Florida Wine: Traveling the Panhandle


Exploring Florida’s Panhandle

Of the many fine reasons to visit Florida, Midwest winters rank right near the top. It’s a real treat to shed a layer or two of heavy winter clothing and spend some time along the Gulf Coast in Florida’s Panhandle area. We took a few days to visit wineries, enjoy the beaches, and immerse ourselves in the culture of two northern Florida cities.

Truth be told, December through early February is northern Florida’s offseason. Schools are in session, daytime temperatures linger in the 50s and low 60s, and spring break is still several weeks away. Summer is the tourist season here, when beachfront hotels and restaurants brim to capacity. Maybe we’re contrarians, but we think winter is the perfect time to visit Florida’s Panhandle. Hotel rooms are plentiful, as are dining specials. Attractions are uncrowded and relaxing.

Western Florida’s Gateway

One aspect of Florida we’ve always admired is its ecological diversity. This part of Florida has its beautiful beaches, to be sure. But stray inland a few miles along Interstate 10 and you’ll be immersed in dense forests and farm land. It’s a reminder that Florida is very agricultural, with agritourism playing an increasingly important role in the state’s travel industry. The Panhandle’s contrasts are amazing … stylish beachfronts give way to rural, farm like settings in mere miles.

You can easily spend a week or more here. Just east of the Alabama-Florida border, there’s the historic city of Pensacola, home to the largest stretch of undeveloped beachfront along the Gulf of Mexico. An hour or so east, you’ll find the resort communities of Destin and Panama City Beach, a spring break haven humming with a youthful vibe. An hour from here is beautiful Tallahassee, Florida’s capital and home of Florida State University. There’s plenty to do, plenty to see, and lots of space to stretch out and relax.

Our plans called for one night’s stay in each of Pensacola, Panama City Beach and Tallahassee. To be frank, it wasn’t nearly enough. In four days, we took in a few wineries, ample fresh seafood and gorgeous natural scenery. Entering the state from the west, our first stop is the City of Five Flags, Pensacola.

Pensacola and the Gulf Islands National Seashore

After an early afternoon of shopping in Mobile Bay’s eastern shore communities, it was a short hop over to Pensacola for our first night in Florida. The clock ticked toward happy hour, so we couldn’t pass up a visit to the venerable Florabama Lounge, billed as America’s Last Great Roadhouse and situated smack dab on the Alabama-Florida border.

The FloraBama Lounge is a perfect place to get your groove on, with live music and Gulf views setting the scene. It’s a casual, funky place, delightfully tacky in some ways, ideal for a few cold beers, fresh oysters and an order of steamed red royal shrimp. Don’t forget to send a postcard and buy a kitschy souvenier from the gift shop. From here, you’re only 15 minutes away from historic Pensacola.

With just over 400,000 population, Pensacola is small enough to have the personal touch and large enough to be cosmopolitan. We were surprised to learn that Pensacola is North America’s oldest European settlement, dating back to 1559. Spanish settlers soon started to grow grapes here, but more about that later. The city itself has been under the control of Spain, France, Great Britain, the Confederacy and the United States, hence the nickname City of Five Flags.

In and around the area, you’ll find historic sites, pristine beaches nuzzling up to emerald green waters and good old fashioned Southern charm. There are ample hotels on Pensacola Beach, many with fantastic offseason deals in January and February. Our plans called for a beach stroll, dinner with a view and a splash of Irish pub style nightlife.

Pensacola area visitors will find some of the most beautiful beaches in the world at Perdido Key and Pensacola Beach. We had a chance to explore Gulf Islands National Seashore, the longest tract of protected seashore in the country. You can fish, surf, collect seashells or just soak in the sun and scenery.

Out on Pensacola Beach is the Paradise Bar and Grill, a comfortable destination we imagine would be buzzing in high season. The view is spectacular, the fish is fresh and the beer is cold. Our dinner consisted of grilled fish sandwiches (grouper and amberjack) and beer boiled Gulf shrimp. The sunset was an added bonus!

From here, it was off to a place we’ve long wanted to visit, McGuire’s Irish Pub. Located on Gregory Street in downtown Pensacola, McGuire’s is housed in Pensacola’s original firehouse building. Billed as a “turn of the century New York Irish saloon,” McGuire’s is friendly and fun. They offer a pub menu but the real star is the beer — it’s brewed onsite. McGuire’s is Florida’s original brewpub, and you won’t go wrong with a pint or two of McGuire’s Irish Stout or the chocolaty McGuire’s Porter. We learned McGuire’s is quite renowned for their steaks and burgers, and they looked and smelled great coming out of the kitchen. There’s nightly entertainment and a congenial, welcoming crowd.

Pensacola Sights

The next morning proved ideal for exploring a bit of Pensacola’s natural beauty. Several state parks offer perfect vistas for enjoying views of the Gulf, particularly Bay Bluff Park, with huge dune bluffs overlooking the water. We also spent some time at nearby Edward Ball Nature Preserve, home of “Captain Thunder,” a 10-foot-long three-legged alligator, who seems thriving and content despite loss of limb.

With some late morning time devoted to sightseeing, we hit the Pensacola Historic District to wander the specialty shops. Of particular note is Atelier Alcaniz Art and Gift Gallery, where you won’t be able to help yourself from taking home a unique piece of pottery, hand spun in back. There’s also Suellen’s Secret, a fresh and feminine resale shop offering great bargains on previously loved fashions. And don’t miss the Aragon Wine Market for unique wines from around the world. Top it off with lunch at the renowned and entirely approachable Atlas Oyster House, just steps away from all the shops.

Pensacola Pecans and an Afternoon of Florida Wine Tasting

While we’re in the shopping mood, if there’s one place you absolutely must visit while in Pensacola, it’s the J.W. Renfroe Pecan Company, five minutes north of downtown on Fairfield Drive. Serving the Pensacola area for over 50 years, J.W. Renfroe Pecan Company offers a unique shopping experience. The gift shop has all sorts of chocolate covered, roasted and salted and natural nuts, as well as a variety of fruit mixes, salty snack mixes and chocolate-coated fruits. To further add to the decadence, you’ll find two dozen varieties of homemade fudge and pralines.

There’s a special room here called the “Jelly Room.” Shelves are filled with a wide array of marmalades and jellies. We’ve never seen so many in one place in our lives! All of the products are made in Florida, including hard-to-find items like Mayhaw jelly and Whole Fig preserves. But if you can’t visit, never fear … J.W. Renfroe ships nationwide.

From here, we were back on the road, departing from Pensacola via I-10 eastbound for a 45 minute drive to the small Florida town of DeFuniak Springs and a visit to Chautauqua Vineyards.

If the name Chautauqua rings a bell to Wine Nomad readers, there is also a Pennsylvania wine trail called Chautauqua. Chautauqua Vineyards chose the name because the town of DeFuniak Springs was long the winter home to many residents of Chatauqua County, New York. The vineyard, in production since 1979, is about a dozen miles north of DeFuniak Springs, while the winery has been in production since 1989.

Chautauqua Vineyards is open every day for tasting and shopping from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Settle in at the tasting bar and try the Cabernet, a rich dry red offering delicious fruit flavor. Another we really liked was Sugar Sands White, made from Niagara grapes but surprisingly only moderately sweet. Also try the Blueberry and the full range of festive Muscadine wines. You can purchase all sorts of interesting Muscadine products, like bath soap, jams, candles, and more. And if your travels keep you near the beach, Chautauqua’s products are also available at their sister outlet, Emerald Coast Wine Cellars in Destin, a resort community on the Gulf of Mexico.

From Chatauqua Vineyards, it’s a short 20 minute drive on the way to Panama City for a stop at Three Oaks Winery, located in the town of Vernon. A family operation in business for more than 20 years, this is truly a Florida farm winery. Look around and you’ll think you’re hundreds of miles from the nearest beach. There’s dense forest alongside farmland, a tranquil setting more indicative of the Midwest than the far southeast.

Alas, Three Oaks wasn’t open the day we arrived, as January hours are Friday and Saturdays only. This drives home an important point for wine travelers … call ahead. Many winery owners are more than happy to make themselves available for a tasting and purchase if they’re given reasonable advance notice. Be sure to check out Three Oak’s website for all the details and pay them a visit if you’re in the Panhandle.

Panama City: Sparkling Sand and Emerald Beaches

Having missed out at Three Oaks and with a few hours to spare, our first stop in Panama City Beach was Sea Breeze Winery, an apropos name to be sure.

Sea Breeze Winery has been open since 2003 and uses grapes grown at their north Florida vineyard, about 35 miles from the winery. A wide variety of muscadine grapes are used in the wines, including Noble, Carlos, Magnolia and more. You can tour the winery seven days a week and watch bottling operations or learn about winemaking techniques. Sea Breeze is very proud of their wines and rightfully so … they’ve won dozens of awards from prestigious wine competitions all over America.

We spent about two hours here, taking in a tour and enjoying leisurely wine tasting. There are about ten wines to taste, depending when you visit. Our favorites were the drier muscadine blends, like Sea Breeze Horizon White, perhaps our favorite on the entire trip. It’s fruity and the citrus flavors practically burst right from the glass. The finish is crisp, with the sweetness in the middle palate. If you’re more into reds, try Sea Breeze Horizon Red, chock full of dark fruit flavor with a spicy lingering finish. Slightly sweeter are the Sea Breeze Palmetto White and Red, and the Blush, a blend of the two.

Sea Breeze Winery is one of Panama City’s best attractions, one you shouldn’t miss. Of course there’s the lure of beaches and other waterfront diversions, and dozens of options for dining and nightlife. Our descriptions don’t do justice to the area’s beauty, and our only regret is we didn’t have more time to really kick back and enjoy. When you visit, you’ll understand why so many people love this part of the Gulf Coast for a one week stay or even a winter home.

Tallahassee

From Panama City, it’s an hour to Tallahassee, Florida’s capital. Tallahassee is often dubbed “The Other Florida” because it’s a lot closer to Atlanta than Miami and, in fact, is only about 20 miles south of the Georgia state line. Tallahassee is also distinct in its topography and climate compared to the rest of the state. There’s a real blend of cultural styles here. Academic, government and artistic influences are felt all over the metropolitan area.

Arriving mid-morning, we were intent on seeing everything we could in Tallahassee, while saving enough time to visit Monticello Vineyards and Winery, east of the city.

We thought the best way to get acquainted was to visit the Tallahassee Visitor Center and Gift Shop, downtown on Jefferson Street. We picked up a free map outlining a self-guided walking tour of the Capitol Downtown Cultural District. The tour highlights numerous cultural and historical sites within a roughly 10-square-block area surrounding the Capitol building. We enjoyed visiting the Florida Capitol, particularly the 22nd floor observation deck and gallery. You’ll also encounter some of Tallahassee’s beautiful green spaces and architecture. We covered the entire tour in about 90 minutes, enjoying the exercise and working up an appetite for lunch at a locals’ favorite, Birds Oyster Shack.

On Bronough Street just a block over from Duval, Birds Oyster Shack is a mix of locals, students, and those in the know (I guess that’s us!). The menu is limited, but it does the trick with oysters, burgers, chicken sandwiches and grouper. Not to mention two great down home beers on tap, Pabst Blue Ribbon and Yuengling, the pride of Pennsylvania now also brewed in Florida. Our decision was simple: a dozen oysters, two grilled grouper sandwiches and a pitcher of Yuengling. Wow, that was good!

From here, you’re very close to a fun, quaint shopping district called Railroad Square, where you’ll find all sorts of small artistic shops and specialty stores. It’s well worth visiting for an hour or two.

Florida’s Organic Winery

Twenty miles east of Tallahassee in Monticello, Florida is Monticello Vineyards and Winery, the pride and joy of owner Cynthia Connolly. Cynthia has developed a 50 acre, U.S. Certified organic farm here and grows crops like Meyer lemons, grapefruit, persimmons, figs and grapes. The entire operation is organic and self sustaining, with nothing artificial whatsoever. You can even buy organic eggs.

The winery, although just part of a larger farm operation, really takes center stage. We found two favorites among the wines offered, Florida Red and White Muscadine. Both are full bodied and complex, fruit focused and wonderfully balanced. Florida Red is medium dry and benefits from a slight chill. White Muscadine is a blend of white muscadine grapes and stacks up well against semi-dry table wines. Another good choice is Carlos, a crisp, fruity white wine available in dry or semi-sweet. This little winery is becoming increasingly popular, and for good reason. It’s a northern Florida agri-tourism destination and a model for organic farms in the south. If you’re anywhere near the Tallahassee area, be sure to stop for a visit.

Heading back to the city, we planned drinks and dinner at a downtown Tallahassee institution, Andrew’s Capital Grill and Bar. We found this place earlier in the day on our walking tour, as it’s situated quite near the Florida capitol building. This is where the “movers and shakers” hang out, but it’s not stuffy or formal whatsoever. Andrew’s is a welcoming, casual place where you’ll enjoy great drinks and great food. We loved our dinner, a pulled pork loin sandwich with caramelized onions on a rustic roll and a delicious eggplant sandwich that really hit the spot.

Summary

Spend a few days here in Florida’s Panhandle to whet your appetite for this beautiful area. Better yet, spend a week or spend the winter. Things move at a relaxed southern pace and the beaches and emerald green water will leave you breathless. While Florida has no official wine trails, a Florida Panhandle wine trail would be ideal. It’s easy traveling from one winery to the other, as everything is within a two-hour maximum driving time. You’ll absolutely love Pensacola, and there are all sorts of sites to check out along the coast. With bargains a plenty in the offseason, you’ll really get a flavor for what this part of Florida is all about. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did!

Cheers!

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