Here's a surprise: All local Florida wine doesn't suck.
A few years ago, I attended an informal wine competition pitting 21 states' wines against each other. We tasted entries from Michigan, New Mexico and Virginia, among others (California and New York weren't eligible), and I brought along a red from my home state: a pleasant, light-hearted blend of hybrid grapes called Plantation Red from Florida Estates Winery. We all tasted and discussed — blind tastings allow people to critique mercilessly — and most were, frankly, undrinkable. I liked my entry, but I sheepishly assumed it would get trounced by states with better soil and climates. But my humble underdog placed second after a sparkling from New Mexico's Gruet Winery. The Plantation Red defeated the conventional wisdom that Florida is unable to produce anything worthy of drinking, let alone buying.
A recent tour of easily drivable wineries in the Tampa Bay area showed me there are more winners than I expected. The key is to go with low expectations and an open mind. Florida's humidity and heat aren't hospitable to delicate traditional grapes like cabernet and merlot, so Florida wineries must get creative. Many make wine the way Prohibition-era mobsters used to do it, with anything that will ferment — grapefruit, tomato, blueberry. Others grow and use specially developed grapes that are immune to local insects and weather; these are the aforementioned hybrid grapes. The University of Florida developed the grapes, giving them names like Blanc du Bois, Conquistador and Stover. Still others raise our indigenous muscadine grape, known for its exotic, musky flavor and its excellence in sangria.
Most of these grapes have their merits, but the best way to test them is to take a Florida wine trip yourself — and meet the local families with a passion for the grape.
Key Lime Wine, Anyone?
Florida Orange Groves Winery has been making "wine" in Pasadena since 1997, and maintains the dubious distinction of being the only citrus winery in the world. I must have driven past this place a hundred times; it looks so kitschy that I dreaded what was to come. But once I did go in, I was hooked.
The place is as adorable as a grandmother's cottage, with frou-frou and trinkets covering every surface. Steel drum music floats through the air and wine tchotchkes reign in the more than-4,000-item gift shop. The unbelievably nice employees make you feel like you're visiting them in their home, beckoning you to the tasting bar.
It almost wouldn't have mattered if the wines sucked. But they didn't; in fact, they were my favorite of the day.
The winery offers 28 wines made from fruit other than grapes, and two muscadine wines, all created on the premises. Try the grapefruit, key lime, cranberry, blueberry or their white blend called Category 5, which sports a rather alarming rendition of Hurricane Andrew on the label. Also don't miss the Strawberry Cream Sherry. Their wines vary in price from $15 to $30, and are available at various shops on the west coast of Florida. Check the website for addresses.
Florida Orange Groves and Winery, 1500 Pasadena Ave. S., St. Petersburg, 800-338-7923, www.floridawine.com. Open 9 a.m.—5 p.m. Mon-Sat., 12:30—5 p.m. Sun.
Ask About The Panty Peeler
Rosa Fiorelli Winery looks like something out of Deliverance. Shelled parking lot, rusted warehouse roof, outhouse-sized tasting room ... but all sitting starkly next to 10 acres of gorgeous vineyards. In the 1990s, Rosa and her husband Antonio moved into the eastern Manatee County area from Casteldaccia, Sicily, and noticed a similarity to their native land. Being wine lovers (and Italian), they soon planted grapes. Today, they grow seven varieties of muscadine and eight varieties of hybrid grapes.
Paul Brochu, a big bear of a man who works the tasting room on weekends, greets you as if you're stepping into his den. He doggedly pushes the wine like a used-car salesman, as well as the homemade food his wife prepares for visitors. He will regale you with stories, some bullshit and some not, but he's definitely entertaining (ask him to recount the "the panty peeler" story).
As for wine quality ... the only wine worth drinking was one called Manatee Red, a sweet blend of hybrid grapes, and the Muscadine Blush, a rosé that's tasty with chocolate. Visit for the experience.
Rosa Fiorelli Winery, 4250 C.R. 675, Bradenton, 941-322-0976, http://www.fiorelliwinery.com. Open 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m Mon-Sat., noon-5 p.m. Sun.
The Road To Red
Florida Estates Winery pops up out of nowhere on a lonely stretch of State Road 52 in Land O' Lakes. Turning down a dusty road, you arrive at an old ranch house-turned-winery. The building may look nondescript, but Mark Wagner is there to convert you with a glass of homegrown wine. (Throughout my local-wine expedition, it struck me that everyone I met enjoyed their job.) Florida Estates just celebrated its fourth birthday, and it has an older sister winery near Fort Myers called Eden Winery that has been growing grapes for 30 years.
Most of the fruit for Florida Estates' wines comes from these vineyards. The selection reflects both citrus offerings, as well hybrids and muscadine. But it also has a joint venture with a winery in Chile, allowing it to offer chardonnay, merlot and cabernets.
My favorite wines were Plantation Red (the silver medalist), Casa del Sol Orange, Casa Del Sol Key Lime and Strawberry Port. Love that port ... even bought a bottle to pour over fruit for dessert.
Florida Estates Winery, 25241 S.R. 52, Land O' Lakes, 813-996-2113, http://www.floridaestateswines.com. Open daily from 11 a.m.—5 p.m.