I awoke to the deafening sound of raindrops beating down on my typical Belizean roof of galvanized metal– on any other Saturday morning this would signal a slow start to the day – roll over for a another hour of slumber to the tune of the raindrops or lie around and catch up with the country's activities via copies of 7 different weekly newspapers. But today I had a date with a guy named Charlie in the "wine country" of rural Belize District some 70 miles north of Belmopan and about 25 miles from the main commercial capital, Belize City. With the area dotted with villages sporting names like Double Head Cabbage and Burrell Boom, the names of the villages, were reason enough to explore, but the mission was to determine what story lay behind the old Creole song, "Drink yu wine on a Krismas mawnin', drink yu wine…."
Being the ultimate wine novice, I will be the first to admit my ignorance of the difference between Chardonnay and Syrah, but one has to start somewhere and perhaps wine made from fruits I had grown up eating all my life would ease my journey into the unfamiliar territory of the wine connoisseur.
Given that alcohol consumption was the focus of the day's activity I was accompanied by my teetotaler friend and designated driver, Michael. Our 8:00 a.m. departure on to the Western Highway on this December morning was accompanied by a light rain shower normal during "Belizean winter" - the occasional gust of wind and then a light fog with no sign of the crisp blue skies and bright sunshine a visitor would expect in the tropics. But I knew it would not be long before the tropical sun burnt through the fog and made its appearance. And it did just that as I passed Hattieville, a village that got its start after the destruction of the 1961 Hurricane Hattie forced people to move out of the city.
Soon we were on the "Boom road", a paved connection between the Western Highway and the Northern Highway. The air was fresh and clean, punctuated with the aroma of fresh pine and firewood, and the drive was picturesque – the roadside dotted with a variety of fruit trees including cashew, black berry and mango. The occasional gray fox darted out the bushes alongside the road but that was our only company for miles. Burrel Boom is the first village of nine villages of the Belize River Valley each with intriguing names -Double Head Cabbage, Scotland Halfmoon, Bermudian Landing, Flowers Banks, Isabella Bank, St. Paul Bank, Rancho Dolores, and Lemonal. These villages developed along the banks of the Belize River beginning some 220 years ago for the sole purpose of facilitating the trade of logwood that was exported to England and used for making dye. Back then it might be easy to suppose that both masters and slaves worked hard harvesting logwood and that theirs was a lonely existence given that these logwood communities were some 30 miles or several days journey via the river from the main port city of Belize.
Oliver's Vineyard as the first stop of the day's itinerary. Somewhat of a misnomer, the vineyard was actually a small grocery store, which once sold all flavors of local fruit wine, but now only made wines on request. The owner, Mrs. Enid Oliver a tall, thin, red boned woman, stood behind the cashier's counter and was eager to talk about wine, but was soon interrupted by her grand mother-May. Despite the 85 degree weather May, about 75 years old wore a brightly colored floral frock, knit hat and brown nylon stockings and sat in a small rocking chair in the far left of the store.
"My father was the first man who made Cashew wine to sell; he made all sorts of wine."
Considering how long they had been making wine I was sure that we would be in for a treat, but as luck would have it, the wine was all sold out. Oliver explained that with the New Year's celebration only three days away her neighbors had bought out her stock. Disappointed we set out for the next stop ten miles away, the village of Double Head Cabbage:
We soon came upon the Belize River, along which the nine villages lie. Approximately 120 miles from beginning to the Caribbean Sea, this artery of steadily flowing powerful water, the color of a peridot, seemed imbued with the spirits of the men from those mahogany camps.
Acting on a tip from a friend we stopped by Charlie's unmarked winery. A small concrete building, where Charlie and his friend Leslie sat at a small wooden table covered with a white table cloth dotted with huge poinsettias. An assortment of local rums, brandy and bottles of wines were lined up on the table like bowling pins. On the right side of the saloon stood a 4 foot Christmas tree heavily decorated with bright colored tinsel and shiny red and green balls. The small winery was filled with the aroma of sweet, musky cashew. For the sake of the fermented wine the room was dark but a small door at the back of the shop was slightly open letting in a narrow stream of light and giving the room a warm cozy ambiance and the wine bottles, a translucent glow. Charlie, a 63 year old ebony gentleman with salt and pepper hair, braided in cornrows, was about 6 ft tall and solidly built. He wore a white T-shirt with the word "Volunteer" in red lettering across his chest.
Charlie who doesn't drink his own wines, says it is "bad luck", was drinking Tropical Brandy with milk, whilst his companion, Leslie drank his straight on the rocks. It was about 11:00 a.m. but hey, it was the holidays!
In the back of the store there was a long bar behind which were shelves from floor to ceiling leaving only a small area for Charlie's wife Alma, to do her sewing. The shelves, held over two hundred bottles of wine, some as old as twenty years old. Glossy champagne, brandy, whisky, rum, and liqueur bottles in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors had been recycled to store Charlie's wine. They lit up the room like Christmas lights. On the table in front of us there were several samples of wine ranging in color from gold, silver, pink, burgundy and dark brown, and for every hue, there were several varieties of wines. Wine made from Guava, Cider Bark, Pumpkin, Blackberry, May plum, Craboo, Monkey Apple, Mango, the notorious Cashew wine (known to change a man into his alter ego after one glass), Coco plum Serosi (a herb), Sorrel, Bukut and Tonic wine. Being a novice I mistakenly assumed that Charlie was having a hard time selling his wines, but this was not the case, because while Charlie claims to be a business man, he is really just a simple wine lover, who finds it difficult to let go of his creations.
"I don’t make wine for people who just want to get drunk", he said in a thick Trinidadian accent, sounding somewhat like an old English teacher enunciating each word.
"I make wine for people who love wine and appreciate the process and then get drunk." We laughed like old friends sharing a feeling of kinship for life and wine.
He invited us to sit and immediately informed me that he had done countless interviews before, that visitors come to see him from all over the world, and that he had been hesitant to talk to me during his holiday time, since this was a time to be festive not formal.
We immediately connected as I told him about the day's adventures in getting to him. He talked about wine, "wine can be made out of almost anything- fruits, leaves, barks even herbs," he finished by saying with a straight face as he took another taste of his brandy, "I even wanted to turn water into wine,". Leslie and I could barely control our laughter.
I opted to start with a taste of Serosi wine and he poured me a shot in a small whiskey glass. Serosi is a local herb used for medicinal purposes, and when boiled turns an emerald green color that is bitter to taste. But Charlie convinced me that this would not taste anything like the herb. He was right it was sweet and tangy. As I continued sampling, - Black Berry, Cassava and Craboo wines - he continued the lesson:
Only make 5 gallons at a time
Collect fruit of choice, wash, cut open fruit and place in container with water
Ferment for 3 months
Add 5lbs of sugar
Let sit for another 1 month to 3 months.
After my fourth glass I said to Charlie,
"These wines are making me sweat".
His response, "Don't worry you will be 'heat-y' in a minute". By then little beads of sweat started to run down my face and my belly felt warm and tingly. Unexpectedly the party that started with just the four of us and Ms. Alma as a spectator, had turned into ten with several neighborhood men stopping by to celebrate the season.
As Michael drove home at the end of the day I pondered whether I still qualified as a "wine novice" and decided that I did. After all, one wine tour could scarcely qualify as a complete wine tasting education and I did have at least 5 more village and dozens more home style wineries to explore in the area.
But the most valuable secret I had discovered was one that the long gone mahogany cutters had known so well. Whether it is made in the renowned vineyards of the world or in buckets in a backyard in Belize, drinking wine together is not only a form of entertainment but also a way to understand and share one's daily existence, no matter the difference in race, background or income level.