Vino from Vacherie – Engineer-turned-vintner Don Becnel produces notable fruit wines

South Louisiana is known for many things. Fine winemaking is not among them.

But 60-year-old Don Becnel is testing a theory that just because we can’t grow grapes in our hot, humid climate and moist, alluvial soil doesn’t mean we can’t produce some really quaffable vino.

Based on the initial success of his Pierre Clidamont Becnel fruit-based wines, his theory is correct. Since Becnel started producing bottles of blackberry, red raspberry and black currant wines less than two years ago, he has sold out twice: about 10,000 bottles in all. Two local stores carry his wines—Calvin’s Bocage Market and Calandro’s Supermarket—as does the Rouses Supermarket chain elsewhere in Louisiana. What’s more, several swanky New Orleans restaurants now include Pierre Clidamont Becnel on their wine lists, including Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse and Emeril’s signature eatery in the Warehouse District.

“It’s amazing, really,” says Becnel, whose genial demeanor and bayou-born accent belie his workhorse intensity. “We never expected this level of enthusiasm. It’s been phenomenal.”

Becnel has come a long way in the four decades since he began experimenting with amateur oenology by adding over-ripened fruit to mixtures of water, sugar and yeast in five-gallon Kentwood water jugs he stored in the kitchen of his grad-school pad. He’d use whatever fruit he could buy on sale at the supermarket early in the week, and by Friday night it had magically fermented into something at least remotely akin to wine.

“At the time we thought it tasted great,” he says.

Nearly 40 years later Becnel’s palate is a bit more refined. So is his technique. But his passion for making wine is stronger than ever, and what began as a curiosity-turned-hobby has become a business for him and his wife, Karen. They work together long, hard days producing the wines—so named for one of the Becnel ancestors—from an inauspicious warehouse in the middle of a sugarcane field in Vacherie. It’s just down River Road from Evergreen Plantation, which is the home depicted on their wines’ labels and was in the Becnel family throughout the 1800s.

While Becnel is not alone in producing wines in Louisiana, one thing that sets him apart is that his fruit wines are drier than most, and more akin to the wines made from grapes. To make them, he uses fruit juice concentrates he buys in bulk from a distributor in Oregon. They definitely taste fruity but lack the cloying sweetness that is typical of most fruit or so-called country wines.

“Most fruit wines are dessert wines,” Becnel said. “These you can drink with anything.”

That may be a matter of taste, but the wines do have a certain quaffability. The blackberry wine tastes light and smooth, and is enjoyable with a pasta dish or grilled chicken. The red raspberry wine is more typical of a fruit wine and would go well with a chocolate dessert, though Becnel likes to drink it with hamburgers and heartier dishes.

The black currant wine is the most complex of the three and can stand up to a thick steak or rack of lamb. It’s also the one most favored by the serious wine drinkers who have tasted it, according to Becnel. But the important thing is that all three wines have been well received by those in the industry, who tend to turn up their noses at the notion of taking fruit wine seriously.

As for how he makes his wine, Becnel doesn’t want to divulge proprietary information. But he’s willing to share the basics of what is a six-month process from start to finish. It begins when he mixes water, yeast, the fruit juice concentrate and raw sugar from his family’s cane fields in the same kind of giant plastic vats used to store chemicals.

An engineer by trade, Becnel did a little research and determined the plastic vats “breathe” at the same rate as the oak barrels traditionally used in wine making. They’re also a lot less expensive, which helps him keep down his overhead costs.

The mixing process takes about eight weeks, with the ingredients added gradually every few days. Then the fermentation begins. A valve on the top of the vats lets Becnel release oxygen when too much pressure is building up inside, and every so often he opens the vats to stir the contents. The ultimate result is never quite predictable, but then, that’s part of the challenge—and the appeal.

“A lot of stuff is voodoo about winemaking,” says Becnel. “Winemakers take too much credit. It’s really just yeast interacting with sugar, and much of the time it’s outside of your control.”

As for the bottling, corking and labeling of the wine, Becnel is getting ready to add on to his Vacherie warehouse, which will enable him to ramp up production. For now, however, it’s all done the old-fashioned way, with manually operated equipment.

As word of Becnel’s wines has spread, their popularity has grown, though it is still a small operation. That’s keeping Becnel plenty busy enough. He still has a day job as an engineer in Baton Rouge and is, in sum, working up to 100 hours a week. His winery has also led to a side business venture: the importing of 35 French wines produced by a cooperative of French families.

It’s all still a little overwhelming, Becnel concedes. But he is thrilled to be doing what he loves and producing something that he can share with others.

Says Becnel: “I’m extremely happy with the way it’s all turning out.”