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Florida's wine trail

Published Sep. 1, 2005

Didn't have a chance to get away this summer? There's still time to visit a place that might seem very foreign: Florida's wine country.

It's not Napa or Bordeaux, and there's no merlot or chardonnay in our vineyards, but a two-hour drive northeast of Tampa will show you that Florida does have its own vines and wine.

And it has country, country with cows and tractors. And other sights hard to imagine on our motel-studded coast and subdivision-encrusted cities: hills, forests, Cracker farmsteads and 150-year-old cemeteries.

Among them are vineyards, established by the kind of brave spirits all over North America who have found places to plant vines and make wine far from the fashionable appellations of California. Winemaking now takes place in most every state, from Hawaii to Maine.

Florida has perhaps a dozen wineries. Most grow their own grapes under the blazing hot sun and in problematic humidity. A few import juice from California to ferment and bottle here. Others have turned to squeezing wine from other fruits, from oranges to blueberries.

For 30 years Florida winemakers have worked to rise above the status of sweet roadside attraction. And if they have not won critical acclaim from the connoisseurs, they have achieved respect among peers. At their biggest competition, the Indiana State Fair, a blueberry wine from South Pasadena won best of show, and the best grape Florida has invented for white wine is increasingly well-regarded and widely planted.

Two of the most successful winemakers are Dakotah Winery in Chiefland (north of Cedar Key) and Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards outside Clermont, the state's biggest.

In the case of Lakeridge, the daring young man in the vineyard was accountant Gary Cox, who planted his first vines as an amateur. He then brought together investors to start Lafayette Vineyards in Tallahassee in 1983. A few years later, he moved south to a spot high on the ridge that runs down the center of the state.

Fifteen years later, the winery makes 100,000 gallons of wine annually, and has a second winery, San Sebastian in St. Augustine. Every day, hundreds of visitors get tastes of at least a half-dozen of its wines: white, red, blush and sparkling.

Country roads

To get to Lakeridge you could head over on Interstate 4, but that way leads to Disney and we're not going there, not this time.

I prefer to head north on Interstate 75 from Tampa, because when I exit on State Road 50 and leave Ridge Manor I can cleanse my mental palate with a Cracker Barrel-free zone. An hour through Sumter and Lake counties takes me through Florida's real countryside and history from its early white and black settlers almost to the realm of the Mouse.

It can be a windshield tour of a verdant world. The cattle seem even lazier, weighed down by the heavy atmosphere of a coming storm. Live oaks are so old they seem to crawl across the fields on their elbows. Trees and utility poles are draped with Spanish moss and boiled p-nut signs.

Some folks get wistful admiring sturdy old white frame churches and Cracker houses built of weathered boards and rust, or passing barely visible hamlets like Mabel, Richloam and Slones Ridge. Turnoffs to Lacoochee and Center Hill sound downright adventurous.

Get out of the car to stretch your legs and your mind, hunt for antiques and explore. Little Mascotte bears the name of the ferry to Cuba on Tampa's city seal. In Linden's cemetery, started in 1843, I found the grave of a man born in 1792 who fought in the War of 1812 and the Indian Wars. But I saw no markers of the ugly episode in Groveland's past when the state militia was called out to protect black residents from white mobs in 1948.

These days the towns and farmland are strikingly quiet. General stores have given way to convenience stores, glossy and not so. Today's Mascotte has Mexican food, a nightclub and an iglesia bautista. Some citrus groves remain but most growers moved south after the freezes of the 1980s, leaving names like Groveland, Mineola and Tangerine and Clermont's once fabled Citrus Tower feeling a bit lonely.

There are still acres of trees, but they are grown for landscaping, like long rows of crape myrtles in crimson pink and white in pots. Woody ornamentals, from shrubs to trees, are now Lake County's biggest crop, raised by the millions at big wholesale nurseries and small growers. The closer you get to the Citrus Tower, the more you see that the other big crop is houses, huge new subdivisions marching west over the hills into Clermont from Orlando 25 miles away.

Skip around them, stick to the country, and Lakeridge's 80 acres of grapes _ strung out on long rows of trellises that rise up and down the hillsides _ will surprise you, like an unexpected patch of Italy.

The lure of Lakeridge

The winery, a dusty yellow Mission-style building high on the hill, is bigger than you might expect, and looks much like a small modern winery in southern France or Spain or California's Sierra foothills.

Although Lakeridge isn't on the Napa wine trail, 400 to 700 wine fans find their way here every day, and at monthly festivals, such as this weekend's August Grape Stomp, a couple of thousand are expected.

One day last month, visitors from local retirement communities, wine-savvy California, Orlando vacations and South America met in a tasting room that is the same the world over. It has racks of wine for sale, corkscrews, aprons, wine art and books, and a counter big enough for two dozen curious tasters to work through the winery's wares.

The working area is lined with rows of gleaming 5,000-gallon tanks of stainless steel (with bigger ones outside waiting for a new building). Crushers, destemmers and wine presses are state of the art, and the high-wheeled harvester from Germany can straddle the vines and pick the grapes almost automatically with a crew of three (but the harvest takes a month or more).

Oak barrels are used for decoration and as counters during festivals; the oak taste in some wines comes from wood chips added as they age. The wooden racks used to "riddle," or turn, bottles of sparkling wine four times a day are real and the same as those used in the methode champenoise in France.

Florida's harvest

What's decidedly different from other wineries is in the vineyard out back, where you can see the harvest has begun. Florida's grapes are not the same as traditional European varieties that are the most popular and valuable but just don't grow here.

Although Vikings called this continent Vinland for its abundance of wild grapes, European colonists, including the Spanish, had little luck with cuttings they brought from home. Florida was particularly inhospitable, with conditions that continue to vex and distinguish the state's growers and winemakers.

Without the big name varieties, they make do with two kinds of grapes. The first, and the majority at Lakeridge, are native muscadines, with the big thick skins that Southern kids love to squish _ and their elders favored as scuppernong wines like Virginia Dare. Today's muscadine varieties like Noble and Carlos are more refined, but noticeably musky and sweet.

The others come from a century of cross breeding started in the late 1800s when the great vineyards of Europe were destroyed by the phylloxera louse. Although the ultimate solution was to graft vines of grapes such as cabernet sauvignon onto American rootstocks, in the process researchers crossed U.S. and French grapes as well. They created new varieties like Baco Noir and Seyval Blanc still used in the eastern United States, Canada and parts of France.

Yet in Florida's heat and humidity, even those hybrids succumbed to Pierce's disease, a bacteria that destroyed wine grapes and table grapes. Over the past 40 years, however, Florida researchers experimenting in Leesburg developed a new generation of hybrids for white wine, like Stover and Blanc du Bois, that will stand up to Pierce's and make drier white wines.

That fits a certain wine tradition of integrity: that each region in the world should make its wine from grapes that grow there, not those most popular in the market. While that won't satisfy sauvignon blanc fanciers, this might: California now faces an unprecedented attack of Pierce's disease, borne by an insect called the glassy-winged sharpshooter.

Its vineyards will need help from the most experienced opponents of Pierce's: Florida's growers and their grapes. "Who saved the European vineyards in the 1900s? It was American rootstock," says Jeanne Burgess, Lakeridge's first employee and still its winemaker after two decades. "If California can't resolve the problem, guess who's got the Pierce's disease-resistant grapes? They may be growing Blanc du Bois."

Once waggishly called Blanche Dubois, the grape has come a long way, with big improvements in both the vineyard and the winery. "Twenty years ago, we were working with a brand new grape," Burgess says. A grape to make a dry red still eludes Florida wineries and Lakeridge mixes in California reds to produce its Cuvee Noir Reserve that tastes like a Beaujolais from a better village like Brouilly.

A taste of success

Back in the tasting room, it's clear the winery has learned to do a lot over the years with Blanc du Bois, Stover and the muscadines.

From the hybrids, Cuvee Blanc is closest to a light Italian Frascati or pinot grigio, while Blanc du Bois 2001 and rosy Sunblush are crisp, aromatic wines with hints of nuts and honey like a modest German kabinett.

As in other regions where winemaking is difficult, Florida turns some of its grapes into sparklers and dessert wines. Lakeridge's bubbly is closer to dessert wine than a brut, but the cream sherry made with sister winery San Sebastian is rich, spicy and smoky.

If you don't know what muscadines taste like, you will when you sniff a glass of Lakeridge Chablis, sweet and pungent and a very long way from white Burgundies.

Lakeridge's Southern White has a tingle of licorice and its Southern Red is as jammy as teeth-staining grape juice from a jelly glass. Those won't show up in fancy wine bars, but they are Lakeridge's most popular and regular medal winners.

Together they are a powerful range of flavors to squeeze out of vineyards in the middle of a state "that can't grow wine."

It's something to see on a day in the country. And to taste.

IF YOU GO

Florida's wineries and vineyards

Vintners and growers are working to make wine across Florida, from Fernandina Beach to Destin across the Panhandle and as far south as the Fort Myers area.

Occasionally they bring in chardonnay or merlot juice from California or Chile. More often, they make wine from what grows here, hybrid grapes, native muscadines and fruits from carambola to blueberry. And with each vintage, they get better.

Some vineyards are not much bigger than a back yard, but they all have at least a small room for tasting and selling their products. Most Florida wines sell for $8 to $20. Because of the wineries' small sizes, tasting room hours change frequently, and many wines sell out quickly. Call first to check hours and availability:

Chautauqua Vineyards, Interstate 10 and Highway 331, De Funiak Springs. (850) 892-5887, www.chautauquawinery.com.

Dakotah Winery & Vineyards, 14365 U.S. 19 N, Chiefland. (352) 493-9309, www.dakotahwinery.com.

Eden Vineyards & Winery, 19709 Little Lane, Alva. (239) 728-9463, www.edenwinery.com.

Emerald Coast Wine Cellars, 1708 Old Highway 98 E, Destin. (850) 837-9500.

Florida Estates Winery, 25241 State Road 52, Land O'Lakes. (813) 996-2113, www.floridaestateswines.com.

Florida Orange Groves & Winery, 1500 Pasadena Avenue S, St. Petersburg. (727) 347-4025, www.floridawine.com.

Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards, 19239 U.S. 27 N, outside Clermont. (352) 394-8627, www.lakeridgewinery.com

Monticello Vineyards & Winery, 1211 Waukeenah Highway, Monticello. (850) 294-9463.

Rosa Fiorelli Winery, 4020 County Road 675, Bradenton. (941) 322-0976, www.fiorelliwinery.com.

San Sebastian Winery, 157 King St., St. Augustine. (904) 826-1594, sansebastianwinery.com.

Three Oaks Winery, 3348 Highway 79, Vernon. (850) 535-9463.