Beyond Grapes: It’s Wine, But Not From the Vine

Apple, pumpkin and elderberry wine from Will o' Wisp Wines
Apple, pumpkin and elderberry wine from Will o' Wisp Wines Photograph by Lisa Bramen

The first thing that comes to mind at the mention of wine is “yes, please.” The second is “grapes.” And the last thing might have been pumpkins—until this week, when I tasted pumpkin wine.

Shelle Bailey, who lives near me in the Adirondacks, makes wine out of carrots, elderberries, apples and, yes, pumpkins—pretty much everything other than grapes. She recently got her federal permit to start a community-supported winery. Like a CSA (community-supported agriculture), a membership in the Will o’ Wisp Wines CSW gives Bailey the money up front to buy produce and supplies, which she will use to make unusual grapeless wines that will be distributed to members when they’re ready. Aside from the above, the varieties she plans to make include tomato, lemon-ginger, gooseberry, dandelion, beet, rose hips and maple.

The CSW model is novel, but it turns out that the kinds of wines she’s making have a history. Long before grapes cornered the fermented juice market, wine was made from all manner of fruits, vegetables and especially honey; mead, or honey wine, is “one of mankind’s most ancient alcoholic drinks,” according to The Glutton’s Glossary, by John Ayto.

Mead was also Bailey’s entrée into non-grape wines, both for drinking and for home fermenting. She stopped drinking most regular wine because of a bad reaction to sulfites, which are frequently added as a preservative so a wine can age without turning to vinegar. (All wines, including Bailey’s, also contain a certain amount of naturally occurring sulfites.) The wines she makes are meant to be drunk within a year.

Bailey learned to make wine through a combination of family history (she uses her father’s dandelion wine recipe) research (both online and by asking other hobbyists), and “a lot of trial and error,” she says. She is a proponent of “natural” wines—in contrast with commercial wineries, she doesn’t filter them, chemically “kill off” the yeast, blend batches or otherwise tinker with the flavor, for example by adding tannins. “I don’t want it to taste like a grape wine,” she says. “It’s kind of an ‘unwine.’ ”

My co-workers and I had a little tasting at my office this week. We tried Bailey’s apple, elderberry and pumpkin wines. They definitely would not be confused with a grape wine, although they didn’t taste how I expected. Bailey had told me she prefers dry wines, but I had been prepared for them to be a little sweet. They really weren’t; they tasted strongly of alcohol (this may have been partly because they had just been bottled; I suppose they may mellow with a few month’s age). Bailey says her wines average from 10 to 14 percent alcohol, which is comparable with grape wines. The apple, which I expected to taste like cider, was more like apple brandy—but, then again, not really like anything else. The pumpkin, the biggest surprise, was my favorite—slightly vegetal and almost imperceptibly sweet. The best description of her wine is probably Bailey’s own: she calls it “a light, dry, country-style/table wine with a fresh and uncomplicated taste.”

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.