Tropical fruit wines aim for big bucks

A fruit winery in the Philippines is aiming big and about to hit to world with their tropical fruit wines.

An interesting article by Paul Icamina.

TAGAYTAY – Tropical fruit wines are aiming for big bucks.

Starting this summer, two container vans of fruit wines will be market-tested in four Los Angeles outlets of Costco, one of America’s largest chain retail stores with 170 branches.

Each container van carries 12,000 bottles. Before that, one container van was shipped each month by Tropical Fruit Winery Corp.

When all’s well, a US group will finance an industrial-scale winery, the first in the country, to rise in a two-hectare lot in San Pablo, Laguna.

“The P100-million winery may be Asia’s biggest,” said Elbert S. Pigtain, Tropical Fruit Winery CEO who is in final negotiations with the Americans. “The target is to supply all Costco outlets.”

Costco is the largest membership warehouse club chain and the third largest retailer in the United States. It is the ninth largest retailer and the largest retailer of fine wines in the world.

Raw material is a problem but not insurmountable, Pigtain told Malaya Business Insight here on the sidelines of a National Economic Development Authority meeting where regional officials came to hear about the country’s budding industries.

The calumpit fruit, for example, is now rare in Bulacan. There are ways to source the fruits, like encouraging Aetas in Zambales and Mt. Pinatubo to gather bignay fruits instead of cutting them down traditionally for charcoal and fuel wood.

“If there’s a demand, people will plant and conserve the fruits. It can generate employment and create entrepreneurs,” he said.

One of the country’s major wine makers, Pigtain had his biggest sales of about P5 million in 2007, going down after that because of the global crunch. He is optimistic of an upturn, with 60 percent of his wines exported and yet to penetrate other markets.

“I’m now experimenting with sparkling fruit wine and liqueur,” he said, adding the local market is concentrated in Metro Manila, mostly in supermarkets, peaking during Christmas as high-end gifts.

The competition is stiff. Decent imported wines may cost less than P200, the average price of local fruit wines. “That’s because our production cost is too high, packaging materials are limited, starting with containers because we only have two bottle manufacturers and we compete with their products.”

North America and Europe also slap stiff tariffs “because wine is their bread and butter,” he explained. “We should do the same for imported wines.”

To illustrate, duhat is expensive to produce because it ripens in just two weeks. One has to wait for the next year’s harvest to replenish stocks while current raw materials are put in cold storage. “Then you never know if a typhoon will hit next season’s duhat harvest,” Pigtain said.

While mango is harvested year-round, duhat and bignay are seasonal and ripen fast. Fermentation is short, mellowing and clarifying is long – about a year and two months for mango.

“You can’t and shouldn’t compete with grape wine,” said Dr. Alexander Madrigal, Department of Science and Technology director for Southern Luzon, which has the country’s largest concentration of tropical fruit wine makers, dominated by lambanog from coconut.

“One should find a niche market,” said Madrigal who is encouraging the region’s wine makers to go big time.

“Mango wine is premium because we grow the most delicious in the world,” he said. “Because our fruits are sweet, they tend to be on the sweet side; we need to develop dry wines.”

“The industry is growing,” Madrigal said, noting a significant increase in the entry in the last five years of cheaper spirits, including fruit and rice wines, from Australia, China, Chile, Japan and South Korea.

For tropical fruit wines, the market has proven that duhat and bignay are the most competitive, he added.

“I’m not competing with grapes because our products are different,” Pigtain said. “The beauty of local fruits is that each has its health benefits. Duhat is said to cure diabetes, bignay has anti-bacterial properties and brings down high blood pressure.”

Pigtain started small, as a blender in a fish sauce and vinegar factory; in 2004, he started his own winery in San Mateo, Rizal, producing 200 bottles a month.

He uses common bottle stocks, playing with labels instead of standard packaging. “We have to get away from traditional designs, putting photos up front with short descriptions of the fruits foreign consumers may not be familiar with.”

“Doing wine is not easy,” Pigtain said. “If you ask me, I won’t do it again. It is more a passion than a business.”

“You have to do it blindfolded,” he said. “Else if you look back at the expenses you won’t do it again.”

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