Not Unusual, Just Good
Portland’s Eighteen Twenty Wines start with local, sustainable rhubarb.
I love rhubarb in baked goods or jam, and have even made it into barbecue sauce and chutney. But I initially couldn’t get my head around the idea that wine made from rhubarb would be any good. “Because it sounds—not good,” says Amanda O’Brien, who was equally as skeptical until her first taste. At Eighteen Twenty Wines in Portland, O’Brien makes rhubarb wines that resemble a French rosé: pale pink, tart, and crisp, with just a hint of fruity sweetness. From washing the rhubarb stalks and squeezing the juice to bottling and labeling, the wines are made by hand in view of the winery’s tasting room on Anderson Street in Portland’s East Bayside neighborhood.
Having spent her career in marketing, O’Brien didn’t see herself as an entrepreneur, never mind a winemaker. Until a friend approached her with his homemade rhubarb wine, what she knew about the industry was learned from a freelance marketing gig for small producers in Burgundy, France, an experience that proved to be fortuitous. “I realized that winemaking is so closely tied to farming,” she says. “I loved the concept of making a nice wine that people want to drink, out of something that grows really well in Maine.” A perennial, low-maintenance crop, rhubarb is also in season in the spring, when farmers are most likely to be cashstrapped; selling rhubarb can help get them through a tough time of year. Spiller Farm in Wells signed on when Eighteen Twenty Wines was still an idea and provided rhubarb for its first wine, Rha, which launched the winery in 2016. Doles Orchard in Limington is now a supplier as well. After selling wines wholesale for a year, Eighteen Twenty Wines opened a tasting room in November 2017. At the time, O’Brien was working with a winemaker who left the business a few months later, prompting her to dive into winemaking with the help of the University of Southern Maine’s (USM) Quality Control Collaboratory and her good friend Tom Madden, co-owner of neighboring Lone Pine Brewing Company. She had recently started dating Alex Denniston, who is now Eighteen Twenty Wines’s chief winemaker. “I wanted to see her, and she was always at the tasting room, so I had to be there,” Denniston says. An engineer with a product-development background, Denniston used the testing services from USM and Madden’s feedback to develop a better and more efficient winemaking proces. “I can tell you about Google Analytics goals all the livelong day, but when you talk to me about parts-per-million of potassium sorbate, you lost me at ‘parts-per,’” says O’Brien. “Alex put some process and science and numbers behind the art and history.”
The winery currently offers Victoria, which is served at a few local restaurants as well as sold in stores; Fête, created for Portland Wine Week, with a label depicting Frances, the sailboat on which O’Brien’s friend, Erica Archer of Wine Wise, hosts wine sails; and the latest release, Piquenique, which combines rhubarb and a less-sweet variety of strawberry for a delightful wine that smells like a berry pie but is still off-dry in flavor. Future plans include scaling up the production of Victoria and making new wines with different varieties of rhubarb (there are about 60). “It’s an unusual ingredient, but we don’t want to create an unusual drinking experience,” says Denniston. “Our goal for these wines is that it’s just wine; it’s just good.” Indeed it is.