Like many hands-on, thrifty Alaskans, Louis Maurer homebrewed for fun and enjoyed it. Things got serious when he married into a family that owned a winery that itself had sprung from a kitchen-garage experimental setup. He quickly mastered winemaking’s commercial side and took a shine to berries as a main ingredient for their rich, diverse flavors. With a much shorter growing season, large crops here are more daunting than in the Lower 48. Still, Maurer, who now owns and runs Bear Creek Winery in Homer, insists on using 100 percent Alaskan fruit for his Glacier Bear label of unblended, full-bodied beverages.
Drawing on a local supply network, Bear Creek cultivates 20,000 gallons per year, nine core varietals and five seasonal wines poured in their tasting room and sold statewide in stores. The lineup includes apple, black currant, raspberry, pomegranate, and strawberry-rhubarb, but their bestseller—no surprise—is blueberry. Marrying fruit wines to merlots, chardonnays, or white zinfandels, Maurer coaxes out bouquets ranging from plummy with a toasted-wood finish to tart kiwi and fresh spring rhubarb with a hint of lime. “Blending allows for a lot of creativity and forgiveness,” he says, “when a batch of wine does not ferment exactly how it is expected to.” Trial and error is key to crafting quality consistently, as the needed yeast additions and clarification practices differ significantly from those of grape wines.
As ripe grapes can be harvested and imported only in the fall, vintners rely on concoctions from fresh or frozen domestic fruit to keep production up year-round.
Fruit wine a short ways north
Alaska Berries, a family-owned farm near Soldotna and the state’s other fruit-wine producer, also sells hardy berry plants and processes jams, syrups, and vinaigrettes “from the bush to the bottle.” They grow saskatoon and gooseberries as well as the usual kinds, plus one exotic: haskap or “honeyberry,” a super-fruit native to Russia, Poland, and Hokkaido, the Ainu people’s “little present at the end of a branch.” Tart, lumpy, dark-blue nuggets with elderberry-Honeycrisp notes pack three times the antioxidants blueberries do, and the farm harvests two to four tons yearly.
Balancing fruit wines’ alchemy is equal parts intuition and science. Bottles can be popped after merely three months—little presents at the end of a short wait. Fifteen pounds of berries yield five gallons of ruby sunshine. So, pick plenty or trade with your spouse for a corked share.
Blueberry wine sauce
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 Tbsp cornstarch
- 1 cup blueberry wine (or dry red wine)
- 1½ cups fresh blueberries
- 1 Tbsp lemon juice
- 2 sprigs of thyme
Stir together sugar and starch in a small saucepan. Whisk in wine and lemon juice. Add thyme and cook on medium heat, stirring constantly. When mixture thickens and comes to a boil, add berries and keep stirring until most have burst. Remove and let sit to cool. Pass through fine-mesh strainer if desired. Refrigerate. Goes well with venison or game birds.
— Makes about 2 cups