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The Birthplace of American Wine: St. Augustine, Florida

scenic St. Augustine, Florida

A trip to St. Augustine offers much of the sunshine and seashore visitors to Florida often seek, but with a major bonus for wine lovers: the San Sebastian winery, which produces more than one million bottles a year. How did such a significant winery end up on the Atlantic coast of Florida? A little history lesson explains plenty.

A Brief History of St. Augustine, Florida

Charles and Gary CoxFrench Huguenots settled in the area in 1564. One year later, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, a Spanish admiral, arrived and founded the city of St. Augustine.

Where Europeans come ashore, winemaking soon follows. St. Augustine is America's oldest continuously occupied European settlement, and the region is often cited as the birthplace of American wine, with the earliest production dating around 1565.

Four centuries later, when C. Gary Cox and his son, Charles G. Cox, looked to open a second winery in Florida, St. Augustine seemed like a natural choice. The Coxes' San Sebastian Winery opened in 1996 and today provides Publix with some of its most popular wines.

The Wineries of St. Augustine, Florida

In the beginning, those earliest winemakers didn't have much success. "The Spaniards and Huguenots brought grapevines from their countries—but the plants couldn't flourish in the Florida climate," Charles Cox explains. "So they made wine from the native muscadine grapes they found growing wild in Florida."

Today the winery calls on fruit the early winemakers could only dream of. Hybrid grape varieties developed over the last fifty years can withstand Florida's heat and humidity, yet produce wines that taste similar to classic varietals.

As the early settlers did, the winery also uses muscadine grapes. In fact, San Sebastian's two top-selling wines—the Vintner's Red and Vintner's White—are crafted from native muscadine. 

Visiting St. Augustine, Florida

In 2015 St. Augustine celebrated its 450th birthday, so it's no surprise that visitors feel the charm and romance of history at so many turns. Sites such as the living-history museum Colonial Quarter, the Castillo de San Marcos fort, and the Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse testify to the city's Spanish colonial period. However, much of the city's signature look and feel dates back to the late nineteenth century.

That's when Henry M. Flagler, cofounder of Standard Oil and one of the richest men in America, set his sights on making St. Augustine a premier luxury resort city.

Beginning in 1885, he constructed the grand and glamorous Ponce de León and Alcazar hotels, among other buildings. Both live on as Flagler College and the Lightner Museum, respectively. The city's historic district echoes those structures' graceful and ornate Spanish Renaissance style. Visitors stroll brick-lined streets among the patchwork of tile-roof buildings that house charming cafes, restaurants, and shops.

Flagler's legacy extends just a few blocks away, where a former building from his Florida East Coast Railway houses the San Sebastian Winery. Visitors can take a 45-minute guided tour of the 18,000-square-foot facility. The tour climaxes with a tasting of San Sebastian wines, which have won more than 550 awards.

Insider's Tips for Visiting St. Augustine, Florida

Cox offers his choices to complete your weekend getaway to St. Augustine.

  • Best time to visit: Year-round, though consider the holidays, when the historic downtown trees, bridges, and buildings glimmer with millions of tiny white lights
  • Where to stay: Ponte Vedra Resort for golf, tennis, and oceanfront access; the Casa Monica Hotel for a great historic downtown location
  • Best nearby beaches: St. Augustine Beach and Anastasia Island
  • Best nightlife: The Cellar Upstairs at the San Sebastian Winery, of course
  • Best-kept secret: Flagler College, with its ornate Spanish Renaissance architecture and impressive collection of Tiffany stained-glass windows
  • Best San Sebastian Wine to take to the beach: Vintner's Red (make a sangria!) or the Rosa (just chill it)

San Sebastian Wines at Select Publix Locations