Walked into a large Sacramento liquor emporium not long ago and couldn’t find its selection of fruit wines. Asked a clerk where they might be hidden.
First, he reminded me that all wine is made from fruit. That isn’t correct, but I didn’t quibble and let him savor the moment.
Then he led me to the aisle with the Manischewitz blackberry wine. And that was the extent of the store’s fruit wines.
Fruit wines – wines made from pomegranates, strawberries, raspberries, apples and the like – aren’t very popular in California. That’s because of the dominance of grapes in the state’s wine culture and because wine enthusiasts here prefer to drink “dry” – that is, they don’t want their wines syrupy with sugar. A little sugar, or maybe more, is OK in chardonnay or zinfandel, but many consumers don’t want to be caught with a glass of peach wine or cherry wine in their hand.
But this might be the year that that intolerance begins to shift. At the start of the year, for one, E&J Gallo Winery of Modesto released the results of a survey of the attitudes and drinking preferences of 1,001 consumers who said they drink wine “frequently” – at least one glass of wine a week.
Among other things, the survey found that younger wine consumers – 25 to 40 – aren’t as traditional as their elders. Two-thirds of the respondents in that age bracket said they mix wine with fruit or fruit juice. Half said they use wine to make a cocktail.
One prominent wine blogger alarmed by the Gallo findings said this abuse of wine reduces it to “wet sugar” and that such practices were engaged by people who really don’t like wine. That could be, but it also could be that people who want their wine fruity and sweet simply aren’t finding wines they like, so they turn to imaginative concoctions of their own.
At about the same time the Gallo survey was released I was sitting on a three-man panel of judges at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in northern Sonoma County. One of the classes we judged was “fruit wines,” which drew 28 entries from throughout the country.
We gave nine of them gold or double-gold medals, a high percentage for any class of wines. And this by three men whom I think it is fair to describe as traditionalists, with a preference for dry rather than sweet wines. Nevertheless, the wines were a revelation, showing mostly that while sweet they also can carry enough revitalizing acidity to keep them light and refreshing rather than sticky, weighty and tiring. Mostly they were impressive for how faithfully they tasted of black currants, raspberries and the like.
Not surprisingly, most of the award-winning fruit wines at the Chronicle competition came from wineries in the nation’s Sweet Belt, states such as Missouri, Illinois and South Dakota, but a couple were from Washington state, which has a long history of superb fruit wines, and a few even were from California.
The latter included three gold-medal wines and two silver-medal wines under a single California brand, Agave Garden, a label of Owl Ridge Wine Services in Sebastopol. The plant Blue Weber agave, more closely identified with tequila, is a succulent, but the wines fermented from its nectar qualified for the fruit-wine class because most of them were flavored with fruit. One of the gold-medal wines, the Tropical Agave Wine, included pineapple, coconut and mango. Another was the Passion Fruit/Orange/Guava Agave Wine. The third was cranberry. Agave Garden wines typically carry 11 percent alcohol and between 4 percent and 5 percent residual sugar.
John Tracy, president and CEO of Owl Ridge Wine Services, recognized largely for traditional pinot noirs marketed under several brands, says he began to experiment with wines based on agave nectar from Mexico several years ago as a way to use fermentation tanks that stood idle between grape harvests.
“Wineries have a big capital investment in tanks that aren’t used much of the year. We asked ourselves, ‘What can we do with these tanks during the winter?’” Tracy says. “We wanted something with a different twist. Agave was it, but it wasn’t as easy as we thought it would be. Distilling agave into tequila is easy, but it is much harder to ferment. It took us about a year to figure out how to do that.”
He introduced Agave Garden wines in 2012, but distribution has been a challenge. “Traditional wine brokers turn up their nose at this kind of thing,” Tracy says. Nevertheless, a market for the wines gradually is developing at specialty grocers and restaurants in the Bay Area and in Texas. “When we take them to tastings, there’s a constituency, young women in particular, who just love them,” he adds.
While Agave Garden wines showed well at the Chronicle, the other big winners were Midwestern wineries that turn out more traditional fruit wines. Best-of-class honors went to a pure, clean and off-dry pear wine, which turned out to be the non-vintage Gold Digger ($15) by Prairie Berry Winery of Hill City, S.D.
The other impressive showing was by St. James Winery of south-central Missouri. Three of the winery’s fruit wines – raspberry, strawberry and blueberry – won gold medals.
Andrew Meggitt, the St. James winemaker, says that over the past decade he and his crew have fermented “every type of fruit we can find” – chokeberry, persimmon, elderberry and lemon, among others.
“With our fruit wines the (consumer) expectation is that they taste the same day to day and year to year,” Meggitt says. All the fruit wines are made solely with fruit, fruit juice and fruit concentrate, though sugar and water can be added.
Winemaker Olivia Teutschel of Bargetto Winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains, California’s most prominent producer of fruit wines, says sales of her four fruit wines under the Chaucer’s label are holding steady at around 3,000 cases per year, about 15 percent of her total overall production.
The Chaucer’s pomegranate is especially popular right now, though members of the winery’s wine club seem more keen on the apricot. “It’s kind of a weird market. I’m new to it, and I’m not sure where it is going,” Teutschel says.
If this is to be the year for sales of fruit wines to surge in California, consumers will have to make an effort to find them, aside from the widely distributed Chaucer’s wines. For the wines of Agave Gardens, that likely will require a trek to specialty markets in Sonoma County. Wines of Prairie Berry (www.prairieberry.com) and St. James (www.stjameswinery.com) can be shipped directly to consumers in California.
In Sacramento, an extensive selection of fruit wines, including pineapple wine from Hawaii, cherry wine from Finland, black currant wine from Ukraine and a honey wine infused with raspberry and spices from Poland, can be found at Corti Brothers.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Stringer’s Orchard Wild Plum Winery & Distillery
Perhaps the world’s rarest fruit wine – and getting rarer – is made about as far north as you can get in California without tripping over into Oregon.
The Stringer family of Goose Lake Valley along Highway 395 a mile south of Oregon in Modoc County has been making Stringer’s Orchard Semi-Sweet Wild Plum Wine since 1984.
The wine is pretty – a deep and bright coral/orange – and carries so much fragrance and flavor of small red plums that you expect the pit to plug the neck of the bottle at some point. It is sweet, all right, but the sugar is offset with enough sharp acidity to leave the wine tasting more refreshing than cloying.
“Fruit wines have a bad rap,” winemaker John Stringer says. “People think only grapevines make the only good wine.”
Virtually all his sales are made direct at the winery, which faces Highway 395 about 40 miles north of Alturas. “It’s the only highway out in nowhere. People stop and like it,” Stringer says. Just south of New Pine Creek, Ore., the winery is open by appointment only January through March, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays April through September, and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays October through December. More information: www.stringersorchard.com.
The only grocer to carry the wine beyond Modoc County is Corti Brothers in Sacramento, where it sells for $10 per bottle.