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Honey wine creates a buzz

Local man puts 'nectar of the gods' in Pleasanton markets

People accidentally discovered that wine can be made from honey at least 20,000 years ago, noted Ayele Solomon, founder of Honey Wine Company.

"A lucky hunter-gatherer stumbled across a beehive filled with rainwater and honey that had fermented into a wine with a divine aroma and flavor" is the way he tells the story.

Fast forward 20 millennia to 2009 when Solomon decided to become part of the saga and produce honey wine for the Bay Area.

Honey wine was the preferred alcoholic beverage in his native Ethiopia, where it is called t'ej and produced mainly in people's homes, he explained. Muslims in the country drink the beverage before it ferments.

"Ethiopia is the biggest honey wine country in the world," Solomon said, adding with a laugh, "Every kid has snuck some out of the back room."

He moved here in the mid-1980s and attended Donlon Elementary. His family owns three Serene Care assisted living homes in Pleasanton, which his mother manages.

Solomon, now 41, a graduate of UC Berkeley, also works developing projects for forest conservation.

"What I studied as an undergraduate was conservation and the economic side of the environment," he said.

This ties into the efforts of his Honey Wine Company, which launched Bee d'Vine last May in both Brut and Demi Sec versions. It uses fresh California honey from beehives placed in organic fields and pure spring water from a well right on site. Plus the wine production does not use chemicals or large mechanized equipment.

"I have a relationship with a handful of beekeepers in Northern California and the Central Valley," Solomon said. "I visit regularly."

Honey doesn't need nearly the acreage required by vineyards, Solomon pointed out, plus honey doesn't spoil. His goal is a carbon neutral company so he purchases carbon credits from Wildlife Works to offset importing the bottles from Italy and Mexico, and hopes people use the bottles as vases or to serve olive oil or drinks. He said he would like to offer the wine in a locally made pouch but doesn't know if consumers would go for it.

Solomon believes a renaissance of honey wine would also help rejuvenate collapsed bee colonies, and he plans to contribute profits to convert inefficient traditional hives in Ethiopia to modern ones that can produce up to 10 times more honey.

Once he decided on his honey wine destiny, he teamed up with biochemists, chemists and winemakers, including Wayne Donaldson of Napa.

"We tested our dry and semi-sweet fermentation trials with wine drinkers over the last four years and produced a very floral wine," Solomon said when Bee d'Vine launched last spring. They aged the wine for at least 10 months.

As Solomon was testing production methods, he also oversaw the design of the wine labels, which include bees and cross motifs. And he produced a companion book, "The Celebrated Story of Honey Wine," which is available at Amazon.com for $10 or online for free at DiscoverHoneyWine.org.

"I contacted universities and found a Stanford guy getting a Ph.D. in English and got him involved," Solomon recalled. "The book is very witty, very approachable, a fun read."

"The Celebrated Story of Honey Wine" gives an amusing account of its appearance in ancient writings and up through the Middle Ages. It was probably the most ancient Germanic alcoholic drink and was known as "nectar of the gods." Mead remains popular in Europe, especially Poland.

The book points out that bees have their own clever methods for keeping honeycombs tight so the honey does not ferment.

"But the good news is that happy accidents happen," the book states, noting that Africa is often dubbed the origin of this accident.

A recipe section gives instructions for drinks from Honey Mimosas to a Tequila Honey Rise to a Honey Wine Toddy.

The book also notes the derivation of the word "honeymoon," which, according to legend, comes from the ancient tradition in Babylon of giving newlyweds a gift of honey wine:

"And as if this wasn't awesome enough, the newlyweds were directed to drink honey wine every night for a full moon cycle to celebrate their vows -- hence, the word 'honeymoon.' Pretty cool, huh?"

It goes on to note that since marriage was primarily for propagation, and newlyweds in those days were barely acquainted, the libation surely helped them get to "know" each other.

The taste of honey wine can range from dry to sweet, Solomon said, and honey wine is lighter than grape wine.

"The sweeter one goes with barbecue or spicy food," he said.

Honey wine is on the menu at several establishments on Main Street in Pleasanton and is for sale at the Bernal Avenue Safeway.

"It is near the champagne," Solomon said. "It's not the cheapest. It is not an everyday wine, at least not for me."

Solomon will be at Safeway giving tastings of Bee d'Vine from 2-6 p.m., Saturday, April 11. It's a chance to partake in the nectar of the gods, meet the winemaker himself, and become a part of continuing history of honey wine.

Recognition for Bee d'Vine

* Gold Medal & Best in Class -- 2014 International Women's Wine Competition

* 2014 Gold & Silver -- "Best U.S. Eco Friendly Honey Wine"

* Two Silvers -- 2014 World Wine Championships

* Silver -- 2014 International Wine Channel TV Awards

* Silver -- 2014 Sommelier Challenge

* Silver & Bronze -- Form & Graphic Design, 2014 World Wine Championships Packaging Competition

* 2015 Gourmand Award -- "Best Drinks History Book" in U.S.

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