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The Big Picture of American Fruit Wine

Thursday, October 10, 2013

I found an incredible book at the bookstore the other day: The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink. The 700-page reference tome was written to offer up a definition for everyone including those overseas, just what “American food” or “American cuisine” really is.

In the preface, the editor describes American food as “a smorgasbord foodscape filled with creative entrepreneurs, overworked consumers, well-intentioned reformers, and competing culinary elites. It is composed of numerous ingredients, diverse flavors, unique dishes, ever-changing modes of preparation, expanding methods of distribution, and usual and unusual ways Americans eat.”

While recognizing that fruit wine started as an ancient practice (“Egyptian pomegranate wines and Mesopotamian date wines are among the earliest documented examples.”), contributing editor Tonya Hopkins writes that it’s also an American tradition stemming back to our earliest days:

“Many European colonists and pioneers who settled what is today the United States had come from northern regions where grapes were not primary crops, so they were accustomed to making fermented concoctions from apples, wild berries, and grains.”

She writes that in the days before canned goods were available on the shelves of supermarkets, homemade fruit wine was an integral part of American cookery, “like canning and preserving foodstuffs to last beyond a harvest.”

During  Prohibition (1919-1933), homemade fruit wine became even more common  thanks to a loophole of sorts in the federal law that allowed families to make up to two hundred gallons per year of fruit juice for personal use. Sometimes, of course, some accidental fermentation was just bound to happen, right? Whoops!

According to the Companion, fruit wines were sold in general stores in small towns throughout the country both before and after Prohibition, and especially in rural areas and in the South. These wines were made on many American farms and fruit orchards, “further underlining the strong association of fruit wines with country living.”

Today, the making of fruit and other non-grape wines has become, according to the book, “an American hobby supported by numerous societies and websites linking enthusiasts to information and technological advancements that foster quality winemaking.

“Nevertheless,” the book concludes, “most fruit wine in the United States (these days) is produced and sold at wineries, generally using locally grown fruit.”

We would add these additional “big picture” details to the book’s excellent snapshot of fruit wine:

• There are about 7,000 working wineries, mostly small, family-owned operations in rural areas spread across the country, and in just about each of the 50 states, but only about 700 of these wineries make fruit wine, honey wine, hard cider or other specialty non-grape wines. That means only 10% of American wineries make it.

• Most of those 700 wineries that make non-grape wine and hard cider do not ship their products out of state, selling them out of their tasting rooms and sometimes additionally through limited retail in their local communities and counties surrounding their winery.

• The wineries that do direct ship to consumers, usually only ship to a handful of states. And there’s no way to predict which states those may be. That’s why Cherrywine.com offers a state-by-state search function that allows you find which wines, ciders, and liquors can ship to the state of your choice.

• None of the wineries who make real, handmade fruit wine have national retail distribution. So, the only fruit wine you’re likely to find in stores near you (unless you live by a fruit winery) is a Japanese-made plum wine, or Boone’s Farm or Manischewitz, which are mass-produced “pretend” fruit wines (see link).

• Boone’s Farm is not actually wine. It’s a malt beverage dressed up like a fruit wine, and nothing against Boone’s Farm (I’ve enjoyed it in the past myself), but it is nothing like a fruit wine made by a small winery with real, whole fruit. And Manischewitz is actually sweetened grape wine with artificial fruit flavors added.

• The top ten states with the most wineries that make fruit wine, honey wine, hard cider and exotic non-grape wines & spirits are:

1. New York

2. Pennsylvania

3. Michigan

4. California

5. Ohio

6. Washington

7. North Carolina

8. Virginia

9. Wisconsin

10. Missouri

• Some trivia: Only one state in the union does not have at least one winery making fruit wine: Nevada. Nevada makes up for this oversight (or perhaps it’s due to the lack of agriculture there), by giving us Las Vegas. So, Nevada can be forgiven. And, the good news for Nevadans is that Cherrywine.com currently  lists 88 handmade non-grape wines that are shippable to Nevada. So even if they can’t go wine tasting there, Nevadans can still enjoy the specialty wines, ciders and liquors of producers in lots of other states. And they can make your own fruit wine by ordering supplies and equipment from our Winemaking Kits search.

I hope that adds to the big picture.

And so, the Oxford Press has spoken: fruit wine is as Egyptian as The Nile, as Mesopotamian as the Tigris-Euphrates…and as American as the Mississippi. As American as a wild black raspberry, a juicy strawberry, and a tart cherry. Apple wine is as American as apple pie, country stores, dirt roads and root cellars. And we’re glad to be here to help you get your hands on this array of very special, very delicious, hard-to-find American beverages.

—Todd Spencer

 

 

Categories: Drinker's Blog