Entering a new era with wild blueberry wine
by Courtney Llewellyn
It was forward-thinking Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau who first called wild blueberries “bluets.” Now, forward-thinking vintners Michael Terrien and Eric Martin are taking bluets to a new level with their sparkling blueberry wine.
Both born and raised in Maine, Terrien said he and Martin have been friends and partners since fourth grade. “We have a couple ‘origin stories,’ but the one that’s most coherent goes like this: We left Maine to follow our college pathways before converging again in California. I became a winemaker after graduating UC-Davis and Eric began a path as a novelist. We worked at a winery in Napa and spent two seasons collaborating in pinot noir. Eric is now in North Carolina, and I’m still in California.”
He noted that while they have no current lives in Maine, they both want to return. But Terrien makes his living in Napa, making wine, and there’s not really a wine industry in the Pine Tree State. One needs to be created. “I think there is a chance of doing that over the next couple of decades, and the chance of that happening is because of this extraordinary fruit,” he said.
They began their bluet experiment six years ago, and it’s gaining some traction. The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry recently announced the venture had earned a $62,800 Specialty Crop Block Grant from the USDA for a project titled “The Millennial Opportunity: Expanding Supply, Demand and Infrastructure for a New Era of Maine Wild Blueberry Sparkling Wine.”
The purpose of the grant is to create a wide range of stakeholders over the next three years to lead unique marketing, distribution and production efforts to define, claim and promote Bluet for the Millennial-driven 21st century market; to expand and deepen grower and producer participation in the new market; and to begin building the infrastructure needed to drive global market access and sustain a thriving Maine wild blueberry wine industry.
“It was always a magical little appearance,” Terrien said of finding wild blueberries when he was growing up. “That’s a memory Eric and I share.” Skipping forward several decades, he’s now bringing his winemaking experience to the fruit.
Each bottle of Bluet contains the equivalent of two pounds of fruit, which have twice the antioxidants of the larger hybridized blueberries and a natural acidity. Wild blueberries grow in a glacial-marine podzol soil that is not dissimilar to the sandy soils of Champagne – and the wine is produced using the same method used in Champagne.
“Wine has this amazing ability to transport you to a place and a time. Making a wine is not simply about a market – it has a story to tell,” Terrien said. “Wild blueberries make a very pure style of wine. It has no sulfates and is low in alcohol – the bubbles come into play to make your mouth think it’s a complete wine. What we do honors the fruit, rather than imitating red grape wine.”
The wild blueberry has a venerable past, being one of the earliest cultivated crops on the planet, going back almost 10,000 years. Around the time of the American Civil War, they became transportable through the advent of canning. With the health focus in the past few decades promoting antioxidants, the global blueberry market exploded. Larger, sweeter hybridized plants appeared, and Maine growers found themselves facing declining prices – nearly a 75% decline in the past decade, according to Terrien. “That’s given us an extra nudge to pursue a national market – a market for purity, quality and healthfulness,” he said.
Bluet is working with a select group to expand this new industry. They’re working with growers rather than farming the fruit themselves. They bought 50 tons of fruit from four growers this year. “We’re figuring out how to tell the story of a piece of ground and the growers tending it for nine generations, like they have at Ridgeberry Farm in Appleton Ridge,” Terrien said. “We’re pleased we can help them see a future.”
Brodis Blueberries in Hope, Maine, have been growing and harvesting wild blueberries for a full seven generations. Grower Jeremy Howard said that this year, they sold 10 tons of blueberries to Bluet. Of their 900 acres of land, about 200 produce bluets.
“We had known of Bluet for a little bit. My parents were at a state farm meeting when they met Michael and Eric and made the connection,” Howard said. At the same time, he was running Blue Barren Distillery, where he used blueberries to make spirits. “We’re doing the exact same thing as Bluet – the distillery just takes it one step further. I always had it in my mind to make blueberry wine, and lots of small farms in the state do that.”
The decision to begin distilling coincided with the precipitous drop in wild blueberry prices, which unfortunately meant a lot of growers left the business completely, according to Howard. “I love the idea” of expanding the sparkling blueberry wine market, he added. “I’m totally jazzed about it. It’s a good product. I love drinking it cold on a hot summer evening. What excites me more is it’s different. Everyone wants to try something out of the norm. It’s an authentic spirit from bizarre little fruit.”
Terrien and the Bluet team are convinced there’s a real potential market in this – “not in our parents, but in Millennials,” he said. “People want to drink it wicked tart and not super sweetened. The fine wine industry has a bias against regional fruit wine – but the interest is there.” Bluet is popular at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel; cans are selling for $9 each in San Francisco.
“We and Maine really want this to succeed,” Terrien said. “It’s encouraging that we won the grant. It’s about a partnership with parts of government seeing a future and working toward it. The market is embracing a more adventurous palate for alcohol.” That’s evidenced by the fact that Rosemont Market & Grocery, based in Portland, Maine, began making its own blueberry wine in August.
“That’s super exciting. That’s two wins in the market now,” Terrien said. “People will think ‘It’s really a thing!’”
And Howard hopes to see more “things” come from the fruit. “I see more value-added products coming from blueberries,” he said. “The time has ended for wild blueberries as a global market share. The alcohol world works for us, and a lot of other people are coming up with blueberry chips, blueberry powder. The farmers still in it need to think outside the box.”