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FRENCH LESSONS

A Tampa couple and their son buy a vineyard in France and immerse themselves in learning all about winemaking. Less than three years later, they're fluent in fermentation.

It is not that difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of wine.

In California wine country, tycoons and doctors who start wineries joke that it's easy to make a small fortune in the wine business - if you have a large fortune to start with. Buy premium vineyards, hire a pricey winemaker, age wine in expensive barrels for a few years, put your name on a cool label, maybe you'll make money.

Not easy, but doable.

To do what Tampa couple Joe and Liz O'Connell and their son, Ryan, did - change continents and industries and make breakthrough wine from a lackluster region in less than three years - is difficult.

And great fun, judging by the big smiles and the first 5,000-case vintage of O' Vineyards' syrah, merlot and cabernet sauvignon that they brought back from France this summer. Maybe they just grin over the great luck that their first wines came from the fabulous harvest of 2005.

"I'm really impressed with how much they've done, so quickly,'' said Kevin Pelley, a wine seller who hosted a tasting of their wine recently at Bern's Fine Wines and Spirits. In just three years, they revamped a vineyard, built a working winery and created a new quality wine in the Languedoc region.

The O'Connells got their start building grand houses, including their own $8-million Chateau de Chenes, in Avila, the luxury North Tampa subdivision named for Spain's famous walled city.

Late in 2004, they traded Tampa development for winemaking and bought a vineyard outside Carcassonne, a truly medieval city ringed with turreted walls in the south of France.

Whatever Tampa fortune they brought, the family also had the energy of Joe, a sunburned builder, the bright geniality of Ryan, 22, who was fresh out of Tulane University, and the easy Gallic style of French-Vietnamese Liz, who grew up on the Left Bank.

Yet none had an hour's worth of education in winemaking, other than wine-tasting trips. Having grown up in Paris, Liz O'Connell wanted to resettle in the Loire Valley or perhaps Bordeaux but "Joe said even that was too cold.''

They decided on the sunny Languedoc-Roussillon, which had made good, if little known, reds and oceans of bulk co-op wines. Ten years ago, corporations moved in with large plants and larger advertising budgets to make generic varietal wines for global value market at $5 a bottle.

"Unfortunately they invested too much in building the 'brand' of the region and not enough in the quality of the wine,'' Ryan O'Connell says. His family, however, has slashed quantity to boost quality, and invested in gravity-fed presses and new trellises.

The O'Connells have a different plan and good luck in their choice of Carcassonne. The old fortress city sits in the cross winds between Bordeaux on the Atlantic and the Rhone and Provence vineyards on the Mediterranean.

In wine terms, that's between cabernet and merlot on the west and syrah and grenache to the east. The O'Connells' location gets cooler, dry winds from the Atlantic and humid breezes and fluctuating temperatures from the opposite way.

It is also a rare district where French wine law tolerates a mixed marriage between Rhone and Bordelaise grapes - and requires the blend if the wine wears the local AOC tag. The O'Connells have one such blend in the barrel to sell later; for now they keep the two grape families separate.

However, in O's winemaking, each tradition gains from the other. The syrah has a rich velvety texture that hints at merlot, and the merlot has a touch of Rhone pepper. They also age the wine in oak barrels, a rare expense in the Languedoc.

All sell for $16 to $20, which is more than many southern reds, but also half the price of a Bordeaux red of the same quality.

The O'Connells are learning fast about winemaking, with only slight stumbles. Ryan O'Connell, who does the selling, is pleased that the family business is now wine and not houses.

"I couldn't be as zealous about that,'' he says.

His enthusiasm has put the O'Connell name and its Tampa backstory on the shelves of 100 wine shops along the Gulf Coast.

The wine and the latest rebirth of the Languedoc are young, too, and all will improve with age.

Chris Sherman can be reached at (727) 893-8585 or csherman@sptimes.com.

ABOUT THE WINE

O' Vineyards

The O'Connell family of Tampa is producing wines from the Languedoc region of France under the name O' Vineyards. Their offerings include syrah, merlot and cabernet sauvignon.

The wines are sold in several restaurants and cost $16 to $20 a bottle at wine shops and liquor stores. Retailers who carry O' wines include Norman's and Dolphin Village wines in St. Pete Beach, Leuken's in Dunedin, Bern's Fine Wine and Spirits in Tampa, Wine- Styles in Belleair Bluffs, International Cellar in Tampa, the Butcher Block in Lutz, JDV Cigars & Fine Wine in Oldsmar and Sunset Wine & Liquors in Clearwater.

For more information, contact Ryan O'Connell at (813) 846-8585 or visit www.ourwines.us/ovineyards.swf.

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