Some of the 17 wines produced at the Savage Oaks Vineyard & Winery in Union Tuesday morning. Holly and her husband Elmer Savage started the vineyard in 2002. They make all but three of the wines using grapes and blueberries grown on their property. Credit: Gabor Degre

Fruit wine has a bad reputation in the wine world, often derided as sickly sweet, unsophisticated, low-alcohol juice. In Maine, though, fruit wines have developed over the past few decades to be dry, complex and, perhaps most importantly, local.

The Bartlett Maine Estate Winery, founded in 1983, is the oldest winery in the state. When its founder and owner Bob Bartlett arrived in 1975, even he had a sour taste in his mouth about fruit wine.

“Fruit wines have always been sweet,” Bartlett said. “It’s an easier way to hide flaws. They’re harder to make dry and complex.”

Credit: Courtesy of Sharon Kiley Mack

Like many wannabe winemakers, he originally tried to grow grapes on his land, but the cold climate is not conducive to growing the warm weather berry. Bartlett admitted that he almost gave up, and started looking for properties in the Hudson Valley to grow grapes. At the same time, Bartlett was “playing around with fruit wine,” when he had an epiphany.

“We didn’t really want to leave Maine, so we thought, why not try to make higher quality fruit wines?” he said. “Nobody was really doing dry fruit wine way back then.”

Bartlett paved the way for the fruit wineries of Maine today. Not only did he pioneer Maine’s winemaking industry, but he also helped enact Maine’s first farm winery bill.

“Before, if you were producing wine, you could only sell through a wholesaler or distributor,” he said. “You couldn’t have a tasting room or sell wholesale yourself. [Now,] you have a one-on-one ability to promote, and you have more control over selling your product.”

Today, more Maine winemakers are turning to unconventional fruits to make wine. The industry has ballooned over the past few decades — and, likely, will continue to grow as agritourism booms, producers experiment with local produce and consumers diversify their palettes.

The fruit vintners of Maine

When Todd Nadeau, owner of Dragonfly Farm & Winery, started his business 13 years ago, he didn’t even think about fruit wines as an option.

Credit: Courtesy of John Clarke Russ

“Our goal was just to make grape wine,” Nadeau said. “I would not even entertain making fruit wine to sell. It just became apparent to us early on that our customers like a sweeter, easy drinking wine. There may be a stigma attached to fruit wine, [but] you have to know what the customers want.”

The new generation of fruit vintners of Maine come from a variety of backgrounds. Nadeau and his wife, Treena, were in the National Guard. Elmer Savage, co-owner of Savage Oakes Vineyard and Winery, was a mail carrier until he bought a family farm in Union that had been in his family for generations.

Credit: Gabor Degre

“My wife Holly and I bought [the family farm] from my parents in 2000,” Savage said. “We wanted to make it a working farm again. The whole idea with the winery was to get the value added product, not just grow things and sell them.”

Others studied winemaking, and that background knowledge may give Maine the credit it needs for the fruit wine industry to succeed at a large scale. Keith Bodine, co-owner of Sweetgrass Farm Winery & Distillery with his wife, Constance, earned his masters degree in enology at the University of California, Davis. He worked at wineries throughout California and Virginia before landing in Union.

Credit: Ashley L. Conti

“There’s a long history of winemaking in Maine,” she said. “We’ve been making wine here in Maine longer than Napa Valley has been making wine, we just use fruit. There’s a long heritage, but commercially, it’s only been the last 25 years.”

Fruit wine, agriculture and agritourism

Many winemakers in Maine started their business with the aim of only using local produce.

“Our aim was to open a winery and distillery primarily using Maine fruit,” said Constance Bodine. “The farmers around here make some great fruit, and they [are] happy to have a market. We use 70,000 pounds of Maine grown fruit every year.”

There are some limitations to only buying locally. The Bodines had to discontinue popular fruit wines when blight wiped out the pear orchards in Maine, or made Maine-grown peaches scarce and unaffordable.

Focusing on local produce, however, adds extra credo to fruit wineries as an agritourism destination. Even vintners who grow grapes locally using cold-hardy varieties have more luck selling fruit wines. Though Dragonfly Farm & Winery has thousands of grape vines on its property, Nadeau said that their most popular product is the cranberry “Candle Waster” wine, which sells about 5,000 gallons a year.

Even Savage, who admitted he prefers making grape wines, said that his wild blueberry wines sell better.

“People come here wanting to try something unique, and blueberries are kind of our thing in Maine,” Savage said. “On the grape side, there’s a little bit of that attitude towards the varieties we’re growing because we don’t grow merlots or chardonnay or the varieties that people are familiar with.”

Programs like the Maine Winery Guild’s Maine Wine Trail helps to literally put wineries on the map for out of state tourists, but the winemakers agree local tourism is as important to the year-round success of their business.

“We’re supported by a lot of locals,” Savage said. “A significant part of that tourism part is the in-state people on day trips. They like the experience of coming here and seeing what we have.”

Even locally, though, Maine vintners had to overcome stereotypes about fruit wine.

“We realized there were so many people in this area that had never been to a winery,” Constance Bodine said. “A lot of people had their Uncle Bob who made sweet fruit wine in the cellar that they absolutely hated, and that’s something we had to overcome.”

The future of the fruit wine industry in Maine

Maine’s fruit winemakers have benefitted from the expanding diversity of alcoholic beverages (think, for example, of the fruity hard seltzers that now dominate liquor store shelves).

“In the last 13 years [in business], it’s only been in the last five or six that we really feel like people are finding us,” said Brain Smith, owner of Oyster River Wine Co. in Warren. “People are really willing to try unique and different things now.”

Credit: Stephen Betts

“The new drinkers, I guess we can call them millennials, they’re liking the different flavors,” Constance Bodine added. “We are seeing a younger crowd. They love the dry ciders that hurt your face when you drink it and the complexity of [wild blueberry] sangria.”

As the fruit wine industry in Maine expands, there are some continued challenges, though. For one, fruit wine is still a niche product. Despite the strides in the industry, there is still the element of convincing the customer.

“We get people in the summertime who will come to the tasting room and when they find out you make fruit wine they’ll turn around and leave,” Bruce Olson, owner of Tree Spirits Winery in Oakland. “I think that convincing the consumer to at least try fruit wine is a challenge.”

The price point on fruit wine also tends to be higher, which is especially challenging as Maine’s fruit wines expand from tasting rooms to liquor store shelves.

“Why should I pay $14 for something I’ve never even heard of and sounds weird to me when I can spend $12 for a California wine?” Olson said. “We’re all much smaller manufacturers. No matter what we’re making it from, it’s always going to be a little bit more expensive.”

For winemakers looking to source locally, finding fruit will be a challenge as well.

“There’s not enough [fruit] in Maine, at least at this point, to sustain that big of a fruit wine industry with the exception of blueberries and apples,” Smith said. “To make any amount of wine you need a lot of fruit. Any small fruit grower would love to sell it at a farmers market for $4 a pound.”

Despite the challenges, the industry keeps growing, with no signs of stopping any time soon.

“I would say that the boom over the last 10 and 15 years has been huge for the industry,” Constance Bodine said. “It’s one of the fastest growing beverage manufacturing [industries] in the state. I think it is going to continue because everyone wants to eat and taste the place, especially the visitors. Maine’s known for tasting great.”