounting those early French Huguenots, Eden Winery, located in the tiny community of Alva near Fort Myers, is Florida's oldest winery. The Kiser family began planting some bunch wine grapes over thirty years ago. Today they make six wines and offer tastings daily. 
San Sebastain Winery in Saint Augustine Florida
San Sebastian Winery

Incidentally, since those early Huguenots started it, wine making in Saint Augustine is still going strong. San Sebastian Winery located in one of Henry Flagler's old East Coast Railway buildings near the historic district, in combination with its sister winery , Lakeridge, produces 11 different wines, including one sparkling and two dessert wines; Cream Sherry and Port. They are the second largest winery in Florida. San Sebastian Winery did very well at the 2013 Los Angeles International Wine & Spirits Awards earning a total of four medals including two Best of Class Gold Medals for Vintners White and Rosa. They were also awarded two silver medals for Blanc De Fleur and Vintners Red.
Wine Tasting at San Sebastian Winery
Tasting surrounded by oak barrels
at San Sebastian Winery

San Sebastian bottles much of the wine made by their sister winery but does ferment its own port and sherry. The upstairs tasting room is delightful. It is filled with aged whiskey barrels used for the port. The old barrels lend an ambience to the room no stainless steel vat can match.

Nikki Whitney, who led out tour, offers many helpful pointers about the art of wine tasting and how to tell really good wines from poor or mediocre ones. She feels education is a really important part of their tours.

They have a large wine shop with a wide assortment of interesting items, gift baskets, gourmet foods and wine accessories. They offer daily tours and tastings sessions at their expansive tasting counter. On weekends, their third floor "The Cellar Upstairs Wine, Jazz and Blues Bar" is a great local spot. You can enjoy live music and a selection of light appetizers and sandwiches. Naturally they serve San Sebastian Wines as well as imported and domestic beers.

All the way at the other end of Florida, the state's southernmost (at least that I could find) winery is Key West Winery. As might be expected of anything in Key West this place is not your traditional winery. Instead of grapes, their wines are made from blends of tropical fruit grown by their parent winery in St. Petersburg. Florida Orange Groves and Winery, Pinellas County's first and only tropical, berry and citrus winery. Hurricane Class 5. a blend of key lime, pineapple, mango, watermelon and passion fruit. It's no wonder this white sangria has become their top seller.
Stainless steel wine tank at Lakeridge Winery
Stainless steel tanks have replaced the
more picturesque barrels here in Florida

Not only have the vineyards and wineries caught on in a big way in the Sunshine State but festivals are rapidly becoming a way to promote this Florida product.

The Annual Sandestin Wine Festival has been promoting Florida's fruit of the grape for 27 years. The oldest, continuously running wine festival in the state of Florida draws thousands of people to The Village of Baytowne Wharf at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort.  Wine connoisseurs to wine novices join together and find more than 600 different wines to sample and chat with more than 80 vineyards both nationally and internationally. The 28th Annual Sandestin Wine Festival will take place April 10 - 13, 2014

New wine festivals are popping up regularly. Amelia Island, Florida began hosting its own Annual Amelia Island Wine Festival last year. The second annual festival will be held on October 12, 2013 on the banks of a peaceful lagoon at the Shops of the Omni Amelia Island Plantation. Besides having tastings of many fine Florida wines, there will be wine makers from Argentina, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

How many wineries does Florida actually have? Florida's department of Agriculture recognizes  23 Certified Florida Farm Wineries. To qualify for this certification, a winery must meet certain tests.

They must produce or sell less than 250,000 gallons of wine annually. They must maintain a minimum of 10 acres of owned or managed vineyards in Florida and be open to the public for tours, tastings and sales at least 30 hours each week. Only wineries meeting these criteria may make annual application to the department for recognition as a Florida Farm Winery.

Naturally, there are many other great wineries who don't fit in this group but still are great places to visit. I gave up after discovering about 90 Florida wineries. These are just a drop in the wine glasses to get you thinking. Best way to discover these treasures for yourself is go on the road and do your own wine tasting expedition.

Click here for books on how to make great wine at home.  

For more info:

Black Horse Winery http://www.blackhorsewinery.com/

Tangled Oaks Vineyard and Winery http://www.tangledoaksvineyard.com

Lakeridge Winery http://www.lakeridgewinery.com/index.php

Eden Winery http://www.edenwinery.com

San Sebastian Winery http://www.sansebastianwinery.com

Key West Winery http://www.thekeywestwinery.com/

Sandestin Wine Festival http://www.sandestinwinefestival.com/

Amelia Island Wine Festival http://www.ameliawine.com/

 

 

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