INDEX-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
February 1, 2021, 6:07PM
Updated 49 minutes ago
When Ayele Solomon bottled his first batch of homemade honey wine, he couldn’t have guessed it would lead him to “Shark Tank,” the television show where wealthy investors weigh the merits of individual entrepreneurs hoping to expand the reach of their businesses.
But that’s right where Solomon, an East Bay resident who brings his honey wine to life in the Sonoma Valley, found himself in late 2020, pitching the “Shark Tank” financial Goliaths from a distinctly David-esque niche: producing just a few hundred cases of mead wine a year, Solomon was a minnow, swimming among sharks.
He’d been tinkering with his Bee d’Vine honey wine for years, and last year had just opened the very first wine tasting bar permitted inside San Francisco’s Ferry Building. And then COVID-19 struck and totally killed his momentum.
A bit desperate about how to proceed, Solomon, 47, filled out an online application for “Shark Tank” in late March, and almost immediately, the producers called. By August he was in Las Vegas pitching the show’s five financial titans for a segment that aired in November on ABC television.
Honey wine, commonly called mead but known as t’ej in Solomon’s native Ethiopia, is the oldest fermented beverage in the world. It was prized by Vikings, and ancient Romans and Greeks. It is routinely enjoyed in Solomon’s country of origin — celebrated for its lively minerality and its floral, honeyed notes.
Solomon’s wine — which he ferments in space leased from Kenwood’s Deerfield Ranch Winery — is marketed as a refreshing change of pace from traditional grape wines. Indeed, the “sharks” on “Shark Tank” raved about the wine’s flavors. But it wasn’t winemaking, per se, that motivated him initially. His mission was environmental at its core.
Driving through what is left of Ethiopia’s Kafa rainforest in 2009, Solomon had a revelation as he surveyed its decimation. If he could incentivize his countrymen to protect the trees by monetizing them in a new way, he might just manage to help save the remaining forest.
Many of the flowering trees native to Kafa have been chopped down for crops, and their wood is made into charcoal and sold. But the trees are also an ideal source of the nectar and pollen needed to make honey, and Solomon thought that if modern beekeeping techniques could be introduced to the locals, the income generated by honey production might tip the scales toward forest preservation.
“If you source honey from tropical forests, there’s an incentive not to cut down the trees,” Solomon said. “My background is in conservation. Honey wine is much more sustainable, one of the rare things where you have ‘positive externality,’” a term used to describe consumption or production of a particular product which results in benefit to a third party. “Bees make the honey, but you also have the side product of increased fertilization and yields from other crops. There’s no tractors, no landscape fragmentation, no irrigation.”
Honey wine has always been something of an acquired taste, and Solomon knew that persuading oenophiles to try it might be an uphill climb. So he set to work in his family’s garage, perfecting the varietals that would become the foundation for the Honey Wine Company.
There is a crisp brut, and a fruity demi sec. “We’ve got something for everybody,” Solomon said. “Dry, sweet, still, sparkling.” The bowling pin bottle shape of the Bee d’Vine line is unique, as is the diamond-shaped label inscribed in Amharic Ge’ez script. But it is what’s inside BeeD’Vine’s bottles that really turned the heads of the “Shark Tank“ investors. Lori Greiner, whose net worth is estimated to be $100 million, exclaimed after her first taste, “This is the first white wine I’ve liked! It’s kinda like a dream come true.”
Solomon’s dream was for the “Shark Tank” investors to give him $750,000 in exchange for 20 percent of his Honey Wine Company and access to their professional rolodexes. He ended up winning financial commitments from four of the five multi-millionaires on the panel in a rare display of investor enthusiasm.
The holdout — called “Mr. Wonderful” by the show’s other cast members in a tongue-in-cheek way — was the lone dissenter, insisting that Bee d’Vine wines were too aggressively priced. Solomon held firm against that particular counsel. “Fermenting honey is not that easy,” he explained. “And honey is not scalable. There’s no huge difference whether you buy one barrel or a truck. There’s no economy of scale with honey.”
Sales of Solomon’s Bee d’Vine wines have certainly scaled since his “Shark Tank” appearance last year. “It was a really good bump,” he said. “The combination of COVID and the holidays and the fact that the sharks really liked it.”
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