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FLORIDA VINEYARDS REVEL IN THEIR SECOND CRUSH

Vines won't be full on the West Coast or across much of Europe for another month, but in Florida the grapes are icumen in.

Around the wineries and vineyards of Florida's young wine industry, harvesters picked the first round of grapes in June. Those were the bunch grapes such as Stover, Conquistador, Suwanee and Blanc du Bois, created by crossing European and American in the last century.

This month growers watch the rains, check sugars in the ripening fruit and fan out in the vineyards for varieties of muscadines. They are the state's native grapes, now evolved into more refined Nobles (red), and Carlos and Welder (whites), and other varieties.

By summer's end, the state's approximately 800 acres of vineyards may have produced 4,800 tons of grapes, says Tom Thomas, viniculture coordinator of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Vineyard owners around the world dream of an ideal weather pattern - periodic rains in summer and a dry spell before harvest - but this year, Florida growers are glad to see the drought ending, even at harvest time.

- "Rain is life. It's a good thing,'' says Rob Rittgers, who has 17 acres of grapes to pick at Dakotah Winery (14365 NW U.S. 19, Chiefland; (352) 493-9309). August's rains will plump up the grapes and won't hurt the wines. The winery will be open for tastings and sales daily during the harvest.

- Lakeridge Winery (19239 U.S. 27 N, Clermont; (352) 394-8627 or toll free 1-800-768-9463), the state's largest, will start picking this month and plans to hold its annual August Stomp, Aug. 17-19, with thousands of fans coming for food, music and, of course, wine.

- At Florida Estates Winery in Pasco, vines are too young to produce wine grapes, but the winery will use grapes from Eden Vineyards outside Fort Myers. Still, the winery celebrates August with festivals from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Aug. 11 and 25 (25241 State Road 52, Land O'Lakes; (813) 996-2113); and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Aug. 18 at its tasting room in St. Petersburg (3101 37th Ave. N, (727) 526-2113).

- Bradenton winegrower Antonio Fiorelli reports a very good harvest of Blanc de Bois and Conquistador grapes in June. Picking the remaining muscadines in the 9-acre vineyard begins in mid August. Rosa Fiorelli Winery (4250 County Road 675, Bradenton; (941) 322-0976) is open daily for sales and tasting.

- If you're of a mind to pick your own, muscadine vines at Lee Vineyards in Dover (10251 McIntosh Road, Dover; (813) 335-1865) are loaded and open to u-pickers now, seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to noon and 3 to 6 p.m. Price is 89 cents a pound. Other fruits may be ripening on various trees as well.

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