Local wine occupies a special place in the culture of Belize River Valley. That's where fruits such as cashew , blackberry, mango, craboo and other more obscure ones like governor plum flourish abundantly.
Turning these fruits into wine is a long standing cultural practice, and one man has turned it into a neat little cottage industry. We caught up with Vince McKesey on the Northern Highway this weekend where he explained the ins and outs of the local wine business.
Here's the story.
Robin Schaffer reporting
Vince McKesey sells local wine on the entrance to Sandhill on the local highway. His wines may not have a fancy cork or bear a stylish label. They may not be vintage and they aren't high priced, but they sure are tasty, and there's an art to making it.
Vince McKesey - Wine Maker
"Here in this village, we have fruits in abundance, and we don't have to sell rotten. We sell fresh fruits that we'd buy from people by the buckets, and I would make - well, in the process making wine, what you are actually doing is that first, you are actually making a juice. You're letting a juice ferment as it gradually turns into a wine. When you make the juice, the citrus acid in that fruit eats the sugar, and it converts to alcohol. So, as the - depending on how much citrus acid is in there - it determines how strong the product will be initially. And as you let it age, the longer it ages in wine, it gets finer and finer. It then gets a better quality. So, this wine will continue to age and ferment until it gets maybe more like a crystal-looking color like this. This sorrel is from last year, and this plum is from like during the Christmas season, so you see, it's a more cloudy color. But it will continue to age until it gets fine like this one."
He's been selling wine for a number of years, and - he says - he makes a variety of flavors, but only to reflect indigenous fruits of this area.
"What I'm really doing is I'm producing a product, and I'm doing something that is just our culture. It's not something that I have invented. This is something that was carried from grandparents and everyone in villages because they have the fruits. We would turn it into a wine or something like that. So, I'm just doing it in a cultural kind of way - a natural way - I don't even use yeast. It's only fruit and brown sugar, and in an example like Mango or plumb, we'd use water, but with the berries, we don't. So, I use the natural fruit and brown sugar, that's all. I try to keep it as natural as possible. I provide cultural products that symbolizes - especially here in Sand Hill - I use the different fruits and flowers that we have here in this village. So I produce wines out of the fruits that would normally spoil. I make wine out of the berries, this one here is a plumb, and that's sorrel. I also make mango wines."
So, he can make wine from just about anything, but which one leaves customers with that "wow" feeling? He says, it depends.
"The favorite is the blackberry. I don't know why; it's just everyone's favorite. Now, I always introduce a new product. I try to change a product according to the seasons. Just like how we have cashews in season now, and craboo will come behind, and then sour sop - whatever - I try to change up the product on the table also. And it runs out just like those fruits do. So, anytime I introduce a new product - like say, in a couple months or so, I'll be introducing a sour sop wine - you have those people love sour sop, and when they come and try it as a wine, they say, 'Wow'. You see what I am saying? So, it's those people who like that fruit or maybe never knew that this fruit could make such a nice wine. They would come and try the wine because we have all tried these fruits at some time or another, but to get it as a wine, it then gives you that 'wow' feeling."
And his wines are not the only reason to visit his stand. He says dozens of iguanas live in the nearby fences, attracting tourists to the area, but we only found one when we went to see for ourselves.
"Them being here causes the tourists to come, and eventually, we have some people who will come and go beyond their boundaries. They will eventually try to touch the animals, which causes them to run back into the cavities of the blocks. It takes maybe like a half-hour or more before they would finally come back out, so I had to put up this barrier to stop people from touching them."
Between the wines and the scenery, Vince McKesey makes a pretty lucrative business, proving that for a startup entrepreneur, you don't need a multimillion dollar investment.
"Before, I was just cleaning my yard, and I was just passing by with my wheel barrow, which was filled with mangoes. And people started stopping and asking me how much the mangoes cost. I wasn't selling them, but they just wanted them. So, I started to give it away for free. Eventually, I brought bags out here, and people started to fill their bags. Their conscience made them start to pay for it, so that's what started the business right there. Wines is just something that I started doing because, like for example, cashew is in season. See, the cashew is on the stand, and I sell the fresh cashew. But when the cashew is done, after cashew comes the next fruit, which is craboo. We don't have an abundance of craboo in this village, so I needed a product that I'd have during that drought season. Wine became that product."
And for only 10 dollars a bottle, you can get a taste of something priceless.
And if you aren't a believer just yet, stop by McKesey generously gives free samples.