A Spirited Tour

The full slate of festive entertaining is just around the corner, a great time of the year to serve some of Florida’s palate-pleasing beverages—and we don’t mean orange juice. From homegrown vintages to backyard distilleries and microbrews, the center of the Sunshine State has your holiday toast covered.

The first reference to winemaking in the New World was in Florida in 1562 when the French Huguenots settled near Jacksonville and discovered that the abundant Muscadine grapes would suffice for their wines. Today, Florida is not known for fine wines, smooth bourbons, or thirst-quenching microbrews, but connoisseurs may find a few surprises in their glasses this year.

Take a look at some Central Florida producers who are making a name for themselves with distinctive blends and well-balanced brews.

‘A Pioneer In Table Wines’
Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards, Clermont

No mention of Florida wineries would be complete without putting Lake County’s own Lakeridge at the top. Not only does Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards produce more than 80,000 cases of wine each year, but it also has 80 acres of planted vineyards surrounding a hillside winery. Walk down the sloping hills to the edge of the vineyard, close your eyes, and just imagine that you are in Napa or Bordeaux. No wonder Lakeridge has become a romantic spot for weddings and receptions.

The rolling hills of Clermont offer spectacular views of Lakeridge Winery’s vineyards.

Taking our out-of-state friends on Lakeridge tours has always been a fun way to educate them about Florida wines. The complimentary 45-minute tour opens with a well-produced movie about the winery’s beginning and how it has evolved into one of the South’s award-winning wineries. A tour guide leads visitors along a platform high above the steel tanks and production area where traditional winemaking techniques are used to produce nine different wines.

When it opened in 1989 in the heart of citrus country, Lakeridge was known mostly for its sweet wines made from Muscadine grapes. Today, the facility has expanded its repertoire to include drier wines, such as Cuvée Noir Reserve, Stover Reserve, and the semi-dry Blanc du Bois. Lakeridge still uses Muscadine grapes in 80 percent of its wines, but the winery has become a pioneer in the development of table wines made from hybrid grapes.

“We are one of the few places that actually grows hybrid grapes,” says Jeanne Burgess, the winemaker at Lakeridge. “Sweet wines, however, are what most Americans want, at least that’s what our cash register says.”

Lakeridge Winery draws more than 110,000 visitors a year, not only for wine tours but also for its popular music festivals and wine events like the annual grape stomp. The festivals and events are great for picnicking and enjoying the entertainment, but plan to visit on a less-crowded day to taste-test the various wines and tour the winery’s production area. You’ll have more time to evaluate each selection, ask questions, and understand just what goes into making a Florida wine.

‘Bustles With Non‑Stop Visitors’
Florida Estates Winery, Land O’Lakes

I found Florida Estates quite by accident five years ago while driving across State Road 52 in Pasco County. The small sign and 10 acres of grapevines were enough to lure me onto a narrow country road where a half-mile down the Florida Estates Winery was housed in an old hunting lodge.

Today, not one Muscadine vine can be found on the property, thanks to the 2004 hurricanes and to winemaker Ron Hunt’s passion for using Florida’s hybrid grapes. The winery still bustles with non-stop visitors who want to taste the wines that range from a dry chardonnay to a spicy red or a strawberry sweet port.

Winemaker Ron Hunt of Florida Estates Winery teaches basic wine classes throughout the year.

“I personally like drier wines, but I was taught to enjoy the nuances of all wines,” says Hunt, who teaches a basic wine class about 10 times a year. “I can find something to like in every wine.”

Over the last few years, Hunt has blended Chilean grapes with hybrid ones developed by researchers at the University of Florida. The hybrid grapes can withstand Florida’s heat and are not susceptible to the bug that carries Pierce’s Disease, which attacks non-native grapevines.

His popular Chilean blend, The Lost Merlot, sold out during the summer, and Hunt has decided to replace the Chilean grapes with California’s because of shipping costs. His latest creation, Chateau Soleil Chardonnay, is 80 percent chardonnay grapes from Monterey and 20 percent Florida hybrids. The wine is aged in stainless steel vats and does not have the overpowering oaken flavor that is often a chardonnay characteristic.

Although bottling and most production happen at its sister winery in Fort Myers, Florida Estates Winery has a distinct niche when it comes to wine tasting.

“We are educators, not just pourers,” explains Hunt. “We talk more about wines than most places.”

‘We’re All Unique’
Dakotah Vineyards & Winery, Chiefland

You don’t have to be a wine lover to enjoy a visit to Dakotah Vineyards & Winery on Highway 19, north of Chiefland. The 2,400-square-foot tasting room has a well-stocked gift shop for unique wine-related items. My most recent visit happened on a very stormy afternoon after a long drive. I didn’t plan on buying Christmas presents for my oenophile friends, but the spontaneous stop turned out to be a productive way to get out of the pouring rain.

Although I wasn’t interested in tasting wine that day, co-owner Max Rittgers welcomed me to look around. He pointed out some of his other products such as Italian grape seed oil, which he says is an even healthier alternative to olive oil.

“The grape seed oil is our second-best seller after wine,” says Rob Rittgers, who helped establish Dakotah with his dad in 1985. “We’ve even had customers walk up to strangers and encourage them to buy the oil.”

The production facility behind the tasting room is connected by a wisteria-covered terrace where visitors are invited to picnic and watch the geese, wood ducks, and koi fish that make the vineyard their home.

Florida wines, though, are still the main focus of the 12-acre winery. Nine different wines are offered at only two prices: $8.99 and $12.99. The top sellers are the Noble red and the Carlos white, both made from Florida’s native Muscadine grapes. Other favorites are Dakotah’s cream sherry and port wines, which can stand up to some expensive dessert wines.

The younger Rittgers says the best way to learn about wine is to visit wineries of all kinds.

“We’re all unique and offer different kinds of wines,” he explains. “You’ll get a better insight into what you like by visiting and tasting.”

‘Not A Wimpy Beer’
Lagniappe Brewing Company, Minneola

Not everyone is a wine drinker, so a trip to Lagniappe Brewing Company may be in order. Lake County’s only microbrewery produces five different beers to whet the taste buds of the most discriminating beer connoisseurs.

Brad and Tara Banker founded the company in 2008 in an industrial zone on Center Avenue in Minneola. A former electrical engineer, Brad began making beer in his garage right after college. He says the hobby of beer-making is fairly common among engineers who tend to like details and designing. The work is hard, especially since Brad handles the brewing and bottling by himself.

“The reward is seeing people’s reactions when they come in and try it,” says Brad. “I love the customer interaction.”

Brad Banker serves one of his microbrew beers at Lagniappe Brewing Company’s tasting room.

Gail and Tony Dean live nearby and watched the brewery signs go up as they took evening walks. Today, they are regulars who not only enjoy sampling the brews, but also cooking with them.

“I made an amazing pot roast with the Porter beer,” says Gail. “I can’t wait to try the Summer Ale in a coconut shrimp recipe since the beer has hints of coconut in the flavor.”

Lagniappe’s sunlit-filled tasting room offers a comfortable sofa and chairs, magazines, and books about beer. Visitors can relax while sampling generous pours of Brad’s microbrews, which always include one seasonal beer. The tasting room has limited hours of operation on Wednesday through Saturday. The other days of the week are for brewing, bottling, and “minimal rest,” says Brad who bottles about 20 cases a week by hand in the adjoining production area.

A native of Louisiana, Brad chose the Cajun term “lagniappe” (say “lan-yap”) to describe how his microbrews offer a little something extra than macro-brewed beers from large manufacturers.

“The Porter malt has about seven-percent alcohol, while the German-style Ubermensch Hefe-Weizen has about 5.5 percent,” he says. “It’s definitely not a wimpy beer.”

‘We Make Whiskey From Start To Finish’
Florida Farm Distillers, Umatilla

Marti and Dick Waters love their south Marion County cattle farm near Umatilla, but it’s not a self-sustaining business. The couple was looking for ways to change that when Marti read how Midwestern farmers were cashing in on the national demand for high-end spirits by opening micro-distilleries.

She convinced her husband that the venture could work. They began the year-long process of getting state and federal permits and licenses and tested many recipes and combinations before settling on one that uses Florida corn, barley, malt, rye, toasted flake rye, and sugar. They anticipate producing about 500 cases of their Palm Ridge Reserve Whiskey this year, which should be in stores for the 2009 holiday season.

Palm Ridge Reserve is a young bourbon-style whiskey made near Umatilla.

The couple plans to keep the business a mom-and-pop operation. They believe personal attention to detail makes their whiskey stand out from the mass-produced products.

“We make the whiskey here, from start to finish,” says Dick Waters. “We smell it, taste it, bottle it, and even put our own unique labels on the bottles.”

Palm Ridge Reserve is a traditional 90-proof, bourbon-style whiskey with an intense flavor where you can still taste some of the grain. The whiskey is non-chill filtered, mellowed in toasted orange and oak chips, and then left to finish in small oak barrels.

Currently, the distillery cannot give tours or host tastings because of regulations, and sales must go through distributors.

“State laws limit what we can do,” says Marti. “Consumers need to sign up for our online newsletter to find out where Palm Ridge Reserve is available.”

Want To Know—Or Drink—More?

Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards, Clermont

Florida Estates Winery, Land O’Lakes

Dakotah Vineyards & Winery, Chiefland

Lagniappe Brewing Company, Minneola

Florida Farm Distillers, Umatilla

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