Father and son farmers Rick and Kyle Hafemann with their new Otter Creek Winery soda products and a bottle of White Wooly Wine amidst the mist in the new sugar shack at the family sheep farm in Philadelphia, N.Y.
In 2005, Specialty Food Magazine Senior Editor Nicole Potenza Denis noted public interest in new beverages made with real ingredients and natural coloring and not sweetened with corn syrup.
That same year, Kyle Hafemann was a college senior when he called home to say he wanted to plant grapes and start a winery at the family sheep farm in Philadelphia, N.Y. His parents said OK, and in 2007 Hafemann became the youngest person to start a winery in New York state.
The labels on Otter Creek's wines and sodas draw on the family farm's 24-year history of raising sheep.
Photos by Brian P. Whattam unless otherwise noted.
In 2009, Bon Appétit magazine cited old-fashioned root beer as the newest restaurant drink trend, popular for being caffeine-free, usually sweetened with cane sugar instead of corn syrup, and with a host of styles and flavors influenced by cinnamon, vanilla, licorice, ginger and other elements.
After a lot of experimenting with recipes to develop just the right taste and a lengthy search for a bottler, Hafemann made news again in 2011, when Otter Creek Winery sold out of its debut run of 60 cases of Black Sheep root beer and 30 cases of Grapelicious soda in one month's time.
"We knew then we had to make more," he says.
The skins left from the processing of 5 acres of cold-hardy Frontenac and La Crescent grapes form the base of the syrup for the Grapelicious soda.
"I prefer to grow only two varieties well, rather than scatter attention too far," Hafemann explains. "And I would rather plant varieties that are easy to grow and require less management and let someone else spend the time to develop new grape releases."
However, Hafemann and his dad, Rick, were pleased to commit the time to testing different recipes to develop the two soda lines. Blind taste testing with friends and family helped perfect the ingredient mix, but truth be told, Rick was the number one judge for the root beer.
"I like root beer," Rick says, "and Kyle and I have absolutely become experts on sweeteners. We tried them all until we got what we wanted - that silky natural taste on your tongue."
"We use cane sugar rather than corn sweetener, and both sodas are caffeine-free," adds Hafemann, Otter Creek's grape-tasting aficionado.
The farm-made syrup is sent to a bottling facility in the Northeast.
"The soda is softly carbonated and packaged in glass bottles, which we feel is important to the smoother taste, and glass keeps the product well, even though it is heavier to transport," Hafemann notes.
The Otter Creek Black Sheep root beer label is an adaptation of the White Wooly Wine design, in keeping with the farm's 24-year history of raising sheep.
"People love to see our sheep. We are a family-friendly winery, and the grape soda gives us something the kids can enjoy and take home," says Hafemann. "Offering soda along with the wines and our unique labels tie everything together."
For young entrepreneur Kyle Hafemann, getting people to the winery to taste his wines is a primary focus. The Grapelicious and Black Sheep root beer sodas are a value-added offering.
An invitation to visit
In "The Business of Wine: An Encyclopedia" (2008), written by Geralyn and Jack Brostrom, along with over 60 contributors, Robert Eyler of the Sonoma State University School of Business and Economics comments on wineries differentiating themselves by capitalizing on unique regional and vineyard-level characteristics. Eyler wrote: "For the winery, promotion has become a focal activity ... Perhaps a larger issue is competing with other beverages, especially beer and soda. For wineries everywhere, the challenge of displacing other beverages in the American diet is likely the largest long-term issue regarding the U.S. wine market."
Although he has had a number of wholesaling requests, Hafemann currently only sells his sodas at the winery, by the bottle ($1.50) or six-pack ($8.95). His goal is getting more people to the farm winery and its Adirondack-style tasting room.
"Some visitors are shocked that we do something other than just wine here. We get them to taste the soda, and especially the grape soda reminds them of their childhood," he says.
"The number of people who do not drink that are visiting the winery is growing. We want to offer something for the designated drivers and other nondrinkers to taste and take home," he notes.
Although some people drive to the winery just to buy the soda, Hafemann makes the point that "the soda is a value-added bonus; we want the wine and the winery to be the main driver of our sales."
The current production is 120 cases of root beer and 60 cases of the grape soda made three times a year.
He expects soda sales to be about 10 percent of sales, and as soda sales increase, so do the wine sales, proportionally.
Attractive signage directs visitors to Otter Creek Winery, which is part of New York's Thousand Islands - Seaway Wine Trail-and a stop on the 1000 Islands Ag Tour.
Marketing for growth
Otter Creek Winery's wine business has steadily grown, from a first-year output of approximately 1,740 gallons to more than 12,000 gallons in 2012. The growth spurred the construction of a new processing building and the addition of a 5,000-gallon tank to bring capacity up to 15,000 gallons. Hafemann and his dad built the new building with expansion in mind.
"In spite of the challenging economic times, we needed the new building for working room," Hafemann explains. "We also added an open-air pavilion to accommodate up to 90 people for family reunions, weddings and other events, but we keep the rental fee economical so people locally can afford to bring a picnic or potluck supper here as well."
Otter Creek Winery has sponsored troops at the nearby Fort Drum 10th Mountain Division Army installation and used the pavilion last fall to host a farewell party for the Alpha Company 3-10 GSAB 10th CAB leaving for overseas deployment.
Hafemann does not participate in wine competitions, preferring to let customers be "the independent judges of our product every day at our tasting counter," but as a racing fan and driver, he does sponsor a car at the nearby Evans Mills Speedway. Hafemann, whose college degree is in automotive engineering technology, usually leaves the winery in capable hands early on a Saturday afternoon to get to the track.
Hafemann, who currently works full-time off the farm, actively markets his wines and sodas at events across New York state and is the only Thousand Islands - Seaway Wine Trail member who produces soda.
"The Wine Trail designation brings a lot of traffic to the winery. The annual Food & Wine event in Clayton [37 miles away] every year is a big draw for us. We also go to local and regional events like Quaker Days in Philadelphia and the French Festival in Cape Vincent, and to larger venues such as the Finger Lakes Wine Festival at Watkins Glen International speedway [a 172-mile trip]," Hafemann says.
Draper Valley Vineyard harvests 18 acres of grapes for processing at the juice-only enterprise in Selma, Ore.
Photo by Al Curtice.
"We have one weekend where we send eight people to the Finger Lakes festival, [which] draws more than 50,000 people a day, two to French Festival, two to the Cheese Festival in Adams, and [we] have two here at the winery," he adds.
He has three full-time employees, four to five part-timers helping in the winery and tasting room, and one part-time worker for vineyard help.
In 2013, The Wine Economist blogger and "Extreme Wine" author Mike Veseth says, "It may be too soon to say there is a trend toward wineries expanding into other beverages such as juices and sodas, but I have had anecdotal reports that suggest that this is going to happen. Certainly it is practical for smaller wineries to have alternative uses for their expensive facilities in order to generate cash flow."
In addition to selling soda, Hafemann diversified the winery's income streams with the purchase of a vintage 1971 grape picker that he and his dad repaired and updated. They now custom-harvest for other wineries, sometimes trading for grape crushing and pressing help.
The Draper Valley Vineyard family, Al, Nelson and Sandy Curtice, celebrates the fresh, wholesome goodness of their 100 percent grape juices.
Photo courtesy of Draper Valley Vineyard.
"It's tough for one winery to have all the equipment; by sharing services we all benefit," Rick says. "What would take 10 people picking grapes every day for two weeks can be done by the machine in less than two hours."
Rick was a founding member and the first president of New York's youngest wine trail, which includes parts of the Great Lakes Seaway Trail National Scenic Byway along the St. Lawrence River and eastern Lake Ontario and heads east to Otter Creek and the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains.
Hafemann is the current president of the association that has seven wineries and a grape nursery in three northern New York counties.
What's next for the young entrepreneur?
"We have people asking for new flavors, including birch soda. We have already experimented a bit with black cherry soda. None of us are white birch people, so we don't know the taste it should have. That might be a long experiment, but we may try," Hafemann says.
Rick notes that the licorice-like traits of white birch are similar to elements found in sheep minerals.
Hafemann is considering leasing land in the Finger Lakes region to grow grapes for transport back to Otter Creek for processing into additional wine selections.
For more information, visit http://www.ottercreekwinery.com. For those who aspire to grow grapes in a colder climate, the results of cold-hardy grape production research trials conducted in northern New York are online at http://www.nnyagdev.org.
The author is a freelance writer who keeps horses and sheep on a 100-acre farm in Mannsville, N.Y.
Vineyard Builds Juice-Only Niche
The word vineyard naturally brings wine to mind, except at Draper Valley Vineyard (http://www.drapervalleyvineyard.com) in Selma, Ore., where the business is all about nonalcoholic, 100 percent grape juice.
Owner Al Curtice opened the juice-only operation in 2006 after four years of reclaiming dilapidated vineyard and developing his cold-pressed, cold-filtered juice making process.
"There is a demand for a natural, alcohol-free beverage," Curtice says. "We made our first run of 1,000 bottles in 2005 and knew we were on the right track."
He makes note on the Draper Valley Vineyard blog of a University of Spain research study that reported that resveratrol, found in grapes and touted for heart-healthy benefits, has a greater impact when taken without alcohol.
"I suspected that all along. It makes sense that our juices, made without heat, retain their live nutrients along with the fresh, full-force flavor of the grapes," Curtice says.
He grows five varieties, largely pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and riesling, with a small acreage of gewürztraminer grapes. He also purchases gewürztraminer and early muscat grapes from neighboring growers.
Curtice completed his HACCP (Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points) training at the University of Washington Extension. The FDA has approved the sterile filtration and cold stabilization process that preserves the grapes' natural enzymes and antioxidants and uses a minimal amount of potassium sorbate to eliminate fermentation.
The final product has no additives, artificial coloring or artificial flavoring. The juices sell for $6 to $10 per bottle, with a recommended one-year shelf life.
Local and national media, including USA Today, have carried stories of Draper Valley Vineyard juices, currently carried by distributors in 10 states.
Curtice says his Internet sales increase 20 to 30 percent each year.
"Our target audience is the nondrinkers, who choose not to drink for any number of reasons. Our juices are especially well-suited as a nonalcoholic beverage that can be elegantly served in long-stemmed glasses. Our juices help the nondrinkers not feel out of place anymore at parties."
He ships anywhere in the U.S. and Canada that UPS goes.
"We are now developing ways to boost sales at our brick-and-mortar retailers here in the Northwest," he explains. "We feel one of the keys to attracting public interest is tasting. Once people experience the flavor of this 100 percent all-natural product, everyone loves it; even wine drinkers think the juices are unique and fun."
Draper Valley Vineyard is now branching out into a line of grape jellies produced in collaboration with a local school in the Selma area.