What is wine? At its simplest, a combination of sun, water, fruit, earth, and air. Alright folks, have a good night and drive safe…
In truth, few beverages incite as large a range of emotions as wine. The nectar of the gods, wine is a multibillion-dollar international industry that encompasses a following from the 99 percent to the top one percent of the one percent. It’s coveted in cellars, dissected by trained noses, a vital component to religious ceremony, as well as enjoyed outright without pretention. It’s also made in just about every state in the union, even here in Florida.
In Florida, the land of tomato and citrus, the very idea of a vineyard is somewhat counterintuitive. Bunch grapes such as Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay are temperamental berries, each requiring a distinct terrior to maximize fermentation, finishing, and the aging process—it all goes back to that old adage, “location, location, location.” So when Florida enters the conversation as a winemaking state, the usual wine snob response is: “Grapes cannot survive in this heat”; or they’ll point to the sandy soil and scoff—“Vineyards in this? You must be mad!” Despite these preconceived notions (most justified), Florida has a rich and diverse winemaking history that is just beginning to discover its potential.
Fort Caroline, now Jacksonville, is the birthplace of American winemaking.
Winemaking first came to our sandy shores during colonial exploration when early settlers discovered Florida’s native grape, the muscadine, growing in clusters along the northern tracts near St. Augustine. Some 300 years before California was a state and more than 400 years before the legendary 1976 Judgment of Paris that thrust Napa Valley to household name status, French settlers were quietly creating the first New World wines in the heart of the subtropics. Though some cry blasphemy at the mere mention of Florida being the forefather of New World winemaking, and the teeth-tingling sweet muscadine as the grape of choice, historical record raises a glass only to truth, and that simple truth places the cradle of American winemaking with French Huguenots at Fort Caroline (depicted above—present day Jacksonville) in 1564. This was a cool 40 years before the founding of Jamestown and 118 years before William Penn successfully planted a vineyard in Pennsylvania, credited as America’s first (though there are accounts of Franciscan missionaries planting the cultivar Mission in Texas hill country in the 1650s). But much as the Huguenots were not long for Florida (they were wiped-out by Spanish soldiers in 1565—perhaps the wine was just that bad), the same goes with Florida winemaking, which saw many calamitous forays into viticulture.
Lafayette as a lieutenant general, in 1791. Portrait by Joseph-Désiré Court
Old habits die hard. European settlers could not kick the taste for wine made with Vitis vinifera. Many tried growing this temperamental species, as well as hybrids, but to no avail. Even the historically deified Marquis de Lafayette tried his hand at winemaking in Florida after receiving a large land grant from Congress in 1825. Located near Tallahassee, in what was known as the Florida Territory, the Lafayette Land Grant—a full 23,000 acres—was a gift for his part in helping throw off the tyrannical shackles of King George II. His attempts at winemaking ended in disaster by 1831.
It was not until a rather industrious chap named Emile DuBois came to Tallahassee and established Chateau San Luis in 1884 that sunshine state wine began to flourish. DuBois found success growing and producing wines from V. labrusca species, later becoming the poster child for a burgeoning agribusiness, helping form the Florida State Horticultural Society (FSHS), which today, along with the University of Florida, is one of the leading researchers of native and hybrid grapes in the State of Florida.
Since then, the Florida wine industry took a backseat to other crops. But over the past few decades, things have began to change.
“It would be an understatement to say that the Florida wine industry just grew,” says Charles Cox, president and CEO of Lakeridge and San Sebastian Wineries, two of Floirida’s largest wineries. Charles’ father Gary got in the Florida wine business in the early 1980s, helping spearhead a whole new market for a unique Florida-made product. “At the time we were trying to explain to people that you could make wine in Florida and could grow grapes in Florida, that it was a viable agriculture community. They would just kind of look at you and say yeah.”
Now, Florida wine is becoming an industry of its own, with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services setting up parameters for wineries to be a card-carrying member of the Florida Farm Winery program. With 27 current certified wineries (and more applying all the time; view a map here – PDF), members must sell “less than 250,000 gallons of wine annually of which 60 percent of the wine produced is made from state agricultural products; maintain a minimum of five 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 at least 30 hours each week.”
Member wineries also tax themselves through the Department of Business and Professional Regulations, paying an excise tax on the retail sales of wine, which is funneled into the Viticulture Trust Fund. The trust is managed by Fresh From Florida and is used for research and promotional tools such as advertising and marketing. The industry is supportive—its not a competition between wineries, more of a cooperative of like minded growers and producers, whose end goal is to create a demand for Sunshine State vino for the good of all involved.
In 2012, the State Legislature amended the Florida statute on viticulture, going from just grapes to “agricultural products” when producing wine. This opened the door to fruit producers to label their product as wine and join the Florida Farm Winery program for the first time, creating a whole new segment of wine stamped with the Fresh From Florida seal of approval. The new legislative language has ushered in a new segment of wines coming from alternative fruits, most noticeably blueberries and tropical fruits like mango, star fruit, and citrus. Which brings us to an important facet of Florida’s wine production: Understanding the fruit that goes into this unique form of vino.
For more on Florida wine, click the links below: