The first wine made in America was made in Florida. French Huguenots, settling along the St. John’s River in the mid-1500s, engaged in the production of the first wine recorded in the new world. It was the 1565 vintage.
Unlike much of the wine we drink today, it was made from the wild, native Muscadine grapes that still grow abundantly in the Southeast. It was sweet, like a dessert wine, and flavored with the musky bouquet of earth.
Evidence of planted grapevine arbors from around the 1640s has been found at the ruins of San Luis Mission in what is now Tallahassee. In 1837, a German traveler named Bromme mentioned seeing grapes growing in both Pensacola and Tallahassee.
In the early 1800s, the Marquis de Lafayette of Revolutionary War fame commissioned vineyards to be grown in Florida for the purpose of making wines. It is not known if Lafayette ever visited these vineyards or how much wine, if any, was produced. It is known that just prior to Prohibition in the 1920s Florida had more than 4000 acres of vineyards.
In 1923, a grape research and breeding program was established at the University of Florida which, over the years, has resulted in the development of a number of disease resistant grape varieties suited to Florida’s soil and climate. They are also suited to winemaking and produce a variety of wines from light and fruity to full-bodied with abundant fruit flavor.
Also that year, the Florida Grape Growers Association was founded to help farmers and vineyardists navigate the pitfalls of growing grapes. The organization has been instrumental in supporting grape and wine research at the universities. Today the FGGA is the FWGGA (Florida Wine & Grape Growers Association) helping to promote Florida wine as well as fresh fruit.
Until recently, the commercial wine industry in Florida was slow to grow. In the past five years, professional winemakers from the north have moved into the state, and a number of amateurs have taken the leap of faith and opened commercial wineries. Research at the University of Florida, Florida State, and Florida A&M continues to help boost the growth of wineries in Florida and in states like North Carolina and Virginia.
As of this writing, there are about 45 Florida wineries throughout the state, 30 of them designated Florida Farm Wineries that you can visit and see the grapes to wine process first hand. That number is growing with the popularity of Florida wines and wine tourism is on the rise.