WHEN he first ventured into wine production in 2000, Elbert Pigtain had no formal wine training. So the president of the Philippine Tropical Fruit Winery Corp. dedicated the first three years to research before formally setting up the company in 2003. But even as a newcomer, he has what it takes to develop excellent flavours. The first fruit wines he developed such as the duhat (Philippine plum, Syzygiumcumini) wine under the Mijiah brand, reaped awards and recognitions at shows including the Councours Mondial de Bruxelles, the AICHI Expo in Japan, and the ASEAN Food and Exchange Exhibit. The FoodPacific Manufacturing Journal caught up with Mr Pigtain in Manila.
It is almost ten years since you started your company. What have you achieved so far and what are your priorities?
The company now produces several fruit wines and we’re adding more. For the reds, we offer dragon fruit, strawberry, mangosteen, duhat, and bignay (Philippine berry, Antides mabunius). For the whites, we have mango, passion fruit, banana, pomelo, guava, marang, (Artocarpus odoratissimus), cashew, soursop and coconut.
Mango is our banner wine. We are developing wines made from a local cherry, as well as manzanita (also known as acerola, Malpighia glabra) whose taste can resemble apple wine. Our production has also improved. It used to take us about 10 months to clarify our wines, but now it takes just four months as we have adopted better technology.
Aside from growing the business, my priority is to develop the wine industry in the country, which is very new. In fact, I started in 2000, but I am considered a pioneer in the fruit wine category.
Why did you choose fruit wine?
Wines made from local fruits are rich in flavour and health benefits. The Philippines has the best tropical fruits because of the soil and temperature, and depending on where you source—in the north or the south of the Philippines—the taste would be slightly different. A mango sourced from Davao [in the main southern island of Mindanao] will taste different from one that came from Guimaras province [in Western Visayas]. The local wine business sources fruits from the mountain dwellers and small farmers from different parts of the country.
How big is the fruit wine industry in the Philippines?
It is a very young industry with a handful of producers. We pioneered the industry in the region and we have the ability to develop high-quality wines, but we have to fast track if we want to be tiger capital of fruit wine in Asia because neighbouring countries are catching up.
What is the Philippines’ competitive edge over its neighbours?
We have many fruits many of which are indigenous. But we have to make sure these indigenous fruits are protected. In the highlands, many of the inhabitants—minority groups—chop the trees for wood and charcoal, which they need more than the fruit.
What can you do to accelerate the growth of the industry?
The wine cluster group, which I also head, has initiated projects to put some order in the way the industry is moving. We start from the source of our products—the farmers. It has become our advocacy to help provide work to farmers. I source fruits from all over the country, including the Mangyans and the Dumagats (Indigenous people from Luzon –Editor). That way, we provide the mountain dwellers a source of living and at the same time ensure the continued propagation of indigenous fruits.
We are still undertaking a project with the Department of Agriculture and the local government, which granted us PhP1.5 million to help improve the strawberry business in La Trinidad in Benguet province [in northern Luzon]. Part of the project is to upgrade strawberry wine production for which the city is also known.
We educate the farmers in fruit cultivation, cropping programmes to increase yield, and so on. Our goal is to make sure that there is no wastage of fruits or vegetables, which usually happens when the yield is higher than demand. Farmers tend to throw away the produce. We have been speaking to manufacturers about the art and science of winemaking. We talk to producers about techniques in raw material handling from farm gate to production. We emphasise hygiene and sanitation and food safety standards. We are also giving producers starter kits for winemaking.
For individuals who want to start a business with strawberries, we teach them how to choose quality fruit, how to make fruit preserves, fruit syrup and premixes. They can market these products to food retailers and maybe to manufacturers of ice cream and yoghurt.
And since the chain will know how and when to grow the fruit, process it, and sell it—the fruit and products made from it become available all year round, and so eventually their prices will stabilise. We plan to replicate the project in other municipalities later on — maybe in Batangas province [in southern Luzon] for the ‘Indian mangoes’ (A variety of mango also known as ‘Katchamita’ –Editor).
Who are your markets for fruit wines?
We have buyers from Macau and Italy, and we are trying to develop the US market. We have received a proposition from a US wholesaler but we have yet to meet certain requirements. We are also eyeing France where the fruit wine market is slowly picking up, particularly for grapefruit. We are awaiting response for samples that we sent.
We’d like to expand the business further and we are looking for the right distributors.
How do you compete with other wine makers, particularly in France?
It’s different. Theirs are mostly grape varieties.
Filipinos are not wine drinkers, so how do you market the product locally?
They prefer hard liquor to wine. In the Philippines, who will influence the market for wine? It is no longer the upper class and definitely not the grassroots. These days, young professionals drive the market. We are introducing wine in simple ways like having more restaurants offer it. In general, Filipinos don’t use wine in cooking, so we have to make them aware of recipes that use wine. We are collaborating with chefs and bartenders to come up with books with their favourite wine recipes.
Your packaging is unusual.
Packaging is very important that’s why the bottle shapes are different, too. I designed them myself. The ceramic ones are from a local maker Custom Clay. The label includes a lot of information about the product.
What is your company’s capacity?
We have 42 tanks at 1300 litres per tank. Annually the capacity would be at 18 20-ft container loads.
Are there other projects outside winemaking?
Yes, St Paul’s College invited me to mentor a graduating class on entrepreneurship. And instead of having them do their internship in offices, I expose them to the different aspects of business. In one of our trade shows in Macau, I had some students manage the Philippine booths so they can observe the way businessmen engage with exhibitors.
Are you planning to venture into other fruit products?
I am very interested in producing an alternative sweetener using the sap of the anahaw(Livistona rotundifolia). It is similar to coco sugar in taste, and somewhat nutty. In fact I make some for my personal use, and it’s really tasty.
Boardroom Connection: Elbert Pigtain
Company: Philippine Tropical Fruit
13 Sumulong Street, Ginayang San Mateo, Rizal, Philippines
T: +632 218 2911; +63 92639 43787