U.S. Wine Beyond the Contiguous States

If you will be vacationing this fall in Alaska or Hawaii, I have a tip for you: consider tasting (and buying) wines from our 49th and 50th states; some are surprisingly good.

When one thinks of wine grapes one often envisions vast vineyards in France or California; Alaska's wild berries don't usually come to mind. However, eleven licensed wineries in the state are working to change that, using a grape concentrate blended with Alaska berries. From salmonberry wine to honey-based meads, Alaska's wineries produced nearly 5,000 gallons of wine in 2006.

Steven Thomsen and his wife opened Alaska’s first licensed winery, Alaska Wilderness Winery in Kodiak, in the late 1990s. “Using the natural bounty of wild berries goes along with the move toward healthier living," says Thompson during our conversation. “Our products are all wild and pretty healthy,” he adds, noting that, “if you're looking for antioxidants, these northern berries are full of them.”

I tasted the Sparkling Rhubarb, a fruity sparkling wine made from grapes hand-picked in Alaska’s Matanuska-Susitna Valley; the long sunny summer days give this Knik Red rhubarb an exceptional flavor. Their Salmonberry Wine is semi-dry wine from Kodiak Island’s salmonberries, with French oak aging adding complexity and an oak wood finish. Wild Rose was the first honey mead wine I’d tasted. Flavored with rose petals picked locally, it reminded me of a Muscat wine with a rose bouquet and a honey finish.

Denali Winery, established in 1997 and located at the foot of the Chugach Mountains in South Central Alaska, uses mountain water and imported grape juices to create its wines. Every bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Ice Wine has a label featuring a drawing of one of the many wild animals found in Alaska.

Dorothy Fry, who owns the Bear Creek Winery in Homer, said, "Even confirmed dry red wine drinkers who say they don't like fruit wines leave here saying they liked the sweet ones the most." Along with their signature Raspberry-Rhubarb wine, Bear Creek makes Blueberry, Wild Cranberry, and Fireweed Honey Wines, and Raspberry Mead from local honey and raspberries.

Bear Creek purchases grape concentrate from the lower 48 states, blends it with local fruit, and creates Blu Zin (Blueberry-White Zinfandel) and Raspberry Rossa, a wine named Crush (Cranberry-Blush Blend), and a Peach Chardonnay that is quite good.

Say Aloha to Hawaiian Wine

On a recent trip to the islands of Maui and Hawaii, I explored the native wines. A scenic and gentle one-hour drive from Lahaina took us 2,000 feet up the cool, green slopes of the Haleakala Volcano, past tiny, rural communities, rolling green pastureland, distinguished trees, majestic mountain vistas, and sublime seascapes en route to Tedeschi Vineyards in Ulupalakua.

The trend in Chardonnay preferences away from flabby, creamy styles toward more tropical fruit flavors is well served at Tedeschi as 20,000 cases of wine are made each year from pineapple juice. These were certainly easy drinking and it was more fun to bring home gift bottles of the Hula O Maui Pineapple Sparkling Wine than to follow the crowds to the airport counters selling the pervasive chocolate-covered macadamia nuts (Editor’s note: Yeah, but the only nuts worth bringing home are the whole nuts encased in dark chocolate, which are delicious but difficult to find).

Tedeschi Vineyards, established in 1974, harvested its first grapes in 1980, but the history of the land for agriculture goes back to the 1800s. In 1845 King Kamehameha used portions of the district to grow and process sugar cane. In 1856, Captain James Makee purchased the property for his ranch where King Kalakaua and Queen Kapi'olani were such frequent visitors that a cottage was built for them on the property, and which still stands. Known for good reason as Hawaii’s "Merrie Monarch," the King's poker games and his taste for champagne were inspirations for the eventual creation of the winery and its featured sparkling wines.

In 1974, twenty-two acres of fertile sloping volcanic soil were planted with hybrid grapes cloned at UC Davis from Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, and Carignane. This hybrid Carnelian grape is now also grown in Central California, Brazil, Chili, and South Africa.

All their early grape wines come from this one red grape with the duration of skin contact determining the varietal. For example to make white champagne, grapes are gently pressed immediately, before fermentation. For blush wine the pressure is greater, extracting more of the reddish pigment from the skin. For the reds, a process of carbonic maceration uses the weight of the grapes in their vats to crush out their juice while maintaining contact with the skins. This flavor and color-intensifying process is followed by a month of fermentation and compression before the wine is machine pressed and the skins removed. Their Plantation Red goes a step further, aged in French oak barrels to yield a bold, cherry-cola flavor, lighter than California cabs, but with a flinty character that brings to mind the volcanic soil it grows in. Ulupalakua Red, a smooth, medium-dry red wine with ripe berry and spicy flavors is made from a later planting of Cabernet and Syrah grapes.

With year-round summer, I asked when harvest takes place. The response: "Anytime we want it to." Because the temperature and irrigation provides the potential for a year-round growing season, the vines are forced into dormancy by stopping irrigation and pruning back leaf growth. Six months later, they harvest three tons of grapes per acre.

I’ve been on countless tours of winemaking facilities, but this is one I recommend, as it is filled with local history and not just the usual details of winemaking.

Volcano Winery is located between two active volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa, at 4000 feet on the Big Island of Hawaii. They produce half-grape, half-tropical fruit (yellow guava and the exotic jaboticaba berries) wines such as Passion Chablis and Guava Chablis as well as honey wines made of fermented honey water similar to mead. Macadamia Nut Honey Wine, made from the blossoms of the Macadamia Nut tree, is a uniquely Hawaiian sweet after-dinner treat.

For its pure grape wines Volcano Winery uses another grape hybrid also created at UC Davis, called "Symphony," a cross between Grenache Gre' and Muscat. The Symphony grapes, grown at the higher elevations of the area's volcanic mountains and ridges, produce an off-dry, fruity white wine.

Enjoy your physical, or sensory, trips to Alaska or Hawaii!

Sip Tip:

With a great Cajun style dinner with ribs, jerk chicken, and Andouille sausage I tasted a great summer dry red wine from Portugal by Dow of port wine acclaim. This 2005 Vale Do Bomfin was a Douro Reserve and cost a surprisingly low $12! The Douro Valley has been a DOC (demarcated region) since 1756 and has produced wines there since then. This was my first, but won’t be my last.