By Jenny Neyman
By the time Alaska Berries opened its new winery last month, owners Brian and Laurie Olson had already spent two years of intricate, meticulously conducted, carefully recorded experimentation, testing and polling in creating their menu of fruit wines.
They built a facility just for this purpose, with conditions specifically designed for optimal wine production and storage.
They’ve spent over 10 years gradually working toward this step in their long-term plan for their farm, starting with gradually clearing and fencing their 4 acres at the end of West Poppy Lane off Kalifornsky Beach Road between Kenai and Soldotna, then cultivating and perfecting their berry plants, selling plant starts, expanding into producing and selling jams and syrups, and, finally, producing the fermented fruits of their labor.
Brian Olson has directly overseen and more-often-than-not personally planted, picked, pruned and produced this progression every step of the way. And, so, takes rightful pride in the quality of his ingredients and the fact that Alaska Berries is the only estate winery in the state — meaning the only to grow and use all its own produce in its products.
All Alaska Berries bottles bear the Alaska Grown label, and the new tasting room is decorated with signs of the blue-and-yellow logo. To Olson, Alaska Grown isn’t just a concept, it’s a personal mandate, as he’s the specific Alaskan doing the growing.
“It’s 100 percent field grown in Alaska. And I say Alaska, but what I mean is our farm. I know when people pull up here there’s no doubt in their mind, this is what we grow, this is where we harvest it, this is where we process it, it’s complete. That cycle, to me, is important,” Olson said.
You don’t get any more literally hands-on than an owner/operator of a small farm. Still, for all that direct effort and planting-to-pouring involvement, there’s one aspect of the wine that is not specifically crafted to Olson’s preference — the wine itself.
Don’t ask him to name his favorite varieties. Don’t request recommended food pairings. Don’t expect flowery descriptions of the wine’s nose — rich in earthy undertones with bright notes of fallen spruce needles and a chewy mouthfeel, or some such.
Olson doesn’t drink it — hasn’t had a drop of alcohol in 25 years, in fact. As far as he’s concerned, his nonwine-drinking tastes don’t matter. What counts is that his creations suit his customers’ palates.
“We don’t write stuff about the nuances of the flavors and the scents and all these things, because what we think of it is irrelevant. One thing I’ve learned about wine, everybody’s taste is different. Some people love one kind and hate the other, somebody loves this one and hates that one. So we said, no nuances. To me, it’s intimidating if they have all that on there and you don’t catch that peppery aftertaste and hint of molasses and caramelized pomegranate juice from a unicorn,” Olson said.
“We just want to say, ‘Hey, you’re the judge of it. Your description is what matters. Your taste is what matters.’ We want folks to come in and make their own decisions about what it tastes like and what they want to drink it with. They don’t need me to tell them that,” he said.
But don’t get the impression, just because the vintner isn’t an imbiber, that the wine is haphazardly crafted. To the contrary, it’s taken two years of painstakingly detailed small-batch bench tests to develop his 13 varieties, trying out different yeasts, tweaking ratios, dialing back sugar content, playing with the balance of tannins and pH, each round submitted to sampling by a varied pool of wine connoisseurs in the community.
“We’ve been licensed for over two years but we haven’t sold it because we’ve been doing research and wine taste-testing with individuals to figure out, what does the market here want? Let’s make what folks want,” Olson said.
The main thing he discovered from two years of testing is that many people don’t like overly sweet fruit wines, with extra sugar added toward the end of the process. His testers leaned more toward smooth, balanced flavors, where the flavor and character of the fruit is foremost.
His offerings include Black Current, Blueberry, Gooseberry, Raspberry, Red Current, Rhubarb, Redoubt Rhubarb Raspberry, Saskatoon, Sassy Goose (a mix of Saskatoon and Gooseberry), Strawberry, Strawberry Gooseberry, Straw-berry Rhubarb and Haskap. The latter is Olson’s point of pride, a berry bush in the honeysuckle family with roots in the Hokkaido region of Japan. Olson spent six years developing his own genetically distinct version of the flavorful, antioxidant-rich berry, which most closely resembles a blueberry in taste and appearance but offers more nutritional value and flavor. Haskaps are now his majority crop, and his most distinctly flavored wine.
“It’s a unique flavor. So far everybody who’s drank it has enjoyed it,” Olson said.
Which doesn’t come as a surprise, since most everybody who eats a haskap raves about it, and Olson’s goal in transforming fruit to wine is to mess with the natural flavors as little as possible.
“We decided we’re going to ferment to the natural fermentation process and not back sweeten our wines,” Olson said. “But with the yeast, some will end up dry, some will end up mid-dry, midsweet, and some will end up, some folks say sweet, but it’s more like a perception of sweetness. … We’re letting the natural characteristics of the fruit come through.”
This approach suits Olson’s tastes perfectly, even though he isn’t taste-testing his own products, because his primary interest in all the value-added product Alaska Berries makes and sells is the fruit, first and foremost.
“For me, it’s the chemistry, the protocols that make a good wine. There’s hundreds of different yeasts and I’m the kind of guy who thinks there’s always got to be one just a little bit better. And you cannot make good wine unless you start with good product,” he said.
That’s why being an estate winery is important to him, Olson said, so he can ensure a quality product from start to finish.
“It’s quality control. Being out there, being able to control the harvest, because not every berry ripens at the same time on the same plant. If you buy from somewhere else you don’t know what you’re going to get, you don’t know how it was picked. We control the sanitation, we have rules in place (no tobacco or dogs allowed on the farm, for instance). We’re picking it at the peak of ripeness and handling it with the proper standards for cleanliness all the way through.”
Once the wine is bottled, it’s stored in optimal conditions, as well — on its side in a windowless, temperature-controlled room, protected from light, vibrations, swings in temperature and anything else that might negatively affect it.
“Maybe it’s because I’m a control freak, I don’t know, but the thing is that we can control this wine. There’s nothing that can harm that wine here,” he said.
Start-to-finish winemaking also lets Olson underscore his Alaska Grown certification. He’s not just using some produce grown in-state, or even just a majority. Every last berry that goes into an Alaska Berries bottle of wine came out of the same plot of land on which the winery sits.
“No grapes were harmed in the making of our wines. We don’t use grape concentrates,” he said. “And I don’t throw two blueberries in a 650-liter tank then add 648 liters of blueberry concentrate out of Washington or Oregon and say I used some Alaska Grown produce in my products. I’m a farmer. To me, Alaska Grown means something. It is or it’s not. It’s like being pregnant, you’re either pregnant or you’re not.”
The winery is capable of making about 6,000 liters of wine at a time. Olson plans to have four or five of his 13 varieties in process at any one time, and a rotating selection of three wines available to sample in the tasting room at any one time. That way, no one variety is sold too soon or sitting around too long, but there’s still plenty of options for different preferences.
“I like the fact that we have enough different things that nobody’s going to come out here and not like something. Everybody will have something they like,” he said. “And please don’t judge this wine by others you’ve had. Our rhubarb wine is different than something made somewhere else. I say, just approach it with an open mind. You will never find two wines the same — it’s impossible. We grow ours here, it’s a different plant, we make it probably completely different than they do. You may find you like this one better or worse, but I can guarantee it’s different.”
The Alaska Berries’ tasting room and sales shop is open from 2 to 7 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, year-round. Currently the wine is only available at the winery, though Olson expects to be able to mail in-state orders, to areas where alcohol shipping is allowed, by the holidays. He also is working toward online sales through http://www.vinoshipper.com.
Costs vary from $16 to $20 a bottle. Alaska Berries also offers a charter membership program. For a one-time fee of $25, a charter member can get 10 percent off single-bottle sales, and 15 percent off wine by the case. Charter members also get invitations to special tastings and first opportunity to purchase limited-quantity varieties.
“The locals are what will sustain us year-round. I want to provide the best fruit wine possible in the state of Alaska. I want to be able to sustain this farm and pay my workers a sustainable, living wage. If I can make enough money to do that selling my wine at that price, then I don’t need more than that,” Olson said. “I’m a cheapskate. I came from Depression-era parents. You pinched everything, but I buy the best quality product I can get, and I’m not greedy. And that’s a point of pride for me.”
As is his attention to detail throughout the fruit-growing, winemaking process. This new step for Alaska Berries essentially adds another job to Olson’s already over-full-time responsibilities, but he thinks that’s also what distinguishes Alaska Berries in the Alaska fruit wine market.
“I love working with people, I love teaching people who have never done stuff like this who are anxious to work and they’re anxious to learn. Every day is different, and the folks you get to meet along the way, I like that,” Olson said. “I don’t think there’s anyone else crazy enough to do this, but I love it.”
For more information, visit www.alaskaberries.com.