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Because it’s strange and beautiful and hot, people from everywhere converge on Florida and they bring their cuisine and their traditions with them. The Zest celebrates the intersection of food and communities in the Sunshine State.

Journalist Judith Smelser on Zoom Wine Tastings, Disney Sommeliers and How to Find Your Next Favorite Bottle of Wine

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Florida wines are one thing—as in, wines grown from Florida grapes or other fruits and bottled here in the Sunshine State. But Florida’s wine-based businesses extend far beyond the vineyard. There are sommeliers and distributors, restaurant beverage directors and boutique wine shop owners.

Judith Smelser covers the Central Florida wine scene on her website, Orlando Wine Blog.

When the COVID-19 pandemic brought Florida’s hospitality industry to a screeching halt in March, Judith began chronicling its effects on a podcast called UnWineding.

Even after Gov. Ron DeSantis allowed restaurants to reopen for indoor dining at a limited capacity, bars—including wine bars—could only sell alcohol to-go. By May, breweries that sold food or had an on-site food truck were once again allowed to seat customers. But wine bars remained lumped together with nightclubs and relegated to carry-out sales—possibly because wine shop owners lack the political clout of the Florida Brewers Guild, Judith muses.

“This gave rise to quite a bit of resentment,” she says. “Not that they weren’t all happy for their friends at the breweries, but what was the logic there?”

So wine bars got creative.

“Everything went to Zoom, right? Well, so did wine tastings,” says Judith, who also writes about wine for Edible Orlando. Some wine bars sold unmarked sample bottles for virtual blind tastings with master sommeliers.

“This was a ton of fun, for one thing—a great way to pass the time during quarantine,” Judith says. “But also, it allowed many, many people in our area who were studying and are studying for various levels of qualificationto taste with master somms, which is, in the wine community, a huge deal.”

Orlando has its share of wine experts, due in large part to Walt Disney World. The theme park’s world-class wine offerings and events provide a training ground for beverage employees, many of whom go on to open their own wine businesses in Greater Orlando.

And when it comes to finding your next great bottle of wine, Judith says local retailers and wine bars are your best bet. As they get to know your tastes, they can make personalized recommendations. Patronizing small businesses also helps the local economy, Judith notes. And after a tough year for Florida’s hospitality industry, we can all drink to that.

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