CLERMONT -- The moon was still high as the big harvester rumbled through the fog-shrouded vineyards early Friday morning, knocking grapes off the vines and onto conveyor belts.
Now is harvest time for Florida grapes, and those grapes -- dark red, almost black muscadines -- were headed to the Lake ridge Winery at the top of the hill, where the night crew was already crushing 44 1-ton buckets of white grapes that had been trucked in from the winery's other vineyards in the Panhandle. The air was heavy with the smell of grapes.
All those grapes were going to make wine, Florida wine. Despite the fact that Florida is credited with being the birthplace of North American wine -- French Huguenots made wine in Jacksonville in the 1500s -- Florida is not a major wine-producing state.
Wine making has been an up and down thing over the years. Now is an up time. There were 11 wineries in Florida in 1980, but only four when Lakeridge opened in 1989, general manager Keith Mullins said. All but one of those have closed, but more have taken their place. There are now at least eight wineries in the state, scattered between the Panhandle and South Florida, with more on the way.
Lakeridge is on U.S. 19 just north of Clermont, within sight and sound of the Florida Turnpike. It's become a big enough tourist attraction to have its own green highway sign, just like a theme park or outlet mall. It's a big, Spanish-style building high on the hill, with 68 acres of grapes growing in endless rows down the sides of the hill.
Lakeridge is the largest of the state's wineries, producing about 40,000 cases a year. Most of the others make just a few thousand cases.
Still, they sell all they make. Mullins said the biggest limitation Lakeridge has is getting enough grapes.
Most of the wineries are small operations. They have 10 or 15 acres and sell all or most of their production in retail stores right at the winery. They offer free tours and free tastings.
Take Byron Biddle. His Three Oaks is near Vernon in the Florida Panhandle. It's not a developed area, but his winery is right on Florida 79, the road that tourists from Alabama take to Panama City. Biddle made and sold 500 cases of wine last year. This year he expects to make between 700 and 900.
Grapes with those well-known wine names -- Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon -- do not grow in Florida. They can't tolerate the humidity or the heat. So Florida wineries have long relied on the native muscadine grapes that the Huguenots first used to make wine more than 400 years ago.
At Lakeridge last Friday, workers picked a muscadine variety by the name of Noble. Smaller than some muscadines, they looked like black cherries when they were wet and shiny with the morning dew.
Wine growers have developed some hybrid grapes, including the red Conquistador and the wonderfully named white Blanc Du Bois, to resist Florida diseases. These grapes offer tastes closer to the classic wine grapes.
Still, Florida wineries have a long way to go, say some connoisseurs.
Wayne Shipley is the general manager of the Wine Cellar, a Southbank restaurant. He's in charge of buying the restaurant's 250 to 260 wines, but there are no wines from the Sunshine State in the Wine Cellar.
"I just don't know anything about Florida wines," Shipley said.
The only U.S. wines he carries are from Washington, Oregon and California.
Bob Merendino was blunt. He is the manager of Riverside Liquors and Village Wine Shop and is regarded by many as one of Jacksonville's wine experts. He says he has never tasted a Florida wine that he liked. …