Fruit Wine is the Ultimate Niche Product

Contributing to about 1 percent of Oregon’s total wine production, non-grape fruit wine is the ultimate niche product.

The industry’s tiny size belies its major resurgence in recent years, however. After holding steady above 30,000 gallons in the early 2000s, non-grape wine production dipped to 18,900 gallons in 2003 but then shot up dramatically, according to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

At 53,300 gallons, the amount of wine produced in 2007 from Marion blackberries, cranberries, raspberries and other fruit is about 50 percent higher than its previous peak in 2001 and nearly three times greater than five years ago, when production hit a low point.

Non-grape wine production has been driven by the much-publicized healthful qualities of both wine and fruit, explained Paul Gallick, president of Honeywood Winery in Salem, Ore., a major fruit wine producer in the state.

“People are very aware of health benefits, whether it’s blueberries with anti-carcinogens or anti-oxidants, or cranberries because they aid the urinary tract,” he said, noting that the trend appears consumer-driven. “We learn from our customers about all of this.”

Non-grape wine has also been able to shed its image as a low-rent or unsophisticated product, Gallick said. Discerning consumers know that not every fruit wine brand is a low-alcohol fizzy drink, or a fortified booze that’s imbibed solely to induce inebriation, he said.

“They’ve separated premium fruit wine from coolers,” he said.

Even so, fruit wines do enjoy popularity among new wine drinkers, said John Wasson, who owns Wasson Brothers Winery in Sandy, Ore., with his brother, Jim.

As Oregon’s overall wine industry continues to grow – wine production increased 10 percent last year, according to NASS – wines that are popular with novices also get a boost, he said.

“There’re more wine drinkers in Oregon, and when people start out drinking wine, they like sweet wines,” he said.

At the same time, experienced wine drinkers have grown familiar with the main varietals grown in Oregon, and they’re eager for the unique flavors offered by fruit wines, explained Jim Wasson.

“They’re different enough that people are seeking them out,” he said.

The demand for fruit wines is so healthy that, despite retail price increases, Wasson Brothers’ sales have remained strong, said John. Production isn’t constrained by demand but by the price of inputs: The cost of bottles, corks, cold storage and berries keeps going up, he said.

“If we wanted to do more production we could do more sales,” said George Clarno, founder of Old Bridge Winery in Remote, Ore.

Clarno’s company specializes in making cranberry wine, which is currently the fastest-rising star among the fruit wines.

Though Marion blackberry wine is the top dog, with 9,400 gallons produced in 2007, cranberry wine is a close second and growing fast. Since 2004, when NASS first began listing cranberry wine individually, production has surged from 1,600 gallons to almost 9,300 gallons last year, nearly a six-fold increase.

Growth in cranberry wine production has been accelerated by the fruit’s long-standing reputation for health, Clarno said. “When you’re in the hospital, it’s the first thing they give you: cranberry juice.”

Making wine from the stuff isn’t easy, though. Cranberry juice is naturally low in sugar and high in acidity, which impedes fermentation, he said. Clarno further complicates the process by avoiding juice concentrate and working directly with cranberries, which he said improves the taste.

“It’s much more rich when you use the pure fruit,” said Clarno, who buys cranberries directly from Faber Farms in Bandon, Ore. “You’re getting all that flavor out of the skins.”

Nonetheless, Clarno has grown so adept at fermenting the fruit that he succeeded last year in making sparkling cranberry wine.

Honeywood Winery also makes cranberry wine, and though it initially offered the product only during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays – commonly associated with the fruit – the company eventually decided to sell the product year-round.

As with other Oregon wines, both conventional and non-grape, Gallick attributes its success to the quality of the state’s agricultural goods.

“We have exceptional grapes, and we have exceptional fruit,” he said.

Story by: Mateusz Perkowski

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