When Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon landed in 1513 near what is now St. Augustine, he apparently didn’t pay much attention to the clusters of grapes growing in the area. Too bad, or the long history of Florida wines might have begun with him.
Had that been the case, de Leon might have gone down in history as the person responsible for today’s large wine industry in Florida — instead of being remembered for his quixotic and fruitless search for the Fountain of Youth.
In 1521, he returned to La Florida — as he called the area because of its lush flora — to establish a Spanish colony on the island. But Native Americans attacked. Forced to evacuate, de Leon and his men headed for Cuba, where the conquistador succumbed to a severe wound, an arrow in the thigh, that he had suffered during the battle.
Successful Spanish colonization of the peninsula finally began at St. Augustine in 1565. But it was too late for the Spaniards to lay claim to having created the first wine in the New World. A colony of French Huguenots living near present-day Jacksonville had already accomplished that.
Drinking Florida wines on an empty stomach
When John Hawkins, a British admiral, arrived at the Huguenot colony in 1565, he found its members starving. But they had somehow produced, according to Hawkins — whom many consider more a pirate than a sailor — “20 hogsheads” of wine, or about 1,260 gallons.
Unfortunately for the Huguenots, they would soon have bigger problems than empty stomachs. Their fledgling colony was called Fort Caroline, which a Frenchman had founded in the early 1560s to provide safe haven for Huguenot settlers.
But then Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded St. Augustine in 1565. Upset about French encroachment in what the Spain believed was its territory, de Avilés attacked Fort Caroline and spared only the women and children.
Wine production eventually moved north, to Colonial Virginia and North Carolina.
Florida ranks No. 7 in U.S. in wine
Luckily for us, 452 years after the slaughter of the Huguenots, Florida’s wine industry is thriving. In fact, La Florida is No. 7 in the U.S. for wine production, according to the Florida Wine and Grape Growers Association (fgga.org).
The native muscadine grapes that the French Huguenots used for their vin still grow in many parts of the Sunshine State. And thanks to advances in oenology, many wineries here also produce wines from other fruits, such as mangos, oranges, blueberries and strawberries.
In 2012, the Florida Legislature passed the Florida Viticulture Policy Act and creating the Florida Farm Winery Program. The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services oversees the program, which allows a winery to become a certified Florida Farm Winery if it meets certain requirements.
One of those “certain requirements” in the 2012 law also opened the door to allowing a winery to become certified even if it uses fruits other than grapes in wine production. To become a Florida Farm Winery, a grower must “1) Produce or sell less than 250,000 gallons of wine annually, of which 60 percent of the wine produced is made from state agricultural products” (italics added). In other words, if a crop grows in Florida, it can, if suitable, legally become wine.
Veggies as wines
That includes … are you ready for this? … vegetables. Florida Orange Groves and Winery in St. Petersburg sells two such varietals: 40 Karat ($17.98) and Hot Sun ($18.98). “Made 100% from Florida carrots. Excellent with shellfish and spicy foods” is how its website, floridawine.com, describes 40 Karat. And Hot Sun? “A very smooth white wine with a slight tomato taste and a hint of peppers in the finish. … Hey, we know tomatoes are a fruit, but we put it under the vegetable category anyways!”
Five juicy facts about wine and grapes
1) In 1991, Florida had three certified Florida Farm Wineries; the state now has 24 (source: fgga.org);
2) In the state, those 24 growers have a total of 500 acres of vineyards (fgga.org);
3) In 2016, Monticello Vineyards and Winery’s Magnolia blend was named the Best Wine Made in Florida. These Florida wines are made in Monticello, east of Tallahassee (purewow.com);
4) Grapes are the highest-value fruit crop in the U.S., at close to $5 billion (wineamerica.org);
5) In the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 Census, the most recent, 1.14 million acres — 52 percent of the land used to grow non-citrus fruits — were devoted to growing grapes (agcensus.usda.gov).