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East County Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019 6 months ago

Grape Expectations

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An East County vineyard is making its mark in the Florida wine scene and invites tourists and locals alike to share the fruit of its labor.

Let’s be honest: Wine production does not ordinarily come to mind when one considers the Sunshine State. But maybe its time has come.

“I’d like people to taste this Florida-made wine that pays homage to the local grape scene but be surprised and say, ‘Huh, that’s different,’” says Erik Hall, owner and vintner of Fiorelli Winery in Bradenton.

Erik Hall was a hobby beer- and winemaker for 20 years before migrating from aerospace engineering to creating wines at Fiorelli.

Hall is referring to the wines he has created using a base of muscadines, a type of grape used for centuries to make wine and jams in the southeast region of the United States. But the wine produced on the 10-acre Fiorelli Winery vineyard is not the muscadine wine of yore.

Traditional muscadine wine has a reputation of, well, a sweet and “musky” flavor. The modern Fiorelli wine offers something unique.

Take the Manatee Red. It’s a lighter-bodied, semi-dry, red wine like a pinot noir that pairs well with pasta and red sauce. The Arid White would satisfy a pinot grigio drinker with a light and airy finish — harmonious alongside a locally caught seafood meal. Moving into a slightly sweeter territory, the Breeze resembles a blush, which makes it perfect for balmy fall cookouts. Chill — the sweetest of this bunch — is unequivocally meant to be relished by the pool or lakeside, maybe while munching on some light apps.

Fiorelli Winery is home to six thriving varieties of muscadines — some native and some hybrid — including Stover, Blanc de Bois, Liberty, FAMU (developed by the Florida A&M University), Carlos and Triumph — all of which are used in the various blended wines produced and bottled on-site. But the native grapes are only a portion of what is contained in Fiorelli bottles. Once fully fermented, the muscadine wine is then carefully blended with wines from various other regions to create the finished product.

“I consider it regionally agnostic,” says Hall, who has merged his creations with wines from California, Oregon and even Ohio. “If it’s good, I’ll bring it in.”

Hall’s description of his vintner process evokes mental pictures of a mad-scientist-slash-matchmaker at work in a lab perfecting experiments using sometimes as many as 30 beakers to mix small quantities of wines until it pleases the palate. He invites others to taste as well.

With blood that runs three-quarters Italian and kitchen skills gleaned from his Italian grandmother, Hall says it’s his love of cooking that most influences the blends he creates.

“I am a fan of muscadine wine, but it doesn’t go with my style of cooking,” Hall says. “We needed something [customers] could take home and drink with dinner or out by the pool but wasn’t ‘muscadine sweet.’”

The Grand Papi: One of the oldest vines at the vineyard, “Gran Papi” is rumored to be the first vine planted on the property by Antonio Fiorelli and is estimated to be about 23 years old. Although the elder still produces grapes,

The first grapevines of the Rosa Fiorelli Winery, as it was formerly known, were planted by Antonio Fiorelli, a craftsman from Sicily whose subtle winemaking hobby turned into a full-fledged business. During their time as owners, Antonio and his wife, Rosa, worked with state universities to cultivate hybrid grapes and produce award-winning wines. When Antonio died in 2013, the family continued his work for a short time before ultimately deciding it was time to sell the vineyard.

One day, Hall’s wife, Tara Files-Hall, a child psychologist, was perusing the classifieds for a location in Lakewood Ranch for her practice when she saw the ad for the Rosa Fiorelli Winery property, which is located northeast of Lakewood Ranch on County Road 675. The couple, who lived in Clearwater at the time, were familiar with the winery because of trips with their two older sons to the neighboring Hunsader Farms.

“Tara said: ‘Hey Erik, the winery is for sale. Let’s check it out,’” Hall says.

Disillusioned with his corporate job, Hall, an aerospace engineer by trade with a winemaking hobby, was intrigued by the opportunity to switch gears and the possibility of turning his 20-year avocation into a business.

They put in an offer on the property, and eventually, it was accepted.

The flow of wine, however, was not immediate. Hall rebranded. Although he kept the recognizable “Fiorelli” in the name, he changed logos and labels. The winery was closed to the public for more than a year during the transition, to accommodate repairs to irrigation in the fields and to other structures. Improvements were made to the pavilion and wine shop. Because muscadines are native to the region, the vines were in OK shape but needed some care. Most of the original vines remained, but new ones were also planted.

“Even though the vine will produce grapes the first year, it takes three years for the grapevine to produce grapes suitable for winemaking,” says Catherine Gaze, who was hired as Fiorelli’s general manager in February from the Biltmore Estate Winery in Asheville, N.C., her hometown and the state where the first historical accounts of the native muscadine are recorded.

Gaze came to Fiorelli by what Hall considers pure luck. She had been considering relocation to be closer to grandchildren, and Fiorelli presented the perfect opportunity. She brings with her a vast knowledge of the wine industry, the skills necessary to run a business and the Southern charm needed to woo customers.

And speaking of customers, because bottles of Fiorelli wine can only be bought on-site, visitors and tasters are welcomed and encouraged.

“I love making and drinking wine, but I love the people that come in,” Hall says. “I love their reactions and how they like it — and sometimes they don’t like it.”

During a recent tasting and tour, led by Gaze, the reaction of visitors is all positive. A couple celebrating their first anniversary. Friends celebrating a birthday. Lakewood Ranch residents checking out the local winery. One visitor even claims “she’s found her wine,” after saying she had never really been a wine drinker.

A standard tour starts with a tasting, followed by a one-hour guided tour of the property and winemaking facility. Visitors can marvel over several intriguing and purposeful murals completed by local student artists. Catered tours are available by reservation, and Fiorelli plays host to events and is a popular place to hold weddings.

The season’s grape harvest is complete until next summer, but in the meantime, Hall and Gaze invite people to come enjoy the property, events and of course the wine, including the recent release of a fruit-forward white they named Siesta Sands.

“It’s a light, oaked chardonnay made with the Carlos muscadine grapes,” says Gaze. “A full-bodied white dry wine with soft tannins.”

Disappointingly, in late October, Hall made the difficult decision to put the winery up for sale, hoping to spend more time with his young family. Still, the Fiorelli staff is continuously working toward bringing attention to the somewhat under-the-radar area jewel. In fact, Hall is quick to say he still loves what he does and considers it “business as usual” until the winery eventually transitions to a new owner. With any luck, Hall will stay on board. Fiorelli has events booked through spring 2020.

As for the future of the local wine scene, the only other vineyard in Manatee County is Bunker Hill Vineyard and Winery, about a 30-minute northeast drive from Fiorelli Winery.

“I’d love to see Florida be an up-and-coming wine region,” Hall says. “I would love if there were five more wineries down the road.”

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