The wine business in Orlando has come a long way over the last 30 years and there are several people to thank for it. Since I am so closely connected to the different aspects of the wine business, I know first hand the time and work it takes to get a wine into your glass. I am always disappointed when I read a review of a restaurant - one that I know has put a lot of time and energy into their wine and beverage program – and the wine list isn't even mentioned. I feel that at the greatest restaurants, the wine and beverage program are what make them the full package, the ultimate experience. The first thing people order at a restaurant, after all, is a drink.
For all of you who read Scott's flog regularly, you know he is always fighting for Orlando to be recognized as a culinary destination. Some say the beaches and theme parks hold us back but ultimately I believe that without a wine culture people are actually willing and able to talk about, Orlando will never be viewed as a culinary destination. Wine and food have a long history of marriage, and with wine comes the idea of culture, prosperity and most importantly sharing. To truly understand the wine culture in Orlando, I feel it's important to recognize the people who started it, and those who are fighting for our town to have a stage in the market. This is all pretty common knowledge amongst us that have been in the wine business for a while but for many, I think that it may not be known who is the driving force behind what has and does happen in our wine scene.
Dexter Richardson – Dexter is credited in the wine community for bringing "The Wine Bar" concept to Orlando. In 1981 Dexter worked at the Wine Warehouse in Winter Park. In 1984 he wanted to bring a wine bar to Orlando so he opened the first Dexter's next to the 7-11 on Park Avenue. It was a small 900 square foot space that had a small wine by the glass list with some pastas and soups. In 1988 he outgrew the small space and moved to a much bigger space on Fairbanks Avenue. He opened it with John Hoffmeister and John Washburn as bartenders, and Tim Varan ran the wine shop. Obviously, Dexter was a great mentor and an incubator as John Hoffmeister is the General Manager of the Lake Mary location and John Washburn and Tim Varan have moved into successful businesses of their own. Today, Dexter's has grown to four locations around Central Florida and is definitely a great neighborhood hangout where good food, good wine and good times are had by all.
Tim Varan – In October of 1995, Tim Varan and Brock Magruder opened the first Tim's Wine Market on Ivanhoe Row. Tim is known in the wine industry for keeping detailed records of every wine he tastes. He's also known for having a very accurate palate and a great selection of wines. He tastes wines weekly and judges them on their individual merit without concern of reviews or scores. When I asked him what he enjoys most about the wine business, he replied, "Definitely the people, both producers and customers, who make each day fun. Since our tag line is featuring the faces and places that make wine great, I get to travel and taste wine with vendors and producers, learning the fine details of what makes each wine relevant. Then I get to use that knowledge to teach, either to my employees and franchisees, or in one of our Wednesday night classes or one-on-one with customers. The ultimate moment of joy comes from having someone tell me that they enjoyed a wine that was outside their comfort zone."
Today Tim has five additional franchise locations in Windermere, Lake Mary, Oviedo, St. Augustine and Ponte Vedra. Each of these locations has the same philosophy and feel of the original Tim's Wine Market, which is personal attention and service. It's the welcome feeling you get walking in the door and the educated answer to a question that keep the loyal locals coming back.
George Miliotes – George grew up in Orlando. He helped at his father's original franchise restaurant and then later, after college, Chris's House of Beef. George became well-known in Orlando for his dedication to wine at Disney's California Grill. Later, Darden Restaurants recruited him to open the ever-popular Seasons 52, and he is credited as being a leader and innovator for bringing the "global wines by the glass" program to the forefront. George's philosophy has always been education for the staff and guest and is always happy to share his knowledge of wine. In 2007 he gained the prestigious title of Master Sommelier – a title only 140 professionals in America hold. It was a big win for Orlando's wine scene in 2003, when Seasons 52 opened as a test concept, as everyone in the wine business wondered if a restaurant with over 50 wines by the glass would be able to sustain itself. The answer 11 years later is yes! And it all began here in our hometown.
Brian Koziol - Along with George, Brian gained the title of Master Sommelier in 2007. Brian began in the wine business at Walt Disney World and then moved to the distribution company Southern Wine & Spirits. He then became the ambassador for Constellation Brands, and is now the State Sales Director at Stacole Fine Wines. Brian has always been an ambassador for Orlando's wine scene and now with his position at Stacole, he is directly involved in which wines come into our state, and the wines from Stacole are some of the most world-renowned and highly rated wines in the world.
John Blazon –John is one of the largest proponents of wine awareness in our community. He is currently Vice President of Sales for Spire Collection of wines, however, he is most well known in Orlando for his time at Disney. During his 13 years working for the House of the Mouse, he was responsible for the beverage and training programs for 55 restaurants, 20 lounges, 18 resorts, 3 theme parks and the Epcot Food & Wine Festival. Under his tenure at Disney, Jiko – The Cooking Place opened with an all-South African wine list, and Wave, a restaurant at the Contemporary Resort, with a wine list that is exclusively Stelvin enclosure (screw cap). Both wine lists were very ambitious in the eyes of the trade at the time. Thanks to John, not only is there a stage for these wines but luckily for us, these wines got their stage in Orlando.
Dhane Chesson – One of Dhane's biggest pet peeves is when someone says that they couldn't find good food in Orlando. Dhane is the Southeast and National Sales representative for Rioja Wines and she lives right here in Orlando. She got her start at Pierre's Wine Cellar and then opened The Wine Room on Park. Before Rioja she was an ambassador for the Wine Academy of Spain. You've heard her name with Rioja plenty of times right here on Scott's flog as some of his biggest and best events – Rioja Street Fare Festival, Women Chef's and Winemakers, and several Supper Clubs - were all a collaboration with Rioja Wines. Dhane is always traveling and when in conversation about Orlando, she is always promoting what we are doing here and through Rioja's 100k+ email list, she gives us a spot in a national light outside of the bright lights of our theme parks.
Adam Chilvers – Adam has a long history of selling wine in Winter Park. He opened his first store, called "Wine Country," after graduating from Rollins College in 1997. He then sold Wine Country and opened Vino! on Park Avenue in 2000. In 2007, he realized that having an 800 square foot brick-and-mortar storefront was hindering his ability to grow. He decided to sell Vino!, and shortly thereafter started WineontheWay.com. Wine on the Way is located in the Winter Park Business Center in Winter Park. Being exclusively online allows Adam and his team to pass on the savings (low overhead/high volume) to his customers. Wine on the Way offers only wines that are rated 90 points or better by the most respected industry experts. This helps demystify and simplify the wine buying process. To make shopping easy for locals, Wine on the Way delivers right to your door. They also ship all over the continental United States. Adam continues to keep Wine on the Way relevant, as he frequently hosts winemakers and winery principals for wine dinners and tastings. For example, he hosted a 12-year vertical tasting of Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon at Luma on Park on #CabernetDay, with Master Sommelier Andrew McNamara.
Marianne Hunnel – The driving force behind the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival is Marianne Hunnel. Planning and development for the seven week festival takes the entire year. Securing the sponsorships, culinary and beverage participation, and scheduling the presentations of nearly 300 celebrity, theme park and resort chefs all rests on Marianne. She scouts global trends to make sure the festival is relevant, exciting, interesting and most importantly educational. In 2012 she added the Florida Fresh Marketplace that showcases the ingredients that come from our beautiful sunshine state (#Sunshineplate), and in 2013 she added the Food & Beverage Kiosks at the Epcot Flower & Garden Festival. In an interview with Orlando Business Journal last year, Marianne stated that the main reasons for success is a strong team that she doesn't have to micro-manage, a deep sense of hospitality, seeking input to make the next year's festival even better, organization and most importantly loving what you do. The next time you're at the Epcot Food & Wine Festival, if you find yourself drinking around the world, raise a toast to Marianne, your good time is going smoothly due to her hard work & dedication.
There are definitely more people in Orlando working hard to solidify our wine scene and new places popping up that "get it" all the time - too many to name in just one article – and we'll uncover them together. If you have a favorite place that you feel doesn't get enough attention for its wine program, please share it with us. We all love finding a new place with great wine!