Sunday, November 8, 2009

Great fruit wines for an uninterested market

Would you pay $23 for the best passion fruit wine in the world?

No? Neither would most people, which is why Radee Wine owner Makiko Yamashita is having a hard time selling wine.

It's funny that while we often describe expensive Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc as tasting like passion fruit, nobody wants to order a dry table wine that really tastes like passion fruit.

Yamashita is trying, though, as a one-woman sales force for wines she has made in Thailand by a Canadian.

She's originally from Kobe, one of Japan's most international cities, and went to Kyoto University. She worked for five years at Tokyo Mitsubishi Bank in Chicago before deciding she wanted to help poor people help themselves.

So she went to Northwestern for an MBA focusing on economic development. As part of a school project, she went to western Kenya to try to help small farmers.

"Farmers there grow just enough to eat," Yamashita said. "They don't eat well. Their health is really bad. We wanted them to have better seeds and crops so they could be healthier and transition to growing cash crops."

The first plant Yamashita's group introduced was the passion fruit, and it was the first time she'd had them ("It was so delicious," she said). Another researcher had decided the tart fruit was appropriate for the soil. But the locals took some convincing. Only after a few people were able to sell passion fruits in Nairobi for profits did others start paying attention.

Yamashita spent four months in Kenya, sharing a house with other researchers. She likes backpacking off the beaten track, so the sporadic electricity, lack of hot water and constant attention from locals didn't bother her. She did get bored with eating the same food as the locals, who eat ugali -- made from maize -- every single meal.

"It's like polenta but more starchy and hard," she says. "It doesn't have much flavor. They eat beef stew when they have beef, and they have a green vegetable that's like kale, but mostly they eat ugali. At first I hated it, but I got addicted to it. After three months I gained 10 pounds. I didn't have a mirror so I didn't know."

After four months, Yamashita moved to Thailand, where passion fruit grows well. There she met Dominic Rivard, a Canadian who had made ice wine before moving to the tropics. Rivard was already making pineapple wine for tourist shops, and Yamashita, newly in love with passion fruit, thought she saw business potential.

Her Northwestern MBA group wrote a business plan for making quality fruit wines in Thailand and exporting them to the U.S. It got her a degree, but her partners weren't actually interested in following through.

Meanwhile, her fiance, a psychiatrist, was finishing his residency in Chicago and had a job in Sacramento. Yamashita moved there to be with him.

Market-wise, that might have been a good move. While its cuisine is sophisticated, Chicago is considered a conservative city wine-wise. Sacramento may not be the most culinarily open place in the world, but it does have Corti Bros. Darrell Corti, who will sell anything he thinks tastes good, became one of her first customers.

Corti's mark of approval has gotten Yamashita in the door at some Bay Area restaurants, but still only a few carry her wines: Cav, Ana Mandara, Local Kitchen & Wine Merchant, Tamarine (Palo Alto).

Yamashita originally made 2000 cases total of the three wines: passion fruit, mangosteen and pineapple. While mangosteen has two harvests a year, Rivard can make passion fruit and pineapple wine year-round -- but Yamashita has to sell more wine first.

"We've only sold 60 cases so far," Yamashita said in September. "This is more difficult than I thought it would be. But I still think there's a market."

I know her feeling. I thought this was a unique story, and I really like two of the wines (see below). But I couldn't interest wine editors in it, so I'm giving it away on the Internet for free. Yamashita has a similar strategy.

"I bring it to parties pretty often, and I would say once a week I drink a bottle," she says. Hmm, more than 20,000 bottles at one bottle per week -- if sales don't pick up, she could be drinking fruit wine for a long time. At least it's good.

Tasting notes (Note: These wines can be ordered online from Corti Bros.)

Radee Passionfruit Fruit Wine ($22.50/500 ml)
The best value of the three Radee wines. It's funny to write "passion fruit" as a descriptor, but that's what you smell, along with some pine resin and honey. Though there is sugar added before fermentation, because of passion fruit's intense acidity, it doesn't taste particularly sweet, though there are notes of honey. It's tight, pungent and refreshing. The passion fruit lingers throughout the long finish. It's medium-bodied, and you could fool someone into thinking it's a Spatlese Riesling, which is how I'd use it. Mouthfeel is a bit syrupy, and it's slightly hot on the finish; 12.0% alcohol. I had this bottle open for more than a week in the fridge and it not only held up; it got more complex with time.

Radee Mangosteen Ambrosia ($31.50/375 ml)
Both this and the pineapple wine are made by freezing fruit juice and removing the water to concentrate it before fermentation (the passion fruit is made from straight juice). All three are fermented in stainless steel tanks. This is the most complex and unusual of the three wines, and the least like its source fruit. It's an almost-orange color, not quite rose. It smells like wild strawberry and mango with a cedary note. On the palate, wild strawberry is the main flavor, with subtle citrus and a slight sweetness. The mouthfeel is slightly thick but not syrupy, with enough acidity to carry it. Also 12.0% alcohol, but it doesn't taste hot. The flavors evolve with air. I'd love to try this with Thai beef salad.

Radee Pineapple Ambrosia ($27/375 ml)
The mangosteen wine is very hard to describe. Not this one -- it smells and tastes like pineapple. There's also a green note of pineapple skin. The mouthfeel is soft and it's not as sweet as actual pineapple juice. At 11.0% alcohol, it doesn't taste hot. If you like pineapple juice, you'd probably like this. I found it too simple and it was the only bottle that, even in a week, I didn't finish.


Makiko said...

Blake, thank you for writing about Radee. My strategy is to let more people try and taste the wine through wine tasting events and parties because there is no wine like this in the market. The response is overwhelmingly positive. People love the wines and go to stores to look for it. This idea may sound crazy but it is a delicious and serious wine. The wines are now available also at The Wine Club (in SF and Santa Ana), Premier Cru, and Corkage Sake and Wine besides about 20 restaurants in the bay area. If anyone reading this lives in NY, I will be pouring Radee at Bottlenote's Around the World in 80 Sips in NYC this Friday.

Cara said...

Oh wow, thanks for the tip about the New York opportunity to try out these wines. I'm quite curious, so I hope I can get out there and taste this Friday night! it's good to keep an open mind for finding good wines.

Jack Everitt said...

Thanks for reviewing these wines. I had noticed them available at Premier Cru and had wondered about them.

It's a shame that people are so biased about the possibility that non-grape wines can be very good and enjoyable.