Antonio Fiorelli has been making wine for almost his entire life. At age 11, in Casteldaccia, Sicily — just outside of Palermo — Fiorelli began working in a winery, and lo these many years later, he's still at it, running Rosa Fiorelli Winery in eastern Manatee County.
That doesn't mean things aren't a little different these days.
Florida, unlike Sicily, has a reputation for being a very difficult environment for grape cultivation and wine-making, and Fiorelli has spent 27 years honing his craft in our hot climate, where the humidity feeds a fungus that can ruin most hybrid grapes. Fiorelli depends on muscadine grapes, native to the area and a source of wine in the Southeast U.S. for centuries.
The Sunshine State may not have a reputation for winemaking, but Fiorelli says there are 46 wineries in the state, 14 of which produce purely Florida-grown varieties. Fiorelli's work gets a boost from his partnership with the University of Florida and Florida A&M University, both of which have experimented to figure out which grapes grow best here.
Fiorelli's full range of goods will be on display on Dec. 8, when the vineyard hosts a Holiday Feast cooked up by Manatee Technical Institute students and paired with Fiorelli products. The school has sent students to the vineyard to learn about grapes and wine for years, and they will be tasked with serving dishes featuring as many local ingredients as possible. The extensive dinner will be served on a romantic patio surrounded by Fiorelli's now-dormant vines, and Fiorelli will pour everything from a dry Blanc du Bois to its Red Noble variety, as well as a sweet white dessert wine to finish things off.
The event is a way for Fiorelli to showcase his juice, as well as his property, a lovely 10-acre niche that hosts weddings and other parties, and welcomes 5,000-6,000 drive-by visitors annually. This isn't the vineyard's first Holiday Feast — last year's drew 30 or so guests, a number Fiorelli hopes to top this weekend. His goal? To show folks that local wine can be "just as good as California wine."
Skeptical? Head out there and taste the stuff for yourself.
Rosa Fiorelli Winery is located at 4020 County Road 675, Bradenton. The Holiday Feast runs 5-8 p.m. Sat., Dec. 8, and costs $70 per person. Call 322-0976 or visit fiorelliwinery.com to purchase tickets.
BONUS LOCAVORE EVENT: Another fun to-do on Saturday, Dec. 8 — the Crowley Museum and Nature Center is celebrating its Sugarcane Harvest from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The highlight of the day will be a demonstration of sugar cane grinding and syrup making. I wrote about the process — and David Hardy, the man who will be showing folks how it's done at the Crowley — back in October. Trust me, the syrup he produces is delicious, and this is your chance to snag some for yourself, and also to learn how the stuff is made.
Crowley will also be offering taffy-pulling demonstrations, storytelling adventures, barbecue, beer and a whole mess of live music. Not to be missed.
Crowley Museum and Nature Center is located at 16405 Myakka Road, Sarasota. The Sugarcane Harvest runs 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sat., Dec. 8. Entry is free; parking is a $2 donation to Sarasota Military Academy. Call 322-1000 or visit crowleyfl.org for more details.
This is the 13th entry in Eat Near, a regular column dedicated to all the lovely food that folks on the Suncoast grow, raise, kill or craft. If you have an idea for someone/thing to feature, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or hit me up on Twitter: @LeveyBaker.