When folks think of going on a wine jaunt, California's wine country often comes to mind. But Florida has its share of commercial and boutique wineries for those willing to venture to St. Augustine, Panama Beach, Monticello, Grandin — or closer to home in Land O'Lakes and Spring Hill.
Florida Estates Winery, Land O'Lakes
The trek to Land O'Lakes was short enough for Bob and Susan Beatty, two retirees from Riverview looking for a way to fill a cloud-covered day. Antiquing was on the itinerary, but the first stop was Florida Estates Winery, where the good-natured wine master, Ron Hunt, 63, greeted them with a grin and an invitation to belly up.
His advice to newcomers expecting California-type blends: "Don't turn your nose up to anything. I equate that to going to a restaurant and tearing up half the menu."
In fact, some of the whites and reds here offer a hint of Florida: locally grown strawberries, key lime and oranges that Hunt has added to the fermented grapes, which are bottled in the small winery that once served as a hunting lodge, cowboy bunkhouse and family home.
"This is Florida orange," he said, while pouring a light blend into a stemless glass on the white tiled bar. "This is good wine to invite your friends over for and drink while you leave the garage door open and watch the traffic go by."
"Not bad," Susan Beatty said with a nod.
"You guys have been good, so you get dessert ," Hunt said, as he opened a bottle of Plantation Spice. "This tastes like you popped a chocolate-covered cherry in your mouth without the goo running down your chin."
The occasional tasting is all in a day's work for Hunt, a former photographer who serves as wine master, bookkeeper, groundskeeper and host of the modest establishment that sits adjacent to a wide open field off State Road 52. A burgeoning vineyard once filled that field, but three hurricanes in 2004 wiped everything out.
"Young plants don't like being underwater," said Hunt, who now uses about a dozen University of Florida hybrid varieties grown at vineyards in the Panhandle and Central Florida.
The winery is open daily and hosts wine festivals twice a month.
"It's just good fun," said Hunt, who also teaches wine appreciation classes and hosts a blog talk (blogtalkradio.com/allaboutwine).
"We talk with winemakers from all over the world," said Hunt. Maybe even share the story of that strawberry port, an accidental wine that came about after being left too long fermenting. "Add a little brandy to it," Hunt said. "And you have a great wine that's good with a cigar to watch the sunset here in paradise."
Strong Tower Vineyard & Winery, Spring Hill
Janis and Terry McKnight were thinking blueberries when he retired from his chiropractic practice and the couple moved from Tarpon Springs to settle on 40 acres within eyeshot of the Suncoast Parkway. After getting the soil tested, it turned out that grapes were the better bet — and the start of something new.
"I'm working more now than I ever did," said Terry McKnight, 58. "But my head's happy."
Since 2001 the McKnights have been the owners and operators of Strong Tower Vineyard & Winery in Spring Hill, a family-run business that can put a bottle of wine on your table or theirs if you come by for one of their Evening at the Vineyard events held under a lighted canopy or the open air on the grounds of their home and vineyard.
"We do everything from start to finish," said Janis McKnight, 56. Most days she tends to customers in the tasting room and gift shop. Her favorite place to be, however, is outside working in the vineyard, nurturing four varieties of hybrid grapes including the tiny, purple Norton/Cynthiana famous for being grown by Thomas Jefferson.
Each year Terry McKnight bottles up about 16 to 18 varieties with names like Masaryktown Blues, Southern Fraise and Spring Hill and Ison Reds.
All of them sell out.
On the wane is Cuv'ee, a blend of the vineyard's white Carlos grape and local strawberries that was high on the list for guests at the July 6 wine tasting. Visitors to the evening events are welcome to bring a picnic dinner or purchase food and dessert from the occasional vendors that set up their wares.
"We come out every Friday that it's open," said Jennifer Linn, 58, of Spring Hill, who was enjoying the Spring Hill Red and a picnic dinner with friends while a couple of mares galloped along the fences on an adjacent horse farm. "It's such a relaxing atmosphere."
"The agenda here is no agenda," Terry McKnight said as he offered up some easy conversation and another pour. "Everybody needs to step off the planet once in awhile. We sell comfort. The wine's just a bonus."