In life there are fleeting moments that at the time seem insignificant but years later have a resounding impact.
For Pamela Walsh and her husband Brett Stevenson, that small but significant moment happened at a party in California.
“We were at a friend’s house, it was the 90s and living in California we would try different wines,” says Pamela.
“Somebody came along with raspberry wine, which we’d never heard of, never tasted and knew nothing about.
“We tried it and just thought it was absolutely amazing. And intriguing as well – we have never even considered the process, it’s just taken for granted that wine is made from grapes.
“So as you do, we figured out how to make it ourselves. We’re the kind of people that if we’re into something, we really like to get into the detail and figure it out.”
From California to Ireland
At the time, however, it was a hobby. Life was busy for the couple who had high-powered careers in San Francisco.
Dublin native Pamela says: “Brett and I met when I was spending a summer in the States and later I moved out to be with him.”
Pamela says it was an exciting time in the Bay area: “I was working as an engineer in Silicon Valley, things were really taking off.
“Brett was a sound engineer on big productions and films, there was great opportunities.” However, as their children Shane and Selena got older, the lure of home kept getting louder.
“We were watching the news and they were installing metal detectors to detect guns in a local school and we just said is this the environment we want to bring up our kids?”
Big opportunities also awaited Pamela when she returned home. “In California I had visited Altamont Pass, one of the first wind farms in the world and I was absolutely fascinated by it – the concept of creating electricity from wind. When we came home, I remember it was a winter’s night and I was listening to the wind howling and I thought I have to get involved in the wind industry here.”
What followed was a very successful career in Airtricity. Pamela got in in the early days and over the years progressed to the senior management team.
“It was a very interesting area to work in but it was extremely busy and there was a lot of travelling.” Burnout hit and after many years working in the field, Pamela decided to draw a line under it.
“We started talking about our next step in life, our next adventure. After many years playing with the idea, we decided to give berry wine a go and Wicklow Way Wines was born.”
The very first step was sourcing the berries.
“Right from the start it had to be Irish. Some people think that’s a given but there are plenty of products that say ‘Made in Ireland’ but are using imported goods. We’re very concerned about provenance and nature and the environment so using Irish fruit was a fundamental.”
Contacts were made and their first supplier was Pat Clarke in Stamullen. “The quality of Pat’s fruit is excellent and he has a lot of berries – strawberries, blackberries and raspberries – so he can supply us with a lot. We put blackcurrants into our blackberry wine to give it that extra bit of complexity and they come from Des Jeffares in Ballykelly Farm in Wexford and we also source from Malone’s Fruit in Carlow and Conroy’s in Wicklow.”
All this fruit has to be fermented so a production facility was set up. “Even though Brett and I were working professionals, setting up your own business is quite daunting. So we phoned our Local Enterprise Office. I didn’t know what to expect but they were really helpful from the get go. You come in with this mad idea but instead of saying: ‘Oh that’s crazy,” they say: “Right, that’s interesting, let’s talk it through” and they helped us figure it out. Even though I had come from senior management, there was always a team of experts around for sales, marketing and finance. But when you set up your own business, suddenly you’re responsible for all that. They gave us great direction, helped us develop a business plan and we got funding of around €25,000, which included some loans.”
There was also help from other winemakers. “Berry wines are very niche and you mostly find them in colder countries like the north of US, Canada, Eastern Europe and even Scandinavia. It can be much more labour intensive than wine made from grapes. Think about the fact that when grapes are picked, they are in a bunch so you could get a bunch of 20 or 30 in one go. Every single berry has to be handpicked, which is much more time consuming and expensive.”
Perfecting the process
“One of the benefits though is the season is long, so the harvest isn’t as intensive as grapes, which is very good for us because we are such a small company.
It was a success from the start and in 2014 Móinéir Strawberry Wine was launched, bursting with summer fruit flavours, full bodied and complex with a hint of sweetness. Since then they have added Irish blackberry wine and raspberry wine.
“We have been stocked in some exceptional restaurants like Chapter One, Ashford Castle and Aniar. It’s really favoured by chefs and restauranteurs who value provenance. Móinéir is Irish for meadows.” In fact, there was such interest in the product that people started showing up at the door asking about the wine.
Pamela says: “Brett is a real people person so he would invite people in telling them about the wine. We saw there was a business opportunity here so we now do tours where we show people the whole process and give them a tasting, pairing with cheese and chocolate.
“It’s an opportunity to spread the word about our wine. As much as we love the business, neither Brett or I have any interest in going back to working that hectic lifestyle, getting on planes across the world to sell our product. It is at a very manageable level and we are really enjoying it.”