Vintage Florida

Despite an underdog status and the huffs of wine connoisseurs, Florida vintners have won awards and exposure with their nontraditional approach to winemaking.

Talk to a Florida winemaker, and it won't be long before you hear that the first wine in North America was made from something called a "muscadine" grape by someone called a "French Huguenot."

You'll hear how wine in Florida has a long tradition behind it, how those French Huguenots — missionaries — plucked those native, wild-growing muscadine grapes way back in 1562, and crushed and fermented them to make holy wine.

They'll tell you how Florida wine is the first North American wine, if not the finest.

When you tell one Bay area wine expert you are interested in Florida wineries, she laughs and takes a shot: "All four of 'em?"

When told there are actually nine, and more to come, the expert laughs and waxes sarcastic, "Ooh." She next admits to never having tried Florida wine, and bails on the interview.

So you look further into this winemaking business. You learn how there are more wineries on the way, how grape growers have had to overcome pernicious plant disease, as well as winemakers' turned-up noses. You taste some more wine and — what's that? This is watermelon wine? It's not half-bad.

Well, not half-bad if you're not a wine connoisseur.

That whole Huguenots-and-muscadine thing was just a happy collision between man and nature. There's not a whole lot that connects the first Florida winemakers to today's, except faith and the muscadine grape.

Florida's growing crop of wineries runs the gamut from Lakeridge Vineyard and Wineries, a very large and self-contained operation that produces 120,000 gallons a year, to smaller wineries, such as Clearwater's Murielle Winery, which operates out of an office park and does not grow its own grapes, and unlike most Florida wineries, does not make any of its wines from muscadine grapes. Winemaker Michael Biglin scoffs at muscadine grapes. He imports the juice, called "must," for his merlots, cabernets and ice wines, then ferments and ages the wine in large tanks in the back part of his office space. Farther south, St. Petersburg's Florida Orange Groves Winery makes only one of its more than 20 wines from the muscadine — the bulk are made from citrus and other berries.

But if there is one characteristic all of these winemakers share, it is unbridled optimism. Maybe not the most popular trait in our cynical age, but it doesn't hurt to have optimism when you're trying to make it in a business dominated by Europeans and Californians. You've got to believe. And you've got be scrappy, like Antonio Fiorelli.

"One day, Manatee County will be Wine Country, Florida," boasts Fiorelli, flashing a toothy grin while standing in front of the gift/wine shop at Rosa Fiorelli Winery and Vineyards in Myakka City, a few miles east of I-75. The stocky Sicilian looks like actor Bob Hoskins with a tan. If Fiorelli is out of place, so is his vineyard, set among the waves of inland Florida orange groves. It'd be easy to drive right by these minnows in the shark tank.

About 30 feet away from where Fiorelli is standing sits the winery, an old garage kept at a wintry-for-Florida 55 degrees. Four-inch thick foam paneling keeps the electric bill to a reasonable $300 a month, Fiorelli says.

He produced 700 gallons of wine his first year, in 1998. This year he made 3,000 gallons. His wine blends are made from muscadine grapes, hybrid grapes developed by researchers to withstand disease, as well as trucked-in grapes from California. "All my wines have Florida grapes," he says, but his most popular wine, Manatee Red, is 80 percent California grapes. Most of the wines Fiorelli makes average about 20 to 30 percent California grapes. Antonio and Rosa Fiorelli have lived in Myakka City for 16 years. After arriving in the U.S. in the early '70s, the Sicilian natives lived in Miami for a few years. They did not want to raise their now-grown kids in what they thought was a harsh environment. They had no idea. When they came to Myakka City 16 years ago, their land was wild. Pines, palmetto and snakes. Lots of snakes. Now all they see is the occasional deer around the vineyard. At harvest time, all of the picking is done by hand. Harvesting of the hybrids starts at the end of June and continues through mid-July. Some old Cuban friends help out with the picking during visits. There isn't much time for relaxation; the muscadine must be picked August through September.

Fiorelli is the local president of the Florida Grape Growers Association, and he is looking forward to a grape-growing seminar the next day at his own vineyard.

"I don't know everything," he says. "I have to go to workshops and try (to) learn. I say "try' and not "learn.' When you come over here and start trying, then you see some problem — a problem you're not gonna resolve until the next (workshop)."

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