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Florida’s unconventional way of making wine

In typical Florida fashion, wine made here may not include the main ingredient of grapes. So, how is wine made?

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — We may not have Napa Valley or New York’s Finger Lakes region when it comes to winemaking, but Florida does have a growing wine industry. It’s just not the kind you’re thinking of.

In typical Florida fashion, wines made here may not include the main ingredient: grapes. So, how is wine made?

Well, let’s first talk about Florida’s role in growing fruit. The state grows about a quarter of the produce you’ll find in the U.S. When it comes to oranges, Florida takes first place for the most amount grown yearly.

However, when it comes to growing wine-making grapes, Florida doesn’t do so well. The state’s warm climate and presence of Pierce’s disease – a bacterial that kills grapevines by clogging their water-conducting vessels – means varieties like chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon just don’t grow well here.

That doesn’t mean you can’t make grape wine in Florida. The muscadine grape can grow in this climate, fending off the heat and bugs with its thick skin. As a result, it produces a very sweet wine that some describe as tasting like grape juice.

That hasn’t stopped the wine industry in Florida though, especially in the Tampa Bay area. At Florida Orange Groves Winery, they specialize in all things fruit wine.

The family-owned winery was the first in Florida to start making and selling fruit wine and it’s right in St. Pete. Orange, cranberry, mango, guava, key lime and pretty much any other fruit you can think of – they’ve probably made wine out of it. The winery even makes wine out of those muscadine grapes.

In the back of the winery, you’ll find large fermenting tanks that will hold all kinds of fruit wine while it ferments. The process can take anywhere from days to weeks. But, making fruit wine isn’t simply about letting it sit until it ferments. Since all fruits are different from each other, figuring out how long it needs to ferment is a skill.

“The wine that takes us the longest to make is definitely the key lime just because of the high acid level in there. So, we have to keep that one on life support as we ferment away,” Lance Shook, executive vice president of Florida Orange Groves Winery, said.

The more sugar in the fruit, the shorter it takes to ferment.

Oranges and mangos aren’t the only ways to make wine taste good. Up in Plant City, Keel & Curley Winery has turned blueberries into a wine favorite.

This winery started as a plant nursery and gradually started growing blueberries. In 2003, it turned those blueberries into wine. Since then, the farm has expanded to 35 acres which includes a peach orchard, animals, and of course, blueberries.

However, making wine from blueberries can have challenges, and it has taken years to perfect the process.

“Grapes are super sweet and have tons of sugar. Blueberries have less sugar than grapes which means you’re going to get less alcohol. So, that’s one of the challenges with other fruits,” Clay Keel, president of Keel Farms, explained.

In making wine out of different fruits, Keel says he wants it to be a fun learning experience about Florida’s agriculture.

So, if you’re a seasoned wine expert or new to tasting, with so many fruit wines in Florida, winemakers are sure you’ll find the perfect drink.

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