Rhubarb has been cultivated for thousands of years in much of Asia, for medicinal and culinary uses. It has grown wild for centuries along the River Volga and Transcaucasia. Known for its laxative qualities, it was one of the first Chinese medicines to be exported to the West, traveling along the Silk Road to Europe in medieval times.
In 1820, rhubarb made it to the New World, and was first sold that year in a public American market, in Maine. That was the year, too, when Maine became a state. This confluence of events is the motivation behind the name of a new Maine company, eighteen twenty, that produces wine from rhubarb. That’s all they make – not a lineup of wines from all sorts of fruit, no pie mixes, no cutesy compotes in little jars. Just rhubarb wine, a drink that doesn’t (yet) set the floorboards of local bars aquiver.
Pete Dubuc and Amanda O’Brien are out to change that. Co-founders of eighteen twenty, they’ve been experimenting with their unconventional product for a few years now, “bootleg style,” as Dubuc told me, but they’re planning to go live and legal later in 2016. As we eagerly await the first burst of rhubarb growth, one of spring’s first and most welcome signs that a bright, bounteous new food season is upon us, it’s a good time to look at how a wine from this plant comes to be.
First, a disclaimer: I don’t know very much about fruit wines, by which I mean wines made from fruit other than grapes. Second, a criticism: I don’t know very much about fruit wines because I’ve tasted enough of them to know that I don’t really like fruit wines. I find them simple, clunky and cloying, their inherent limitations offset by obvious additions of sugar and other flavorings.
Inherent limitations? Yes. Only grapes have the right combination of natural sugars, acidity, tannins, and robust native yeast to produce a balanced and interesting fermented beverage all by themselves. Other fruits, with very few exceptions, need help. And as far as my limited experience tells me, that help is usually administered with too heavy a hand.
All that said, I like the eighteen twenty rhubarb wine quite a bit, and it’s interesting to examine why. Dubuc, the winemaker, might have put his finger on it when he told me he doesn’t really like fruit wines either.
“My issue with fruit wines,” he said, “is that it tastes too much like the fruit. You’re just there, immediately. To me, it’s cool that you can pick up this rhubarb wine and it’s sort of a mystery, kind of unknown, hard to discern what the fruit origin is.”
That could be because rhubarb is not even technically a fruit: The vegetable was legally classified as a fruit in 1947, when a court in New York determined that since it was used as a fruit, it was a fruit. (Apparently tomatoes got so angry at this that they decided to be called vegetables.)
It’s the eighteen twenty wine’s “mystery,” as Dubuc puts it, that is so compelling. The flavors are at once intense and other, hinting at sweetness but not presenting it outright, offering substantial mass on the palate without weighing you down, combining a vegetal leafiness with the bright drive and vividness of a well-made cocktail. It’s tasty, savory, refreshing, with balanced sweetness, but the best thing about it is that it doesn’t taste like grape wine yet you can’t pin it down. It invites repeated inquiry.
This intriguing indeterminacy is at risk of being masked by marketing, an overly eager attempt to present a new product as familiar. In the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development’s recent announcement that eighteen twenty’s co-founder O’Brien had garnered its 2016 Top Gun Entrepreneur award for developing the business, I cringed at the mention of the rhubarb wine’s “remarkable likeness to a European chardonnay.” That is simply not true. I think what they really mean is that they enjoy drinking it.
Dubuc, who lives in South Portland, and O’Brien, of Peaks Island, are most excited to be introducing a beverage made from locally sourced ingredients made in a natural way, that tastes good and doesn’t replicate what already exists. Dubac grew up in Strong, where he’d heard old tales of people making rhubarb wine. O’Brien works at flyte new media in marketing and described herself in an email as “obsessed with wine.”
Although the rhubarb wine is pretty and sophisticated, Dubuc said, “We’re looking to pull in people who might not be drawn to wine. We want wine drinkers to appreciate this, but also people who come at it from another direction, and just generally people who are interested in real food and drink. All the people who are into craft beer, into local products….”
The more you look into wine’s origins, the more evident it becomes that wine’s place in culture has through history been informed more by Dubuc’s attitude than by the compartmentalized beverage subculture model that obtains today. There were plants, fruits, and grains, and people wanted to preserve, enhance and enjoy them in a variety of ways. This is the long history of everything from aromatized and flavored wines to lambics, ciders, meads and more.
I love fermented grape juice that is lavished with years of attention and passed from one rich landowner to another as much as (okay, more than) the next guy, but in the end I get a more lasting satisfaction from feeling involved in a handmade product that emerges from where I live.
Eighteen twenty’s rhubarb wine is that precious thing. That said, it’s not perfect. After all, the rhubarb needs to sit with added sugar long enough for the stalks’ juice to emerge and then start to ferment, that “chaptalization” process initiated by a cultured yeast that Dubuc buys commercially. To that extent, it’s not pristine. On the other hand, all the rhubarb is sourced from growers in Wells and Belgrade, and he does not fine or filter the wine, nor add any sulfur.
Also – my kinda guy – Dubuc loves German riesling, especially the light kabinett style with around 9 or 10 percent alcohol. His current rhubarb wine is 12.5 percent alcohol, in line with many dry white wines from grapes, but he’d like to drop it a few points. “I’d really like to get to a perfectly crushable sort of drink,” he said, “this Maine-made product that has that lightness and delicacy of a German riesling.” My guess is that a little less chaptalization – decrease the added sugar – might get him there: less sugar for the yeast to convert leads to lower alcohol and lighter body. But I’ll defer to eighteen twenty’s experiments and conclusions.
Dubuc’s experiments are ongoing. Rhubarb comes in more than 100 different varieties, with varying flavors and combinations of sweet and tart, which he hopes to explore over the next few years. Both O’Brien and Dubuc emphasized that they want to stick to making rhubarb wine – perhaps a number of different bottlings once they figure out the nuances of different types – but not spin off into side projects.
In the meantime, pretty soon you’ll have the opportunity to participate in the experiment, and perhaps rearrange your preconceptions of what “wine” is. The eighteen twenty rhubarb wine will be sold locally later this year, probably for around $16-18. I’m hoping many a local bar will stock it, both by the glass and making its inimitable presence felt in a cool cocktail or two. And I’m also looking forward to finishing up work in my home garden on a Saturday afternoon, pouring a glass, and crushing it.
Joe Appel is the wine buyer at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at: