Schnebly Winery in the Heart of Miami’s Farm Country
Miles upon miles of flat earth greet the eye when you head south and west, far away from the gleaming glass towers of downtown. Nestled between urban sprawl and the vast expanse of the Everglades is the Redlands, Miami-Dade’s rural agricultural zone. When fields have yet to be plowed for some future harvest, the area looks desolate and barren. But that unending flatness merely deceives the eye. The land is fertile and home to a unique Florida industry – handcrafted wines made from tropical fruit.
A little jaded from the South Beach scene, some friends and I decided to visit Schnebly Winery on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Instead of having expensive drinks at some swanky hotel, we gave some agrotourism in the Redlands a go. One of us was visiting from the Midwest but even us long-time Miamians aren’t local down in the Redlands. Sure, there wasn’t much to gawk at – no beach, no bathing beauties, no architecture—but there was good wine and good times, lots of it.
About the Winery
There’s much more to Florida than oranges and sugarcane. If the idea of local wine seems unusual, that’s because it’s not made from grapes, but from a bounty of exotic fruit that grows here thanks to a subtropical climate – passion fruit, carambola (star fruit), lychee, mango, guava and avocado, to name a few.
Husband and wife team Peter and Denisse Schnebly saw a sweet opportunity in 2003 when they began to experiment with wine-making out of their garage using fruit that was not perfect enough for shipment. Instead of discarding blemished or overripe fruit from their orchards, the Schneblys turned waste into sustainable farming and created a unique South Florida gourmet product.
But the wine didn’t hit the shelves without a snag. Miami-Dade zoning prohibited winemaking until a new ordinance took effect in 2004, which states that local wineries must cultivate at least 10 acres of farmland and produce no more than 250,000 gallons of wine a year.
Currently, the Schneblys farm 96 acres of land in the Redlands and produce about 20,000 gallons of wine a year. About 60-80 percent of the fruit (depending on harvests) used to make the wine comes from Schnebly’s own orchards while 40-20 percent is purchased from other local growers. “We buy number two fruit,” Peter Schnebly explained. “It’s fine, but it may be slightly blemished.”
And just because there’s nary a grape to be found, doesn’t mean there isn’t a vineyard. “We grow passion fruit, which is a vine, in one and a quarter acres adjacent to the visitor’s center,” Schnebly said. “The winery is technically where we keep our fermentation tanks.”
Peter and Denisse Schnebly eventually passed their recipes and winemaking responsibilities onto two winemakers. Monica Mejía, Denisse’s daughter and Peter’s step-daughter, got involved before moving on in a teaching career in agricultural sciences for Miami-Dade Public Schools. Today, Milton Montanez, who holds a master’s degree in chemistry, is responsible for crafting the wine. Montanez previously worked in the Havana Club distillery in Cuba. “Distilling is something we eventually want to get into,” said Schnebly.
From Winemaking to Agrotourism
Redlands residents since 1989, the Schneblys always had a keen interest in developing local agrotourism. In January of this year, Schnebly Winery opened its doors to the public with a five thousand square foot visitor’s center, which is just one of several attractions in the Redlands.
A large, circular wooden bar and cases of bottles greet visitors in the tasting room. Outside, an elegant portico faces a courtyard and a lawn separates the main building from lushly landscaped coral rock waterfalls that spill into a lagoon. Two enormous tiki huts flank the waterfalls on either side.
Our tour of the winery was short and sweet. The guide led us to the end of the tiki hut where fruit is pressed before it makes its way to fermentation in the winery, a temperature-controlled room kept at a cool 58 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s here that the winemakers test sugar and PH levels before adding yeast to the juice.
Schnebly didn’t lead our tour, but I had a chance to speak with him later over the phone. I was surprised to hear that fermentation sometimes begins outside in the sweltering Florida heat and that it actually helps the process. “85 to 90 degrees kicks off fermentation,” he explained. “The yeast is happy at that temperature. Heat burns esters faster. It really depends on the wine and results we want. We start outside with our carambola wine and later move it inside, where the yeast is less active in cooler temperatures.”
Schnebly wines take ten to fourteen days or up to three months to ferment. Before bottling, the wine sits in stainless steel tanks for a month, but can remain stored indefinitely – a boon in case of storms that might affect crops. “We have some lychee wine stored since before hurricane Wilma,” Schnebly pointed out.
The 20-minute tour concluded at the wine tasting bar, where we each had the chance to sample 1-ounce servings of 5 out of 7 wines.
The Wine List
I prefer dry white wines, so I expected tropical fruit wine to be too sweet for my palette, but I was pleasantly surprised.
The Islamorada was my favorite because it was the driest. This carambola wine is aged in French oak and is the most sophisticated of the entire portfolio, reminiscent of a Chardonnay. The regular Carambola, which is not aged in oak, came in second as a close cousin to Pinot Grigio. Of the sweeter wines, Passion Fruit was tart enough to please. I’d pair any of these wines with grilled fish or spicy dishes.
The Guava was incredibly aromatic; a sniff from the glass evoked an intense taste of one of my favorite tropical fruits.
I’d be tempted to use this fragrant guava wine in cooking and I wouldn’t be the only one. Chef Allen Susser, owner of Chef Allen’s in Aventura, is renown for his innovative use of tropical fruit and uses Schnebly wine in at least two different regular menu items. Wild Florida shrimp is matched with the Guava, while yellowtail snapper leans toward the Carambola. “We love it,” said Chef Allen. “It adds a wonderful flavor to our cooking.” Chef Allen’s also sells the wine and features it in a specialty mango mojito.
Other wines available, which I didn’t try, include Mango, Lychee and Category 3 Hurricane, made from a blend of fruits. Schnebly wines sell for under $20 a bottle; their sparkling wines go for under $30.
Schnebly wines have garnered 14 awards in the last two years. Of those awards, two were from the National Women’s Wine Competion. Mejía won the silver medal this year for Sparkling Passion Fruit and the bronze in 2007 for Lychee. Denisse Schnebly also won a bronze in 2007 for Boo-Boo wine, a wine she made by mistake before giving up on winemaking.
Schnebly Winery continues experimenting with exotic flavors, this time around with avocado. Unfortunately, the Alcohol, Tobacco, Trade and Tax Bureau, which handles consumer labeling, won’t let Schnebly call the wine by its local moniker, alligator pear. “They’re concerned we’d be misleading consumers with the word pear,” Schnebly explained. “However they never questioned if the wine was also made from alligator.” Schnebly resubmitted his application and is currently waiting for approval. In the meantime, over a thousand gallons of the wine waits to be sold. “They even had a hard time believing you could make wine from avocado,” he said.
Agrotourism in the Redlands
Schnebly Winery and its products are just one reason to visit in Miami-Dade’s agricultural zone. Other stops on the Redlands Tropical Trail include a visitor center, R.F. Orchids, Coral Castle, Everglades Alligator Farm, The Bonsai Garden, Robert Is Here Fruit Stand, Monkey Jungle, Capri Restaurant and Cauley Square. There’s more than enough to do down south to make a day of it – and all this before you even hit the Everglades.
As for the success of agrotourism, so off the beaten path of Miami and the beaches, Schnebly would probably raise a glass of his own wine to toast. “We’re not really surprised by the number of tourists we’re getting now,” he said. “Six hundred average per week and we just started. The future is bright for agrotourism. Hopefully, restaurants will continue to promote local products and we’ll even have more wineries.”
If You Visit The Winery…
Bring a picnic lunch, buy a bottle and sit under the tiki or the elegant portico for a casual, relaxed afternoon Redlands-style. Local musicians liven up the scene on weekends. If you can’t find a babysitter for your kids, don’t worry; the atmosphere is laid-back, casual and family-friendly. Kids have plenty of room to run around in the courtyard and can cool down with alcohol-free tropical fruit slushies.
Our afternoon jaunt cost $7 for the tour and $5 for the wine tasting, both of which can be purchased separately. The tasting included a grading-sheet with food pairing recommendations by Chef Allen, as well as a keepsake glass, which we can use for free tastings in future visits.
Coming up on Labor Day weekend is the Carambola Stomp. This competition involves mashing fruit with one’s feet, not unlike that classic, hilarious sketch from I Love Lucy. Adults who stomp out a gallon of juice win wine; kids get slushies.
An annual Christmas event takes place Thanksgiving weekend and features discounts on all products, gift baskets for sale and live music.
Schnebly Winery is located at 30205 S.W. 217 Avenue in Homestead. Their phone number is (305) 242-1224. Visit the Schnebly Winery for more information.
All photos in this article by the author unless otherwise noted.
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