GOULDSBORO, MAINE -- There are a lot more bears around here than there are winemakers, though Bob and Kathe Bartlett are easier to find. Signs to the Bartlett Maine Estate Winery are right out on U.S. Route 1; bears, on the other hand, usually are reclusive.
However, the Bartletts and the local bears do have much in common. They both enjoy living in a rural area -- Gouldsboro is 20 miles beyond Ellsworth, which is 140 miles east of Portland -- and they both consume large amounts of blueberries -- the Bartletts for their wines, the bears for themselves.
Seriously, though, and that's how they want their wines taken, the Bartletts processed 70,000 pounds of blueberries into wine last year and won two of the nine gold medals awarded in the New England wine competition. More on the bears later.
"Our wines are not for the Boone's Farm crowd," says Bob Bartlett. The Bartletts use French oak to age some of their wines, which are aimed at the restaurant and inn trade, and at people who own and use corkscrews.
"Fruit wines have to be serious to overcome people's perceptions," he says, "and using French oak indicates you're serious about wine making."
Initially, the Bartletts wanted to make grape wines, and they looked for a place in Virginia (they're originally midwesterners). They still had that hope after settling here, and "tried about 15 French-American hybrids," according to Bartlett. "But, we don't have the degree days in Maine to get good sugar in grapes. The fruit never really ripens."
Nevertheless, they hit gold with their dry blueberry and coastal white, an apple and pear blend. "It was kind of nice," he says, "because it's tough for fruit wines" to win.
The Bartletts also produce a semi-dry blueberry and a blueberry nouveau, as well as a coastal red blend of apple and blueberry, dry and semi-dry apple, and dry and semi-dry mead. And that's not all, they're feeling their way into the restaurant after-dinner market with half bottles of French oak blueberry and pear wines, and sweet mead, blueberry, strawberry and raspberry wines.
But, says Bartlett, they may cut some of the semi-dry wines, which don't sell as well, perhaps indicating that "the customers are serious wine drinkers," he said. Even so, "sometimes it gets frustrating because people don't know fruit wines and expect them to be sweet. But they don't have to be."
It also would help the image of fruit wines if vintage dating were allowed, he says, and though there are vintage automobiles and vintage movies, as well as vintage grape wines, the federal government will not allow dating of fruit wines.
"We would like to be able to call it 'fruitage," he says. "I'm told that the government hasn't been petitioned lately on allowing dating and I may do it myself."
He's had some experience along those lines. Maine law did not allow wineries to give tastings and sell on the premises, which is about the only way a new little winery can get started, until Bartlett wrote legislation that was introduced by a sympathetic state legislator and accepted intact.
Owning a winery has its lighter moments, too. Last fall, the Bartletts flew the blueberry nouveau in a two-seat biplane, 1941 vintage, from a nearby dirt strip all the way to Blue Hill, on the other side of Ellsworth, where it was well received according to local media accounts.
The single most popular wine the Bartletts sell is coastal white (which, from personal experience, is excellent with lobster), while blueberry is the fruit they use the most, it being blended into more wines than any other.
Also in the offing is a "pear-apple champagne," according to Bartlett. "We went to France last winter to get the equipment for making sparkling wine. We're nervous about working with new equipment and are concerned about quality, so we're going ahead slowly."
The new equipment will be squeezed into a modern building (which they designed and built in the woods) along with six 635-gallon and two 1,300-gallon steel tanks in which they make wine, a 1,000-gallon fermenter, assorted laboratory equipment, inventory and living quarters.
Originally, the place was to be a home and studio (he was a glass artist teaching at Ohio University and doing commission work), but Bartlett also studied enology (the science of wine and winemaking) and the glass work was pushed aside. And now, it's not just the two of them; they expanded the building and during the summer have a third full-time person and three part-timers.
There are 36 wineries in the New England Wine Council, but just two in Maine. In addition to Bartlett, there's Down East Country Wines, which is located in Trenton on the tourist strip to Bar Harbor and appears to be chasing a different market.
Almost all of the approximately 3,400 cases that Bartlett winery produced last year were sold within Maine. "Maybe 50 cases went out of state," says Bartlett, some (it was blueberry nouveau) to Schneider's on Capital Hill. "We were sold out by October, so we're not pushing out-of-state sales yet," adds Bartlett.
At the start (in 1984), the majority of sales were at the winery, but now wholesale is about 60 percent and rising, says Bartlett. "We want to continue the personable approach, and we want to grow."
Price hasn't seemed to hamper that growth. The wines are in the $5-$10 per-bottle range, but still they are becoming popular "as gifts and for special occasions," says Bartlett.
Cost of the fruit is one factor that brings the price up. Grapes sell for about $700 a ton, according to Bartlett, while the fruit he uses averages about $1,000 a ton. Blueberries the Bartletts buy in Maine, obviously, and the apples are from Maine, too, but for pears they have to go out of state.
Raspberries this year are coming from "a woman in Winterport, and we're getting her whole crop," says Bartlett. That'll be about 2,000 pounds. Last year, the Bartletts had only 400 pounds of raspberries and made just 23 cases of raspberry wine, which was just not enough, as anybody who tasted it knows.
The majority of their blueberries come from the University of Maine's Blueberry Hill Experimental Farm in Jonesboro. "They take all of them, usually about 50,000 pounds," says Del Emerson of Blueberry Hill.
"The price is a little higher, but the quality is the best," says Bartlett. One of the reasons for the high quality is that the farm is an outdoor laboratory and the crop is closely monitored, so closely that the farm's wild blueberry lands are fenced in.
"Initially the fences were put up to control animals -- deer, porcupines, foxes, bears -- all animals love blueberries," Emerson says. "But lately it's to control people for the same reason; they eat a lot of them, too."
But perhaps not as many, per capita, as bears. Buzz Beam of Cutler, a registered Maine guide who owns blueberry lands, says thatbears are crazy over blueberries and will "thrash around in them and do an awful job" on the bushes.
In fact, bears love them so much that they always hibernate in the winter, never in summer during berry season.