The Unbearable Lightness of Fruit Wine

Excellent article by Chris Koentges (and doing wonder’s for my ego 😉 publlished in the Calgary Herald.

What happens when you’re not in love with Field Stone fruit wines, the only wine made in Alberta, let alone near Calgary? You drink it anyway!

On a crisp autumn morning, east of the city along the Trans-Canada, you drift past farms and barns and cattle and pump jacks. It’s blue and bright, flat and open. Grain elevators hang onto the earth like rotting teeth. You drift past the turnoff to Drumheller. Past an Esso Station. Past the Strathmore town limits. A patch of motels. A graveyard. Then, 52 kilometres from wherever they measure Calgary now, at highway 817, you hang a right.

At that exact east-west line in Alberta, the climate actually changes. Summer nights are warmer along this road. Winter’s less erratic. It can be 10 degrees in Calgary, but one degree right here. There are no Chinooks to thaw the ground. Thawing is bad for what they grow along this line, which is fruit. It’s drier here too–though if you drifted further east, too dry for fruit. The fruit that’s grown on this Alberta line is turned into jams and pies. Some of it’s U-Picked. A small quantity is turned into wine. Only one place does it.

Dominic Rivard is one of those French Canadians who teaches himself to make wine at 17, then begins operating in the industry’s margins. A certified sommelier, with cider-making relatives in Normandy, an uncle who owns a vineyard in Beaujolais, he moves between the Canadian prairie and rural France and northern China and Bangkok, where he is based for the moment, making tropical wines out of lychees and mangosteen. And still he can’t quite get over the saskatoon berry. Nothing like saskatoons exists anywhere else in the world.

It’s a curiously complex fruit. “It almost has the same sweetness as a grape,” he told me on the crisp autumn morning along the 817. In the same way that Pinot Noir will sometimes taste like raspberry–even though raspberry isn’t added to the wine–the mysterious alchemy of fermentation and age and terroir will give saskatoon wines nuances of almond and orange.

The Alberta government brought Rivard to Edmonton to talk to the growers who live along the province’s thin fruit line. At the end of the lecture, he was approached by Marvin Gill. In 1998, Gill had converted a wheat field along the 817 into 50,000 saskatoon and raspberry plants. These are slow-growing plants that take five years to start producing fruit. A decade to reach mature production. The maturation of Gill’s plants was slowed by two years of drought. After that, they’ll produce for five decades (barring all the unforeseen disasters that can hit a farm). But in the meantime, you really have to believe in what you’re doing.

On the crisp autumn morning, Gill pulled frozen raspberries out of 35-lb buckets using his hands. He had been feeding them into a fruit crusher since 6 a.m. As the morning progressed, Rivard, now Gill’s winemaker, would measure sugar levels, specific gravity, pH levels, titratable acidity. He’d calculate how much to dilute, how much sugar to add, yeast. They’d tweak and tweak. Later that night, Rivard would be in Eastern Canada. By the end of the week, he’d be somewhere in Asia, advising another grower. But at that moment, the winery they called Field Stone was making a whole new kind of raspberry wine. A dinner wine rather than a sweet dessert wine.

“This will be an off-dry raspberry,” Rivard said. “Very aromatic. I don’t want to pretend it’s a grape wine. I just want everybody to know instantly this is raspberry.”

Gill added: “Like we’re picking it straight off the bush.”

Two of the best days of my life happened eating berries off the bush until my fingers were stained and my stomach ached. You feel like a black bear when this happens. You want to lie down in the bushes and sleep until spring. It would be a lie to say I get this feeling from fruit wines, though. The varieties I sampled were sweet. I couldn’t suppress the thought that what I was drinking would be better with soda or in a Cosmopolitan or mixed with Benylin. That said, I don’t have a sweet tooth.

And even though I don’t have a sweet tooth, I seem to buy a bottle of Field Stone fruit wine whenever I come across it. In this city, that’s rare. (According to Field Stone’s website, less than a half-dozen Calgary shops carry our only made-in-Alberta wine.1)

I don’t buy this wine out of pity. What I get for about 20 bucks is of immense value to me. I get the image of Marvin Gill in sweatpants at 6 a.m., rooster hair and a kind of crazed grin. I get a micro-climate. I get Siksikáwa kids in thick braids. I get a gypsy winemaker. I get a story about where I live.

I found myself reading Milan Kundera stories this week, looking for a sentence that would justify “The Unbearable Lightness of Fruit Wine” title at the top of this column. I like this one: “The very notion of homeland, with all its emotional power, is bound up with the relative brevity of our life, which allows us too little time to become attached to some other country.”

The thing about wine, about anything we consume, really, is that the value is bound in its story. Other than a handful of geeks, I don’t think, deep down, anyone actually buys a wine because it boggles the tongue or because some guy in rural Maryland rated it in the high 90s. You don’t buy it because of the fancy adjectives he uses to describe it. You buy it because of the story he tells you about where it came from.

And when there’s only one winery within an hour’s drive from your house–and I don’t mean to overemphasize the long-term sustainability of consuming something grown, crafted and bottled 50 km from where you live (although that point cannot be overemphasized in all this)–you drink it for the same reason you put your kid’s finger paintings on your office door. You drink it to see how it grows up. How it evolves. What it becomes.

I forgot to mention that the off-dry raspberry wine Gill and Rivard made that crisp autumn morning wasn’t being made for drinkers 52 km west.

“In order to make this successful and be able to hire people and get the whole ball rolling, we have to push sales,” Rivard told me. “That’s why we’re looking at pushing our markets into Asia.”

“Excuse me?” I asked faintly.

“Asia,” he said again.

“They’ll pay more for this in Asia than we’ll pay in Calgary?”

“Yes,” he said. “It would be sold as a premium, organically grown, made-in-Canada product. Those berries also have a lot of health properties. Lots of antioxidants.”

This is what baffles me about Alberta. We’ll proudly spend billions of dollars developing and jingoistically protecting “what is ours”–our oil–yet make no discernible effort to take ownership of anything that actually is ours. B.C. and Ontario and Quebec promote the hell out of their wines, their microbrews, their whiskies. I remember an old Jonathan Raban line, “a glass of British Columbian plonk than which no plonk in the world is plonkier.” Fifteen years later, the plonk has grown into wine that routinely wins international awards. And you can’t actually buy the best vintages–and there are a lot of them–outside B.C. I’ve never so much as seen a shelf of “made-in-Alberta products” in a Calgary grocery store or liquor store. What does that say about our Alberta homeland?

“All human values get expressed as social rituals,” Adam Gopnik wrote in this week’s New Yorker, about eating the food of the five boroughs, “we place bets on which of the rituals are worth serving.”

As that crisp morning in autumn turned to afternoon, Rivard and Gill excitedly bra
instormed where all this would lead. “You could definitely do a barrel-aged port with saskatoon,” Gill said.

“It would be nice over time to develop the flagship Alberta product from these fruits,” Rivard said whimsically. “Something where you’ll say, ‘Alberta, oh yeah, they make great saskatoon port.’ “

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