Just northwest of Homestead and Florida City, in the delicate agricultural buffer between the suburbs and the Everglades known as the Redland, lies the Schnebly Winery, the southernmost wine-making operation in the United States. This is where The Bitch headed this past Tuesday when a wave of homesickness for the flat plains of Flanders overcame her, and she was not disappointed by the drive. Though fields of row crops are mostly dormant now, here and there along thoroughfares that could actually be called country roads are little eruptions of corn, sunflowers, and melaleuca.
The 96-acre farm is a riot of weird trees and plants, because, although Schnebly is a winery, it's not a vineyard, since the fermented fruits being distilled include litchis, longans, carambola, mangos, and guavas, but not grapes. "I lived here for 25 years and grew tropical fruit, and the fruit that got too ripe was mostly wasted, which always troubled me," said Peter Schnebly, who runs the farm (which was originally Fresh King produce) with his wife and partner, Denisse.
The Schneblys, who have owned the farm for 25 years, tried to figure out ways to use fruit that fell to the ground; the best they could come up with was composting it for fertilizer. Then in 2003 a friend suggested using the surplus produce to make spirits, and after a few years of tinkering with different types of presses and cooling containers, the Schneblys began selling wine by the bottle this past July. (Priced at about $14 a bottle, the varieties are sold locally at Wild Oats in Pinecrest and Whole Foods in Aventura in addition to the farm at 30205 SW 217th Ave., Homestead).
On the day The Bitch visited, a torrential downpour sent cascades of rainwater down the main building's coral block walls and steps. When asked if he was active in any efforts to preserve this last vestige of Miami-Dade's once-burgeoning agricultural culture, Peter sidestepped. "Well, we'd really like to see things stay the way they are, and I've joined some groups, joined a church, and so on," the tall, sandy-haired, booming-voiced farmer answered while leading The Bitch to a vault where the precious liquids are stored.
As if on cue, Rev. George Ronkowitz, pastor of St. John's Anglican/Episcopal Church in Homestead and a friend of the Schneblys, appeared miraculously. "Yep, I came down here from Connecticut," Ronkowitz intoned, raising his glass for a refill. "Met the Schneblys. Heard about the winery. Didn't know you could make wine out of these fruits. But it's good."
The Bitch was shy about imbibing in front of the padre. Observing her clumsy attempt to conceal her glass with her paw, Ronkowitz added, "You must be Roman Catholic! Don't worry about it! We're Anglican."
Apparently the farm-cum-winery is a local way station for longtime Redlanders, because interesting people continued popping up. The next human The Bitch ran across was a smiling woman wearing a Jones New York ensemble and a high-maintenance honey-blond bob Deborah Thibos, who owns the Everglades Alligator Farm in Florida City. (She also has the domain name Everglades.com, which must be worth a lot of green). Thibos told how she and her husband Charles bought the gator farm on a whim in 1996 and then moved south from Tallahassee. "At night it's extremely dark out there, and it took some getting used to," Thibos said. "If you look up, you see so many stars, and if you shine a flashlight out into the water, you see the thousands of red eyes of the gators." The farm is home to about 2000 alligators as well as snakes, turtles, and Nile monitors.
Um, what does it mean to farm alligators?
Thibos could see The Bitch didn't really want to hear the answer to that question, so instead she showed the reptile-loving dog some photos of airboats and egrets.
By this time, The Bitch had formed an opinion about the tropical fruit wine: It was interesting and refreshing and best thought of as a beverage altogether different from the grape-based stuff. The carambola tastes like Pinot Grigio, the passion fruit is kind of dry, the litchi alarmingly strange, and the mango is okay, but the paws-down winner is the guava. That is a truly tasty beverage! Highly recommended. As the rain passed and The Bitch sat down on a slab of coral, intending to sober up, a bay colt in a nearby field galloped across the scrubby shrubbery so particular to South Florida's monochromatic beauty.
Exotic fruit and alligator farms might not be the perfect neighbors for the Everglades, but they are certainly far superior to strip centers and condos.
White Noise The reception this past Thursday for the Bass Museum's trio of gallery openings cubist tapestries, Odegard textiles, and paintings by Hervé di Rosa was held the same night as the full moon, and there were definitely some lunatics in the house.
The Bitch is actually a little frightened of Léger, and she wasn't too interested in di Rosa's Miami Beach landscapes she knows what they look like so she wandered into the food part of the party, which was being catered by a stunned Marie Vanille. Vanille's tropical-European muffins and fish samosas were excellent, but the gracious Haitian woman from Hollywood could barely contain her shock over a phenomenon The Bitch should have warned her about: The Bass members and patrons look well-fed enough, but they have never before seen food. How else to explain the crush of blue-coiffed grandes dames and ascot-twirling walkers shoving their way to the crudites and stuffing their pockets with chicken fingers? "Yes, we need more empanadas!" Vanille trilled to her team of assistants, who could not replenish the supply of snacks quickly enough to prevent a near-Axl Rose-Tommy Hilfiger smackdown between two parties whose total age must have been in the four digits.
As The Bitch watched cautiously from the sidelines, a tall woman with a salt-and-pepper pageboy and startling, childlike blue eyes introduced herself: "Hi there. I'd like to thank you for coming, and welcome you to my museum!"
Oh! I thought the Bass family donated the museum to the city of Miami Beach, like, a long time ago....
"The museum belongs to everyone, but mostly to the members ... and I am a member," the woman explained. "My name is Rebecca. I grew up in Miami Beach, but I had a breakdown, a total breakdown, when I was seventeen, and then my sister had to take care of me."
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The Bitch didn't really know what to say about that and sipped her Diet Coke pensively.
"Well, I have to go mingle, but you should definitely become a member as well," Rebecca advised.
Um, I'll definitely consider it!