Portland pair stalk market for rhubarb wine

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PORTLAND — It’s not hard to find a drink in East Bayside.

But Pete Dubuc and Amanda O’Brien are offering a beverage probably few people have sampled.

“I never made beer, I never fermented anything until I started messing with rhubarb wine,” Dubuc said June 28.

Dubuc and Eighteen Twenty Wines partner Amanda O’Brien will soon open their tasting room at 219 Anderson St., in a neighborhood burgeoning with brewers and distilleries, including Rising Tide Brewing Co., Lone Pine Brewing, and Urban Farm Fermentory.

“It is not a big leap from what they are doing to what we are doing,” Dubuc said.

The leap is in the rhubarb, which grows in spring and early summer and is found most often in pies. As crushed and fermented by Dubuc and O’Brien, it is now a unique vintage already for sale at Old Port Wine Merchants in Portland, The Farm Stand in South Portland, and Hannigan’s Island Market on Peaks Island.

“It doesn’t taste like a fruit wine. It tastes like a grape wine, and you are kind of hung up on trying to figure out which grape,” O’Brien said.

Dubuc and O’Brien have known each other for about 20 years, having met when both worked in local radio. Dubuc said he began making rhubarb wine about five years ago.

“I knew he was doing it; I said I would try it and not make a funny face,” O’Brien said.

Rhubarb stalks are bitter, and the leaves are toxic. Dubuc learned it was fermented into wines more than a century ago, as farmers made wide use of whatever was at hand.

Convinced from his first batch he could make a good wine for anyone keeping an open mind, Dubuc kept experimenting. Recipes he researched showed raisins or grapes could be added, but the Eighteen Twenty Wines vintage, called rha, is plain rhubarb.

“We add just enough sugar to give the yeast something to turn into alcohol,” Dubuc said.

Rha is the color of a blush wine, such as rose or white zinfandel, but cloudier in appearance.

“I’m not terribly interested in forcing it through filters to get it more clear,” Dubuc said. “It is meant to be consumed young; you would not get it and age it.”

O’Brien compared its taste to an Italian pinot grigio or French Vouvray. Dubuc said what he detects most is a grapefruit flavor.

In theory, Dubuc handles the vinting, O’Brien the marketing and promotion. In reality, with both holding full-time jobs, the responsibilities are shared.

“We want to get it to more places; we need to talk about it when we aren’t chopping rhubarb,” O’Brien said.

It took a couple of years to line up sources for rhubarb. Spiller Farm in Wells and Dole’s Orchard in Limington grew nearly 6,500 pounds this year for the wine. Rhubarb stalks were washed, frozen, cut and crushed by hand before fermenting, O’Brien said.

Rhubarb can provide an additional source of income to farmers, and Eighteen Twenty Wines will also make what Dubuc and O’Brien are calling ohm ciders, a name derived from the winery’s location in the former Rockingham Electric building.

The still cider will be crafted from a variety of apples and resemble a light, eastern English counties style, Dubuc said. One cider is aged in cinnamon barrels.

It will give the business a seasonal balance, Dubuc said, “hugely important when you are trying to pay bills.”

With rha on the market and the tasting room coming, Dubuc said it is a bit disconcerting to see his experiments now for sale.

“You have this sort of nervous energy because it is up to (customers),” he said.

O’Brien said pushing beyond misconceptions is critical.

“I’ve joked about ‘how do we get it on the label this actually tastes good,’” she said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Eighteen Twenty Wines owners Pete Dubuc and Amanda O’Brien have introduced rhubarb wine to Portland. “It doesn’t taste like a fruit wine. It tastes like a grape wine,” O’Brien said June 28.

Eighteen Twenty Wines owners Pete Dubuc and Amanda O’Brien said June 28 the rhubarb wine made in East Bayside is reminiscent of pinot grigio or Vouvray with some grapefruit flavor.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.