Steve and Jason Berger went in their backyard in search of a specimen from an exotic species, the yellow dragonfruit.
Crouching behind their Huntington Beach home, they traveled through a narrow corridor of encroaching leaves, branches and cacti needles and into an overgrown corner of their garden.
Steve and Jason grow an assortment of fruit trees and vines, including citrus, avocado, tomatoes, as well as some more exotic and tropical species — among them bananas, pomegranates and, of course, the yellow dragonfruit.
The yellow dragonfruit, also known as the yellow pitahaya, is a cactus found in rainforests and is sold at Asian markets in Orange County. It's normally is out of season in July, but there is a singular specimen of the fruit budding in the Bergers' garden.
About 18 months ago, Jason, Steve's wine enthusiast son, began to experiment with the yellow fruit, which is lumpy and scaly on the outside. From its white flesh — which, like a kiwi, is dotted with tiny black seeds — he pressed out the nectar, which he then fermented into a wine.
"I tasted it and thought, that's the taste I look for when I taste wine," Jason recalled. "It's a similar taste to grapes."
His first batch of yellow dragonfruit wine contained some sediment. But his second batch, which he made last fall, was good enough to enter into this summer's Home Winemaker competition at the Orange County Fair in Costa Mesa.
Jason's yellow dragonfruit wine won a bronze medal among varietals of seed fruit entered under the contest's fruit wine category. He also entered an apple dessert wine and a Gravenstein apple wine, which also received bronze medals among wine made at home from seed fruit other than grapes.
It was the first time that Jason, who works as a bookkeeper in the finance department of a used car dealership on Beach Boulevard, had entered any kind of homemade vino in competition.
"I am very passionate about the wine I make," said the soft-spoken 28-year-old, who plans to enter his banana wine in the 2013 county fair.
Steve has some 60 pitahaya plants in his garden, which include the red pitahaya, the red dragonfruit. This variety of the cactus grows quicker and bears bigger fruit, but its nectar doesn't taste as nice as that of the yellow dragonfruit, he said.
The member of the O.C. chapter of the California Exotic Fruits Growers Assn. has been growing dragonfruit for years, since an Israeli pitahaya expert introduced the group to the exotic fruit during a visit to the O.C. Fairgrounds, where the association has an exotic fruit exhibit.
Jason's yellow dragonfruit wine has a very sweet taste that might remind a connoisseur of a Riesling or Chardonnay. It is among a slate of exotic wines made at home by hobbyists from nongrape varietals that won awards under the fruit wine category at the fair, which is organized by the O.C. Wine Society.
"What I remember about it was we all looked at each other," said Kevin Donnelly, a home winemaker and member of the society's board who was one of the judges on a blind-tasting panel that awarded Berger a bronze for his unusual concoction.
"I didn't have a clue about what yellow dragonfruit tastes like."
Donnelly himself won some awards in the fruit wine contest pitting home winemakers from across California.
In the fruit seed contest, he received a double gold and a bronze, respectively, for his grapefruit wine and bears lime wine, which he made from citrus that he grows at home in Yorba Linda. He also won a slew of medals in the berry fruit varietal category, including a silver for his blueberry wine and a bronze for his blackberry wine.
Among the more unusual fruit wines submitted by Orange County residents for this summer's fair, Tammy and Mike Cairns of Santa Ana received a bronze medal for their homemade mandarin chili spice wine.
And among Surf City-area contestants who entered wines made from the juice of fermented grapes or more common fruit, David Erickson IV, of Fountain Valley, won a silver medal for his Sangiovese wine, and Phil Sblendorio, of Huntington Beach, earned three silvers — for his 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon, his 2010 port and his 2011 red blend — as well as a bronze for his 2010 edition of Cab Sauvignon.