The two largest stops on the Florida Wine Trail, Lakeridge Winery & Vineyard of Clermont and San Sebastian Winery in St. Augustine, coincidently fall under the same ownership group. When talking numbers, these sister wineries are pouring close to 500,000 gallons of wine between fermentation tanks, storage tanks and barrels, with roughly 420,000 gallons coming from Lakeridge, by far the largest winery in the state.
The story of Lakeridge and San Sebastian began in the early 1980s, a wild and untested time in the Florida wine industry, under the inauspicious name of Lafayette Vineyards and Winery up in Tallahassee (Marquis de Lafayette’s foray into Florida vineyards ended in an unmitigated disaster in 1831). In 1989, founder and vintner Gary Cox was presented with an opportunity at a parcel of land in Clermont, just a hop, skip, and jump from Orlando. The 127-acre parcel became Lakeridge Winery, and, much as the Marquis, Lafayette Winery did not make it long before shuttering its doors, merging with the larger winery to the south.
Lakeridge Winery’s Clermont vineyard at sunset. | Photo: Lakeridge Winery
“People said we were crazy, and we probably were,” says Charles Cox, president and CEO of Lakeridge, and Gary’s son. “But [in truth] we were probably more hard-headed, and stuck with it maybe longer than we should have. But it all paid off in the long run.”
Of the 127 acres at Lakeridge, 80 are planted and harvested. The grapes are processed and turned into wine in the vineyards mammoth, 35,000-square-foot winery on property. The property doubles not only as vineyard/winery but also a event location, holding nearly weekly events and festivals on site, on top of the daily free winery tours and tastings—a marketing pitch that paid off in the end.
San Sebastian Winery’s Reserve label.
“The best thing we ever did was started doing festivals and developing these continuous events. It was our sales pitch,” says Cox. “Early on, about 98 percent of our wine was sold right out of the wineries and shops.”
Things have changed rather dramatically for boys from Tallahassee. On top of the property in Clermont, Lakeridge owns an additional 300-some-odd acres called Prosperity Vineyards near the Florida Panhandle, as well as the sister winery in St. Augustine, San Sebastian.
Opened in 1996, San Sebastian has undergone an expansion and is a must-stop spot while visiting the “Old City.” Located along King Street in one of Henry Flagler’s historic East Coast Railway buildings, the facility welcomes more than 100,000 people per year, producing more than 80,000 cases to boot (just shy of one million bottles). A popular place to visit for a tasting and to lounge on the rooftop bar, the sheer numbers make this one of the busiest wineries in the state, and with that, a gateway for other vintners.
Free daily tours of the facilities at both locations, followed by tastings of the wines produced there, gives visitors not only an active experience with the wine but discusses the history of Florida wine, the process and dabble in the reasons why the wines differ so much from traditional Old World and New World varieties.
“We run tours about every 15 minutes and it kind of shows everything you would see through the whole life of winemaking,” says Cox.
As the largest, and most visited wineries in the state, Lakeridge and San Sebastian have become, in a way, the standard-bearer for Florida wine, a role that goes far beyond just goodwill ambassadors. As part of the ever-evolving nature of wine, there is near constant research on grape varietals to see which ones can make a go of it in Florida. And Lakeridge has become a leader in testing these newest grape hybrids. Working hand-in-hand with the University of Florida, Lakeridge maintains an ongoing test vineyard with the school at the old Tallahassee property, developing the next round of hybrid grapes.
“We have been working with UF pretty much since the beginning,” says Cox, who points to the Blanc du Bois varietal as one of the program’s success stories. “We pretty much have ongoing testing with UF. There are always some rows in our vineyard that are test rows of some new variety that we’re working with the university on, monitoring, and helping them out. It will be a long lasting partnership.”
This relationship winds up helping the industry as a whole, with hybrid varietals making it to the market for anyone to grow, though Lakeridge and San Sebastian produce the lion’s share.
Hybrid grapes from Lakeridge Winery’s vineyards. | Photo: Lakeridge Winery
“Grapes like the Blanc du Bois and Stover that were developed through the breeding program can survive this climate and grow well here, but they are a little more difficult to grow, need special attention with different harvest times,” syas Cox. “They do not have that thick skin like the muscadines and lend themselves much more to dryer, crisper type of wine.”
All of this experimentation with different grape varieties has given Lakeridge and San Sebastian a rather impressive portfolio of wines, with something for everyone it seems. Head winemaker Jeanne Burgess does a stellar job producing table wines, dessert wines and aperitifs using a cooling and insulation method to ferment and vinify wines in stainless tanks to keep the wine cold through the summer.
Some of the standouts I have tasted stem from the hybrid bunch group. The Blanc du Bois Reserve is a great wine for the white wine drinker looking for a similar Florida wine profile. Lemony and crisp, it has a sweet backbone—more so than the Blanc du Bois—but has a nice balanced off-dry bite. For red wine drinkers, the Cuvée Noir Reserve is a great light red with hints of red berries and oak on the nose. Mildly sweet and tart, this reserve varietal pairs well with beef and is best served slightly chilled.
- Lakeridge Winery is open Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Complimentary tours and tastings run seven days a week during normal business hours; tours and tastings last about 45 minutes. Special events are scheduled throughout the year, click here for a list of upcoming events. For more information, visit lakeridgewinery.com.
- San Sebastian Winery is open Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Complimentary tours and tastings run seven days a week during normal business hours; tours and tastings run every 20-25 minutes and last about 45 minutes. The Cellar Upstairs, the winery’s rooftop wine, jazz, and blues bar is open Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. and Sunday, 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m., and features live music, San Sebastian wine, and light bites and sandwiches. For more information, visit sansebastianwinery.com.
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