Agri Leader

Florida wines see spike in popularity

Call it a perfect storm in favor of Florida’s wine business.

A growing interest in where our food comes from, a healthy wine industry in the U.S., and wine drinkers embracing their love of sweeter wines have all caused Florida wines and wineries to see a spike in popularity.

Eight of Florida’s 24 farm wineries — wines that have a vineyard and are open to the public — have opened in the past two to three years, said Bob Paulish of Lithia, who’s a past president of the Florida Grape Growers Association. “It’s because people are interested in wine now,” he said.

If you’ve visited any of Florida’s wineries, then you’ll observe how that interest is growing. I’ve seen the tasting rooms at both Keel and Curley in Plant City and Lakeridge Wineries & Vineyards in Clermont fluttering with activity on Saturday afternoons. Visitors include couples, small groups, and even families, where the little ones stuck to grape juice or water.

Florida’s wine business ranks number eight in the nation for wine production, according to a Morgan Stanley report released last year. We have a behemoth in our backyard with Lakeridge, which is not just the largest winery in the state. “Lakeridge Winery is the eighth largest winery outside of California and in the top 50 in the world. We’re pretty proud of that,” said public relations and brand manager Katie Brant.

Although Lakeridge makes several wines ranging from dry to dessert-level sweet, its most popular wines are called Southern Red and Southern White, and they’re both sweeter varieties. “Southern Red has been our most popular and sweetest wine since the beginning. It accounts for almost 40 percent of our sales alone,” Brant said.

Lakeridge and Keel and Curley also are expanding their availability at some chain supermarkets within the state.

Of course, Paulish said, you still get some people who say, “Do they grow grapes in Florida?”

For the most part, Florida wines are made from muscadine grapes and have a sweeter taste. “A lot of Southerners grew up eating muscadines,” said Paulish. Wine makers have been able to grow muscadine varieties that allow the vineyards to also produce drier wines. Some wine makers, like Keel and Curley, make wines from items like blueberries, strawberries, and other Florida fruits.

As people have a greater interest in knowing where their food comes from, that naturally causes an upswing in vineyard visits, said Laura Romano, general manager and sommelier of Hollywood Prime, a steakhouse at the Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa in Hollywood, Fla. “There’s so much emphasis now on farm to table,” she said. A winery visit provides an instant connection to the world of wine and local cuisine, she said.

Depending on a winery’s location, such visits can be a natural extension of tourism. “I think people are looking for things to do other than theme parks and the Orlando area,” Brant said. “Wineries are the perfect place for snowbirds to come enjoy the day and do a free wine tour and tasting.”

Wineries like Lakeridge aim to attract more visitors with special events and festivals, including Lakeridge’s music festival this month. Some festivals have attracted more than 10,000 people over a weekend, said Brant.

Paulish has seen visitors from the north loading up on cases of local wine before heading back up the interstate.

A marketing push for Florida wines that’s been underway for a couple of years also helps polish the state’s wine image. Billboards and ads that show a smiling young lady holding a glass of red wine prompt people to “Try Florida wine, you’re going to love it!” The campaign is sponsored by the Florida Grape Growers Association the state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Paulish said.

Finally, we all know it’s darn hot in Florida, and that can affect the kind of wine we want to enjoy. “Especially in Florida, you see a desire and demand for fresh, crisp wines because of the weather,” Romano said. Off-dry wines like Rieslings and moscatos can fit that bill — but so can many Florida vinos.