Jason Berger spent much of his life minding the rules, avoiding change and finding comfort in logic, so nurturing an artistic talent that requires risk-taking and experimentation came as a surprise for the Huntington Beach resident.
The 29-year-old is an at-home winemaker in his free time, but his take on the hobby is unique: He forgoes fermenting grapes and instead experiments with other organic fruit and ingredients.
Organic fruit wines
Jason Berger has tried several types of organic fruit he ferments to make wine including bananas, boysenberries, coconut and pineapples. Ready-to-drink at his home are his apple, honey and dragon fruit wines.
Pitahaya: This wine made of dragon fruit is sweet and light on the palate – reminiscent of a viognier. On its own, this wine is perfect for a summer evening but could also be used to make pretty tasty sangria.
Apple: This wine is a great cider cold but could also be warmed for a perfect winter drink. The aroma and flavors of this wine would pair well with a cinnamon stick and a crackling fire.
Mead: This wine is made of honey and has a rich, sweet flavor. It is best when served cold.
So far, yellow pitahaya, apples, bananas, boysenberries and honey are among his proven successes.
Figs and watermelons have been recorded as failures.
The fun is in the experimentation, and the satisfaction comes when the first sip of a new recipe spreads a smile across his face instead of eliciting a wrinkle from his nose.
“I’m very talented at some things but nothing that gave me this kind of reward,” Berger said.
Berger is an assistant manager of California Imports, a car dealership in Huntington Beach, where he oversees the finance and administration departments. He started trying out wine recipes two years ago after he said he couldn’t find a commercial wine that satisfied his palate.
“I kept trying wine and I kept being disappointed, especially with red,” he said. “So I wanted to make my own.”
The idea for his first wine was sparked by his father’s hobby – cultivating exotic and rare fruit trees.
Steve Berger has been raising tropical and subtropical fruits in the backyard of the Huntington Beach home where the Bergers have lived for the past 17 years.
Along the wall, the vine-like appendages of a cactus tree twist toward the sky.
They are not bearing fruit now, but when they do, some have a yellow, sweeter, variety, and others produce a red, more tart, fruit.
Pitahaya, also called dragon fruit, is native to Mexico and Central and South America but can thrive in some areas of Orange County, Berger said.
“Huntington Beach has the best climate for it,” Berger said. “If you go too far inland, it’s too dry.”
Berger waited until the tree produced enough yellow fruit to make his first barrel of wine.
He boiled it to kill the bacteria and added sugar to up the alcohol content.
Then he waited several months for the fermentation process to complete. He carefully checked and rechecked the barrel along the way.
“I was dealing with such a rare fruit; I didn’t want to ruin it,” he said.
He took a first sip.
“I was so happy,” Berger said. “It was so successful.
“I fell in love.”
Then he second-guessed himself.
He realized his version was more acidic compared with the recipe he was following, so he added water.
The wine was ruined.
“That was very heartbreaking,” he said. “I worked so hard.”
He learned winemaking meant sometimes failing, being adaptable and having a playful and adventurous character – traits that seemed a stark contrast to his younger self.
As a child, Berger said he was very non-experimental and obedient.
“I was so used to doing what I was told … and I did not like change,” he said. “This whole thing is new to me.”
Now, he tries, he tinkers, he alters, he perfects.
He sometimes still fails, then he corrects.
He bottles his wine and gives it away to his friends, family and clients.
He can’t charge for his product because he is not licensed, he said.
For the last two years, he also has submitted entries to the OC Fair’s home winemaking competition, in which he’s received some nods from the judges.
This year, he was awarded a bronze and an honorable mention for his apple wine and banana wine, respectively.
Berger said sometimes people raise a quizzical eyebrow when they learn what he is pouring, but in most cases, he gets a positive response.
“They’re hesitant at first,” he said. “People like to see things in the store; they like things commercial, but they always come back for more.”
Now, two years into his endeavor, Berger said he hopes to one day turn his organic wine hobby, which he calls Berger’s Fermenting Barrels, into a business.
He recently finished a welding class at Orange Coast College to make his own fermentation tanks and is currently designing his label.
“I’d like to one day have a farm and my own winery,” he said. “It’s a little dream of mine.”