My brother-in-law, Giovanni, is a famous winemaker in Italy, but I have bad news for him: not all great wines come from Europe. In fact, Florida has a surprising number of not just winemakers, but vineyards.
Think Florida and you’ll automatically think of alligators and DisneyWorld. Think good wines and well, you can be forgiven if your first pop-ups are Tuscany, Burgundy, Napa, Sonoma and Bordeaux.
Add Florida to your list. In 1564 (in case you dozed through history, that’s six decades before the Pilgrims arrived), Spanish settlers were harvesting wild muscadine grapes (Vitis rotundifolia) to create the first truly American wine. And before you sing the praises of French or Italian grapes, consider that muscadine grapes are fat-free, high in fiber, high in antioxidants (nine times higher than found in California red grapes), anti-carcinogenic, lower your cholesterol, reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and even treat arthritis. Recent studies also suggest that these grapes combat Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Before we set off on our winery quest in Florida (and before you come after me with torches and pitchforks), I narrowed our adventure to wineries with their own vineyards and those making wine from grapes (not fruits). But, there are more than 35 “wineries” in the state. There are also a lot of wine bars that call themselves “wineries”, but these listed are the real thing: their own grapes, their own wines.
At some, you can even help pick their grapes. You can stroll the vineyard, and all offer views of the winemaking, bottling, corking and labeling process. And, of course, they are delighted to offer tastings and the opportunity to buy the wines you just savored.
Before you set out, go online or call the winery to find out about special events, such as live music and wine-pairing dinners. Let’s go!
Lakeridge Winery in Clermont is a large winery, managing more than 180 acres and producing as many as 150,000 cases of wine annually. It hosts complimentary tours and tastings every day, an outdoor food court plus live music.
Tampa Insider Tip: Don’t miss their Southern Red: smooth, light-bodied, and perfect with cheese and desserts.
Chautauqua Winery in DeFuniak Springs is a 34-year-old winery that produces 16,000 cases a year, and winemaker George Cowie says their best seller (his favorite) is the Noble Muscadine (from Noble grapes) which is full-bodied and festive to go with barbecue or grilled foods. It hosts free tastings, tours, and events with live music, art and craft vendors and food trucks.
Strong Tower Vineyard and Winery in Spring Hill has more than 12 acres of grapes, and all their wines are grown, processed and bottled there. It hosts lots of events (check their website) including food trucks (Fridays and Saturdays) and yoga in the vineyard. Co-owner Janis McKnight loves their Southern Blanc, an award-winning dry white wine that pairs with seafood, poultry and veal. She notes the Carlos, a white wine with a delicate bouquet (from their Carlos grapes) is perfect with fruit, quiches and after-dinner desserts.
Tampa Insider Tip: As a drinker of Italian reds, I loved their Ison, which isn’t your usual chianti. Light-bodied with hints of vanilla oak, it is perfect for just sipping in the evening or for dinners with pastas, red sauce and cheese.
Summer Crush in Fort Pierce is unusual for the blend of Gary Roberts’ two loves: wine and surfing. Their 10-acre vineyard is soon to expand, and they produce about 15,000 cases a year. The winery is known nationally for its live music events every weekend, with bands including the Little River Band, The Lovin’ Spoonful and The Four Preps.
It also holds car shows and has RV overnight spaces plus a 9-hole disc golf course through the vineyard. Popular offering? Their Old Florida White is made with the Carlos strain of muscadine, but Roberts’ fave is Rated RRR (say it piratey, arggh) from red Noble grapes blended with merlot.
Tampa Insider Tip: Check out Cap’t Polly’s Private Plunder, a port dessert wine aged in bourbon barrels.
Secret Gardens in Sebring is family owned and a Certified Florida Farm Winery and Vineyard with 30 acres. Besides the expected tasting room, it has live music events and Sip and Shop events with local vendors.
Tampa Insider Tip: Their Florida Sunrise Raspberry Rosé is a delightful mix of Carlos and Noble red and white muscadines with a subtle raspberry finish.
I would be remiss if I sent you off on a wine-tasting tour without a simple warning: Florida State Troopers have a predictable lack of humor when it comes to wine (no matter how fine) on your breath. Always have a designated driver who taste-tests only the soft drinks at wineries. Go forth, pull corks, and smirk knowledgeably at wine experts who rave about European wines.
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