"A Good-Sized Small Winery"

By Terry Hussey

"A good sized, small winery is the way owner Bob Bartlett described Bartlett Maine Estate Winery to members and guests at the Milbridge Historical Society’s November 9 meeting at the museum. Bartlett invited those assembled to sample the wines he brought and to see a short video on his winery before he began his talk.

Bartlett said that the winery in Goldsboro opened in July 1983, with just 600 gallons of their newly produced fruit wines. "It was a market research experiment really," said Bartlett. "We want to see if there was a market for fruit wine." He used apples and pears for his first wines, still the mainstays of his business, along with his blueberry wines. One doesn’t get a strong fruity taste. It would be hard for the casual drinker to know he wasn’t tasting grape wine.

Today Bartlett produces about 7,000 cases of wine a year. His varieties include apple blush, blackberry, five different blueberry varieties from dry to sweet, coastal white, coastal red, dry or sweet honey mead, orchard white, semi-dry peach, four dry varieties of pear, and raspberry wine.

Bartlett first came to Maine when he was 12 years old, accompanying his mother who was a professional harpist who came to study in Camden. He fell in love with the Maine coast, and after he married his wife, Cathy, in 1972, the couple often vacationed here. Bartlett originally came from Michigan, and Cathy grew up in the Chicago area. Bob was a glass artist with a degree in industrial design. For 12 years he produced hand-blown glass, showing his work at galleries all over the country.

Bartlett spent three years teaching his artistry at Ohio University. While there, he took a course in winemaking. The Bartletts bought their land in Gouldsboro in the 70’s. For eight years, he worked at growing grapes, hoping to be able to use them to make wine. "I guess we were pretty naïve," said Bartlett. Of the eight years, only one produced really good grapes—ones with high enough sugar content. At the same time, he was experimenting with the use of other fruits for wine. The wines they made were good, but was there a market for non-grape wine" "Anyone will tell you it’s stupid to try to re-educate the public," Bartlett said. But they decided to try it anyway.

Bartlett said they started to make apple and pear wine. They took all their savings and bought used equipment from the Schoppee Dairy in Machias. "We had to make so with some pretty antiquated equipment at first," he said. His product is made with 100% fruit. There are no flavorings or concentrates. That’s why it’s so important to have fruits of the best quality.

The Bartlett winery was license in 1981, but it took another whole year to get state licensing for a tasting room. This had never been done before in Maine, and in order to get licensed, Bob had to write the legislation himself.

"I wanted to promote Maine agriculture by using Maine fruit," he said, "so it was a pretty appealing thing for the legislature to support." He was advised to ask to Sen. Perkins of Blue Hill to sponsor the bill he wrote, using models from other states for wording. "Access to government is different in Maine than it was in Michigan or Ohio. I was really impressed at how accessible the legislators were. Contact was very direct, and they were quite helpful.

Not much of a wine connoisseur

"Shortly after the bill became law, Governor Brennan wanted to sponsor a gathering to promote us along with some other new Maine businesses to the media," said Bartlett. The Governor had a very elegant party at Blaine House, showcasing our wine, along with Ducktrap Smoked Salmon and the Maine Cheese Company.

"At the party, we were surprised to see the wine being served from big crystal pitchers. A friends came up to me and asked if I could identify the type of wine he was drinking," said Bartlett. "I tasted it. I know my wines, and this just wasn’t anything I had made," he said.

He went to the kitchen and to his horror, he found the cooks had taken all the different varieties he had brought and were freely mixing them all together in a big tub, and filling the pitchers from that.

"Luckily, I had brought plenty of extra wine with me," said Bartlett. "We threw all the mixed medley out and began to serve wine from the bottles. Brennan really meant well, but I guess he didn’t really drink that much wine."

Bartlett said his winery produced about 7,000 cases of wine a year today. "That makes us a pretty sized small winery," he said. He noted that some of the smaller niche wineries in California make just 2,000 cases a year. "We seem to have leveled off at just about this size for the past five years," he said.

We’re not planning to get much bigger," said Bartlett. "It’s a space problem. Our bulk room has no space for more storage tanks. But we’re still trying some new things." Bartlett noted that he created some new mustards with wine in conjunction with Raye’s Mustard of Eastport last year. He also said he’s working on a new fortified wine.

Bartlett said he has experimented with a number of additional fruits, but the problem is getting enough of the fruits. "Who’s going to pick them?" he asked. "I’d like to try cranberries, but I’ve never been able to get a hold of enough berries." He has had to give up on strawberries and raspberries for the same reason.

"Cleanliness is always an issue too," said Bartlett. "I’m fussy. We have to be extremely careful about making sure no bacteria gets into the product. Some of the fruit pickers are sloppy about throwing fruit into dirty containers or trucks. We just can’t use it if it’s dirty."

Bartlett said that 95% of his wine is sold in Maine. Small amounts are shipped to Maryland, Illinois, and the District of Columbia. An even smaller amount is sent to Japan and Germany.

"The distributors are causing problems for us," he said. "Just five years ago, there were 8,000 distributors. Now there are just 4,500. They don’t care about small wineries. They sell products from the big wineries, and it’s hard for the little guys to get in there."

Bartletts wines have taken top honors at a number of international competitions. He is most proud that one of his blueberry wines was chosen as one of the best 100 wines in the world. In another competition, he was awarded best in show in New England, taking two of the five gold ribbons, four silvers out of ten, and one bronze. This was in competition with grape wines.

Bartlett is still battling with the federal Bureau of Firearms, Alcohol and Tobacco because he’d like to label his bottles with the vintage year. "They say vintage refers to things grown on vines," he said, "so they won’t let me do it. I just want to give my customers a little more information."

Bartlett said that the tasting room at the winery is open from June 1 through Columbus Day weekend. It’s also open by appointment in the winter by calling 546-2408. His biggest sellers are his coastal white and coastal red.