Local vineyard owners looking to turn heads, not noses, with new berry-focused vintages
Rob Dhaliwal, owner of Samson Estates Winery in Everson, has poured his signature raspberry wine at wine shows all over the state. Often, passersby would ask what kind of red he was pouring.
When he told them it was a raspberry wine, their noses shot in the air and people said, “Sorry, we don’t do that.”
But then, as the wine became the buzz of the wine show, Dhaliwal would see those same people milling near his booth.
“They always end up tucking their tail between their legs and coming back,” Dhaliwal said. “I find it very amusing to see people work that way.”
Fruit wine conjures different images for different people.
Some may remember a relative who used to ferment apple wine in the garage and others may think of sugary selections such as Boone’s Farm and Arbor Mist. But fruit wines made in Whatcom County and British Columbia’s lower mainland strive for a different image.
These neighboring regions are among the largest commercial producers of raspberries, blackberries, cranberries and blueberries in the world. And with so much fruit around, some farmers have stepped into the wine business.
Dhaliwal said he has grown up around berries all his life. He and his father, Sam, run a 325-acre raspberry and blueberry farm that produces a couple million pounds of berries annually.
According to the Washington Red Raspberry Commission, Whatcom County produced more than 47 million pounds of raspberries in 2007 and is also home to approximately 72 percent of the state’s raspberry farms.
In June 2002, Dhaliwal and his brother, Dhar, opened up a winery on the property adjacent to their fields.
“The winery was really just an idea of mine—it didn’t evolve from the farm,” Dhaliwal said.
The winery produces classic reds and whites but has become known for its raspberry, blackberry and loganberry wines as well as its substantial and sweet dessert wines: black currant, raspberry, loganberry and hazelnut. All of these wines are made from fruit or nuts either grown on their farm or purchased in Whatcom County.
“Our main focus being located here in Whatcom County has been raspberry wine,” Dhaliwal said. “Most of the other stuff like blackberries and black currants, we pretty much grow ourselves—I don’t have any loganberries right now but I am in the process of putting some in.”
The raspberry and blueberry harvest starts in early July and goes until late August, which means Dhaliwal and his father will soon be pulling close to 16-hour days to get all the work done.
Dhaliwal’s raspberry wine is less temperamental than grape wines, which need to start fermenting immediately while the fruit is still fresh.
“With raspberries, I can actually freeze the fruit which works out really nice for me because I am not tied up making wine in the middle of the raspberry harvest,” Dhaliwal said. “So it allows us to schedule our winemaking more easily.”
Dhaliwal said being involved in the process from seed to wine is a great benefit.
“Because we grow our own berries and make our own wine, we have a lot of control over the quality of the fruit that goes into the wine and just like any winery—we want to have the highest quality possible,” Dhaliwal said.
Locally grown fruit appeals to customers
Driving north through Lynden at the Aldergrove border crossing is a pastoral journey toward Fort Langley’s the Fort Wine Company.
The Fort Wine Company, in the Glen Valley outside Fort Langley, B.C., produces six table wines and six dessert wines that are all made from fruit harvested within a few miles of the winery.
Carol Zielke, the Fort’s tasting room co-manager, said people value a local product that hasn’t traveled hundreds of miles before hitting the dinner plate or the wine glass.
“In these green days, people are looking for food products within 100 miles of their home,” Zielke said. “And for Whatcom County and the lower mainland—that’s us.”
Zielke said she loves the adventurous spirit of the tasting room where the staff is always trying new ways of presenting wine.
“We go out of our way to make sure the customers have a fun experience,” Zielke said.
Before Fort was a winery, it was a cranberry farm.
According to the British Columbia Cranberry Growers Association, British Columbia’s lower Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island produce more than 7.5 billion pounds of cranberries per year, providing nearly 12 percent of North America’s cranberries.
Wade Bauck, president and owner of The Fort Wine Company, has been a tugboat captain for the past 30 years. In the early ‘80s he crossed paths with a construction foreman who was also a cranberry farmer.
Bauck had grown up in a farming community but had never lived on a farm.
“I remember when I was a kid, I always wanted to live on a farm and that kind of stuck with me oddly enough,” Bauck said.
In 1988, Bauck sold his house and began looking for property in B.C.’s lower mainland to start a new venture as a cranberry grower. He finally settled on 24 acres outside Fort Langley.
At first, the farm was doing great, the land was productive and his strain of cranberries was hardy for the region.
“All the ingredients we had produced good crops,” Bauck said.
However, in the mid-‘90s Ocean Spray lost 2,000 acres of its land and began giving out planting grants to lure farmers into the cranberry business, he said. The plan worked—there were too many growers and the price of cranberries plummeted from 60 cents a pound to 10 cents a pound, he said.
Around this same time, Bauck had sold the 24 acres and bought the adjacent land.
“My vision was to plant Ocean Spray cranberries on the entire property and live on it with my wife and kids,” Bauck said. “We were sticking our neck out trying to get into this game, but then all of a sudden the cash flow we were expecting from the farm just wasn’t there.”
So Bauck came up with a new vision.
“We looked at all of our options and because we are close to Fort Langley, which is quite a popular tourist destination, so we thought, ‘What can we do that is value-added with a tourist component?’”
The winery was born. The Fort’s tasting room is decorated with old wagon wheels, antique barrels and a Wild West flair, borrowing the pioneer flavor of nearby Fort Langley, which is heralded as the birthplace of British Columbia.
The winery still cherishes its cranberry roots with three cranberry wines: Red Cranberry, White Cranberry, and a cranberry dessert wine called Cranberry Klondike.
People will buy what they like
Fruit wine is not for everyone.
“People’s perception of fruit wine isn’t always the best,” Bauck said. “They have memories of a strange uncle that made fruit wine in his basement and they were forced to drink it.”
Both Bauck and Dhaliwal said they have had to deal with a negative attitude toward fruit wines since they started making it.
Dhaliwal said he has even gone as far as changing the labels on his fruit wines to exclude the winery’s name on the bottle.
“People have this perception that because we’re using our name on a traditional wine and a fruit wine that the traditional wine will not be a great quality,” Dhaliwal said.
The fruity dessert wines now have fancier names such as Cassis (black currant), Framboise (raspberry), Logan (loganberry) and Oro (hazelnut).
Dan Radil, a wine columnist who also teaches wine-tasting classes in Bellingham and runs his Web site DantheWineGuy.com, said that there are many fine fruit wines out there but they can’t really be compared to more traditional table wines.
“It’s really like comparing apples and oranges,” Radil said.
Radil said traditional wines are meant to be a complex interplay between acidity, alcohol, fruit and sugar but fruit wines are more one dimensional.
“You only thing you will taste is the fruit that appears on the label,” Radil said. “Enjoying a fine wine is about picking up the subtle nuances that may appear in one wine but not another.”
Another thing that separates traditional wines from fruit wines, Radil said, is the inability to properly pair fruit wine with food. Radil said the one-dimensional nature of a fruit wine makes it more like a sauce layered onto the food, which could possibly overpower it.
“When pairing wine and food, the idea is to be able to taste both the wine and the food,” Radil said.
Yet, Bauck said and Radil agreed that most people have no preconceived ideas about how wine should taste and typically buy what they like. So, Bauck said, it has always been crucial to allow the public to taste the wines before making up their minds.
“If people can taste the product—they’ll buy it,” Bauck said.