Written by Michael Oudyn
I was at the Wine Pleasures´ Wine Tourism Congress near Barcelona. This is serious cava country and we visited local winemakers and tasted Irish whiskeys and Catalan bubblies; Italian, Hungarian, and Rumanian reds; local eno-innovations from Terra Alta, Rueda, and Alt Penedes.
So what am I writing about? You guessed it. Persimmon Solera, a fruit wine made in the Spanish sherry style in the southern Illinois town of Birds. No, this is not some joke, but rather a sweet dessert wine from Brian and Joy Neighbor´s White Owl Winery. And it is not just some weird curiosity; Persimmon Solera has won the award for excellence at the Illinois Governor’s Cup, a silver medal at the AWS Wine Challenge at Vienna, and a bronze medal at the Japan Wine Challenge where it was one of only ten American prize winners.
Brian is an ex-engineer turned full-time fruit winemaker. His wife Joy, an ex-radio personality who studied acting at the Second City in Chicago, does the promotion. They make a fascinating wine couple. The three of us spent some time together at the congress, an hour or so over a microphone, and a fun evening at some of Barcelona´s best watering holes.
Brian explained how he makes his persimmon sherry. Like many of Brian´s ventures this was “an experiment of opportunity.” They were a start-up company and fruit is expensive. But persimmons grow wild all over the place in southern Illinois; “You just have to pick them up”. After the first frost, the wild persimmons are foraged, like wild mushrooms. This “fruit of the gods” is then turned into persimmon sherry using the solera system used to make sherry in Spain. Using this system different vintages are blended together. They have been making this wine for seven years, so there are seven different vintages mixing it up in their casks and bottles. And each new year will add its own layer of complexity. Along the way the fermented wine is fortified with persimmon brandy which is distilled from a portion of the original wine. Then, to increase the sweetness, Brian adds a touch of what Joy calls “persimmon honey”, which is the “blubber” which drips out from right under the skin. It is then aged in new French barrels to give just of touch of oak. Some years the wine shows more caramel, other years more butterscotch.
I was fascinated by their water problems. Persimmons themselves are short on the stuff, so more has to be added. In the initial just-playing-around-with- persimmon-wine stage, Brian and his father each made a batch of exactly the same wine in exactly the same way, but using the water they happened to have on hand. The results were radically different. This unexpected development sent Brian on the quest for the best of all possible waters. He mixed his persimmon must with ten different waters including bottled French water, Mountain Spring, and well water from around Illinois and Indiana. Again the wines were dramatically different. The perfect water, it turned out, came from right next door, a neighbor´s well. The solution: buy the well, and the whole property around it, and turn it into a full-time winery.
Persimmon Sherry forms part of the upper-end line of White Owl Winery which is called Purgatory Cellars. This charming name comes from a 1779 Revolutionary War episode. Hero George Rogers Clark dragged himself and his long-suffering disease-ridden troops through this very swamp for a crucial sneak attack on the British at the Battle of Vincennes. The drainage ditch into Purgatory Swamp is right in front of the winery. But don’t worry, it is clean and can even be fished. Joy´s slogan: “One hell of a wine, with a heavenly taste.”
In addition to Persimmon Solera they make a whole range of fruit wines. Their best seller is Cherry Pie which is both sweet and tart; “You can almost taste the crust”. And how about Pink Grapefruit Spumante, another “experiment of opportunity” which came about when a cartload of grapefruits was unexpectedly dropped at their doorstep. They are also experimenting with the famous Paw Paw (“way down yonder in the Paw Paw patch”) which was named the world´s sixth most luscious taste by the International Horticulture Conference. (Unfortunately they couldn´t remember what luscious flavor numero uno is.)
Total transparency requires that I reveal that I have never actually tasted Persimmon Solera or any of the others, and I can only vaguely imagine what they might taste like. But some bottles are on the way. But I feel that anyone making “organic wild-fruit-harvested” wine in southern Illinois merits all our curiosity, encouragement, and respect.