VISTA — While their wine may need only a year to improve, Alan and Brian Haghighi have created a business that, like its owners, appears destined to get better with age.
Three years after co-founding the California Fruit Wine Company, the 25-year-old twins expect to sell about 2,000 cases of wine, more than triple their sales in the first two years combined.
Acknowledging all wine is technically made from fruit, the local oenologists produce their product using almost everything but grapes, including plums, pumpkins, apples and strawberries.
But this is not your parents’ Boone’s Farm.
“Every single person who expects our wine to taste like Boone’s Farm says, ‘Never mind. This quality is way higher,’” Brian said. “This is wine. It’s serious.’”
While attending Rancho Buena Vista High School, Brian excelled in science, scoring a perfect five on the advanced placement chemistry test.
But after graduation in 2005 he headed east to study political science at Colgate University in upstate New York.
“I didn’t want to be in a lab,” he said. “I’m so much more of a social person.”
Alan stayed in San Diego, gaining experience in the hospitality industry and working on projects with his father, an unsuccessful inventor.
When Brian returned to North County after finishing college in 2009, he and Alan began “looking for the next thing that would end up being a business.”
“We always knew we would make a good team because we challenge each other,” Brian said. “We don’t ever agree on anything, which is good.”
That summer they were introduced to fruit wine by a couple making it as a hobby.
“The wine itself wasn’t amazing but the concept definitely was,” Brian said. “I’d never heard of it so it piqued my interest.
“The next time I went to the grocery store I went down the wine aisle looking for a fruit wine of some sort,” he said. “I didn’t find any so this was kind of interesting to me, the entrepreneurial thinker.”
The foursome briefly went into business together.
“The unfortunate thing about any relationship, whether it’s dating or otherwise, is you don’t know a lot of things about the person until you’re knee deep,” Brian said. “We realized they really didn’t know what they were doing as far as the technical aspects of making wine.
“After about eight months or a year, in the interest of both parties, we ended up going our own ways, which was a good development,” he said. Their partners moved to Northern California.
But the brothers continued to pursue the business, with Alan working to raise capital and Brian researching laws, securing licenses, developing a business plan and finding their first production location — a small space in Oceanside with a $300 monthly rent.
While Alan is currently the primary winemaker, they both worked on perfecting the product in the early days, although neither had any formal training in oenology.
“We went through a process of self-education, which included the Internet,” Brian said. “We also contacted other local winemakers.
“But the biggest teacher is, of course, trial and error,” he said. “Just like any discipline, you will learn much more quickly by doing it.
“For two and a half years we’ve been dedicated to understanding how to make wine — the intricacies of it,” Brian said. “It’s not just a knowledge we got from reading a book or tasting it. We began to understand what’s contributing to this characteristic or that characteristic.
“It’s like a relationship with your dog,” he said. “Eventually you know how your dog is going to behave. You learn to know how the yeast is going to behave. It comes from experience. Certain smells will determine whether to add a little more of a certain ingredient. It’s chemistry meets the chef.”
Initially the brothers sold their fruit wine exclusively at street fairs. Sales were successful, despite licensing laws that precluded them from allowing tastings.
With about $12,500 Alan saved while working as a valet at La Costa Resort and Spa and a loan from their mother, who was skeptical at first, Alan and Brian moved into their current location in a Vista business park in October 2011.
Although their new rent is 10 times higher, frugality has made it work.
“Everything for us was penny pinching, bargain shopping, Craigslist, classified ads — just making it work,” Brian said. “Most of the equipment we got on a shoestring.”
They bought office furniture as a package from a storage facility for $800 and sold the excess pieces for a $1,000 profit. They recently acquired a walk-in cooler for free off Craigslist.
Their new 4,500-square-foot production facility now includes a tasting room that features Wine Down Wednesday, Foodie Friday with varying food trucks, Sa”tour”day and Sangria Sunday.
Brian said the main difference between fruit wine and its more traditional counterpart is that their product isn’t aged in wood.
It’s currently fermented in high-density, food-grade polyethylene plastic because it’s inexpensive.
“We will graduate to stainless steel once we secure financing,” Brian said.
Alan said the reaction to fruit wine can be summed up in three categories of people.
“There are the traditional wine drinkers, who run for their lives,” he said. “There’s another 5 percent who only like super sweet wine.
“They come in loving the idea but it’s not sweet enough for them,” he said. “The other 80 percent are hesitant at first but they like it once they try it.”
Surprisingly, the wine isn’t as sweet as one would expect. In fact, Brian said they add “hundreds of pounds of sugar” in the winemaking process.
While the brothers are fast becoming accomplished winemakers, they seem more intent on being known as trendsetters.
“It’s not so much that we make fruit wine so please buy it,” Alan said. “It’s more, the reason we make fruit wine is the spirit of innovation that’s inside of us.”
“But as with any innovative idea there’s always a huge concern about whether this is a good idea,” Brian said. “It hasn’t been done. It hasn’t been tested. And you have to figure out why.
“So here we are, three years into it, and what we’ve concluded is that we’re on to something.”