Drink your veggies?

Haines couple creates a vegetable patch of novelty wines

Posted: Tuesday, August 08, 2000

The Great Land Wines cellar reads like a grocery list: onion, carrot, beet, potato, rhubarb, blueberry, strawberry, cherry, high bush cranberry.

So where's the grape?

It doesn't grow in Haines, so it doesn't go in the wine, say David and Jeanie Menaker. The construction worker and teacher started the small winery as an environmentally friendly, truly local and wholly Alaska business.

``The thing that pleases me about the winery is it is a totally renewable, yet totally Alaskan, authentic product,'' Jeanie Menaker said.

It's also unique. The only other licensed winery in the state is Denali Winery in Anchorage, where customers come to make and bottle their own concoctions. But the grapes are imported.

The only grapes Great Land Wines imports are shriveled into raisins, used in the Raisin Jack. Raisin brews have a long history in Southeast Alaska, since the prospectors fermented their dried fruit into a gut-wrenching drink.

``We took a lot of the harshness out of it by making it properly, rather than just throwing it in a jar and setting it in a corner by the stove,'' Jeanie Menaker said.

The other wines were inspired by what was on hand. Haines was an agricultural area at the turn of the century, famous for strawberries. Potato and rutabaga farmers also flourished until the cost of shipping from Seattle became cheaper than the cost of growing them in Haines.

``We're kind of in an agricultural tradition by returning to using those in the wine,'' said Menaker. ``We're hoping that with the winery we'll be able to encourage some peripheral business.''


She hopes Haines residents will begin to revive their berry patches and expand their gardens as the winery provides a market for local fruits and vegetables. Already a Haines teen-ager is making money picking blossoms for the fireweed wine.

``It's a nice way for some kids to get out in the out of doors and use some of our very renewable resources,'' Menaker said.

The winery is just one of a number of small manufacturers trying to find a niche in the second-tier economy, where natural resources are used to create a marketable product, she said.

``Here in Haines I'm seeing people who are creating furniture, hot tubs, birch syrup, botanicals, face creams and soaps made from local vegetation,'' Menaker said. ``I think that we're getting smarter in what we're doing to use what is here to do something that is completely economical. It's not going to be on the same scale as bringing out tons of millions of board feet of timber, but it's still an opportunity.''

For three years the Menakers have been doing research and development, which involved making and drinking batch after batch of wine. Wheat and ginger wines were awful and it took several batches to get the Raisin Jack right, Jeanie Menaker said.

``There were some that weren't (drinkable) that just went down the drain. We haven't been able to come up with an apple yet that we liked,'' she said.

Haines resident Fred Shields helped with the research and development, providing fruit from his garden and then tasting the finished product. One time some California vintners were in his cafe, the Wild Iris, when a test bottle of dandelion wine was being passed around.

``We all had some, and they thought it was delicious,'' Shields said.

Shields hopes the winery succeeds.

``It's a hell of an idea,'' he said. ``It's a cottage industry and drinking is popular and that's what we need is little businesses that employ a few people and make what people want.''

Great Land Wines finally started selling the wine in April. It's been a slow start, but the Menakers figure any new business takes three to five years before it turns a profit.

David Menaker made about 500 gallons for this year and hopes to double that next year.

``We're pretty sure that we can continue to increase the production,'' Jeanie Menaker said.

Eventually they'd like to have a showcase winery, where tourists can come to tour, taste and buy. For now the winery is in a small house they own 1.5 miles from downtown Haines. It's not really open to the public yet, though they welcome occasional visitors.

``What we like to do when someone comes to a winery is just blind taste, because unfortunately when you come to the winery you come with a preconception and the preconception colors your taste,'' Menaker said.

The wines are surprising. Onion wine is sweet and heavy. It's the most popular among Haines residents, said Dee Dee Potter at The Spirit Shop in Haines. The butcher at Alaskan and Proud in Haines swears it's the best meat marinade he knows.

Potter has tried all 28 flavors and said her favorite is red currant, which doesn't taste like currant at all. Potter would like to carry all 28 wines someday, but so far she just stocks half that.

``They're kind of a slow start, but I think once people get to know them more they'll do better,'' Potter said. ``It's just a matter of getting the word out.''

The unusual ingredients and high price will make Great Land Wines hard to sell, said Cindy Ducote, manager at the Breakwater Lounge.

``This is a challenge for us, to tell the truth,'' Ducote said. ``This is going to be a different marketing than we've ever done before.''

But in the first week she sold two bottles, one each of elderflower and birch sap.

``Both people seemed to enjoy them,'' Ducote said.

While non-grape wines are unusual, they're not unheard of. Joel Weyhe tasted garlic wine in California, and many Asian restaurants carry plum wines. Elderberry wines have a long southern tradition, which a Kansas winery has begun to revive, Menaker said.

``Most everybody has heard of elderberry winery, dandelion wine and watermelon wine,'' Menaker said. ``Fruit wineries are gaining in acceptance and recognition all across the country. In areas where the Amish are, there's been fruit wines for years and years.''

Made in small batches, the Great Land wines are time-consuming and expensive to produce. They're sold in 12-ounce bottles, half the size of standard wine bottles and cost $12 to $20 per bottle.

``This is an incredibly small kind of outfit. Every step of this is done by hand,'' Menaker said. ``You wash every bottle and then you fill every bottle and then you cork every bottle and then you label the bottle.''

The small bottles boast a big impact. While most table wines are 9 percent to 11 percent alcohol, the Great Land Wines are 11 percent to 18 percent alcohol.

``We allow them to go to their natural conclusion on fermentation,'' Menaker said. ``We don't stop them, and most of the big wineries do.''

The wines also don't contain sulfites, a preservative used in most commercial wines, so they last only a few days after opening and must be kept in the refrigerator.

Great Land Wines are sold in Haines at liquor stores and the Halsingland Hotel, Fort Seward Lodge and Bamboo Room. The Alaska Liquor Store in Skagway also carries the wine, as do the Breakwater Lounge and the restaurant at the top of the Mount Roberts Tram in Juneau.

Haines wines come in surprising flavors

Tasters invited to a completely unscientific tasting of six Great Lands Wines were surprised by the flavors.

``I haven't had a lot of wines that aren't made by grapes,'' said Peter Ostea, leader of an informal Juneau wine club. ``A lot of times it just ends up tasting like fruit juices, but this actually reminded me of wine.''

The seven tasters rated the wines on a 20-point score sheet, with 20 as superior and 0 as bottom of the barrel.

Onion: Tasters described the strong aroma as more like pickles or canned goods than onion. The sweet taste was surprising, making it the favorite of Tony Warren, a waiter at the Fiddlehead Restaurant in Juneau.

``It's complex. It's unexpected. It's eclectic,'' said Warren, who prefers sweet wines. Scored 11.

Beet: With a smell like sherry and a smoky appearance, this wine was most popular among the connoisseurs in the crowd, but too sweet for others. Joel Weyhe, a member of the Juneau wine club, suggested that, like a port wine, it would go well with nuts.

``I like it, but it's not a wine you would drink with a meal, but with a cookie,'' said Astrid Koeller, a tourist from Germany. Scored 9.

Carrot: A clear, almost sparkling wine with a drier taste. ``Great attack. It has not much of a middle and no finish,'' Weyhe said. Scored 7.

Birch Sap: Clear, with a slightly sour flavor that lingers.

``The aftertaste kind of hangs in there,'' said Ostea. Scored 10.

Blueberry: A jewel-like color with a fruity scent cloaks an aggressive wine.

``I feel like it's more sensation rather than flavor. It had a real effervescence, sweetness and an acid too, but not much flavor,'' Ostea said. Scored 12.

Cherry: A sweet wine that most people liked on first sip.

``That's the best of the lot,'' said Weyhe. ``Like cinnamon.'' Scored 14.

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