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Whatever happened to the local blueberry winemakers?

Joe Keel had a setback in 2006 when lightning sparked a fire that destroyed the winery. But he and winemaker Chase Marden rebuilt, and business at Keel & Curley is booming.

Skip O\u2019Rourke | Times (2005)

Joe Keel had a setback in 2006 when lightning sparked a fire that destroyed the winery. But he and winemaker Chase Marden rebuilt, and business at Keel & Curley is booming.

"Reviving the blues''; April 4, 2007;

See past coverage at life.tampabay.com.

THE STORY: Tampa native Joe Keel moved to Plant City to grow ornamentals and found himself attracted to a berry of a different color, blueberries instead of local strawberries. He then joined Florida's young wine industry, making his wines out of culled blueberries, those that may not be pretty enough for the produce section but are tasty nonetheless. He brought in winemaker Chase Marden from Vermont, but a fiery bolt of lightning wrecked the winery in 2006. They rebuilt, reopened last summer and kept on growing.

FROM THE STORY: "We were back at it" the morning after the lightning strike, Joe Keel remembered as he stood on the new pondside deck that surrounds the winery and tasting room of Keel & Curley.

THE REST OF THE STORY: People are really starting to catch on to fruit wine,'' Marden says, both consumers and the industry. Keel & Curley has much more distribution around the Tampa Bay area and is cautiously considering expansion, "but we don't want to get ahead of ourselves. Now we could sell more than we make.'' When they showed their wines at a trade show in Miami, he said, "all these people from other fancy wineries and Spain came over to see what (consumers) were freaking out about.''

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT: In the blueberry fields and the winery itself, crews are busy picking and sorting this year's vintage, some of which will go into K&C's newest products, sparkling blueberry wine. Guava and mango wines may bubble up, too. "It really brings out the fruit."

• • •

BLUEBERRY HARVEST FESTIVAL: The public is invited to Keel & Curley's first festival from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. May 17 and 18 at the winery, where there will be tastings, you-pick, items for sale, including wine, juice, pies and muffins, as well as music and events for kids. The winery is at 5210 W Thonotosassa Road, Plant City. From I-4 take Exit 17, head north on Branch Forbes Road and look for signs. For more information, call (813) 752-9100. On the Web, go to www.keelandcurleywinery.com.

Chris Sherman, Times staff writer

Whatever happened to the local blueberry winemakers? 05/03/08 [Last modified: Saturday, May 3, 2008 4:30am]

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