Solomon Ayele is from Ethiopia. He and his family migrated to Kenya and then to the United States, settling in the Bay Area in California in the mid-1980s. After earning a degree in environmental economics at University of California, Berkeley, he returned to Africa. There, his work as a conservationist — fostering economic opportunities for indigenous residents of the mountainous rain forest of Kafa in southwestern Ethiopia — reintroduced him to honey wine. He brought what he learnt to America. Today, he is a known promoter of Honey Wine and was voted by Food and Wine Magazine in 2019 as a Tastemaker.
By Mike Dunne | San Fransisco Chronicle
For Ethiopian-inspired honey wine, dock at San Francisco’s Ferry Building
Wine made with honey, often called mead, could be the world’s oldest fermented beverage, with evidence suggesting it was consumed 7,000 years ago. Today, however, honey wine is a difficult sell, eclipsed by grape wines, craft beers and, lately, hard seltzer.
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Many drinkers mistakenly assume that all mead is invariably sweet. They’ve been disappointed with mediocre versions they’ve tasted at Renaissance fairs. But makers of honey wine believe that sales would be much easier if they could just persuade potential buyers to take a sip. That isn’t easy, given that production sites are few and not as gussied up and romantic as winery tasting rooms. And only occasionally does a restaurant wine list include a section devoted to mead.
Ayele Solomon recognizes those drawbacks, so he has done something unusual for Northern California’s small but persistently hopeful community of honey-wine producers — in December, he opened a free-standing tasting bar in a prime San Francisco setting, the Ferry Building.
There, he daily pours samples of his four honey wines, one each dry and sweet, one each still and sparkling, inspired by the honey-wine tradition of his native Ethiopia, all under the brand Bee D’Vine.
Solomon — dapper, earnest, fastidious — calls his releases honey wine rather than mead, though the terms are virtually interchangeable. “Mead sounds too much like meat, it’s too old world,” Solomon says. “And people have had a lot of bad experiences with mead.”
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Honey wine is a more universal way to describe the beverage and to indicate its stylistic sweep, he says. It also is the term used in Ethiopia, where it traditionally is known as t’ej.
The t’ej he grew up with generally was homemade, rudimentary and consumed within days or weeks of fermentation. In Ethiopia, Solomon says, the honey customarily would be fermented with its comb and with gesho, stalks of the buckthorn bush. As rough as t’ej was, Solomon says it nonetheless tempted virtually every youngster to siphon some from the barrels in which it was stashed in a dark and cool corner of the family home. “Every family sort of makes it. They drink it like kombucha,” Solomon says.
From Ethiopia, he and his family migrated to Kenya and then to the United States, settling in the Bay Area in the mid-1980s. After earning a degree in environmental economics at UC Berkeley, he returned to Africa. There, his work as a conservationist — fostering economic opportunities for indigenous residents of the mountainous rain forest of Kafa in southwestern Ethiopia — reintroduced him to honey wine.
In Kafa, residents continued to harvest honey from beehives hanging in trees, a slow and labor-intensive chore. Solomon had some success in persuading honey gatherers to adopt more contemporary and efficient frame hives, but they also faced cutbacks in the availability of flowers for bees as more of the rain forest was cleared for easier, quicker and more profitable crops like corn and coffee.
If you go
Bee D’Vine: 1 Ferry Building, S.F. Tasting bar open 1-7 p.m. Monday-Friday;11 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Flights $12.Read More
Nevertheless, Solomon grew increasingly intrigued by honey wine, and in 2009 began to explore its commercial potential, first in Ethiopia, then South Africa. In 2011 he returned to the family home in Pleasanton, started to experiment with hundreds of batches of honey wine in the garage, and established the Honey Wine Co., the parent company for the Bee D’Vine brand. He was drawn back to the Bay Area to pursue his interest in honey wine in large part because of Northern California’s wine-industry infrastructure.
Three years later he released his first commercial honey wines. He focused distribution on Ethiopian restaurants, and for a while Ethiopian Airlines offered passengers his wines. Today, he makes his wines at Deerfield Ranch Winery in Kenwood. In addition to 3,000 gallons of honey wine annually, he also makes small lots of grape table wine under the brand Wancha, Amharic for “horn cup.” (The Wancha wines are Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay from Lake County, and he doesn’t pour them at the Ferry Building.)
Solomon has been tireless in researching, documenting and promoting honey wine, even writing and publishing a lighthearted, 88-page book on the subject, “The Celebrated Story of Honey Wine,” the electronic version of which can be downloaded free at his website (www.beedvine.com).
His principal stylistic goal for his honey wines is to capture the essence of fresh and delicate flowers, with suggestions of earthiness, nuttiness and wood. Toward that end, he uses largely organically produced orange-blossom honey from beekeepers in Solano and Yolo counties. Customarily, 2½ pounds of honey are used for each gallon of water, and the mixture is then fermented into wine. Nothing is added other than yeast.
“I want it traditional, what I grew up with,” Solomon says, though during fermentation he eschews the Ethiopian custom of including comb and gesho, which he fears could add a bitter note to the wine, distracting from the fresh, floral and fruity attributes he wants to emphasize. But he does sell traditional bulbous “berele” (flasks used for drinking t’ej in Ethiopia) at his tasting bar.
The dry version of his still honey wine — the most popular in sales of his four styles — is decidedly floral, with suggestions of melons and peaches in flavor. Honey is evident but not heavy, the acidity lifting, the finish lingering. Two years of aging in neutral French oak barrels rounds out the body without introducing distracting tannins.Catherine Brown (left) and Lori Liston try honey wine during a tasting at Bee D’Vine in the Ferry Building.Photo: Michael Short / Special to The Chronicle
The delicate effervescence of the dry sparkling wine lifts the aroma and intensifies the flavor of honey, but the body remains light. Solomon says that his sparkling honey wines are the first in the world made with the charmat method, the same process used for Prosecco.
Solomon’s sweet versions, both the still and the sparkling, spend less than half as much time in oak. “Sweetness doesn’t go well with oak,” Solomon says. With both sweet versions, the floral notes and flavor of the honey are more pronounced, but neither tastes sticky. All the wines weigh in with 12.5% ABV, and the sweet versions carry about 4% residual sugar. Given the wines’ acidity, that level of sugar does not come across as cloying, lighter than the standard level found in traditional meads.
Bee D’Vine is more expensive than most other honey wines and meads, the still version selling for $39 per 750-milliliter bottle, the sparkling for $49. He attributes the higher prices largely to his preference for premium honey, his use of custom-made French oak barrels and his Italian bottles.
No one knows precisely how many commercial honey-wine producers are working in the United States, but the total is believed to be around 450, with the number growing slowly. Several longtime and successful producers are in Northern California, including Rabbit’s Foot in Sunnyvale, one of the larger meaderies in the nation, turning out about 60,000 gallons a year; Bargetto Winery at Soquel (Santa Cruz County), whose Chaucer’s line of meads dates from 1964; Heidrun Meadery of Point Reyes Station, celebrated for its methode-champenoise meads; and the Meadery San Francisco in Hunters Point, whose whimsical and colorful lineup includes a potent distilled mead.
While these producers recognize that honey wine isn’t likely to ever challenge sales of grape wine and craft beer in the U.S., they are encouraged by developments such as a rise in the availability of honey wine in kegs and cans (including an Anheuser-Busch “honey alcohol beverage” test-marketed on the East Coast in the summer) and growing consumer interest in honey wines that incorporate herbs, fruits and spices.
Solomon, however, is having none of that, saying he prefers to remain a traditionalist. And now that he’s in the Ferry Building, he believes he can win new honey-wine drinkers. “Once you taste it, that’s the crucial part,” he says.
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