Tyler Florence faced a conga line of admirers, patiently signing autographs, making small talk and shaking a non-stop parade of sweaty hands. The affable Food Network showman had just finished a two-hour dinner demonstration for a throng of guests at his host’s restaurant, Cooper’s Hawk in Naples, Florida. He was exhausted, having left his California home at 5 a.m. Two earlier flights were canceled by fog, but the cooking show veteran was determined to make good on a promise.
“In my entire career, I’ve never missed one,” he said proudly.
Florence, still kicking like the Energizer Bunny, is indefatigable. Not only has he been on television since 1996 – surpassed in time only by Bobby Flay – but he has written 16 cookbooks, opened a bevy of restaurants, partnered with a number of entrepeneurs, and given himself an online presence to pull in younger foodies. And now he’s launching a string of new products from Florence Family Farms.
At 47, most self-made stars like him would have burned out. Instead, Florence just finds another venture to launch. This time, it was a partnership he formed with Coopers Hawk, a string of novel restaurants invented by Tim McEnery, who was in the audience this night.
Florence’s introduction to restaurants came at age 15 when he was “just a kid scrubbing lobster thermidor off trays” at a restaurant in his home town of Greenville, South Carolina. In 2009, he opened his first restaurant. Today, the only restaurant still operating is Wayfare Tavern in San Francisco.
But it wasn’t just food that got his interest at an early age. Florence would learn from the winemakers from California and France who would come to the restaurant to sell their wines. It wasn’t long before Florence was hooked.
“It was time to itch my thing for wine,” he said.
As a lark, he blended a barrel of Lake County zinfandel in 2006 and produced 300 bottles that he gave as Christmas presents. He knew a writer at the Wine Spectator and dropped off two bottles just to get a candid opinion. He didn’t know that two bottles meant the wine would be officially judged by the magazine’s staff. It scored a 92.
He said he knew then that wine would always be something he was doing for the rest of his life. And, it made sense. The sensory skills he gained as a chef applied to winemaking.
He is not just a pretty face when it comes to wine. So many movie stars and well-heeled investors claim to know winemaking but really don’t. Florence effortlessly fielded questions about residual sugar, sur lies aging, and balanced acidity.
He is driven to make food-friendly wine for the masses – “back porch wines,” he calls them – no matter what it takes to get there. He eschews boundaries and traditional blending, seeking to unlock the chains that restrict creativity. The Tyler Florence Sauvignon Blanc we tasted was true to the variety but with a smooth finish that contrasted sharply with many acidic sauvignon blancs from New Zealand and California.
McEnery applauded Tyler Florence Wines’ appeal to the masses, which is quite similar to what his Cooper’s Hawk restaurants are doing. This is Florence’s second year with the restaurant chain. Now with 31 restaurants in the country – including one in Annapolis – and five more opening soon, Cooper’s Hawk is a brilliant concept. It owns no vineyards, but instead ships juice from California to Illinois for fermenting and bottling. No other brand is sold in the restaurants.
Cooper’s Hawk has developed a wine club that now numbers more than 300,000. That makes it the largest wine club in the country – and as such commands a lot of market power that the likes of Florence are eager to tap into.
McEnery had a devil of a time getting an audience with Frances Ford Coppola, but eventually he signed on to colloborate with Cooper’s Hawk’s winemaker to produce 14,000 cases in a one-time-only production. It sold out in 79 days. By selling directly to Coopers Hawk, a producer can eliminate the wholesaler and retailer, and make a lot of money in very short time.
Last year Cooper’s Hawk hired Emily Wines, one of only 149 master sommeliers in the Americas. Although they have a “lux” level of higher-priced wines, they want to move even higher with more expensive wines.
Selvapiana Chianti Rufina Riserva "Bucerchiale" DOCG 2012 ($35). Wow, is this isn't your usual chianti. Think big, ala barolo. Made entirely of sangiovese from the estate's best and oldest site, the Bucerchiale is made only in the best years. Loads of concentrated black cherry and plum flavors with big tannins and promises of future aging. There is a lot of wine here for the price, if you want to start a cellar.
Anaba Wines Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2015 ($36). Those who like oak flavors in their chardonnay will surely enjoy this delicious gem. Opulent mouthfeel with ripe tropical fruit and hints of butterscotch, vanilla, and coconut.
La Crema Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2015 ($40). A reasonable price for a top-drawer pinot noir, you get a lot of complexity here. Classic of La Crema, there are a lot of grower and estate vineyards that contribute to a tasty wine. Dark cherry and currant flavors with hints of chocolate and espresso.
Louis M. Martini Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($20). Looking for a decent cabernet sauvignon for the right price that is ready to drink? Look no farther. Blended with merlot, petite sirah and cabernet franc, it isn't your collector's wine. Lots of dark fruit flavors with lush mouthfeel, a bit of sweetness and hints of mocha and vanilla.