May/June 2000 Issue

Subtropical Wineries
Even Southwest Florida has a wine region

Wine from subtropical Southwest Florida? I still find it hard to believe as I approach bucolic Eden Vineyards and Winery, just off State Road 80 in rural Alva, 10 miles east of Ft. Myers.
   Eden’s 17 1/2 acres were planted 20 years ago by the Kiser family. The winery has been open to the public for the past 11 years. It is Florida’s oldest operating winery and known as the “southernmost vineyards and winery in the continental United States.” Eden produces 48,000 to 60,000 bottles annually.
   The Kisers use grapes cultivated by the University of Florida in Gainesville. The grapes have been hybridized with European strains to resist Pierce’s disease, which destroyed Florida’s extensive grapevines in the early 1900s. At that time, Florida had almost as many grapevines as California.
   The life of a vintner is not easy, no matter where the vineyards are located. Mildred Kiser admits it is definitely easier to grow grapes in California, especially because of the insects in Florida. They must spray for bugs throughout the year. Pruning takes place every January, and the grapes are picked in summer.
   The work has been worth it, however, as Eden’s wines have won several awards at various wine competitions.
   “We just wanted to see what we could do with grapes,” says the energetic Kiser, after greeting customers at the entrance of a small clapboard building that sits among acres of vines. The building has a veranda complete with lots of rocking chairs. Inside are the fermentation room and a combination wine-tasting area and store. Racks full of wine bottles cover one wall of the store.
   A large insulated picture window separates the tasting area and store from the roomful of wine tanks and fermentation barrels. That room is kept at 50 degrees. Gesturing toward the tanks, Kiser explains, “Our 1999 crush is in there now and will be bottled in springtime.”
Kiser goes behind a long pine counter, equipped with bar stools, and hands out pencils and cards listing Eden’s wines to today’s wine-tasting customers. She puts wineglasses and a “dumping jar” on the counter. “We chill our wine because 58 degrees to 65 degrees is room temperature for wine. In Florida, we don’t have rooms that cold,” she explains.
   As the tasting begins, Kiser reminds everyone to jiggle their glasses before taking a sip. “Remember, the second or third taste will be the true taste because you have to get other stuff out of your mouth.” Kiser passes around tiny oyster crackers so customers can cleanse their palates between wines.
   First on Eden’s wine line-up is Lake Emerald, described on the card as “Fermented at cold temperatures in French oak barrels to achieve the elegance and complexity of a truly fine wine. Extremely dry, with an underbody of ripe fruit.”
“This is our driest wine and has no sugar. It’s our dinner wine,” Kiser says. “This is well made with a good finish to it and it doesn’t make you shudder.”
Kiser then fills everyone’s glass with Alva Rouge. The card notes it is “Mildred Kiser’s spaghetti wine. Created in the Beaujolais Nouveau style; fresh and fruity; marvelous with pasta and light meat dishes, superb with roast chicken.”
Next comes Alva White. Because she’s switching from red wine to white, Kiser first pours water in each glass, which is then dumped into the jar on the counter. “Alva White is a very easy-drinking white wine,” she says.
   “Our party wine, Coral Bell, is next,” the proprietor says. “The juice and skins are kept just long enough to get a blush. In California, this is known as white zinfandel.” Eden’s card explains: “It is our version of the ever-popular California blush but not quite as sweet.”
Fifth on the list is Eden’s newest and most renowned wine: Eden Stars. It’s made from carambola, also known as star fruit, which tastes like a mixture of pineapple, strawberry, banana, and orange.
   “About eight years ago, Brooks Tropical had so many carambola growing on Pine Island and in Homestead that we decided to get some and make wine,” Kiser notes. “We use the Arkin variety, which is sweet. The wine smells just like the fruit.” Eden’s newest and most renowned wine is eden Stars, made from carambola also known as starfruit.
   Customers learn that Eden Stars also tastes great with ginger ale, Seven-Up, or seltzer. Florida chefs love to use it on pork, ham, and chicken when basting or stir-frying.
Last on the list is Eden Spice, which the proprietor says is sweet but light and is a great dessert wine. “It’s good with chocolate, or make Sangria out of it,” she adds.
   Customers get a 10-percent discount if they buy a dozen bottles. Wineglasses are also for sale in the store, as are three- and six-pack wine carriers that are suitable for airplane travel. Gift bags are available, too.
   The winery’s busiest time is from Thanksgiving through May. An average day during season may see 100 people come through,” Kiser notes.
   Wine-tastings are $2.50 per person. Groups of 12 or more people must book ahead. The cost is $10 per person, which includes a bottle of wine.
   Just down the road from Eden, fronting Route 80, is the new Alva Winery. Proprietor Gerald Kaemmerer has begun making wine from citrus fruits and honey. Alva Winery offers free informal tastings. Its line includes Alvanian Gold, made from grapefruit and navel oranges; Valencia, from Valencia oranges; and Orange Blossom, made from orange blossom honey.
Charles Hosier, a friend of Kaemmerer, gives out samples of the wine in tiny paper cups. As expected, Orange Blossom is quite sweet. The citrus wines are strong and tart. Then Hosier scoops some vanilla ice cream into bowls and pours Alvanian Gold or Valencia over the ice cream. The results are surprisingly delicious.
   In addition to selling his three types of wine, Kaemmerer has opened an eclectic gift shop that features New York State wines, T-shirts, dolls, and Alligator Bob’s smoked alligator (original or hot spicy.)