You wouldn’t know from passing the building on King Street in St. Augustine that a nightclub is on the third floor of the San Sebastian Winery — or that it’s rocking on this Friday night. The entrance and parking are in the back, and not much light or sound is leaking out.
But inside, about 40 people are drinking San Sebastian wine and nibbling on cheese and charcuterie. A four-man band plays bluesy rock — Otis Redding, Steely Dan, Teddy Pendergrass, Boz Scaggs — then leads the crowd in singing Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire. Several couples are dancing.
This laid-back nightclub bears no relation to clubs on South Beach. The dominant wardrobe item is jeans, there is no velvet rope, no bottle service, no cover charge, and the club closes at 11 p.m.
Tomorrow I’ll take the traditional route for getting acquainted with San Sebastian wines — the winery tour and tasting through an old East Coast Railway building that dates to 1923. But the nightclub is a fine way to promote San Sebastian wines. I sip a couple and already know I’ll be buying at least one bottle of the Castillo Red tomorrow.
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Unless you’ve been paying close attention, you may not know that Florida has 27 wineries that offer tours and tastings.
Wine-tasting here is not like tasting in other states. The wines are different and the wineries are scattered across Florida, rather than concentrated in any one area, so it’s not like driving along Route 29 through the Napa Valley. One day last fall, I hit San Sebastian in St. Augustine, Log Cabin in Satsuma, Tangled Oaks in Grandin, and Bluefield in Gainesville. It took all day.
The only wineries close enough for a day trip from Miami are Schnebly Redlands in Homestead (35 miles from downtown) and Endless Summer in Fort Pierce (130 miles).
Familiar wine grapes like Cabernet, Chardonnay, Merlot and Pinot Grigio won’t survive Florida’s hot, wet summers. Most Florida wines — about two-thirds of the state’s production of 628,000 gallons — are made with muscadine grapes, a thick-skinned Florida native that produces sweet wines.
Other Florida wines are made from blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, key limes, avocados and other fruit. Most are sweet, and some are dessert or sparkling wines.
Bluefield Estate started with blueberry wine but now also makes wine from muscadine grapes, strawberries, peaches, raspberries, blackberries, green apples and pomegranates. Florida Orange Groves in St. Petersburg reported to the state that it makes wine from 20 fruits, but it’s known for its citrus wines. Schnebly in Homestead makes wine from carambola, lychee, guava, mango, passion fruit and three types of avocado wine — but no grapes.
Although many people turn up their noses at these fruity wines, I saw a lot of customers buying them at the wineries, sometimes by the case. Apparently they are a guilty pleasure.
“Sweet wines are traditionally … seen as second class,” said John Newbold, president of the Florida Grape Growers Association. “A lot of people say they want a dry wine, but you would be shocked by how much sweet wine is sold at Publix. Young people, people who are new to wine, are a lot more open to sweet wines and blends.”
Some wineries make a dry wine or two, the residual sugar removed. A few wineries import grape juice from California and blend it with their own muscadine for a drier drink.
To boost their appeal to visitors, most Florida wineries offer special events — live music, arts and crafts fairs, festivals, car shows, farmers markets. San Sebastian has a nightclub, The Cellar Upstairs, open only on weekends. Schnebly in Homestead, which already offered live music on weekends, just started serving dinner on Fridays and Saturdays. Some have event spaces for weddings, charity events and other activites.
Some wineries have U-Pick opportunities. At Henscratch Farms in Lake Placid, for example, it’s currently U-Pick season for strawberries, blueberry season starts in April, grapes in August. Many sell jam, honey and other goods produced on their farm. Through harvesthost.com, some offer overnight parking for RVs.
Generally the wineries start small, selling wine only from their tasting rooms. Sometimes it’s an arts and crafts festival or live music that introduces a newcomer to a winery’s product, and that might lead to them asking for it in Publix or Total Wine, said Jeanne Burgess, winemaker at Lakeridge and its sister winery, San Sebastian.
“Wineries in general are creative in enticing people out with wine-making seminars, food events, music events,” Burgess said. Last year Lakeridge’s annual Seafood Festival in Clermont, about 30 miles west of Orlando, drew 17,000 people over a three-day weekend last year, she said.
As the state’s two largest wineries, Lakeridge and San Sebastian have some of the most extensive tours, starting with video telling about the history of wine-making in Florida. It began in 1562, when Spaniards made wine from muscadine grapes, making Florida the first state in the nation to produce wine.
On the Saturday I was at San Sebastian, visitors did self-guided tours, with tasting stations set up along the way, each staffed by someone who talked about the wines and how to pair them with food.
At Lakeridge, the tour was guided, with stops on catwalks overlooking the stainless steel tanks and the bottling system, and out on the rear terrace for a view of the vineyards. Then we went to the bar for a formal tasting, where everyone sampled the same wines at the same time.
At smaller wineries, I was sometimes the only visitor and the tasting began when I arrived.
The first time I went to Endless Summer Winery in Fort Pierce, a half-dozen people were already at the surf-themed bar. Each chose what they wanted to taste, and the pourer somehow kept straight what each person was drinking and talked about each wine. I stepped up next to two women and joined in the tasting.
My second visit was on a warm Sunday afternoon in January. As it does on every Sunday (except major holidays), the winery had live music, and it had attracted a small crowd. This time, we had to reserve a spot at a tasting, but the next opening was more than two hours away and we didn’t expect to stay that long. So we bought drinks at the bar in a pavilion hung with surfboards, where visitors danced to a blues band and carried ice buckets of beer and wine to picnic tables made of surfboards.
People played bocce ball, corn hole and disc golf amid the grapevines, bought organic hot dogs and mojo chicken tacos from a food truck, and basked in the sun.
“We have events every Sunday afternoon, year-round, except major holidays,” said Gary Johnson, who opened the winery 21/2 years ago. Among the regular music events are Winestock, “a day of peace, music and wine;” Mangoritaville, trop rock, with mangoritas made with mango-based wine; and Dixieland jazz.
Do they come for wine or for the music? Both, Johnson said. “You can’t get our wine anywhere else. About half of the people that come out do the tasting.”
“Wine tourism is becoming more popular all the time,” said Newbold of the Florida Grape Growers Association. “Wine fans, when they travel, are very keen to see the local sights, try the local wine. As more Florida wineries come on, now that people are becoming aware that there is a wine industry in Florida, they want to try it out. It’s an exciting time for our industry in Florida.”