Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Ramblings in the Sunshine State

by Peter Bell, winemaker

If you’re in the wine business, you can’t really escape wine, even while on vacation.  I wouldn't even want to really, but I’m often reluctant to tell strangers what I do for fear of what almost inevitably comes next: some variation on “Let me tell you about my experiences with wine…” 
I immediately realize that I'm only along for the ride.

“You’re a vintner, are you? Isn’t that what they’re called?” they intone without waiting for an answer. “I like wine. I don’t drink it that often, but…”

Being reasonably well adjusted when it comes to social skills, I have to do my best to give the impression that I’m vitally interested in what they’re saying.

“I used to make it in my basement. Now here’s what I did …”

“…it never really tasted all that good, but cheap! Was it cheap! I figured out once that if I bought the large can of concentrate and reused the bottles, it only cost me…”

On and on they would drone.

“I made a Zinfandel-Merlot blend once. My father-in-law hated it, but he’s a beer drinker…”

So it was with some trepidation that I showed up last week at Mango Bistro, a little place on the main street of Englewood, Florida. We were down to visit my cousin Greg, who lives nearby. The place is an engaging hybrid of funky and chic, and free of any of the cliché trappings of many Florida eateries.

The owners, Ricardo and Marie, make great food inspired by their Brazilian and French heritages, and also have a small but serious wine list. Occasionally, Ricardo puts out word that he is going to keep the place open on a weekday evening – it’s primarily a breakfast and lunch place – and hold an impromptu wine tasting.
Here’s how he organizes it. Whoever shows up is given a glass, and then proceeds to choose a bottle to purchase from a collection of 15 or so that are on the table. The prices are written on the bottles, and the cost of a bottle might range from ten dollars to forty dollars. That bottle is opened, and each participant has the opportunity to taste it along with any others that are there.

I liked the guy immediately, and was even more thrilled to meet the people who were there for the tasting. None of them had any home-winemaking exploits that they needed tell me about; none of them called me a vintner; and of the 15 or so individuals, fully 14 knew all about the Finger Lakes wine industry. Many were regular visitors to our area. I guess I had forgotten that most people in Florida are from somewhere else, and that ‘somewhere else’ is often the Northeast.

I complimented Ricardo on his selections – not a single bottle of Aussie critter wine or California plonk – and on his incredibly low markups. Most of his list, and there were some seriously good wines, sold for under $40. The wine I chose, a red blend from the illustrious Ridge Vineyards in California, was easily worth the $32 he charged, and I was pleased to share it with everyone else in the room.

“I don’t buy for a minute the idea that you have to make up for your losses on food by putting a 300% markup on wine,” he told me. “If you pay attention to the cost of your ingredients and to portion size, the food carries itself. I know what restaurant owners pay for wine, and I’m offended when I see a bottle that they paid $20 for selling for $95. That’s exactly what happened to me last month at another restaurant.”

Click to Enlarge!
Art from found objects - a Florida specialty

The next day we stopped in across the street at Vino Loco Wine and Tapas Bar. The owner, Joyce, talked about the challenges of trying to peddle two commodities – non-mainstream wines and tasty little bites of the best imaginable snacks – to a clientele that is used to more conventional ingestibles.  Joyce also told me about some of the communication difficulties she encounters when telling people about her establishment. 'Wine and Tapas' is a foreign enough idea that they often hear it wrong.

“A wine and topless bar? Are we zoned for that?”


“You serve Hawaiian tapas? Like, what – little plates of Spam and pineapple?”

Joyce expressed some interest in having me conduct a wine tasting at Vino Loco some time. “How often do you get to Florida?” she asked.

“Once every 54 years,” I had to say, for this was in fact my first-ever trip to that state. That’s going to have to change.

Music of the Day: Sorry, but I'm not gonna put up any Jimmy Buffett.

1 comment:

  1. Well written and so funny in share your Mothers talent for the written word..please come back to old Florida and do a wine tasting and presentation soon..cheers Peter love to Joanne who maybe out all bundled up pruning the vines...a great visit