The Tampa Bay area is filled with craft breweries and lots of hot spots for beer lovers. Wine and cider aficionados, on the other hand, have to look a little harder to find a place that celebrates their drinks of choice. A short drive east on I-4 to Plant City will take you to Keel Farms, a site dedicated to the production of their massively popular fruit wines and agrarian ciders.
My husband and I purchased tickets online for a behind-the-scenes tour and wine tasting on a Saturday afternoon. When we arrived, we walked up to the main building, where we were greeted promptly by a hostess. She guided us around the back of the building and down a lovely path, where we climbed aboard a trolley hitched to a tractor for our tour.
Our tour guide provided us with a brief history of Keel Farms, which was created in 1981 when landscaper Joe Keel purchased 10 acres of land in Plant City to open a plant nursery. As the market changed over the years, Keel transitioned to growing blueberries, which proliferated in Florida’s climate. By 2003, he had more blueberries than he was able to sell, and he decided to try his hand at winemaking. The first year, he made just 10 gallons of blueberry wine, and Keel & Curley Winery was born!
Seven years later, Keel started producing cider and beer, too. The winery continued to grow, adding a tasting room, restaurant, and increasingly more land. The farm now includes 35 acres and features two pigs (Pua and Tala), pasture-raised chickens, grass-fed cattle, a peach orchard, and seemingly endless blueberry fields. Those fields are open to the public for blueberry picking each spring for a limited time.
In 2018, Joe Keel retired and his son and daughter-in-law, Clay and Carmen, took over the reins and created a Sustainability Initiative. Keel Farms is proud to call itself 98 percent sustainable. The eggs laid by the farm’s 75 chickens are used to prepare food in the restaurant; the farm uses no herbicides; and a chef’s garden is the source of many of the restaurant’s fresh ingredients. The farm also recycles all of its boxes and bottles, and the by-products of their winemaking enterprise are composted.
Our tour continued with a visit to their production facility, where we learned how they make their wine and cider. Because neither apples nor grapes grow well in Florida, Keel Farms sources the apple juice that is the base of their ciders from western New York, and the grapes that go into their wine from the Pacific Northwest. Their cider is lightly sweetened and lower in sugar than other ciders, while their wine is lower in sulfites than the average wine.
The trolley dropped us back off where the tour began, and we wandered through part of the farm and visited the chickens and pigs before heading back to the main building for our wine tasting. We bellied up to the tasting bar, and our bartender provided us with samples and in-depth descriptions of eight of Keel Farms’ fruit wines, including both their dry and sweet blueberry wines, strawberry Riesling, and, my personal favorite, the peach chardonnay.
A ticket for the tour includes one glass of wine, cider, or beer. After our wine tasting, we headed to the main bar to select our drinks. My husband opted for a blueberry vanilla cider, and I tried the strawberry shortcake cider, both of which were delicious. We stopped by the restaurant as we were enjoying our drinks, and shared an order of Cajun shrimp fondue and a wine smash burger topped with black raspberry merlot caramelized onions.
The Keel Farms complex is huge, and includes several event spaces of varying sizes, a playground, and a chapel. They host daily tours, trivia nights on their patio every Tuesday, and live music all weekend long.
Head to Keel Farms for a an afternoon featuring local artists, small businesses, handmade art, baked goods, boutique items and more!
Date: June 3, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Join Keel Farms for their Watermelon Weekend! This event will take place on June 24 and 25 from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Enjoy unique vendors, delicious food and drink specials, friendly farm animals and fun for the whole family!
Date: June 24-25, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
For more information, visit keelfarms.com.