Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Orlando (FL) food and wine terroir

At this year's Wine Bloggers Conference, @marcygordon was ribbing me about the "food and wine desert" (I paraphrase here) that Orlando probably was and, being relatively thin-skinned about that particular issue, I invited her to come to town so that I could show her what we had to offer. I checked in with her earlier this week and she indicated (again I paraphrase) that she was awaiting the Orlando terroir report prior to finalizing her departure date. Well Marcy, this one's for you. I will cover the topic in two posts. This one covers the Food and Wine terroir and a follow-up post will illustrate the Orlando Food and Wine Trail.

Before I go any further I should mention that this is my perspective of what I am calling the Orlando Food and Wine Area (FWA; get it?), its components, and the players. Others may take issue with my characterizations and choices and there may be gaps as a result of my preference and acquaintances. This perspective has been formed by long-term residence during which time there was growth from a dependence on Disney-based restaurants to today where high quality food/wine establishments are broadly deployed throughout the region. And it has been further honed by relationships that I have developed with Chefs, wine directors, restaurant staffers, distributor employees, retailers, and other food and wine lovers resident in the area. Now back to the task at hand.

Terroir is a French word, originally confined to wine but recently extended to cheeses and other specialty foodstuff, which, (i) ties the uniqueness of a product to its place of production and (ii) elucidates the elements responsible for this manifestation of place. For me, the terroir of the Orlando FWA is as depicted in the figure below, where the interconnectedness and interworking of the contributory elements function in a manner which yields a consistently "magical" dining experience.

It all begins with the Chefs. We have evolved from an era of corporate Chefs employed by/at Disney-area hotels to one in which they have been supplemented by a brace of young, dynamic, innovative, adventurous Chefs who are just as likely to be catering to locals as to tourists and who have been at the vanguard of the farm-to-table movement. These Chefs cooperate extensively, as they strive to make Orlando a world-class foodie destination, and, on any night, are just as likely to be cooking in a fellow Chef's kitchen as in their own. Their efforts have been rewarded with a number of James Beard Semifinalist mentions. Their thrust regarding ingredients is captured by Chef Hari Pulapaka of Cress who seeks out the "freshest and tastiest seasonal produce" from Farmers Markets and local purveyors and meats, poultry, game, and cheeses from "local specialty purveyors" and "internationally acclaimed artisan farmers."

The restaurant's fare has to be aligned with the environment in which it is presented. Fine dining, for example, does not have to be restricted to a specific decor, but it is certainly exclusionary of some. For example, Victoria & Albert, Luma, and Cress are all fine-dining establishments in my book, but they exude three totally different vibes. And each works in its place.

In Orlando there is an almost incestuous relationship between the employees of wine distributors, wine directors, wait staff, and some of the younger Chefs. They hang out together at area restaurants and pubs, they switch between these job roles interminably, and they just have a lot of fun together. As a local, if you go out reasonably often, you can tap into this stream and it can elevate your overall dining experience: Wine directors plying you with their latest discoveries; distributors pulling stuff out of their ever-present bags to have you taste something interesting; fellow travelers sending something across to your table and you reciprocating. Now you may be the type that just likes to go out and sit in a corner and have a nice quiet dinner. You too are welcomed and accomodated; quietly.

There are a number of on-premise retailers -- Tim's Wine Market and The Wine Barn, for example -- and wine bars -- The Wine Room and Imperial, for example -- in the area but most of the wine consumed outside the home is probably drunk in restaurants. There are some very impressive wine lists around (Berns, 50,000+ bottles; Del Frisco's, 10,000 bottles; Victoria & Albert, 5000 bottles) but the majority of restaurants have tightly focused lists designed to highlight and emphasize their culinary offerings. Most restaurants will allow you to bring in your own bottle for a corkage fee ranging between $10 and $35.

There is a strong tradition of wine education in the Orlando wine community beginning with the distributors and extending into the restaurants themselves. Florida's wine sales operates under the three-tier distribution system and the distributors provide robust training support to the next level down as part of their sales efforts. And they have high-powered staff to assist in this effort. For example, Premier can leverage Andrew McNamara MS, who is part of their Augustan management team, into training and education efforts. Within the restaurants, there is also a major focus on wine training for staff with Darden restaurants having George Miliotes MS, and Disney having Brian Koziol MS, with partial responsibility in that area. The MS population in the area is rounded out by Jon Blazon MS, who is the VP of Sales for The Spire Collection of Jackson Family Wines. Within the restaurants, Wine Directors such as Jill Davis (Del Frisco's), Jenneffer Pulapaka (Cress), and David Arnold (Luma) excel in staff-based training initiatives.

My next post will cover the establishments that simultaneously take advantage of, and fuel, this terroir.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme


  1. Oh wow! I am getting schooled on FWA today. That graphic you show is the visual of my mind being blown! Can't wait for part two.