Friday, November 30, 2012

Wine, Sun & Fun – Lakeridge Winery, Clermont Florida


( Harvest for 2012 is already done in Florida. )

Florida's nickname is the Sunshine State and its agriculture industry is no doubt successful in part because of the abundant sunshine and moderate climate. Grape growing and winemaking aren’t what most people think of when they think of Florida grown however. This wasn’t exactly obvious when we (Margot and I ) visited Lakeridge Winery in Clermont, Florida though.

Lakeridge Winery was busy with tour groups, with groups both before and after us completely filling the tasting bar following the tour. Everyone, employees and patrons, were smiling, laughing and obviously having fun. With a constant stream of club members and retail buyers (they were running a pre-Thanksgiving wine sale which we took advantage of) I couldn't help but think that the locals might have something special at Lakeridge.

( Impressive! )

Lakeridge Winery is the largest winery in Florida and is owned by the group that also owns and operators San Sebastian Winery in St. Augustine, which is the second largest in the state. Gary Cox founded Lakeridge in 1988, choosing the central Florida ridge are in part due to the area’s rich agricultural heritage, to site the winery.  Lakeridge is a family business and both Gary's wife Carole and son Charles are involved in day to day operations. Production for both wineries is done at the Lakeridge facility, where in 2011 they produced 1.8 million bottles of wine!

( Left over from the recent harvest. I didn't clarify what kind it was. )

Muscadine is the primary grape type grown and vinified by Lakeridge, although their work with hybrid grapes has resulted in success with several varieties including the Stover and Blanc du Bois varieties. A warm, humid climate can create disease and pest pressures, but both the Muscadine and hybrid varieties are at least partially resistant to some forms of disease and surprisingly pest resistant such that they require no pesticides for normal operation. Irrigation is required, but with the use of a drip system in conjunction with the typical rainfall the amount of supplemental water needed is manageable.

Our tour guide, Shep (seen on the left), shared a brief history of the winery and then cued up a short video presentation that explained more about the regional agricultural history and how Lakeridge came to be. 

As we walked through the facility Shep further explained their process and capacity to the group. Consistently injecting humor into the volume of information he commanded, Shep both educated and entertained us. With this I began to understand part of the reason why the Lakeridge Winery is popular. 

Shep also said something that resonated with me after dozens of winery visits in the last few years. “The advantage of the wine business over other types of product businesses is that we get to see and interact with our customers.” That personal connection does indeed make a difference and clearly they get that at Lakeridge. After hearing about the annual festivals they host, and furthermore how well attended the events are, I could see how the blend of wine, sun and fun that Lakeridge offers is so successful.

Our next stop was the tasting bar, a place I had been looking forward to saddling up to since I had planned the vacation to Florida. As for Florida wine, I'd only have had the port wine from San Sebastian Winery before, but that was some time ago and was the extent of my Florida wine experience. As an advocate of wine made in all sorts of places my curiosity drove me to find out if there was a winery near where we were staying when I was planning the trip. As luck would have it Lakeridge was only thirty minutes north of our home base for the week.

Now that I've visited what did I find? A beautiful location, fun people and wines that made me reevaluate my expectations. For the record I didn’t have low expectations, yet my reasonably optimistic ones were actually still too low. That kind of surprise is welcome any day!

We tasted nine wines, including a mix of hybrid and Muscadine-based wines. In general all of these wines do present differently than vinifera-based wines, but that statement should offer no surprise to anyone who understands the difference in the three types of grapes. The hybrid whites were generally citrus driven with a moderate level of acidity. The Cuvee Blanc was well polished and didn’t immediately make me think hybrid grape or an atypical origin. The one hybrid red we tasted posted up tart cherries and had a small amount of fine tannins. The Muscadine-based whites are generally grapey in the nose with flavors reminiscent of fruit salad with citrus finishes. The sparkling rose trended to strawberry and raspberry in the mouth. The Muscadine reds were tart and driven primarily by cherry and cranberry flavors.

Three wines stood out for us. The first was the Sunblush Rose. It has a sweet finish which offers a balance to the tart fruit salad I found on the palate. This wine and a hot, sunny day would be a fantastic combination. I could also see making an exceptional sangria or wine cocktail with it.

The second wine that made a strong impression, and one I had heard good things about, was the Pink Crescendo sparkling Rose. Tasting like berries with a Sweet Tart-like finish I couldn’t help but smile after taking a sip of this wine. The carbonation was fine and mouth filling. The finish was not at all too sweet. For whatever gathering I serve this wine at I suspect there will be intense disappointment amongst the imbibers when it is gone!

The last wine we both rated highly was Southern Red. A Muscadine-based, sweet, red wine it had both an attractive nose and a full-flavored palate for us to enjoy. It is a sweet red, a style some people don’t like, but I felt that in this instance it works very well. Slight cooked, sweet fruits is the best analogy to the way the flavors came together. You could use this wine on the table with food, and even cook with it, just as well as you could give it a little chill and sit in the backyard watching the world go by.

( Lakeridge Winery - Clermont, FL )

Back to the wine sale. As we were looking through the wines available to purchase we heard someone talking about the buy-one-case-get-one-case sale. Huh? Yup, 50% off.  For the month of November, if you bought one case you got another for the price of the 12 most expensive bottles. We purchased all of our favorites and a couple bottles that were not available for tasting due to low production volume; looking forward to sharing Florida wine with our friends back home. The interesting twist was that Lakeridge can only ship us one case of wine per month according to the New Hampshire direct shipping rules. So what did we do with that second case of wine? We gave it to the friends we were staying with!

I was so happy on my ride back to the vacation house. Seeing a winery that busy somewhere in the "Other 46" and then enjoying their wines is a strong reminder that wine is special because it is about the people and a place. In the case of Florida, you add the mild weather and lots of sun and the fun can't help but get in line!

Cheers!

Jason

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