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Keel and Curley Winery plants peach trees

PLANT CITY — The Keel and Curley Winery, long-known for producing blueberry- and blackberry wines, is now looking to the peach for inspiration.

The winery, with about 40 acres of blueberry and blackberry shrubs, planted 10 acres of peach trees off Interstate 4 last week with the aim of making peach-infused chardonnay and other wines for release in early 2014.

The winery already makes peach chardonnay but depends on out-of-state peach suppliers. It will still sell blueberry and blackberry wines, the company's staple.

The move is unusual in what has been described as the "winter strawberry capital of the world" and in a state where only a handful of farmers grow peaches.

"We talked to a grower north of Lakeland and he told us about the trials and tribulations," said Ryan Keel, director of farming operations. "We also did a lot of online research. We're seeing a lot more peaches growing in Florida."

Marketing director Clay Keel said the winery has experimented with fruit-infused wines for about six years, and in October received high marks for its peach chardonnay at a tasting festival on Amelia Island, northeast of Jacksonville.

"It was our most popular wine," he said.

The company bought the property off Hawk Griffin Road along I-4 this past summer and last week started planting 3- to 5-foot peach saplings. So far, it has invested $120,000 in the venture, including costs for a well and fence around the property.

For the chardonnay and other grape-based wines, the company will buy out-of-state pressed grapes to mix with peach juice. Florida's climate is inhospitable to most grape varietals. It expects to harvest the peaches in March or April 2014, depending when the crop becomes available.

"We're looking at a 20 percent peach and 80 percent chardonnay combination," Ryan Keel said.

California and Georgia are the nation's top peach producers but the stone fruit is springing up in North Florida and, in recent years, along the I-4 corridor as researchers introduce strains better adapted to Florida's warm winters.

The difference was an early season peach that didn't require long, cold winters to become dormant — an essential part of their growing cycle, said University of Florida horticultural sciences professor Jose Chaparro.

While California and Georgia farmers typically harvest in June or July, Florida's peach farmers can aim for April or May, and in some cases March, beating competitors to the market.

"What has happened is we've been able to breed trees that require very little cold to flower," Chaparro said.

So far, the science is paying off. Eight years ago, Florida peach growers had about 200 acres planted; this past year about 1,000 acres were in the ground, though that's still a fraction of Georgia's overall peach production.

Keel and Curley is banking on flavored wines taking off in coming years as spritzers and other infused drinks gain popularity, especially among young consumers.

A study last year by the Napa, Calif., Wine Market Council showed that U.S. wine drinkers consumed 291 million cases of wine in 2011, up from 278 million in 2010.

Of those who drink wine weekly, 36 percent consume champagne or sparkling wine, dessert wines, fruit-flavored wines, wine coolers or flavored malt beverages along with traditional wines. Younger consumers, ages 21 to 34, are more likely to experiment with wine varieties, the study said.

"What we're trying to do is to drive the market," Keel and Curley winemaker Jared Gilbert said. "We always like to experiment with different flavor combinations."

Blueberry grower and winery founder Joe Keel started making wine 10 years ago to dispose of a crop that didn't sell.

The operation has since expanded to blackberry wines and grape wines infused with blackberries, blueberries, key limes and strawberries, in addition to peaches. The company has a tasting room and retail store at 5210 Thonotosassa Road.

Rich Shopes can be reached at rshopes@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2454.

Keel and Curley Winery plants peach trees 12/27/12 [Last modified: Thursday, December 27, 2012 3:30am]

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