Did you know that Florida has over two dozen vineyards, many of which offer complimentary tours and tastings? While many vintners offer fruit-infused wine, a blending of grape and fruit wines (usually 80% grape, 20% fruit), Florida Orange Groves Inc and Winery in St. Petersburg is unique in that it manufactures and bottles fruit wines that are 100% non-grape, although they recently introduced a grape wine. These wines are very smooth, very appealing, with little of the tannic experience that some find sharp or displeasing.
Florida Orange Groves Inc and Winery (FOGW) is open 7 days a week (see hours below). The tasting bar is open and tours are conducted throughout the day. Because fruit is harvested and processed year round, you can see actual bottling year round. Unlike a grape winery, it isn’t limited to the small window of the picking season. A very informative video which explains the complete bottling process is shown before the tour. Here, art, science and technology combine into a delicious package. It was a very pleasing way to spend an afternoon. Educational, too!
The Shook family founded FOGW in the early 1970’s as a citrus packing and shipping operation. After a few years, they expanded the operation to include a gift store and juicing operation. In 1991, the Shooks’ began the long arduous process of obtaining all the necessary federal and state permits and certifications that are required for a commercial winery. The goal was to produce, bottle and sell wines made exclusively from locally grown fruit, including citrus, berry and tropical fruits. It was not until 1997 that the winery was able to open its doors. Since then, the line has been expanded to include Georgia peaches, Washington marrionberries and even locally grown muscadine grapes
The permitting process is so detailed and arduous that it mandates not just the basic label information, i.e. volume, weight, alcohol content, but even the font, color, size of the picture and the size and shape of the bottles. Of course, FOGW is in full compliance with all health and sanitary regulations.
Entering the gift store filled with wines, wine accessories, local jams,jellies, preserves and kitschy Florida souvenirs, there is a long tasting bar on the left hand side. Over thirty varieties of wines, including mango, hurricane (a blend of passion fruit, watermelon, mango and other sunny flavors), pineapple and hot sun, a tomato wine spiked with jalapeno, are available. Lists of the wines, pencils and glasses line the counter, and you are invited to sample whatever you like. Caveat: This is for adults over 21 only! It is illegal to serve alcohol to minors.
If you’re unsure, the friendly staff will make suggestions and remind you that there are no wrong decisions. They are all very knowledgeable and their enthusiasm is palpable. You can sample the wines until you fall in love with one. Or two. Or even three. In addition to wine, there are wine-based smoothie blends. Pouring about a tablespoon of wine into your glass, the staff suggests that you follow the “Six S’s” of wine tasting to get optimum flavor from your sample:
Sight: Look at the wine in the glass.
Swirl: Swirl the wine in your glass to release the aroma.
Sniff: Inhale the scent. Let the scent hit your palate.
Sip: Take a small sip of the wine.
Swish: Roll the wine around in your mouth so that all the taste buds can experience the flavor and texture of the wine.
Swallow: Finally, allow the wine to glide down your throat and enjoy the silk feel of it.
Repeat with the remaining wine in your glass. It is truly amazing how many different nuances you can detect in a tablespoon of wine. When you’ve finished one, you are encouraged to try another. The owners and staff do recommend you limit yourself to three to six wines, both to preserve the sensitivity of you palate and your ability to operate a motor vehicle.
Before or after (or even during-you can take a break from tasting and come back to it) there is an excellent 12 minute video on the history of FOGW and the fermenting and bottling process. It goes into great detail and it is highly recommended that you see it before going on the actual tour. Even if you chose to stay in the shop, tasting, the staff is happy to run the video for you, as many times as you want to see it.
FRUIT WINE FERMENTATON & BOTTLING
Before the fermentation process can begin, the fruit is pressed and juiced off-site. The fruit juice is brought to the plant for fermentation (development of alcohol content in a liquid). Juice is poured into 1000 gallon, stainless steel tanks and yeast is added. Depending on the fruit, the fermentation process takes from one week to three months.
The next step is racking the tanks. As the juices ferment, lees (sediment-tiny solid particles of fruit) fall to the bottom of the barrel. A clear glass tube on the side of the tank allows the wine master to monitor the state of sedimentation and determine when it is time to rack the wine, usually when there is about a foot of sediment. The clear wine is siphoned off the top and the lees removed. This is repeated as many times as necessary until the wine is clear.
The third and fourth steps are bottling and labeling. The bottles are sterilized and filled with CO2 to prevent oxygenation, which would spoil the wine. As the wine is shot into the bottle, the CO2 is pushed out. An antibacterial, resin cork is inserted into the bottle, sealing it. Unlike natural cork, resin won’t shrink, doesn’t break apart, can be easily reinserted to preserve your wine and it comes in a variety of colors, which FOGW coordinates with the bottle labels.
After this, the bottles are ‘cap sealed’. A clear plastic seal is shrink wrapped around the neck of the bottle providing additional protection against oxygenation. The bottles are labeled, boxed and stored pending shipment. The fermenting and bottling rooms are kept at 58 degrees at all times. A 2 degree variance either way can ruin a batch of wine.
While this is a boutique winery, they just acquired a machine which will automate the bottling process. It’s about fifteen feet long, increases the bottling capacity eight fold and is fascinating. Metal fingers coax the bottles along the conveyor belt, swinging, spinning and finally rolling them into the waiting box in a ballet of glass and steel.
The tour also includes viewing the fermenting rooms, which are lined with 1000 and 1500 gallon tanks. The 1000 gallon tank is eight feet tall and six feet in diameter, the 1500 gallon ten feet tall and about seven feet in diameter. Walking along the rows of tanks in the cool room, you can look at the same glass tube the wine master uses to evaluate the wine and see the different stages of the fermentation process. Some tubes are viscose, some have falling particles and some are clear, ready for bottling.
Since 1997, FOGW has been awarded a total of 176 gold, silver and bronze ribbons, including seven “Best of Show” at the Florida and Indiana State Fairs and at the “Wines of the South” competition. Each autumn, it participates in EPCOT’s Food and Wine Festival, the only Florida winery to do so.
Florida Orange Groves Inc and Winery is located at 1500 Pasadena Ave South in St Petersburg. The tasting bar and gift store are open Monday to Saturday from 9:00 to 5:30 and Sunday from 12:30 to 5pm. Tours are conducted throughout the day. The phone number is (727) 347-4025 and they can be reached on the web at www.floridawine.com.
Published on January 25, 2008. Volume 16, issue 2.