Due to the tragic brevity of Autumn here in Alaska, I have often joked that we should change the name of “Fall” to “Fell.” What Autumn lacks here in longevity it more than makes up for in beauty and bounty. As the sun gradually turns its face from these northern lands, the foliage and fauna, all too briefly, transform our forests and tundra into the brilliant shades of burnished bronze in candlelight. Night returns to the Interior, and with it all the celestial glory of the moon and stars. Once again, our breath becomes visible, and is taken away by the Aurora’s elegant dance. The air itself changes, becomes crisp, and bares the haze of chimney smoke and the sweet tang of berries rotting on the vine.
This far north, September pretty much marks the end of the harvest season. Folks are busy picking, canning, pickling, and bottling the years crops in preparation for the inevitable long Winter ahead. As I rotated my flannel shirts to the forefront of my wardrobe, it occurred to me that this would be the ideal time to shine a spotlight on the charming subject of “Country Wines.” Simply defined, “Country Wines” are wines that feature ingredients such as berries (and other seasonal fruits), herbs, flowers, and even vegetables as their primary ingredient, instead of (or in addition to) the traditional grapes.
Vintaculture has never been a poor man’s task. Throughout history folks, especially in rural areas, have been making intoxicating beverages from whatever produce they happened to have on hand. Just the term “Country Wine” conjures visions of a quaint cottage with drying herbs dangling from the rafters, and shelves strewn with jars labeled things like “Rabbit’s Foot,” “Lion’s Tooth” and “Weasel's Snout.” As fanciful as this may seem, this sort of scene is not far from being an accurate depiction of the origin of “Country Wines.” Despite the fact we apparently have lost our collective imagination for naming herbs (for example; “Rabbit’s Foot” is simply clover, “Lion’s Tooth” is nothing more than dandelion heads, and “Weasel’s Snout” refers to nettles), these ingredients remain popular choices for “Country Wines.”.
Herbalists and apothecaries cultivated, collected and concocted “Country Wines” for centuries. Before modern pharmaceuticals, these erstwhile potions served a dual purpose. Not only were they consumed for their salubrious effect, but they were also considered medicinal. The people (typically women) who brewed them were deemed the village wise ones (or witches). Modern science has proven that many of these old wives remedies indeed have various health benefits. For example, dandelion wine is an effective liver tonic, daisies break up phlegm and thus make a great cough suppressant, rosemary improves circulation, and clover is fantastic for menstrual symptoms since it regulates hormones, and promotes healthy blood.
Should you find yourself with an abundance of berries this Autumn, or perhaps the rhubarb is taking over your hedge, I would encourage you to try your hand at creating your own “Country Wines” from your harvest. Everything you need, from fermenters, to bottles and corks can be found on our shelves. If you do not happen to have your great, great grandmother’s grimoire stashed in your attic somewhere, the internet is full of recipes for homemade wines.
If the double, bubble, and toil seems like too much trouble, we also feature several scrumptious selections from our own, local (to Alaska) “Country Wine” producer, Bear Creek Winery. Located in beautiful Homer, Alaska, Bear Creek Winery has been in the business of producing locally sourced “Country Wines” for public consumption since 2003. They are a family owned and operated winery that is quite literally supported by their community, since they purchase what berries and other produce they do not grow themselves, from local farmers and pickers.
There is certainly something old-world magical about creating “Country Wines.” Recipes tend to be passed down within families for multiple generations. Growing or foraging for the ingredients is a labor of love that connects us with the seasonal harvests. Brewing “Country Wines” can be a heart-warming, family or community effort. The resulting intoxicating beverages can be both beneficial to our health as well as a unique and bewitching tasting experience.