From Mark Cuban to Kevin O’Leary, the Sharks of ABC’s Shark Tank aren’t strangers to wine … grape wine, that is. But a recent episode of the show, on which entrepreneurs pitch investment opportunities to the famed financiers, brought a new fermented first to the tank: honey wine. Made in Sonoma, Bee d’Vine honey wine comes from The Honey Wine Company and its founding winemaker and conservationist Ayele Solomon.
“I’ve always had an interest in wine and food,” Solomon told Unfiltered, “I grew up working in restaurants.” His journey into honey wine started in 2009 while he was living in his native Ethiopia, where he realized that locally produced honey and traditional honey wine, or t’ej, could potentially incentivize protections for the country’s Kafa rainforest. “Ethiopia’s the biggest honey wine–drinking country in the world,” said Solomon. His efforts to introduce modern beekeeping methods there could potentially vastly increase the value of Kafa’s existing beekeeping operations, and If the rainforest became more valuable as a honey source, it would become less attractive as a source of lumber.
Solomon learned more about the process of making honey wine, testing out production in Ethiopia and South Africa’s Stellenbosch region before moving his operation to California. But this wasn’t Solomon’s first foray into wine. He had learned about the grapier side of wine from his father, who planted a vineyard in California’s Livermore Valley in 2005.
Much of Solomon's honey is sourced from California's citrus-filled Tulare County, then blended with Sonoma spring water and cold fermented. “[We] pretty much treat it like white wine at that point,” he explains. His Bee d’Vine wines are made in several styles that range in sweetness and French oak influence (sweeter versions see less oak and more stainless steel aging), with several sparkling versions produced using the Charmat method.
Solomon has become something of an authority on the subject of honey wine over the past decade, publishing a book on his bee-loved beverage. But he emphasizes that his wines are not traditional t’ej, instead offering something closer to California’s white wines. “The whole [effort] has been trying to approach honey wine as grape wine,” Solomon said. “[That’s something] nobody else has done.”
Solomon launched his honey wines in 2014, eventually opening The Honey Wine Company’s wine bar at San Francisco’s Ferry Building in December 2019. Unfortunately, the wine bar has fallen victim to the COVID-19 pandemic, so Solomon turned his eye to some angel investors … in sharkskin.
Bringing a flight of sweet, dry, still and sparkling wines, Solomon made his pitch to the Shark Tank Sharks, hoping they’d offer him a $750,000 investment for 20 percent of his business. “It was nice to come out [and] give them something they’ve never tasted before,” he says, “It was exhilarating.” And with the wines explained, pitched and thoroughly tasted, the Sharks made their decision: In a rare four-Shark deal, Solomon accepted their $750,000 offer for 40 percent of his business. “Tastes good, looks good … first white wine I’ve liked,” said investor Lori Greiner on the episode, “It’s kind of like a dream come true. And you’re saving the bees.”
With the investment secured, Solomon has big plans. He’s hopeful that wine lovers and fine restaurants will embrace honey wines as a new tipple, especially given that honey’s lack of tannins makes the beverage a friendly food pairing. Solomon is also hoping to give his wines more “varietal” typicity, akin to the distinctions between traditional wines made from different grape varieties. That means producing distinct honey wines made exclusively from one kind of honey, made by bees consuming pollen from just one type of plant. It might also mean sourcing honey from new locales. “I would like to start using more interesting honeys from different parts of the world, including Ethiopia,” Solomon explained, “especially if there’s a component of helping [small farmers].”
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