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It All Begins in the Vineyard
By Kara Pound
Hidden just under our noses on King Street rests one of Henry Flagler’s original old East Coast Railway buildings. It’s relatively unassuming – a beige and white edifice with arching doorways and a wraparound rooftop.
While most visitors to the Nation’s Oldest City become familiar with this stop on the trolley train routes, not all locals are familiar with the fact that the San Sebastian Winery has become a multi-million dollar business grown right out of the soil of Central Florida.
“When I was 13 years old in 1983, my father (Gary) and some friends of his got together to do our first winery called Lafayette Vineyards in Tallahassee,” explains Charles Cox, president of San Sebastian Winery. “I don’t think he – or anyone else for that matter – believed that over the next 33 years we would become the seventh largest wine company outside of California.”
Welcoming some 160,000 guests annually, San Sebastian Winery is more than just one of the most visited tourist destinations in St. Augustine. In fact, the family-owned winery, which celebrates its 20th Anniversary this December, has earned quite a few bragging rights over the years.
“We’ve virtually come from nothing in December of 1996 to becoming the second largest winery in the State of Florida,” Cox says specifically of San Sebastian Winery, which also boasts a popular rooftop wine and jazz bar called the Cellar Upstairs. “Today, we offer around 12 varieties ranging from dry to sweet and red to white.”
San Sebastian, along with its sister winery, Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards in Clermont (the State’s largest), produces over 400,000 gallons of wine annually, which equates to about 2.3 million bottles. And combined, they’ve won over 1,500 awards – competing against global brands in top industry competitions.
“A large part of what we do is concentrated on the philosophy of education,” says Cox. “The free tours that we offer educate our guests on the winemaking process from planting the vineyard to tasting the wines to choosing their favorite.”
It’s a business model that’s proven successful. From Castillo Red’s medium body with hints of oak and spice to Blanc de Fleur’s fruity sweetness, the winery’s brands are available in over 2,500 retail locations across Florida and Georgia as well as through an ever-growing online sales presence.
One of the reasons San Sebastian Winery has found such great success is that the company has a unique story behind it. A story that is rich in the agricultural history of Florida.
“We decided to open a second winery in St. Augustine because it is close to where the first wine was brought over from Europe,” says Cox. He is referring to the idea that the French Huguenots, and later the Spaniards, led by Pedro Menendez de Aviles, brought with them grapevines from their home countries. When the plants couldn’t flourish in the Florida climate, the Europeans turned to native muscadine grapes for winemaking.
There are hundreds of varieties of muscadine grapes. San Sebastian Winery focuses on main cultivars like Carlos, Noble, Welder and Suwanee. They were even the first to create a port with muscadine grapes, and have their own sparkling wine, which is created in the traditional method of Methode Champenoise.
“We are looking to dispel the myth that you have to pair red wine with steak and white wine with fish,” says Cox. “That’s why we offer a fair amount of options and varieties to satisfy nearly any palate.”
With nearly 20 years behind him as the president of San Sebastian Winery, Cox remains one of the biggest advocates for the Nation’s Oldest City. He’s an active member of the St. Augustine Attractions Association, St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce and Visitors & Convention Bureau.
“I’ve always loved St. Augustine from the first time I visited as a kid,” says Cox. “Being able to have the opportunity to live and work here, being part of the Nation’s Oldest City and contribute in the many ways we do, leaves one with a great sense of pride. I’ve always felt very welcomed by this community and for that I am blessed. I can’t wait to see what’s next for us as we continue to grow.”
TRY FLORIDA WINE
It was about six years ago when Charles Cox applied for a grant requesting funding for an industry-wide marketing campaign from the Florida Viticulture Advisory Council – part of the Commissioner of Agriculture. Cox’s grant was approved and Try Florida Wine was born. The initial request was for $150,000 funded by half of the excise tax raised from the sale of Florida produced wines. “I received the grant and created a multimedia advertising campaign based around tryfloridawine. com, which benefits all of the wineries in the state,” says Cox. “The annual grant funding has since increased to $400,000 annually with the number of wineries in the state increasing from eight to 26. We run the campaign for the state at no charge.” The marketing initiative includes billboards of happy consumers sipping on Florida wine and radio ads educating consumers to support their state’s agricultural heritage. It’s a win-win for all involved!