By Chris Sherman
California’s vineyards are latecomers. Florida has had wine since the French Huguenots planted grapes here and made their own — call it First Wine in the First City.
Accordingly, 450 years later, St. Augustine alone has at least three spots devoted to tasting wine: The city-slick Cellar 6, the Spanish-focused Tasting Room and the San Sebastian winery stocked with wines made and grown in Clermont.
In an era soaked in craft beer and crafty cocktails, wine bars in varying formats are opening and expanding from Jacksonville to Fort Myers.
For all wine’s sophisticated status, restaurateurs say wine bars are seen as homier and more female-friendly than cocktail bars, old school or new. Craft beer does cost less for more drink, but wine is right-sized to fit Mediterranean menus, tapas portions and a new passion for fine ingredients.
“There’s something about wine and food that evokes conversation and good friends,” says Chad Munsey. He opened Jacksonville’s Ovinte last year and is eager to start a second.
Munsey knows wine and Jacksonville: He grew up there but lived and worked in Sonoma and Santa Barbara for five years and made his own wine of California grapes flying Florida colors as Huguenot Cellars.
For his latest project, Munsey morphed the longstanding Original Pancake House into a sleek 180-seat spot with patio and bocce court outside and small plates, artisanal cheeses and charcuterie inside with a strong accent on wine. He does serve beer and spirits, but there are 75 U.S. and Euro wines by the glass, 25 of them from tech chic machines that dispense in 1-, 2- and 4-ounce pours.
These devices are increasingly popular around Florida but often expensive: Munsey has dialed in some lower prices so guests can taste an ounce for less than $2.
Cooper’s Hawk, Tampa
The newest wine bar is the massive Cooper’s Hawk in Tampa, a magnum of innovation that was invented in Chicago and spills over most traditional boundaries.
The restaurant is the first location outside the Midwest for the 12-unit chain, which has its own winery. The restaurant serves only Cooper’s Hawk wines, which are made in Illinois, but they amount to more than 50 labels made from juice and wines bought in bulk largely from vineyards on the West Coast. It makes 250,000 cases a year, and hired a former president of the Cheesecake Factory as its COO.
The wines are identified only by grape, from merlot to barbera or gewurztraminer, and vintage and vineyard are not named.
Selection is big enough to include lesser varietals such as petite sirah, a few “lux” bottlings of reserve wines and an unabashed openness to sweeter grapes and fruit wines (the rhubarb is a surprise hit) and fruit beverages. Cooper’s is also setting up partnerships with Italian and Argentine vintners.
John Washburn’s Imperial Wine Bar in Orlando pairs boutique wines with vintage furniture and architectural salvage (plus beer, cocktails and roving food trucks) for a warm funky feel. And he’s added another wine bar inside Washburn Imports in downtown Sanford, which has a similar taste for wine and antiques.
The wine bar got Miami flash and Italian zest when Cibo opened two years ago to wow Miracle Mile. The wines are deep (with ’90s Shafer, ’70s Beaulieu Vineyards and endless Italians), and the food is robust (salumeria, porcini risotto and farfalle with spinach and capers from chef Massimo Giannattasio). It’s such a hit that Canadian impresario Nick Di Donato plans another in South Beach and one in Toronto.
For less expensive wining while dining, patronize a wine bar that is attached to a store. That can be done at Wine Worlds started by Chan Cox, a Panhandle wine merchant and founder of its biggest wine festival. He now has five Wine Bars from WaterColor to Palafox in downtown Pensacola, with hundreds of wines to buy and open.
Likewise at Shoals on Fort Myers Beach. Diners can shop the adjoining Sandy Butler market and wine store and take the bottle to the dining room for a $5 corkage fee above retail. Shoals uses its retail connection to price the main dining room wine well below traditional retail with more than 20 wines at $5 to $6 a glass and under $20 a bottle