Article By: Abigail Ingalls
Generally, they tend to be pigeonholed into one of two categories: country fair craft wines or commercial Boone's Farm-esque flavored wines, neither of which is very esteemed. These particular flavor profiles, however, do not apply to all fruit wines. With popularity at an all time high, skilled winemakers throughout the country in areas that cannot successfully grow grapes are getting creative and experimenting with fruit wines with some surprisingly impressive results.
Owned and operated by Bob and Kathe Bartlett, the Bartlett Maine Estate Winery in Gouldsboro, Maine, has been producing fruit wines ofsuperior quality for over twenty years. Although they make a few dessert wines for which they are quite renowned - a sweet blueberry, sweet raspberry and a mead - their overall catalogue portrays a diverse assortment of dry wines, which actually have a great deal in common with traditional viniferous wines.
The Bartletts moved to Maine from Michigan in the 197Os. They shared a common enthusiasm for food and wine and a dream of making wines of their own. Bob got his degree at the acclaimed UC Davis and has carefully studied and practiced the art of making serious viniferous wines. Inspired by the up and coming wine-making in Long Island and the Hudson Valley, New York, they planted every kind of grape they could get their hands on - over 2O different varietals - with unfortunately little success. Today, Bob calls their dream to make grape wine "a pretty naïve idea". After five years they had to come to terms with the fact that viniferous grapes would not grow properly in the coastal Maine climate. They entertained the idea of moving to the Hudson Valley to pursue their dream but ultimately decided that they loved Maine too much to uproot. Ever resourceful, they decided to make wines from fruits that thrived in the coastal Maine climate, namely: blueberries, apples, raspberries, and pears.
The Bartletts have spared no expense with regards to their winemaking. All the equipment used is intended for grape wines. They employ state-of-the-art technology for pressing and fermentation, combined with traditional French and American oak for barrel aging. The winery houses top-of-the-line German Willmes presses and American stainless steel vats. Their labeling machinery is imported from Italy and the equipment for methode champenoise sparklers comes from France. In anticipation of reintroducing sparkling wine to the line, Bob is looking into using algaenate, a bead capsule of yeast developed by Moët and Chandon that eliminates the need for tedious riddling of the bottles. The Bartletts have made a decision to use the finest tools of the trade in order to produce the sophisticated wines that they do. As a result they have carved out quite a distinctive reputation.
CONFRONTING CHALLENGES Making great wine was a good start but back in 198O, selling it involved a bit of political activism on the part of Bob Bartlett. At the time, the laws in Maine required that wine be sold by way of a three-tier system. Wine producers could only sell their product through wholesale distributors, thus excluding their winery from private retail sales. As the laws stood then, the Bartletts were not legally authorized to sell wine directly from their winery or offer a tasting room to visitors. Bob notes that Prohibition began in Maine and the state remains particularly stubborn with regards to alcohol sales. The government restrictions, as they were, would have made it nearly impossible to market their wines in Maine or beyond. Bob lobbied for and eventually passed emergency legislation to allow them to sell wine on-premise and offer tastings to visitors at the estate. The most persuasive element in his argument was that Maine, at the time, sold many raw materials but not enough value-added products. His wines would take Maine fruits and modify them so as to fetch a higher return. Showing a long-term commitment to Maine agriculture, Bartlett included in the legislation that he would use a substantial percentage of Maine-grown fruit in making his wines. The legislation, which Bob wrote himself, took effect in July of '83. Incidentally, all the press that resulted from his activism provided priceless PR for the wines. When the Bartletts opened the doors to the public on the exact day the legislation was finally passed, there was already "a line at the door," says Bob.
BLUEBERRIES and BEYOND Over the years the Bartletts have experimented with various styles of wine but have been constant in their use of pear, apple, blueberry, and honey. At present they are making more than a dozen different wines, including sweet, semi-dry, dry and oak dry blueberry, a sweet raspberry dessert wine, sweet mead, dry and French oak dry pear, as well as various blends. The Bartletts also produce two reserves, a pear and a blueberry, which are oak-aged and sport a hand-signed vintage on the bottle. The reserves are Bob's personal favorites.
The Bartletts do everything they can to get people to sample their product, and the craft and care of the winemakers is evident in every sip. Their high-end, dry fruit wines are distinctive but have proven to be a bit of a challenge to market. Serious wine drinkers are hesitant to stray from tradition and wine-cooler drinkers might actually be disappointed when the fruit wines they quaff taste more like Silver Oak than Arbor Mist. Fruit wines tend to be judged on different standards of quality than grape wines, and thus the Bartletts' dry selections score somewhat erratically in fruit wine ratings. Bob finds it frustrating to see gold medals often going to sweeter, fruitier wines. What the Bartletts make is meant to appeal to the serious wine drinker. They pride themselves of the fact that their wines do not taste like spiked fruit juice. Bob jokes that one would never sip Bordeaux and expect it to taste like fresh grapes. One might say, however, say it has hints of blueberry!
Another issue that arises in the marketing of their product is the price. The Oak Dry Blueberry retails for eighteen dollars a bottle, the same price as a David Bruce Petite Sirah or a Bonny Doon Cardinal Zin. And while the price is a reflection of the extremely high quality fruit being used, getting a potential buyer to make that fiscal leap of faith on a fruit wine is difficult. Jim Desrosiers, a former representative for Ruby Wines and the current Beverage Manager for the Harvard Club, commented on the essential challenges of marketing high-end fruit wines. He agreed that Bartlett wines are something special, saying that he was "blown away" by the depth of flavor and the sophisticated style of the wines. He was particularly partial to the Oak Dry Blueberry that he thought resembled great reds from Paso Robles, California, which often have blueberry notes. Desrosiers was supremely impressed by the wines he tried, however, he believes that because of preconceived notions with regard to fruit wines - namely that they are sweet, heavy and syrupy - people really do need to taste to believe. But people will not casually taste at eighteen dollars a bottle or ten dollars a glass in a restaurant. This is why it is so important for the Bartletts to have a tasting room at their estate and to get out to personally provide samples to potential buyers. When asked what he would say to cynics, Bob compared his wines to sushi, approaching the skeptical drinker with a "try something new, it won't kill you" kind of attitude.
GRASS ROOTS MARKETING Word of mouth has carried the Bartletts for over twenty years but they have not rested on those laurels alone. Over the years they have carried out many inventive advertising schemes. Each autumn from 1985 to 1992 the Bartletts produced a "Nouveau Blueberry" which they had flown into Blue Hill from Gouldsboro via biplane to simulate the arrival of Nouveau Beaujolais on the red eye from France. This was a stunt covered enthusiastically by local TV news. The Bartletts also work with local restaurants, hosting tasting dinners to enforce the notion that their wines can stand up to, and indeed enhance, haute cuisine. Guests at the tasting dinners come to accept and appreciate these high-end fruit wines in the context of fine dining, enjoying pairings such as sweet mead with fois gras or dry blueberry with lamb. Such events are an appropriate showcase for the wines and lend legitimacy to their slightly higher price tags. The Bartletts understand that people need to try the wines to be convinced of their quality, and that is why most of the their marketing has been grass-roots and interpersonal.
Today their wines stand on an elevated level where they are competitive with traditional grape wines. In fact, the Oak Dry Blueberry has scored in top 4O ranks with grape wines and was mistaken for a Pinot Noir clone in a Carneros Creek Alliance for Quality Control tasting in California. In addition to winning numerous national and international awards, the Beverage Testing Institute has classified them as one of the top five premier producers of fruit wine in the US, and given seven of their wines ratings of 9O points or higher. The Blueberry Winemakers Reserve received a 94. And though one shouldn't judge a wine by its cover, labels do sell bottles. The Bartlett bottles are adorned with unique labels depicting old Victorian era designs of fruit and flowers. This smart packaging contributes to the overall air of sophistication surrounding the wines.
MADE-in-MAINE CACHET When promoting their product, Bob enforces the idea that these wines are truly a reflection of Maine's agriculture and are unique to a specific, special locale. New England - and specifically Maine-made - products have national and even international appeal. People come to see mountains and foliage and go home with bags full of maple syrup, jam, soaps, pine-scented pillows, you name it. As far as wine is concerned, people who visit New England from California, Oregon, Washington, or any other wine-producing state are often more interested in local flavor than the wines they can already get inexpensively back home. In this way, Bartlett fruit wines occupy a special niche as they represent the best of Maine agriculture. Even with augmented production over the years, they still buy as much as they can from local farms. While the Bartletts are slightly off the beaten path, the charm of their estate draws people from afar. People come to the winery not only out of an interest in wine but also because it is a beautiful place. By making the estate inviting and fun to visit they encourage return business. Locals and tourists alike who are traveling up the coast can stop by for a charming experience and have their eyes opened to a new enological experience.
FRUITS of THEIR LABOR For over twenty years the Bartletts have successfully overcome any obstacle that has stood in their way. In 1983 they bottled 2OO cases and now, twenty-two years later, they produce 8OOO, an impressive increase. They still make their own deliveries and sell their wine on premise but they are now also dispensed through Pine State Distributors. As a result, their exposure has increased significantly in Southern Maine. Steve Kayo, a local representative for Pine State, says he highlights Bob's education and training to illustrate the high quality of the wines. With potential buyers, he also plays up the tourist appeal, and to those that are reluctant to purchase due to price, he assures them that you absolutely do get what you pay for, that Bartlett wines are of comparable quality to fine grape wines at the same price point. At present they have accounts in various restaurants, wine bars and retail stores.
Bartlett Maine Estate Winery - 2O7.546.24O8.
The Bartlett wines go wonderfully with food. Some popular pairings are: Oak Dry Blueberry with assorted cheeses and herb-crusted lamb. The French Oak Pear pairs very well with pork tenderloin and parsnips or a beet and walnut salad with baby spinach and dried cranberries. The Coastal White, a blend of apple and pear wine, is well matched with light seafood dishes.
Following is a sample menu from a wine dinner put on at Nickerson Tavern in Searsport, Maine.
A sausage of Ducktrap Smoked Trout with warm cheddar and Apple wine beurre blanc; served with Bartlett Dry Apple.
Maine Winter Scallops and Lobster Medallions in puff pastry with Pear wine sabayon; served with Bartlett French Oak Pear.
Bibb lettuce salad with basil vinaigrette.
Grilled Moularde Duck Breast with Dry Blueberry bordelaise and a timbale of wild mushrooms; served with Bartlett French Oak Blueberry.
A pave of Bosc Pears and Genoise with Hazelnut Ice Cream; served with Bartlett Pear/Apple Sparkling.
BARTLETT WINE TASTING NOTES
by William Nesto, MW
While some fruit wine producers may stray far from the wine paradigm, Bartlett makes every effort to stay close. For its drier white fruit wines, Bartlett chooses apple and pear. For its red fruit wines, blueberry is its mainstay. The reasons for these selections are obvious. Apple and pear makes fruit wines that have white wine-like color and aromas. Moreover, the natural acidity, principally malic, mirrors the blend of malic and tartaric found in wine. For its red fruit wines, Bartlett uses blueberry. By sight, a blueberry fruit wine has the vivid ruby color of gamay wine. Its nose too mirrors gamay. What are clearly lacking in the palate are the pleasant astringency of grape tannins and the vivid acidity of grape acids. Mead is fermented honey-water. The appearance of Bartlett dessert mead could easily be confused with a white wine, dry or sweet. The honey-laden nose plays with the Sauternes model. However, honey has little or no acidity. The mead producer has to add it.
There were moments during my sampling of the Bartlett range when I forgot that I was drinking fruit wine. I preferred those samples where new oak aromas and tastes were absent. Bartlett uses oak contact for its prestige fruit wines, imitating the wine paradigm. The oak smell enhancement was not so much a problem. The problem was on the palate where the lower alcohol, according to the labels 11.5%, could not support the oak tastes and textures. Low alcohol wines are rarely aged in small new oak barrel.
The most notable aspect of these fruit wines was that they were meticulously made. The wines were clean, clean, clean. The fruit must have been of very high quality. I reserve my comments about these fruit wines' age-ability until I have the opportunity to compare aged samples with new.
Here are my wine notes of the fruit wines of Bartlett Maine Estate Winery:
PEAR WINE Medium-deep yellow-gold; Chablis-like wet wool, pear, mushroom, with oak nuances; low alcohol, medium-low acidity, oak dominates, slight bitter and tannic finish.
PEAR WINE FRENCH OAK DRY, 1999 Rich gold color; burnt buttered toast with pear in the background; tannic-bitter palate unsupported by acidity and alcohol, slightly viscous; oaky finish with lingering bitterness.
COASTAL WHITE An apple-pear blend; moderate to light yellow, apple and pear smells; slight residual sugar effect at entry though otherwise dry, good acid backbone.
MEAD WINE SWEET Pale yellow green; honey, flowers; sweet with low acidity; slightly bitter finish.
COASTAL RED An apple-blueberry blend; light ruby appearance; fresh and lively blueberry and apple aromas, red currant-like smells; palate dominated by sourness.
WILD BLUEBERRY WINE OAK DRY, 2OOO Light to medium ruby with a ruby rim; new oak dominates the nose, blueberry, brambly fruit, nuances of chocolate and licorice; dry, light acidity, lacks enough alcohol to balance oak; smoke-chocolate nuanced and slightly astringent finish.
WILD BLUEBERRY SEMI-DRY Light ruby appearance; blueberry, redcurrants, wood spices; slight residual sugar, tart, slight bitter astringent finish; Pinot-Noir-like.
SELLING HIGH END
NEW ENGLAND FRUIT WINES
One of the most difficult challenges that fruit wines such as the Bartletts' faces is convincing someone to set aside their prejudices and have an open mind. Here are some simple selling tools for promoting high-end fruit wines.
Host tastings and offer samples. Whether in a restaurant or at a store, have a confident and knowledgeable sales rep on premise to talk about the wine's characteristics and how it pairs with food. Also, taste them side-by-side with comparable Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and the like.
Emphasize the local, New England-made element. Even with New Englanders, products made in this region have a distinct cachet to them. The Bartletts use almost exclusively Maine-grown fruits with some pears coming from Massachusetts. The small production, boutique winery label has a definite appeal, and the price tag is an appropriate reflection of the quality.
Emphasize any credentials and awards. Bartlett wines are highly acclaimed with many prizes and honors. Also, Bob's training at UC Davis adds to his credibility as a serious winemaker.
Target the younger, new wine drinker who may not have prejudices in place yet regarding fruit wines. They may be more receptive to trying and embracing something new. -INGALLS
FUN FRUIT WINES
WITH A TROPICAL TWIST
Wine can be made out of just about anything from peaches to potatoes, even fish (believe it or not). They may not all be palatable but there is still very much a market for fun fruit wines designed for the curious as opposed to the serious wine drinker. At the Ormond Beach Winery in Daytona, Florida, they have put a unique spin on the old adage that says "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade". They make over 2O wines including strawberry, grapefruit, key lime, chocolate, even carrot. Their most popular seller is mango. Rocky Meredith, the retail manager for the winery, says that their advertising is geared toward a tourist market; they have brochures at all the local hotels and offer tours and tastings to guests at the winery and store. It may be a unique concept but they are certainly doing something right. The wines have won substantial acclaim and, to date, over 114 medals in various competitions. -INGALLS