The old saying is that when life gives you lemons, you should make lemonade. When life gives you wild blueberries, though, making wine not only tastes delicious — it may help save Maine’s iconic crop.
Though Maine is the United States’s only producer of wild blueberries, the industry has struggled over the past few years with dwindling harvests, disease, falling prices and increased international competition. There have been a number of attempts to creatively address the issue, like emphasizing wild blueberries as a health superfood or incorporating them into savory value-added products.
So far, nothing has stuck, but the latest effort is showing some promise: wild blueberry wine. Not only do growers see the benefit to their profit margins from this value-added product, but expert viniters believe that wild blueberries could put Maine on the map as a region with fruit so unique it merits its own appellation, like the grapes of Champagne centuries before it.
The wild blueberry winemakers of Maine
Perhaps the splashiest viniters in the wild blueberry winemaking world are Eric Martin and Michael Terrien, founders of Bluet in Scarborough. The childhood friends grew up in Maine and reunited as young adults in California. Terrien was working as a winemaker there and Martin, a writer, would help during the annual harvest, sorting and stomping the grapes into wine.
The friends would regularly visit Maine, usually during the late summer, when wild blueberries dotted roadside fields. Terrien began seeing the iconic fruit through winemakers’ eyes.
“When we think about the wild blueberry — the fact that it emerged 10,000 years ago as the ice sheet pulled off [Maine and the] Atlantic deposited marine sediment, fossilized creatures, diatoms, plant material — that is the exact same thing that we say when we talk about Champagne [grapes],” Terrien said.
Terrien started experimenting with wild blueberry wine in his uncle’s barn in Jefferson. In 2015, Martin and Terrien teamed up and released their first batch. Compared to other luxury beverages, Bluet is relatively inexpensive (in part, due to the low prices of wild blueberries in bulk), and can be made without sulfites because of fruit’s natural antioxidants.
Locavores ate up the idea of a product that was truly rooted in Maine.
“That first year, it all went out the door,” Martin laughed. “We’ve doubled in size every year.”
Terrien and Martin weren’t the first wild blueberry winemakers in Maine, though. Wineries around the state have been experimenting with wild blueberries for decades. Bob Bartlett of Bartlett Maine Estate Winery in Gouldsboro, has been making wild blueberry wine since the early 1980s. Bartlett said that Wine Enthusiasts Magazine even named his wild blueberry wine one of the top 40 red wines in the world in 1996, making it one of the only fruit wines to make the cut.
But Bluet took a slightly different approach to wild blueberry wine. Instead of adding sugar to wild blueberries to achieve the same alcohol levels as a red grape wine, Bluet preserved the fruit’s natural 7-percent alcohol level and added something else: bubbles.
“The bubbles affect your perception of completeness, of richness in your mouth,” Terrien said. “If you add sugar, you’re changing the essential nature of the wild blueberry. We’re starting with a pure product.”
Brain Smith, owner of Oyster River Wine Co., had a similar revelation when making his sparkling wild blueberry wine, the Ewing Fruit Project, in 2015.
“Adding things and making things different that what they naturally want to be is not our thing,” Smith said. “That lightly fizzy, low-alcohol style [makes] it natural as possible — nothing added, nothing taken away, no sulfites at any stage.”
For Barlett, Smith and other Maine winemakers, though, wild blueberry wine is a small part of their total production. Unlike fruit wineries in Maine that focus on agritourism, tasting rooms and appealing to local markets, Bluet has always had its sights set on the national market, leveraging Terrien’s connections in viticulture.
“For a small winery like ours, it’s not really worth the trouble to go down that path,” said Keith Bodine, co-owner of Sweetgrass Farm Winery & Distillery in Union. “[They’re] very well connected.”
Making wild blueberry growers sparkle
The growers who have worked with wild blueberry winemakers have found the experience rewarding.
“It’s been a pretty big help to us,” said John Boyington, who owns Ridgeberry Farm in Appleton and has been working with Martin and Terrien since 2014. “It’s another source of where we can move our berries instead of just selling to processors, and the profit is a little bit higher.”
“We all do our best selling fresh blueberries, but we really need to have options,” said Jeremy Howard at Brodis Blueberry in Hope, who started working with Bluet this year. “To have wineries, who use a lot of blueberries, that’s huge. We’re not selling 20 pounds or 50 pounds — it’s 40,000 pounds.”
Wild blueberry wine still only makes up a small percentage of the hundred million pounds of wild blueberry production in Maine, but it is increasing every year. When Bluet first started experimenting with wild blueberry wine, they bought just a few hundred pounds from one supplier. This year, they bought 80,000 pounds from a variety of growers.
Appleton Ridge on a field owned by the Boyington family, where Bluet sources wild blueberries. Credit: Courtesy of Hannah Henry
“Wine production adds a lot of value to the crop, [which is] helping the economy of the state,” said Eric Venturini, executive director of the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine. “Wines and winemaking helps the growers selling to winemakers get a good return on their berries, and helps spread the unique cultural story of Maine’s wild blueberry crop to new consumers in new places.”
Even though this season has been challenging for wild blueberry growers — between the drought, late frosts and pandemic causing uncertainties in labor availability — but wild blueberry wine has helped buoy the industry through uncertain times.
“Times of change, and even times of crisis, are also times of opportunity,” Venturini said. “While the drought has been bad for farmers, I am told that the berries produced during a drought are that much better for winemaking.”
Even wine enthusiasts, with little to no winemaking experience, are jumping on the wild blueberry wine train. Joe Appel, one of the founders of RAS Wines in Portland, worked as the wine director for Rosemont Market in Portland and wrote a weekly wine column for the Portland Press Herald before he was inspired by Terrien and Martin to explore wild blueberry wine in 2019.
“Wild blueberries have a tremendous amount of natural acidity and a lighter body — that’s the hallmark,” Appel said. “It’s more energetic and vibrant.”
The budding winemaker said that the team at Bluet have been invaluable mentors, employing a “rising tides lifts all boats” mentality to the sparkling wild blueberry wine industry in Maine.
“Once there’s a group [of sparkling wild blueberry winemakers], it’s not just two businesspeople who are just trying to sell their business, it’s actually a thing,” Martin said. “The combined energy becomes so much more than the sum of its parts. By next year there might be three or four of us in this space, enough to actually have arguments about how to make the wine, which is great.”
All in the timing
The time might be right for wild blueberry wine on a national scale, with consumers seeking products that are low alcohol, not sweet and different from what is well-known.
“This is where wine drinking culture is going,” Appel said. “Sparkling [wild] blueberry wine fits right into that.”
The pandemic hasn’t slowed the progress for these wild blueberry winemakers, either. They have suffered from a dip in sales and some restaurant contracts falling through, but because the product is still so new, they have found opportunities elsewhere to expand by applying for agricultural grants and hiring new staff.
“Given all the challenges in the world, it has been going pretty well,” Martin said. “We really want to be out there preaching the gospel outside of Maine and it’s a hard time to do that, [but] it makes us double down on firming up our production and our relationship with the growers.”