Tyler Florence

Tyler Florence

The Food Network’s Tyler Florence endured flight cancellations and delays to fly cross-country, narrowly making a sold-out wine dinner recently at Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant in North Naples.

“I’ve never missed an appearance and I’m not gonna start now,” he told a packed dining room, which erupted with cheers of gratitude last week. Florence — one of Food Network’s longest-running celebrity chefs — made the trip from California to Southwest Florida to debut his latest wine collaboration with Cooper’s Hawk

Wine club members drove from throughout Florida to be the first in the nation to try his Sauvignon blanc and meet the gracious, 22-year veteran of the Food Network.

During the reception, three-course meal, and entertaining cooking demo, the chef’s new wine was unveiled beside tuna carpaccio topped with fried artichokes, sunflower seed chimichurri, and preserved lemon aioli for a smart and delicious pairing.

Although his refreshing wine is being released nationwide as the Cooper’s Hawk’s July wine of the month, Naples boasts the only personal appearance by Florence. Florence sat down a News-Press freelancer to discuss a variety of topics.

People know you mostly as a chef. When did wine first come into play for you?

I started washing dishes at the age of 15. It was the early 80’s in a restaurant where the waiters wore bow ties and cumberbuns. We would occasionally have wine dinners where the sommelier would introduce me to winemakers from France, Spain, all over. They would show me their label, which told the story of the person, the place, and the year. It was the winemakers best intention to put forth one of the most basic, shareable, human expressions of joy.

Appreciating wine is one thing, making it is another.

I love the process and the story telling. I wanna make wine because I’m a fan just like you are. I just happen to live in Northern California so it’s easy for me to scratch an itch and go make it. I’ll be making wine for the rest of my life.

This is your second year partnering with Cooper’s Hawk …

Yes and my 12th season making wine, consistently scoring in the 90s from Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast.

Nice! So why the collaboration with Cooper’s Hawk?

It’s the new wave of winemaking. The folks at Cooper’s Hawk are not famers; they are crushers and blenders. We teamed up because we see the world through the same eyes. We want to be mercenaries for sourcing great grapes. It allows flexibility and freedom to move with trends, and flow like water in the wine business.

You’ve made pinot noir, Bordeaux blends, cabernet sauvignon, why sauvignon blanc this year?

It’s one of my favorite grapes. We wanted to make something that feels like a back porch wine; like a sunset celebration at the end of a summer day. People are in a celebratory mood, relaxing, slowing down and we wanted to make something to fit the season and the reason. It comes from three lots in Napa and Sonoma and it’s just spectacular.

What tips can you offer for creating a good food and wine pairing at home?

You have to pick one or the other. Either I have a delicious plate of food and I want a good wine to go with it or I have a great wine and I’m gonna carve out a really nice meal to go along with it. At home, identify what you like to drink and stick with it. You know the flavors so, for instance, if you say I taste lemon in this, then bang, pair it with a dish that also has some lemon in it.

Flavors of lemon as well as peach are found in his fresh and balanced Cooper’s Hawk Sauvignon Blanc. Released to club members on Tuesday (June 26), non-members can purchase it by the glass at the restaurant and tasting room.

Cooper’s Hawk has 31 restaurants nationwide that feature a Napa-style tasting room. Grapes are sourced from vineyards worldwide, then fermented, blended and bottled in Illinois under the Cooper’s Hawk label. Club memberships begin at $19.99 a month for a new release and perks such as the Tyler Florence dinner.

Besides the new wine, Florence is debuting a new television show this fall called “Bite Club.”