NEW PINE CREEK, Calif. — "WILD PLUM WINERY" proclaims the huge letters on the roof of farmer Roy Stringer's century-old barn in this remote northeast corner of California.
Stringer, 61, and his wife, Joanne, 54, made their living from Herefords, hay and selling 45 tons of wild plums each year to a Medford, Ore., firm that used the rare fruit in jams, jellies, preserves and syrup.
Three years ago, the preserves maker went belly-up.
"Between the cows, the hay and the wild plums we were able to get by," said Stringer. "When we lost our wild plum market, we had to figure out what to do with the fruit."
The farm family decided to convert their barn into a winery.
Transplanted in 1942
Son John, 31, is the wine maker, aided by his father. The women, Joanne and daughter-in-law, Kelly, 26, operate the tasting room and retail sales department in the big old weather-beaten barn.
They harvest the cherry-size wild plums from a 14-acre orchard on their 122-acre farm. The trees were transplanted in 1942 from the wild in the nearby Warner mountains.
Wild plums grow only in a few areas in America. The wine is a novelty.
First year's production was 7,500 gallons. Last year, the farm family fermented 11,000 gallons of the rare fruit. They sell Stringer's Orchard Wild Plum Wine for $4.75 a 750-milliliter bottle, $48.45 for a case of 12.
Anytime day or night, motorists pull off narrow, two-lane highway 395 after spotting the big roof sign. Upon hearing a vehicle, one of the Springers heads for the barn to offer a sample and hopefully sell some of the peach-colored product, which comes in three different flavors, sweet, in-between and dry.
A dozen restaurants and liquor stores in sparsely populated Modoc County, Calif., and Lake County, Ore., are selling the wine; so are a few outlets in the Lake Tahoe area.
The Stringers, with the help of hired pickers, pluck the plums from their 1,400 trees in the first three weeks in September. The fruit is processed in huge stainless steel tanks in the barn and bottled for sale several months later.
"When we find plum pits littering the ground in late August and early September under the trees, we know the fruit is ready to harvest," explained Joanne Stringer. "Deers come into the orchard after dark and nibble on the ripening fruit."
Tart, Clear Taste
The Stringers take turns chasing the deer out of the woods all hours of the night until the fruit is finally harvested.
"We know of no other commercial wild plum winery anywhere," said John Stringer, adding: "People like the tart, clear taste of the wine."
Sam Folsom, spokesman for the Wine Institute, the San Francisco-based association representing California wineries, said he had never heard of another winery making wine out of wild plums.
The winery lies in the heart of lonely 20-mile-long, 2-mile-wide Goose Lake Valley, hard fast against the Oregon border. It is an area that John Stringer envisions as a future "Napa Valley of wild plum wine."
"I think we're on to something that could net us a bigger income than we had been earning from the cows, hay, jellies and jam," said Roy Stringer.