(Part 2 of our look at Florida’s $1 billion wine industry.)
When Charles Cox’s family opened Lakeridge Winery in 1989, there were only one or two other wineries in the state, he said. Cox is president of Seavin, which operates both Lakeridge Winery in Clermont and San Sebastian Winery in St. Augustine.
Today, Seavin and its wineries, brands, and vineyards are the state’s market leader, producing 2.3 million bottles annually from its 550 acres. The winery ranks about seventh or eighth largest in the U.S. outside of California and in the top 75 if California wine companies are included, says Cox, president of Seavin.
“We have continually grown for the past 23 years, averaging 18 percent growth per year during that span. We now have 160,000 people visit and tour each of our hospitality centers each year,” he said.
Yet other wineries in the state also are seeing their numbers rise. On a recent sweltering Saturday at Keel & Curley Winery in Plant City, families, couples, and friends bellied up to the bar to try a flight of the winery’s fruit-based wines or craft beer from the company’s newer Two Henrys Brewing Company.
The idea behind Keel & Curley began in 2003 after Joe Keel used extra blueberries to make wine—and that led to its now booming wine business, says tour guide Sam Miller. Winemakers there combine fruit with established wine types to create novel flavors, like the popular Wild Berry Pinot Noir.
The company produced 750,000 bottles in 2015, compared with 450,000 bottles the previous year; the business employs 50 full- and part-time workers, Miller adds. Keel & Curley wines can be found in nearly 750 Publix markets, 25 Wal-Marts, and various ABC and mom-and-pop liquor stores, Miller says.
Seavin’s wines are found in about 2,500 retail locations in Florida and Georgia, both large chain and smaller specialty stores, Cox says. At one time, 98 percent of sales were made at the wineries; now it’s only 40 percent. In fact, Seavin is looking to expand its wine sales outside of just those two states, but the company would like to respond to increasing demand rather than stock shelves with bottles that don’t sell. “We think we’ll get in other areas in the next year or two,” Cox says, noting that the growth will coincide with growing demand as well as Publix’s expansion into the Carolinas and other Southeastern states.
Snowbirds also may propel that growth, as they desire more of the product when they’re not in Florida. “The snowbirds in Lake County and St. John’s County will get to Florida, get settled, and buy our wine. Then they load up again on the way out,” Cox says.
In addition to the larger players in the state are the hobbyist winemakers, led by retirees who have embarked on winemaking as a second career. Some of their businesses are just large enough to attract an influx of visitors and fledgling retail sales. There are other wineries in Florida not considered farm wineries but still noteworthy. Take for instance Orlando’s Quantum Leap Winery, which finds sustainable grape growers from around the world. Their product is then shipped to Quantum Leap where it’s stored, finished, blended, and packaged.
Although wines made in the Southeast have a “sweet” reputation—literally—winemakers in Florida specifically make drier and semi-sweet varieties to accommodate for different tastes. Viticulture researchers in the state are investigating new hybrid grapes that would include more common wine grape types to open the possibility of even more wine flavors, J.R. Newbold, a grape grower and president of the Florida Wine and Grape Growers Association, says.
Some wineries, such as Rosa Fiorelli Winery in Bradenton, would like to expand their year-round tourism footprint by adding a bed and breakfast.
Florida’s iconic oranges may need to make room for its grapes.
Photo Credit: Top courtesy of Lakeridge Winery.