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Business Observer Friday, Oct. 20, 2017 11 months ago

Quench the Thirst

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Florida overcomes oenophilic chauvinism to emerge as fruit and citrus wine trendsetters. But the top wineries in the region crave even more market share.

By John Haughey | Contributing Writer

“At the beginning, no one would raise their hand. Now, maybe 20, 30% raise their hands,” says Shook, whose family has operated Florida Orange Groves Winery in St. Petersburg since 1997. “So, we're making progress.”

Florida wine may sound incongruous, like Russian tequila or Canadian Kahlua, but the Sunshine State is actually the nation's seventh-largest wine producer with a viticulture industry that generates more than $1 billion in annual revenue. More proof of the vitality: Florida's wine industry has grown from 600 acres of grape cultivation in 2007 to more than 1,500 acres now, and from three wineries in 1984 to 40 today, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture's Division of Marketing and Development. The list of wineries includes 24 Certified Florida Farm Wineries — at least eight of which are within an hour's drive of downtown Tampa.

Yet, Florida wine does, indeed, have an identity crisis — a vino incognito — because the state's most popular vino comes from fruits and citrus, not from its indigenous muscadine grape.

“When people think of wineries, they think of California, Oregon, Washington state or, maybe, New York state,” says Joe Keel, whose family has operated Keel & Curley Winery in Plant City since 2003. “The 'real' wine drinkers, they don't think you can make wines out of fruit. If it's not from a grape, it is not a wine.”

A growing market

But that same oenophilic chauvinism “may be a little bit of an asset for us,” says Florida Wine and Grape Growers Association President John Newbold III, because it has liberated state vintners from the constraints of traditional winemaking. As a result, Florida wineries have emerged as trendsetters in a global fruit and citrus wine market “anticipated to expand at a double-digit annual growth due to rapid acceptance of fruit wines” by 2024, according to Transparency Market Research, a data firm focused on the global food and beverage market.

“There is a lot of innovation happening in Florida,” says author Pamela Watson, who recently published 'Florida Wine County: A Guide To Northern Wineries' and is writing a companion book about Central Florida wineries. “They have become very popular, and people are doing fun things, like wine slushies on the beach.”

Watson says Shook's Florida Orange Groves Winery in St. Petersburg “really started the whole fruit wine (industry). They have some fun and funky things.”

Shook relishes the funk. “We pretty much use everything but grapes to make our wine,” Shook says, noting Florida Orange Groves Winery, located “just before you go under the bridges to St. Pete Beach,” produces 43 types of tropical berry wines. “We are Florida's original tropical fruit winery. It's coming along, but we have a way to go to prove-out our concept” to discerning wine drinkers.

Being different, says Newbold, is an advantage.

“Fruit wines are becoming very popular. Florida's climate allows a wide variety of fruits, from tropical to subtropic, from oranges to guava to blueberries,” says Newbold. “That, in conjunction with traditional muscadine grapes, is creating a very interesting mix of products, from fruit wines to fusions — and the younger generation is very open to these, while the older generations are very traditional.”

Other advantages come in the variety of wine options and potential market size. On the latter, Keel says Florida is the No. 2 state nationwide in wine consumption. “We have the wine drinkers,” he says, “and that is half the battle.”

And what the state can't do in grapes, it makes up in originality.

“Florida probably offers a larger variety of wine than other states do,” Watson says. “Florida cannot grow chardonnay or cabernet, but they can bring in grapes from other locations and create blends — shiraz and blueberry. I think there is a great deal of creativity.”

Muscadine: Florida's grape wine

The wide product mix means every winery offers its own unique libations, as well as a distinctive experience.

But that doesn't mean there aren't traditional vineyards making wines from grapes in Florida. There are wineries that do it the old-fashioned way — from the vine.

Vitis vinifera, the common grape vine, doesn't grow well in heat and humidity, but Florida's indigenous muscadine vines yield a thick-skinned grape that is fat-free, high in fiber, loaded with antioxidants and used in sparkling and dessert wines. 

Muscadine grapes are “of a sweet, musky sort and very different from the table grapes you get from the store. It can be an acquired taste, but a lot of Southerners swear by them,” Watson says. He notes Florida's muscadine was actually the first North American grape to be commercially harvested for wine in the late 1500s by French Huguenots along the St. John's River.

Larry Woodham, owner of Bunker Hill Vineyard & Winery in Duette, 38 miles east of Bradenton in Manatee County, not only swears by the muscadine, he's invested in them. “There is only one grape in Florida, and that is what we grow and what we make our wines from,” he says, realizing muscadine wines are not appreciated in the U.S. “It is on the world stage. Europe is ahead of us. It is growing, even if the people in America are unaware of it.”

Wine vs. wine

Woodham says Bunker Hill Vineyard & Winery grows its own grapes and only uses Florida fruits and citrus in its products, while some wines produced in the state are made with concentrates and juices from other states. 

The difference irks Woodham.

“You don't know where it comes from, and it does not support jobs in the state of Florida. They are not real wineries, they are wine factories,” he says. “The purpose of wine-making is very simple and has been for thousands of years: Capture today's harvest and extend it into the future. Making wines from juices and concentrates is not capturing that harvest. Real wineries grow stuff. Ask yourself: Are they real wineries or are they not?”

To be an FDA-Certified Florida Winery, 60% of the facility's wines must be made from Florida agricultural products. “We are at 97%,” Woodham says. “We get supplies from all over the state — blueberries, strawberries — and that is who we support: Florida farmers. We have to somehow make that distinction between real wineries and wine factories.”

There are two ways to distinguish between a “real Florida wine” and those simply blended in a “wine factory,” he says. “Most do not have the word 'grown.' If they don't have the word 'grown,' they did not grow it. That is federal law. We make unfiltered wines. Filtered wines are from wine factories. If it doesn't say 'unfiltered' on the label, it is filtered and not from a real winery.”

Woodham says Florida's wineries must educate consumers on how to read labels and to ask for real Florida wines. “It is our responsibility to draw that distinction,” he says. “Why can't we go to a very nice restaurant in Hillsborough or Sarasota (counties) and order a Florida wine? They are not there. If we don't start to (educate consumers), we are never going to grow the wine industry.”

Shook, on the state's Viticulture Advisory Council, and Keel agree, both confirming Woodham's contention that while Florida's fruit and citrus wines are becoming popular, its muscadine grape wines are not enjoying the same growth. 

“We have seen progress over the years as far as grape wineries, but like any other business, success depends on how well you market your product and the quality of the product,” Shook says. 

Adds Keel: “There are a lot more than when I started in 2003, but by no means is it growing in leaps and bounds. In the 14 years I have been in it, it hasn't taken off the way I thought it would — but it still could. I think the future could be good.”

Keel admits he is an incidental vintner who created a winery because he had too many blueberries. “I did not have a burning desire to get into the wine business. I am a blueberry farmer No. 1,” he says.

The Keels recently announced the Plant City winery, along with its on-site brewery — Two Henry's Brewing Co. — tasting room, blueberry orchard, peach farm, vegetable farm, restaurant, pavilion and owner's residence is for sale. The 20-acre property is listed at $6.5 million.

Keel, 61, is getting out of the business — but not giving up on Florida wine.

Keel says he's headed for the Florida Keys, but won't sell unless the buyer agrees to keep the property, winery and brewery intact. “I'm ready to retire and when the time comes I will,” he says, “but I'm sure I will still drink Keel & Curley wines. It is good stuff.”

Off the vine

There are 24 Certified Florida Farm Wineries across the state, with about one-fourth on Florida's west coast. To becoming state-certified, a winery must:
• Produce and sell less than 250,000 gallons of wine annually, 60% of which must be made from state agricultural products;
• Maintain an operating vineyard with a minimum of 5 acres of owned or managed land in Florida, which produces commodities used in the production of wine;
• Be open to the public for tours, tastings and sales for at least 30 hours each week;
• Apply annually for recognition as a Florida Farm Winery.

Certified Florida Farm Wineries on the west coast of Florida include:
• Keel & Curley, Plant City;
• Bunker Hill Vineyard & Winery, Duette;
• Rosa Fiorelli Winery, Bradenton;
• Florida Orange Groves Winery, St. Petersburg;
• Strong Tower Vineyard & Winery, Spring Hill;
• Aspirations Winery, Clearwater.

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