Introducing Florida Wine
As the Romans used to say, in vino veritas – in wine there is truth. But the idea of truth, like all things, seems to vary with where you’re coming from and what language you’re speaking.
Wine is one of those things, like quantum physics or philosophy, the more you know about it, the more you know you don’t know. Who would have thought a simple glass of plonk could be such a complex conundrum? I’m certainly no expert on the matter, indulge me an anecdote by way of illustration.
One fond, if somewhat hazy, memory of mine involves a particularly late night drift through Paris in search of further opportunities for inebriation. I had wandered off from some tiresome art exhibition in Belleville and after an unknown quantity of time, spent stumbling around down dark alleyways and past several bars that were firmly fermé, I inadvertently wandered into the living room of a surprised and yet surprisingly accommodating Frenchman. Cobbling together my best attempt at somewhat slurred, schoolboy French, I endeavoured to ask where one might obtain a bottle of decent red at this hour. Obligingly he gestured towards a rack of wines in the corner, but at this point I was stumped – the man was clearly an expert and I had no idea what to choose. I wouldn’t want to show bad taste by picking out something inappropriate or something awful he’d been given as a gift for Christmas ten years ago but couldn’t bring himself to drink.
On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to inadvertently pick out some hundred-pound bottle of vintage Burgundy either, as that would be an awkward test of his hospitality. Conscious of my position as an uncultured rosbif (there is a reason faux pas is a French phrase), I feared I would make the inevitable error of judgement. He must have noticed my bemused expression however, as with a knowing look he took down a slightly dusty looking old bottle from the shelf behind him, kindly agreeing to accept the fist full of Euros I thrust in his direction by way of exchange. As I left he looked at me with a wink and uttered the sage words – “if you don’t know, go Bordeaux.”
If you are a purist like that guy, if you think that a Rioja is pushing it, if you still lament the introduction of plastic corks and turn your nose up at those upstart New World Wines and their global war on terroir then this might not be for you.
American wine – I can only imagine the reaction of my brief Parisian acquaintance to that notion. Yet here in the UK, we have enthusiastically taken to what he might have derided as the slick, brash and simplistic, overpoweringly fruity, high-alcohol show-offs of the U.S.
For many in Britain, the French can keep their tales of tradition and mineral rich soils, the Americans have been serving up a good drop, even before 1976 – the year Californian wines beat French in both the red and white categories of the respected Judgement of Paris competition.
But that was California, famed wine region, accounting for 90% of US production. If it was a country, California would be the planet’s fourth biggest wine producer. But Floridian wine? Would that be a step too far? Surely if California satisfies our tastes, the Sunshine State might be in with a shot?
Wine arrived in Florida in the 1500s when Spanish settlers started growing it, but strictly for use in Catholic sacraments you understand (yeah, right). Yet despite their prayers, the tropical climate and several prevalent vine diseases meant their grapevines didn’t grow so very well there… until science stepped in that is. In the 1930s a University of Florida team developed a bunch of new hybrid grape varieties and after a slow start, finally Florida wine had legs.
Don’t be put off by the internet. The Wikipedia entry for Florida Wine is hardly extensive at three lines long, and pretty much its entirety is given over to saying how unfavourable the region is for wine production, finishing with the helpful coda: “There are no designated American Viticultural Areas in Florida”. Likewise, a quick Google search throws up a top result of www.floridawine.com which as soon as you open the page inauspiciously bellows the tag-line – “Finally! Wines That Taste Good!” before commencing to offer up a range of shall we say, interesting looking tropical fruit wines.
Since the 1970s, this St. Pete’s operation has been knocking out intriguing and experimental beverages, now putting their name to over 43 varieties. These include such classics as ‘Mango Momma’, ‘Sinfully Noble’ and who could forget ‘Sparkling Blueberry Blue Blue Champagne’ [sic]. To be fair, they might well be delicious, but I’m a snob.
As they say themselves – “If you are looking for a wine that taste like the fruit its made from then look no further” [sic]. And they say Americans don’t do irony, or grammar apparently.
But never fear, one thing the Americans apparently do better than the French is start up businesses. Indeed, if that former President and man who owes so much to Florida, George W. Bush is to be believed: “The French don’t have a word for entrepreneur.” This fact means that there are now actually 16 Certified Florida Farm Wineries of differing sizes and outputs that have sprung up in the state in recent years. They utilise local grapes from native Muscadine vines, as well as a range of other fruits. To be certified these wineries have to produce less than 250,000 gallons of wine a year, have at least 10 acres of vineyards in Florida and be open to the public at least 30 hours a week. Certification is reviewed annually to keep them on their toes.
One such winery is the Strong Tower Vineyard & Winery, Spring Hill. Janis and Terry McKnight have been making wines here since heady days of 2001. Here they run the whole operation as a family business, showing customers around the place, running tasting sessions or the popular Evening at the Vineyard events. They currently tend to four types of hybrid grapes here, including those grown by Thomas Jefferson himself, such as the diminutive Norton/Cynthiana. Each year they produce around 16 to 18 varieties of wine including Southern Fraise, Spring Hill or Masaryktown Blues.
To be honest, despite my time at copywriter school (I didn’t go to this, and I don’t know if it exists), even my extensive, broad and considerable synonym spewing skills would be no real help in trying to write about wine with any accuracy. I could splash you with some superlatives, or baffle with contradictory assertions such as ‘elegant yet full-bodied’, ‘subtle yet robust.’ Perhaps I could bury you under a heap of clichés and any number of variations on voluptuous, light, fragrant, smooth, crisp etc. etc., with ‘hints of chocolate’, or ‘shades of oak’. Then again, perhaps I could leave you to taste for yourself, we probably taste things differently anyway, that way you can make up your own mind.
So why not bouquet holiday to Florida soon (sorry, I couldn’t resist) and give the local tipple a try? Personally, I’m sticking to Bordeaux. Why not go and prove me, and the Frenchman, wrong?
Strong Tower Vineyard & Winery is at 17810 Forge Drive, Spring Hill and is open 10am – 6pm, Wednesday to Saturday. Their next Evening at the Vineyard is on July 20th.