During a different year — one with fewer travel restrictions and no social distancing requirements — wine connoisseurs would likely be planning a trip to such fashionable destinations as Napa Valley, Italy, France or Argentina to tour a cutting-edge or romantic winery.
This year, at least until the pandemic has waned, wineries much closer to home deserve consideration.
The good news for Sunshine State oenophiles is that we’ve got some charming and beautiful wineries here, all of them boasting a unique style and flavor with Florida flair. The dominant grape found, the muscadine, is native to the state and is the reason why Florida wineries are so refreshingly atypical.
Diehard traditionalists take note: If you’re expecting a traditional port or a full-bodied cabernet you may be surprised. At these local spots, you’re more likely to discover the sweet notes coming from sparkling citrus varieties, or even from avocado wine (created from the oil’s separation during fermentation).
Fill up the tank and hit the road to check out four of our favorite Florida wineries – all within 200 miles of Boca Raton. It’ll be fun, we promise. We heard it through the grapevine.
Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards, Clermont
As one of the Sunshine State’s largest and busiest wineries, Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards can be found in Clermont, a central Florida city known as the “gem of the hills.” Clermont’s claim to fame is its Citrus Tower, one of Florida’s first “attractions,” built in 1956 on one of the state’s highest hills (the area has more sloping elevation than most of the state) offering panoramic views of spring-fed lakes.
The city is also home to Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards, one of the state’s largest, and perhaps busiest, premium wineries. Lakeridge’s sprawling vineyards are a perfect destination for those looking for a real taste of Florida.
Vineyard tours are walk-through and self-guided due to social distancing requirements. Guests can taste wines along the way and wander around the vast property.
Weekends at the Winery have become a popular event – one which brings together some of the area’s best food trucks and features live music and an outdoor bar with some of the venue’s most popular wines.
As for the wine: Lakeridge’s 15 varieties are grape-based and muscadines are prevalent. All of the native varieties were produced on the 127-acre winery estate. An additional 450 acres are owned at Prosperity Vineyards in the Panhandle, and 200 more acres are under contract throughout the state.
Native varieties include Red Noble, Bronze Carlos and Welder Muscadines, along with the production of vinifera grapes including chardonnay, pinot grigio, petite sirah and cabernet sauvignon.
Opened in 1989 by Gary Cox with a small group of investors from Lafayette Vineyards in Tallahassee, Lakeridge has garnered 770 national awards over the years.
Lakeridge has a sister winery in St. Augustine named San Sebastian, which uses Lakeridge’s grapes and offers complimentary winery tours and tastings.
Locally Crafted, Italian Inspired
Manasota Vineyards, Bradenton
Housed in a barn in the Gulf Coast city of Bradenton, Manasota Vineyards has attracted wine devotees since 1998. It was known as Rosa Fiorelli then, but the name changed four years ago with new ownership.
The winery has a building for fermenting and bottling, another for tasting and sales, and a pavilion for special events.
Current owner Erik Hall says Manasota Winery’s signature handcrafted wines have changed people’s opinions about wine in Florida.
Six to 10 different types of wines are offered annually. The dry red wines resemble classic dry reds such as old vine zinfandel, sangiovese and cabernet. The whites resemble the classic pinot grigio and chardonnay. Also available are sweet wines that resemble a riesling, or gewürztraminer.
Weekend tours have been suspended because of COVID-19, but wine tastings are offered. Visitors are welcome to stroll around the 10-acre property, which Hall calls a “wonderfully peaceful spot to enjoy lunch.” You can bring food (or buy some southern smoked chicken or brisket from JP’s food truck on site); wine is available to purchase.
Wine & Trivia Nights are another draw and the venue’s first Valentine’s in the Vines – for Canines and Cats fundraiser is scheduled for Feb. 8.
The countryside vineyards provide a picturesque backdrop for weddings and other special events. Those who enjoy being in the country will appreciate the abundant wildlife (bunnies, deer and tropical birds) that can occasionally be spotted making appearances in the pretty sanctuary. Children and dogs are welcome to visit, too.
Want to spend the night? Manasota Vineyards has a room, called Lakewood Ranch’s Hidden Gem, available on Airbnb. Complimentary wine and a tasting at the winery are part of the package.
“Biggest grapes you’ve ever seen”
Henscratch Farms Vineyard & Winery, Lake Placid
As the moniker suggests, there are, indeed, chickens (up to 200 of them) strutting around the grounds at the Henscratch Farms Vineyard & Winery. The free-range hens are one of the reasons this Lake Placid attraction has become so endearing to families. Other reasons: the U-Pick strawberry and grape season and the annual grape stomp (inspired by Lucy and Ethel in an episode of the iconic sitcom “I Love Lucy”). Wine tastings and self-guided tours are available.
The winery began operating in 2003 with the first crush of handpicked muscadine and scuppernong grapes from Henscratch’s own vineyards, which were planted in 1999. It now produces seven styles of country-style wine that celebrate the taste of the south.
Bottled wines vary throughout the year and include favorites like County White, which has a scuppernong-style, musky, honey taste well paired with chicken salad or roast pork; Golden Sunrise, which is light, tart and crisp; Country Strawberry, a semi-sweet Strawberry wine; Country Blush, a clean, semi-sweet blend well paired with cheesecake; Foot-Stomped, a semi-sweet wine treaded during the annual grape stomp; and Strawberry Port, a blend containing 20 percent alcohol and made with fresh strawberries.
Live music is another draw here, especially from Double Trouble, a local sibling’s country music duo. They pledge to make visitors smile not only for their upbeat, toe tappin’ music, but also for the ambiance — they perform in front of an old-fashioned outhouse!
Sliding barn doors make for a quaint rural vibe as guests enter the country store, stocked with wine, homemade jellies and jams, syrups, sauces and gift baskets. Items vary by season and include such goodies as blueberry dressing, strawberry preserves, honey from the winery’s own beehive, eggs and even Cheerios to feed the hens.
Exotic Tropical Flavors
Schnebly Redland’s Winery & Brewery, Homestead
Known for its 30 acres of lush tropical gardens and fruity wines with exotic tropical flavors such as mango, carambola, coconut and guava, Schnebly, the southernmost winery in the United States, has been a Miami-Dade County hotspot for 16 years.
Nestled in the heart of Homestead’s farmlands, the grape-free winery is comprised of a large modern tasting room, a lush plaza picnic area, tropical plants, and waterfalls made of coral rock and shaded by a tiki hut.
Because owner Peter Schnebly recognizes that not everyone loves wine, he’s got a beer brewery on site,
too. It serves predominantly ales — which require shorter and warmer fermentation periods and are more compatible with fruity flavors.
Tours are offered, as are tastings — including one that showcases five wines and gives tasters a keepsake wine glass with the Schnebly logo etched on it. Guides walk guests through the history, nuances and intricacies of each wine. The 30- to 45-minute winery walking tours (which cost $16) take guests through the gorgeous estate. But the goal is to have fun, Schnebly says.
A wide assortment of sparkling wines, dessert wines and rosés are available for tastings and purchase.
There are two restaurants on site: The Redlander, where the menu concentrates on local ingredients and fresh flavors; and Latin Fixins, a weekend-only eatery in the tap room.
The property is a popular site for weddings and special events, as well as weekend outdoor movies, which became very popular during the pandemic.
Schnebly’s doesn’t look like it belongs in Napa, Italy or France, but it does exemplify the tropical nature of the area, palm trees, coral rock and all.
And that’s just how Schnebly wants it.