by Alex Huebner
The Eastern Winery Exposition this year featured of multitude of winemakers, all showing new and innovative techniques you could apply to traditional grape-based wine. One panel however had a different idea; use similar techniques and tools, bring new customers to your business, all while possibly saving time and money. How is all of this done? With fruit wine.
The three-member panel featured winemakers from all over the Northeast. All three men involved explained that fruit wine could be an undiscovered asset for your winery. The first speaker was Ken Hardcastle, partner and vintner at Hermit Woods Winery in Meredith, NH.
Hardcastle comes from a science background, spending the last 20 years as a senior scientist at Emery and Garrett Groundwater, Inc. After years spent studying rocks and groundwater, Hardcastle moved onto the science of wine.
When it comes to making wine, Hardcastle said “grapes are easy.” He explained that there is already so much out there about grape wine, it is easy to jump into. Fruit wine can be more complex to make because there is less research on the subject. Also, a lot of areas simply cannot produce the type of grapes you need.
“I structure [fruit] wines that are similar to what I love: a crisp Sauvignon Blanc, a nice Rosé. Big, dry, balanced wines,” Hardcastle said. “But in Central New Hampshire, we don’t grow those types of grapes. So you experiment, you work with what you have.”
“When some people think of fruit wine, they think of sugar. But they don’t have to be that way,” he said.
Selecting fruits that will make it into a wine bottle is similar to selecting grapes for different varieties. The winemaker needs to experiment with different fruits. Continued experimentation helps the winemaker distinguish the advantages and disadvantages of different fruit varieties.
“Take a watermelon for an example. We know it as a big, juicy fruit. However, it’s a lot of water but not enough sugar to produce alcohol.” He explained. “So you learn that you need to add more sugar to get it going.”
Hardcastle went on to explain the challenges that can come from working with fruit. First, high quality fruit is a must.
“Poor quality is exposed during the winemaking process,” he explained.
Another challenge can be the availability of the fruit. Some winemakers want to produce what they plan to harvest and then the harvest is less than expected. Hardcastle explained that this is an easy challenge to remedy.
“Many people find it easier to freeze what they have harvested and save it for later,” Hardcastle said. “The thawing process will then make the winemaking easier.”
Fruit going through a thawing process breaks down, making it easier to combine with yeast. This speeds up the fermentation and can pull out flavors you wouldn’t get from a freshly harvested fruit.
To produce the flavors that Hardcastle likes, he is diligent with his process. He checks the temperature of the ferment and tastes it daily.
With fruit wines, “you have more versatility and control,” said Hardcastle. As long as you are adding enough water and sugar, you can build whatever flavors you can think of.
Mike Williams, the second member of the panel, is the President of The Winery at Wilcox, Inc. The winery has two locations, one in Ohio and one in Pennsylvania. Fruit wines have turned out to be a lucrative venture for his wineries. In his flagship Ohio location, fruit wine accounts for 5 percent of his retail sales and 10 percent of his gross receipts.
Williams’ Ohio winery is located in a “rural, non-wine drinking location,” he said. Since the area is not full of the traditional wine drinking demographics, Williams had to find creative ways to bring people to the vineyard. Fruit wine proved to be a good solution to this conundrum. He makes wines that are simply, sweet and inviting.
“Our fruit wines are different from the other wines on this panel,” Williams said. While Ken Hardcastle wants his wines to be dry and reminiscent of grape-based wines and Phil Plummer makes his wine from low-sugar fruits, Williams goes all in on sweetness.
“I embrace the sugar. I want the flavors to assault the sense,” he explained.
Williams went on to say that by keeping his wine simple, it is easier to get newcomers into the door.
“A simple fruit wine reminds customers of the stuff their father used to make. Once you get them interested, you can build on that.”
From there, you can introduce more complex wines to your newbie customers. He also keeps the prices of the fruit wines low because he has learned that rural customers can be frugal customers.
“Where my Ohio winery is, no one is going to pay $25 for a bottle of wine. No matter how good it is,” Williams said.
So he keeps the costs low, passing the savings to customers. This turns new wine drinkers into loyal customers who pass the good word along to others.
Another plus to making this wine is that it provides steady jobs to the workers at The Winery at Wilcox. This means a lot to Williams since he employs a lot of his family at the winery.
By freezing and storing fruits and juices, Williams can constantly have good fruit on hand to make wine so the winery is always producing product, even after grape season.
The third panelist, Phil Plummer, is the winemaker at Montezuma Winery in Seneca Falls, NY. Plummer expanded upon Williams’ sentiment that fruit wine can keep winery jobs going all year.
At Montezuma, 25 percent of the wines produced are fruit wines. This emphasis on fruit wine means that they are using all of their equipment, all of the time to meet consumer demands.
“Fruit wines can be a good idea for your business because you can plan it around your regular grape harvest,” Plummer said.
By planning your harvests in succession, you can be making fruit wine while your grapes are harvested and vice versa.
“We start to see fresh fruit come in around June or July. It’s nice because it gives us a bit of a tune-up before grape harvest comes,” Plummer said. “We get to make sure all our equipment is working.”
Fruit wine can also create synergistic relationships within your business and businesses around you.
To make Cranberry Bog, Montezuma’s flagship fruit wine, they work with a local cranberry producer who sells them fruit directly and at a lower cost. This cost savings is passed to the customer, leading to better sales.
Within the business, the popularity of Cranberry Bog helps increase sales of other products in the tasting room. Montezuma’s ultra-premium vodka is distilled on the same site that the Cranberry Bog wine is made, and they are served together in the tasting room.
“We do a mixing of the vodka and Cranberry Bog,” Plummer said. The unique cocktail has proven to be quite a hit with tasters and has boosted sales. “When you use a $13 bottle of wine to sell a $50 bottle of vodka, that’s a good thing.”
The panel concluded by emphasizing how fruit wine can be a good addition to your business. It helps keep your operation going all year, it can be cost-efficient, and it can bring in new customers.
“It’s a unique calling card for your winery,” Plummer concluded.
Fruit Wines: a versatile addition to your winery
by Alex Huebner