LEFT: Guests relax in the urban-eclectic Hi-Wheel tasting room in Portland. ##Photo provided

Turning the Tables

Hi-Wheel refashions wine coolers into delectable biz

By Mark Stock

Fizzy wines are something akin to a Hollywood remake. They’ve been in circulation for some time and many imbibers reflect fondly on younger days drinking the originals, most likely for effect over flavor. As the industry has aged, refined and saturated, it looks to improve upon old ideas to please a more selective crowd. Enter — or, reenter — fizzy wine, the Beauty and the Beast of beverages.

Danielle McHugh pours Hi-Wheel wines for a customer. The bicycle theme is playfully include throughout the space. ##Photo by Mark Stock

At Hi-Wheel in northeast Portland, the objective is re-mastery: perfect the fruit-flavored, carbonated sugar bombs of old with fresh ingredients and a focus on balance. Ken Bonnin Jr.’s versions revolve around citrus bases such as lemon, lime or grapefruit. To flesh them out, he incorporates everything from black currants to ginger to chili flakes. The results are fizzy wines that don’t hide behind corn syrup or high gravity. Like traditional wines, they stress the fruit involved, and like contemporary beers, they involve cameos from unexpected additions.

The production space and taproom occupies what used to be the headquarters for Pacific Window Corporation on Dekum Street. A large garage fills a living room with light as guests sip Blackberry Habañero fizzy wine atop repurposed pews and miscellaneous chairs. A visual homage to the winery’s moniker resounds with vintage posters, models and even custom stained glass windows depicting the old time-y two-wheeled bike. Even the sampler trays feature a forged metal rendition of the bike.

Bonnin Jr. started as a mead guy, crafting fermented honey concoctions in or around his college days. As the tale goes, he would pack his work with him, testing it out on fellow revelers at Burning Man Festival in Black Rock City, Nevada. It turns out a sweltering late-summer desert was not the ideal spot for mead, so he looked to concoct something that could be turned out quicker and offer more refreshment. The fizzy wine was to be reimagined.

“A fizzy wine is a lightly carbonated citrus wine,” he says, joking that his PR team isn’t around to offer an ideal definition. “It’s like a really nice wine cooler.”

He perfected his recipes for more than a year before adding fizz.

“Sparkling brought it to the next level,” Bonnin Jr. said.

His batches take a few weeks each; he equates the process to apple cider production. There’s roughly a week of primary fermentation shadowed by a couple weeks of secondary, wherein flavors are added. The one-time basement operation is now up to some 2,200 gallons per month with distribution in major Washington, California and Oregon cities, maxing out his Portland production space.

Hi-Wheel Fizzy Wine Co. owner Ken Bonnin Jr.

The playful name reflects a long-standing interest in cycling. Bonnin Jr., who is from New Hampshire and spent many years in the tech world (simultaneously brewing beer at home), admires the two-wheeled world of transportation.

“I was talking with a friend and he said, ‘why not the funny old bike with high front wheel,’” he said. “Poof, the name was born.”

Hi-Wheel offers about a half-dozen riffs available both via draft and bottle. Highlights include the highly aromatic Black Lightning, a floral mix of red chili flakes, clove and black currant; the zesty Ginger Lemon; and the Death Wish Bunny, an autumnal mix of carrot, ginger and chai spices. They are offered on tap alongside a mead and beer option — or two — and the occasional fizzy wine-based cocktail.

While there’s seasonality to his wines, Bonnin Jr. also has flexibility thanks to a steady stream of citrus coming from California and brewery-quality fruit purées available year-round. He relies solely on cane sugar and looks to showcase local fare like berries and lavender from local purveyors.

“What I really like is the opacity of the product,” he said, referencing Hi-Wheel’s light, paper filtration method. In turn, the wines are somewhat hazy and quite talkative, relatively unobstructed from the often forceful hand of filtration. They tend to be bright, fresh and even.

As days lengthen and backyards beckon, it’s hard to imagine a more fitting drink. Hi-Wheel does you the favor of eliminating the embarrassment associated with most affordable wine coolers. Some — Zima, Bacardi Breezers, Bartles & Jaymes — are not worthy of a remake. But if the basic principle is sound — in this case, a thirst-quenching, fairly low-alcohol sparkling wine enhanced by choice adjuncts — there’s a good chance some creative type will offer a worthy adaptation.

Hi-Wheel is definitely worth the cost of admission.

Mark Stock is a Portland-based freelance writer. 


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