When Marreya Bailey looks at the future of wine in the United States, she doesn’t see a path forward for traditional wine grapes like Pinot Noir or Chardonnay. Those grapes, Vitis vinifera grapes, aren’t indigenous to North America and struggle to grow in much of the country for a variety of reasons, including the fact that they aren’t cold-hardy and generally require a higher soil pH than is found naturally across the United States. Bailey, the owner and producer of Mad Marvlus Wines in Sonoma County, says there will always be a market for wines like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but the industry needs to explore other options as the climate crisis continues to worsen. This is why she makes wine primarily from what she calls “climate-friendly fruit:” hybrid grapes, apples, pears and botanicals, all flora requiring less water to grow in Northern California.
“I work with a variety of underrepresented apples that are very old and aren’t very common in the United States… and quince, [which] is basically a lemony apple, and it doesn’t take a lot for it to grow. It’s just another way I feel we can redefine what white wine is,” Bailey says.
Bailey’s interest in fruit wines is a hardly new concept. Fruit wines appear in the record of human history as early as the Greeks and the Romans, and countless cultures since have embraced beverages fermented from fruits, including blends of fruits and fruits with botanicals. Unfortunately, today, many consumers hear “fruit wine” and think of wine coolers and fruity malt beverages, and that’s not representative of what today’s fruit winemakers are producing with 100% fruit wines or co-ferments with grapes. (“Co-ferments” can mean two or more grape varieties fermented together or grapes fermented with other fruits, like apples, pears or berries. Co-fermentation gives winemakers more flexibility when making blends.)
Kathline Chery, Director of Production for Kalchē Wine Cooperative in Fletcher, Vermont, makes wine from hybrid grapes, sometimes blending in foraged fruits for the sake of creativity but also because it makes good business sense.
“Organic grapes, grapes that aren’t manipulated too much in the field are very hard to come by… and apples are so abundant. It would be silly, if you want to make it as a winery, to ignore this free fruit. Most of the apples we got the first year were free because they were on everybody’s lawn and nobody cared about them, which was great for us as a business,” Chery says.
Then there’s the environmental factor that Bailey mentioned. Traditional wine grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay aren’t native to North America and struggle to grow across much of the continent. Grape growers invest significant time, energy and money into growing these grapes where they weren’t meant to thrive, whereas winemakers using other fruits lean into what their local land is offering. Cider apples, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries all flourish in many parts of the United States and can be foraged or farmed intentionally for winemaking.
Bailey’s wine pushes against what many drinkers are accustomed to, and she questions why European wine is considered the gold standard. Her work draws on a history of fermenters, like Jupiter Evans, an enslaved winemaker born in the same year as Thomas Jefferson, who have historically infused ciders with medicinal herbs.
Chery also embraces this history: “I come from a craft beer background doing homebrew in college, and in beer, you’re putting everything in there. There can be fruit, and it’s encouraged. There’s a book I reference, Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers [by Stephen Harrod Buhner], that’s basically a recipe book of indigenous cultures making fermented beverages, and the words ‘beer’ and ‘wine’ are commonly interchanged… It’s a more global perspective of what winemaking can be.”
Fruit winemakers share the task of educating consumers about their products and encouraging them to expand their palates. Chery and her partners at Kalchē, Justine Belle Lambright and Grace Meyer, want to create the “Next World of Wine,” which involves engaging with customers about why this style of winemaking is important for the future and sustainability of wine. This year, Chery will be incorporating magnolia blossoms into one of Kalchē’s wines and is working on a piquette made with local maple sap instead of water. There are producers embracing minimal intervention methods, with all the funk and yeasty aromas that come with it, while others are dedicated to preserving the purity of the fruit, making strawberry wine that tastes exactly like a ripe strawberry would taste in the height of summer. But it’s all wine.
In 1995, Kyle Peterson’s family founded WineHaven Winery and Vineyard originally to transition out of the commercial honey industry and into making mead. Peterson studied fermentation at Cornell University and knew that while grapes might not be the best investment in Chisago, Minnesota, other fruits could make great wine.
“There’s a misconception about fruit wines that they’re all Boone’s Farm. They aren’t. What we’re making is wine with authentic fruit flavor.”
Distinctly different in style than those of Mad Marvlus or Kalchē, WineHaven’s fruit wines are pure expressions of the fruits used, like estate-grown raspberries and Wisconsin cranberries—and yet, the focus is still on what nature provides. Peterson wants consumers to know exactly what fruit the wine is made of from just the aromas alone.
“Our wine is 100% fruit. It’s fresh berries picked at the peak of ripeness, and then it’s our job as winemakers to let that expression come through in the wine. The color of the wine is the natural color of the fruit. Nature made it perfect the way it is… If it’s not broke, we’re not fixing it.”
Fruit wines are prone to faster oxidation than conventional wines, so they’re not generally meant for aging and should be consumed shortly after purchase. But considering that the vast majority of wine is consumed within hours of purchase anyway, fruit wine’s lack of long-term ageability shouldn’t be a barrier for most drinkers. For those looking for a potentially more climate-friendly alternative to conventional wine, fruit wines can provide a delicious—and deeply interesting—alternative.