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Reviving the blues

A year after disaster struck, a Plant City winery is back in business, with a selection based on home-grown blueberries.

By CHRIS SHERMAN
Published April 4, 2007


PLANT CITY

The fire that burned down the winery and half the wine last year wasn't the best thing that could happen to a business not yet 2 years old.

But it was the best of tests for the strange idea of a winery devoted to blueberries and the pluck of the folks behind it.

"We were back at it" the morning after the lightning strike, Joe Keel remembered last week as he stood on the new pondside deck that surrounds the winery and tasting room of Keel & Curley.

He was alone in the new facility and by late afternoon would be on the road delivering the two truckloads of the first day's blueberry pickings to the state market.

Two days later a few friends, family and guests - 1,000 of them - came to preview the new facility. When the general public was invited Saturday, just as many clogged Thonotosassa Road. On an ordinary Saturday, 200 tasters may lift glasses of Plant City's new pride.

The opening celebrated more than the reopening. It also toasted a booming new Florida crop that adds a charming flavor to the state's very young wine industry.

Winery owner Keel is himself a farmer and was an occasional merlot drinker before he made blueberry wine. He grew up in South Tampa and moved to Plant City 20 years ago to grow landscape and ornamental plants. In the 1990s, he joined a new era of Florida blueberry farming.

Traditionally, Florida's blueberry farms were in Ocala, Gainesville and north. Those areas had the cool spells to grow traditional rabbit-eye blueberry bushes favored from Maine to Arkansas. Then researchers developed the high-bush variety that would grow in warmer parts of Florida. Farmers looking for new profit crops planted high-bush throughout Central Florida's strawberry and citrus territory on south to Sebring and Arcadia.

Five years ago, news of blueberries' antioxidant potency made the fruit a nutritional hero. The impact for blueberry growers was huge nationwide, Keel said.

"It's grown so fast, to be honest, we don't exactly know how many acres are in blueberries," said Danny Raulerson of the Florida Fruit and Vegetables Association, but guessed production doubled in 10 years. Farm sales were $25-million in 2004 and $32-million the next.

Twenty-six acres are Keel's, some within sight of the winery. But as his crop grew, so did the number of "culls," berries not big or pretty enough for supermarket shoppers to buy fresh.

They were darn good for wine with rich color, crisp acid and a strong natural source of the blueberry flavor that connoisseurs find in many wines made from red and black grapes. Keel could use them for jams, syrup and bakery mix, but he tried wine. Smart call.

Now in its third year, Keel & Curley will produce 100,000 bottles of wine, twice as many as last year.

Blueberry wines come in three styles: dry, semisweet and sweet. All have pleasant round texture and clean finishes that won't make nonwine drinkers frown and pucker, but none of them have the cloying sweetness of old-fashioned sweet wines.

Winemaker Chase Marden, a native of Vermont, is a modern fruit winemaker who emphasizes the fruit's aroma and flavor more than its sugars. Worthy of slick sophisticated labels, $15 prices and, of course, blue bottles.

He also makes a crisp apple cider trucked south from Vermont, grape wines and grape-fruit combinations. His combination of riesling and Plant City strawberries is sweeter than blueberries, as is cabernet franc ice wine. Both are big sellers.

They all have a new home in this new wine country, a large handsome building full of gourmet gifts, Keel & Curley shirts, caps and glassware. There's also a marble tasting counter, a deck of teak chairs for 100 and an arbor for weddings it's seen one already.

The winery's hard to miss, just past the volunteer fire station.

You can guess the color.

Chris Sherman can be reached at (727) 893-8585 or e-mail csherman@sptimes.com.

IF YOU GO

Keel & Curley Winery

5210 W Thonotosassa Road, Plant City

(813) 752-9100

Wines: blueberry, grapes, tangerine, wild berry, peach, mango, citrus and apple.

Hours: Tasting room open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 1 to 6 p.m. Sunday.

Sales: tasting room, liquor stores, wine stores, delicatessens and restaurants around the bay area; see www.keel andcurleywinery.com.