Fall is the perfect time to experience Florida's panhandle region, particularly the scenic route that stretches from Panama City Beach to Santa Rosa Beach. (Bonus: A new airport in Panama City Beach, Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport, opened in May of 2010 as the country's first LEED-certified airport.) Along Highway 30-A, you'll find plenty of spots to pop in for a glass of wine—some offer Gulf of Mexico views as a perfect pairing.
Let's get down to brass tax: If you think the area is cluttered with T-shirt shops and college kids on spring break, think again. New Urbanism towns like Seaside, Rosemary Beach, and WaterColor are the talk of architects around the world, with pedestrian-friendly streets and popsicle-colored homes in Seaside and WaterColor, and a nature-inspired palette that greets you at Rosemary Beach. There are few hotels here, but we suggest holing up in a designer cottage, instead. Book through Rosemary Beach, WaterColor Vacation Rentals, or Cottage Rental Agency for perks like chef-grade accoutrements in the kitchen for your use, as well as gourmet food markets nearby to stock up on not only ingredients, but fantastic bottles of wine.
Two wine festivals each autumn help showcase the region's evolution from former "Redneck Riviera" to a gastronomic destination. For Rosemary Beach Uncorked, held in October each year, restaurateurs and local boutique owners pair tapas with wine for a walking wine tour. In its 22nd year, the Seeing Red Wine Festival (Nov. 1-4) is in Seaside with seminars, winemaker dinners, and a grand tasting (on Saturday afternoon). Another wine festival in the spring is worth putting in your calendar: South Walton Beaches Wine & Food Festival, April 25-28, 2013.
Year-round, here are the top wine-sipping spots in Florida's Panhandle.
Intimate, with a focus on local seafood (like snapper, grouper, and Apalachicola oysters), this restaurant in Rosemary Beach throws equal weight to its wine list with top-rated by-the-glass and by-the-bottle options that won't bust your wallet. The list focuses largely on California wines. Two examples of affordable bottles? 2009 Turley Old Vines Zinfandel (California, $48) and 2009 Orin Swift "D 66" Grenache (Vin de Pays de Côtes Catalanes, France, $58). More costly options include 2009 Caymus (Napa Valley, California) or 2008 Groth Vineyards Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Oakville, California).
On the whites side, there are eight sparkling wines by the glass—from a $9 glass of Poggio dei Vigneti Pinot Rosé (Italy) to a $125 bottle of Veuve Clicquot Brut Rosé (France)—and among California's best Chardonnays (like Krutz Family Cellars in Santa Lucia Highlands near Santa Barbara and Flowers Vineyard & Winery in Sonoma). For a real splurge, check out the Reserve List, featuring gems like 1998 Veuve Clicquot "Le Grande Dame." If it's nice out, ask for a seat on the patio. You are about four blocks from the Gulf of Mexico, after all.
Bud & Alley's Waterfront Restaurant & Rooftop Bar
Tapping into a love for Southern fare, you won't be stuck sipping beer at Bud & Alley's Waterfront Restaurant & Rooftop Bar, which sits against the Gulf of Mexico on a beach marked by dunes, and is a locals' favorite. It's open for lunch and dinner, serving Southern-inspired side dishes like collard greens and sweet-potato mash paired with entrees like the "surf and turf" (grilled ribeye filet and fried oysters), crab cakes, or grilled black grouper. Bud & Alley's lengthy wine list includes nine by-the-glass options, all under-$13 a glass, from acidic (2009 Babich Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand) to deep and luscious (Rosenblum Vintners Cuvee XXXI Zinfandel, California), and all perfectly matched with Southern foods.
Fish Out of Water at WaterColor Inn & Resort
Santa Rosa Beach
The view while you sip wine alfresco at Fish Out of Water is priceless, with emerald-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico and a ribbon of sugar-white sand on the beach below. Seafood is the name of the game here—and the wine list is designed to complement those dishes, from Gulf shrimp panzanella to seared scallops with foraged mushroom minestrone. Pricing on the wine list varies, from 2002 Dom Perignon Brut (France) on the higher end ($360 a bottle) to Adelsheim Pinot Gris (Willamette Valley, Oregon) on the affordable side ($35 a bottle), and it's carefully curated to balance out the flavors in Gulf Coast seafood. For a small group, consider reserving the private dining room inside, where Fish Out of Water's wine stash is stored.
The Naked Grape Wine Station
Santa Rosa Beach
Open nightly except for Sunday, this wine bar—which opened in spring 2010—is for serious wine drinkers who don't want to settle on just one, two, or even three wines. Guests utilize a self-serve wine dispensing system with smaller pours, letting you try a wine before committing to a larger glass of it. Bring your appetite, too, so you can play around with pairings. Their food menu includes decadent picks like chocolate cake with a Port wine reduction and truffled Parmesan popcorn, as well as classics like herb marinated olives and sea-salt cashews. You can also buy bottles of wine from the retail area to take with you (to your temporary digs, let's say).
Kristine Hansen is a freelance writer based in the Heartland (Milwaukee, Wisconsin) where she reports on food, wine, and travel topics around the globe for Fodors.com, along with new-hotel openings. She also writes for Wine Enthusiast, TIME, Whole Living and American Way. In 2006 she co-authored The Complete Idiot's Guide to Coffee and Tea (Alpha Books/Penguin). You can follow her on Twitter @kristineahansen or through her web site.
Photo Credits: Restaurant Paradis, Rosemary Beach: Courtesy of Restaurant Paradis; Bud & Alley's Waterfront Restaurant & Rooftop Bar, Seaside: Courtesy of Bud & Alley's Waterfront Restaurant & Rooftop Bar; Fish Out of Water at WaterColor Inn & Resort, Santa Rosa Beach: Courtesy of Fish Out of Water; The Naked Grape Wine Station, Santa Rosa Beach: Courtesy of The Naked Grape Wine Station