Travel, Etc. --> Return to Winter Park
A Return to Winter Park
And a visit to 21st-Century Wine Bar
Three years ago, we published a little travel article called "A Weekend in Winter Park." Last month, we reprised that trip and spent another three nights at the Park Plaza and found some big changes in the wine scene on Park Avenue.
If you're not familiar with it, Winter Park is an area just north of downtown Orlando, Florida. It's astreet very upscale neighborhood and shopping district next to Rollins College. It originally grew up around the train station that brought wealthy Northern folk south for the winter at the turn of the century. Imagine four or five blocks of the kind of stores you find on North Michigan Avenue in Chicago, crossed with the quaintness of downtown Zionsville (complete with brick streets). Move it to the middle of the homes of Meridian Kessler, add some lakes and then shove DePauw University up next to it. Sprinkle it with nice restaurants and sidewalk cafes, park a few Bentleys and Jaguars on the street, and you have the idea. You can have lunch on the sidewalk at the Bistro 310 South, stop at "Vino" for a good bottle of wine or have a cup of real coffee at any number of nice little coffee houses.
The Park Plaza Hotel
Our favorite place in Winter Park is the slightly quirky Park Plaza Hotel. Dating from the early part of the last century, it's a 40 room hotel located on a second story overlooking Park Avenue in the heart of the shopping district. A wrought iron balcony wraps around the building providing a sitting area for each room masked from the street by a garden of large ferns, potted plants and flowers. No two rooms are alike, but the rooms facing the street are suites with pleasant sitting rooms that open onto the balcony. The hotel is filled with dark wood paneling, antique furniture, big brass or wood beds and ceiling fans that make you feel like you have stepped back in time. Even the elevator looks like it should have a historic register plaque on it (I recommend using the stairs). If Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway didn't stay here, they should have. Sitting on the balcony behind the screen of greenery, sipping wine and watching the world go by is fascinating.
Sharing the complimentary continental breakfast with the birds on the balcony is also fun, but the coffee's a little weak. However, a trip two doors south to a great little coffee shop for carry-out solves that problem. Watch out though — the birds can get a little aggressive. Linda and I went into the room without moving the food at one point and came back to find six birds sharing Linda's blueberry muffin with a squirrel. And, just remember we said quirky. The plumbing ranks right up their with the other antiques, and don't expect to turn around quickly in your bathroom (we actually think they may assign rooms based on height and weight). And, be forewarned, the train still runs through the center of town, multiple times each night. Information and rates at www.parkplazahotel.com
The Wine Bars
In the three years since we last visited, there have been some real changes in the wine and restaurant scene on Park Avenue. A much younger, much hipper crowd is very much in evidence on the avenue. In fact, Luma on Park, the new, very pricey, very hip restaurant on the corner of Park Avenue and New England, was so full of beautiful 20- and 30-somethings, I was afraid I might set off a "geezer alarm" if I tried to sit down at one of the outdoor tables.
The interesting thing was that most of those very hip "younger people" were sipping wine, not martinis! And, they were sipping it from Riedel Vinum stemware. In fact, there seems to be something of a wine renaissance going on in Winter Park. Over the course of two dinners and three lunches on the avenue, we never had wine presented to us in anything less than Riedel Vinum series glasses.
Two new wine bars have sprung up within the space of two blocks, and we managed to spend some time in each of them.
Eola Wine Company - 136 Park Avenue
Our first evening in Winter Park was devoted to my niece's wedding reception, which was very nice, but also very dry. So, sitting down at a sidewalk table for a glass of wine at Eola was a very welcome finish to the evening. Eola is a pretty straight-up wine bar with about 70 wines available by the glass, a short menu of appetizers and desserts and some great sidewalk seating. The wine prices are exceptionally fair, hovering at just below twice retail, and the selection was excellent.
We opted to snack on a gourmet pizza with chicken and artichokes, and a bottle of Zenato Valpolicellla Ripassa, one of our favorite Italians. The pizza was excellent and the wine superb. Eola is a well done wine bar concept with an extensive selection of wines by the glass — a great place for a glass of wine and a snack. However, a visit to the other newcomer on Park Avenue pretty much redefined the concept of "Wine Bar" for me.
The Wine Room - 270 South Park Avenue
The Wine Room may represent the next big concept in wine bars. Back in 1983, I read a book that influenced my career perhaps more than any other. In retrospect, Megatrends, by John Naisbitt, was filled with what I might now term "blinding flashes of the obvious." Like... "Florida and Arizona are going to grow 20 times faster than Michigan and Indiana." We opened stores in Tampa and Orlando, and darned if he wasn't right! One of his mantras was what he called "High Tech - High Touch," the concept that people wanted the convenience of technology, but still wanted a personal touch along with it. Right again... witness our store... order it online, but everyone knows your name when you pick it up. The Wine Room takes that idea to the next level.
They have created a warm, clubby atmosphere that looks like the inside of a Tuscan Villa, complete with plenty of overstuffed leather furniture and aged brick walls. Then they inserted a completely computerized wine tasting system with more than 150 wines available by the one-ounce or four-ounce pour... in your Riedel Vinum Bordeaux stem, of course. The selection runs the gamut from 90 cents to $15 an ounce and from Caymus Special Select Cabernet and 2001 d'Yquem to Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and Bogle Petite Sirah. Utilizing an Italian wine dispensing system called the Enomatic, (see the system at www.sheffimports.com - they're not cheap) they have both wall-mounted and
freestanding circular wine-pouring stations throughout the store that keep the wine at proper serving temperature, and blanket it with inert gas to prevent oxidation. They are activated by "smart cards" that you purchase and are programmed at the front counter. Hand them your credit card, tell them how much you want to spend, and they give you a smart card that can be used at each tasting station.
Insert your card at a station, select a pour size (the prices are displayed above each wine), press the button and the wine is dispensed and your card is debited. And, just so you don't wind up with change left on your card, you can keep it and add to it on your next visit.
Each wine is displayed with a wine magazine or staff review in front of it, and racks surrounding the dispensers contain bottles of the wines you are tasting for purchase. And, the retail prices are pretty much the same as ours. We spent some time with the wine buyer, who invited us to take these photos, and it seems that he and I use almost the same margin structure.
Food appeared to be an afterthought at the Wine Room with a large bar at the back devoted to cheese plates, snacks and deli items, but obviously, food in not what this is all about.
My big reservation was... how do you make money on a short-margin item like wine after you have paid for this kind of facility? And, that question will not be answered here since my understanding is that the owner is doing some franchising and has very deep pockets (and another well-paying career).
They certainly didn't look like they were selling wine by the case, and even with the wine classes and catering events they hold in the cellar beneath the store, I couldn't see how it adds up. I got my answer about 8:30 on Sunday night. We walked by and they were packed! Yup, with the same type of 20- and 30-somethings that were busy being beautiful at Luma the night before. It really made me wonder... what is this place like on a Saturday night... date night at the wine bar? I guess the good news here, at least for me, is that a younger crowd seems to be embracing wine. And, since I can usually count the number of people under 30 in our store on a Saturday on the fingers of one hand, that's good news. I think we have seen the future, and it's promising....
The Roadside Attractions
Winter Park is a pleasant island of tranquility in Orlando's sea of theme parks, thrill rides and the thousands of billboards that promote them. Besides the shopping, we found some fun "little attractions" that helped occupy two laid-back days.
The Scenic Boat Tour - Don't laugh. They have been running this since 1938. It takes about an hour and you don't get wet. Best of all, there is no recording of "for
your own safety, please keep your hands and feet inside the boat." Instead, you are provided great commentary and historical facts by a retiree who is having fun giving boat tours. The boat starts in Lake Osceola and makes its way through canals to Lakes Virginia and Maitland. The real attraction are the magnificent homes that have been built around the lakes, starting with stately turn-of-the-century Victorians, up to some of the multi-million dollar monsters built during the dot-com boom of the 90s. 10 am until 4 pm daily - admission $8 - more information at www.scenicboattours.com
The Morse Museum of American Art
The biggest surprise in Winter Park is the Morse Museum collection of stained glass by artist Louis Comfort Tiffany. This is a world-class exhibit of Tiffany's work — the largest anywhere. It includes a vast collection of stained glass lamps, art deco vases, art glass and jewelry, as well as most of the large windows that Tiffany designed for his own estate on Long Island, Laurelton Hall. They have even restored and designed a room around the Byzantine-Romanesque stained glass and mosaic chapel that Tiffany designed for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This is an amazing exhibit with 19 galleries and one of the largest museum shops I have ever seen, filled with wonderful reproductions of Tiffany's work (bring plenty of money). Many of these windows and objects have been reproduced and photographed so many times that they are familiar, and it's almost startling to be confronted with the originals. Allow yourself a few hours and be sure to watch the video that details how the stained glass windows and chapel were rescued after a fire destroyed Laurelton in the 1950s. Admission is only $3.00 - 445 N. Park Avenue (407) 645-5311; www.morsemuseum.org.
Last time we visited Winter Park, we reviewed the Allegria Wine Bar Cusina and the Park Plaza Gardens. You can read our restaurant reviews from our last trip at A Weekend in Winter Park. They are both still good....
A couple of thoughts. If you go...
1. Southwest can get you there in two hours — cheap!
2. Pick up your rental car at the airport garage. Avis is on property, Hertz is not.
3. Never drive I-4 through Orlando at rush hour. It makes driving in Chicago seem like driving in Zionsville.
4. Linda and I are born tourists and have a penchant for seeking out off-beat destinations when we travel. We cannot guarantee your experience...we can only describe ours. So, if you ever to decide to take any of our suggestions, be sure to take along your sense of humor (or sense of adventure).
June 7, 2006