It hardly seemed like grape country.
Acres of palmettos and pines, steaming in the withering Florida heat.
Antonio Fiorelli called it a “jungle” when he and his wife, Rosa, bought the East Manatee property in 1986.
He soon set to clearing the land and planting a few rows of grapevines where any other farmer might raise cattle or grow watermelons.
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It was an experiment in trying to grow grapes and to make wine in a state better known for orange juice, and maybe moonshine.
Fiorelli, who learned the wine-making craft from his family and worked in the business in his native Sicily from the age of 11, had a hunch that his experiment would be a success.
He used his own experience and worked with plant scientists from the University of Florida to find varieties that would flourish in Florida.
Eventually, he settled on the Muscadine, plus a white hybrid grape, the Blanc du Bois, and a red hybrid, the Conquistador, as his mainstays.
Nearly 12 years ago, he opened the Rosa Fiorelli Winery at 4250 County Road 675, just north of Hunsader Farms.
He figured there wasn’t a more lyrical name for the business than that of his beloved wife.
“Thirty five years ago, we got married and came to the United States on our honeymoon,” he said.
From the beginning, it was a struggle for the newly arrived immigrants. They landed in America during a recession, the OPEC oil embargo and a generally unhappy American mindset over the end of the Vietnam War and the Nixon resignation because of the Watergate affair.
But they persevered and now there are about nine lovingly tended acres in vineyards at Rosa Fiorelli Winery. It’s a beautiful, peaceful setting.
On Friday, Antonio Fiorelli was in his winery, showing how he makes wine. His hands were stained purple from the pulp of 4,000 pounds of grapes, from which he was draining a rich purple liquid that in about a year would become red wine.
Another 3,000 pounds of fresh purple and golden colored grapes sat in vats on the floor of the winery, cooled to a chilly 58 degrees.
Fiorelli, the artist and craftsman, seemed to glow as he shared his knowledge of wine making.
“I call it the fountain of youth,” he said with a smile.
Rosa Fiorelli was working Friday in the store, where Fiorelli wines are sold.
Antonio is transported into another dimension when he is making wine, she said.
“He doesn’t think about the bills or anything else,” she said.
In the bad hurricane year of 2004, the winery lost about 700 vines, a setback from which it is still recovering. And like every other business, the severe recession has taken its toll.
People aren’t driving as much these days, and it is a bit of a haul to get to C.R. 675 from Bradenton or Sarasota.
Some wine lovers are buying mass produced, cheaper wines, rather than the product of a micro-winery, like Fiorelli.
“Some days we do good, some days bad,” Rosa Fiorelli said.
In spite of the economic challenges, Antonio’s passion for wine remains undimmed. And Rosa Fiorelli Winery remains the only winery in Manatee County.
“People can come here to have lunch, a bottle of wine and relax,” he said. Anyone who wants lunch should call ahead to give the Fiorellis time to prepare.
The business is open 10 a.m. - 5 :30 p.m. every day except Tuesday and Sunday. Rosa Fiorelli Winery is closed Tuesdays and open noon-5 p.m. Sunday.
For more information, call 322-0976 or visit http://www.fiorelliwinery.com/