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Carlsbad fruit wine company hopes to push category mainstream

Wine: the alcoholic fermented juice of grapes used as a beverage. Right? Sort of.

Wine: the alcoholic fermented juice of a plant product — such as a fruit — used as a beverage. Much better.

While the fruit wine industry — wine made from fermented fruit other than grapes, such as blackberries, pineapple or peaches —is probably less than 7 percent of the total U.S. wine market, companies such as Carlsbad’s California Fruit Wine Co. are hoping to change that.

California Fruit Wine Co. was started in a small 450-square-foot warehouse in Oceanside in 2009 by twin brothers Brian and Alan Haghighi.

The company moved into a 7,000-square-foot space in Carlsbad a few months ago and last week launched a $300,000 deal with Whole Foods Southern Pacific to carry its pineapple mango and pomegranate cherry sangrias in Southern California, Arizona, southern Nevada and Hawaii.

“Fruit wine fermentation is one of the most natural processes around. Why? Because anything that has sugar will naturally ferment, and many fruits have yeast native in their skins,” Brian Haghighi said.

“It’s not like we’re doing something abnormal. In fact, what we’re doing is something that’s been done since the beginning of civilization. The challenge is where fruit wine sits in the face of French and Italian paradigms for wine.”

And that will be difficult to overcome, particularly in California, known for its grape production and high-quality grape wines.

Dominic Rivard, a winemaker in Nova Scotia, Canada, who runs Wine Planet Consulting and is founding director of the Fruit Wines of Canada Association, said geographic regions that can’t grow grapes well typically have higher shares of fruit wine.

“There’s a very good market in Japan, for example, and parts of Asia. There, a wine is a wine is a wine,” Rivard said.

“They view grapes as fruit, so wine made from grapes or raspberries, for them it’s still wine.”

He said in those markets — as well as New Zealand and Scandinavia — it’s easy to gain acceptance in the market. Europe, on the other hand, is difficult.

“Europe is very regulated with rules and laws, so you have to be creative about how you name those wines," Rivard said. "…You can’t say it’s raspberry wine; you have to call it fruit fusion or something else.

“In continental Europe — England is a bit more lax — raspberry wine is not a wine. … Every country is very regulated, and wine has to be made from grapes. If it’s another fruit, you have to call it something else.”

The U.S. and Canadian markets aren’t so strict, but here the challenge is overcoming consumers’ preconceptions.

“I think fruit wine overall has gotten a bad rap because historically, people … are recalling syrupy sweet wine and that keeps people away a little. They’re afraid to give it a try,” said Linda McWilliams, owner and winemaker at San Pasqual Winery in La Mesa and president of the San Diego County Vintner’s Association. Her company produces a line of passion fruit wine in addition to traditional grape varieties.

“So at tasting rooms we give free samples of our passion fruit wine to show we’re breaking that paradigm of syrupy sweet fruit wine to have dry or near-dry delicious fruit wine.”

McWilliams said she’s aware of just two other wineries out of the 114 in San Diego County that produce a non-grape version of the beverage: Milagro Farms in Ramona has an apple wine, as does the former J. Jenkins Winery in Julian, which is reopening Friday under new ownership as Volcan Mountain Winery.

California Fruit Wine Co. is the only local company producing solely fruit wines and on a large scale, but sees its sangria as a building block. Whole Foods is selling sangria using the company’s fruit wines for $12.99 a bottle, now on promotion for $10.99.

“Sangria has become, in the last three years, a fast-growing category in the alcohol industry,” Brian Haghighi said. “What we’re guessing is none of these producers will be able to own that category like we can.

“We fully anticipate owning the sangria category, but think there’s going to be lot of competition in that space, so we made bets more long term with the fruit wine category and see sangria as a stepping stone.”

In addition to this initial grocery deal, California Fruit Wine Co. has pineapple, mango, pomegranate, cranberry and pumpkin spice wines available to members of its wine club. The company has had tasting rooms in the past, but closed them to focus on the wholesale side.

Brian Haghighi said they’ve put in bids for three spaces in the Village of Carlsbad to reopen the tasting room component of the business, and hope to have that running soon.

McWilliams said another reason for the lack of fruit wine in the region is that most San Diego County vintners are small, family-owned operations that may not be able to afford the larger-scale machinery needed to produce white wines and fruit wines.

But for San Pasqual, one of its passion fruit blends — the Habanero Passionfruit Wine, which has hibiscus, raspberry and habanero chile peppers — is the winery’s top seller.

“People always remember us for that. Though we make standard whites and reds, they remember us for our passion fruit wines and in particular the habanero is quite in demand,” she said.

“As a matter of fact, I’m collecting ingredients to start another fermentation tomorrow or Saturday because we’re running low already.”

That’s one thing that’s on California Fruit Wine Co.’s side. The U.S. Wine Market: Impact Databank Review and Forecast for 2015 found that younger drinkers are more adventurous with their wine. In fact, 66 percent already mix wine with fruit or fruit juice, making fruit wine not a far leap.

Brian Haghighi said he doesn’t see his company’s offerings competing with standard wines, but rather as alternatives or complements.

“The best place it sits is wine for brunch, lunch or late afternoon,” he said. “We’re not trying to compete with a cab at dinner paired with a steak. It’s kind of an anytime-of-day wine. We style our wines — because we have complete control over it — as light, refreshing and fruit forward.”

Just how large of a market fruit wine will end up being will depend on several factors, but the short answer seems to be: very large.

Brian Haghighi said he’s used the trendy Moscato market as a benchmark. That one varietal of grapes has reached a market cap of $2 billion. He uses craft beer in totality as the upper end — so he said he expects fruit wine to hit between $2 billion and $18 billion.

“Will we see shelves dedicated to fruit wine? Absolutely. Can we own that? Absolutely. Will it be a very large size? Yes,” Brain Haghighi said.

Rivard is optimistic as well, though he doesn’t predict fruit wines will ever overtake grape wine. He said he sees fruit wines becoming one of many choices people have, but not overpowering the grape sector.

He said it’s tough to predict where the fruit wine industry stands in the United States now, but using the Canadian market as a marker, would peg it at or below 7 percent of the total wine industry.

“In the U.S., it’s minuscule because America is such a large grape wine producer,” he said. “In Canada it’s about 8 or 9 percent of entire wine produced, which is quite a bit. I presume in the U.S. it’s a bit less.”

California Fruit Wine Co., which went through the Connect Springboard program and has raised about $1.5 million so far from friends, family and customers, has four full-time employees with plans to add four this year and have between 12 and 20 next year.

They don’t grow their own fruit, as San Pasqual does with their passion fruit, but do the fermenting in-house.

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