Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Growing up with Basi Wine Dr Abe V Rotor

Dr Abe V Rotor 

Basi Table Wine - Pride of the Ilocos Region

grew up with an old local industry – basi wine making. Today there are still 18th century jars, which I use in the way my ancestors made the wine for generations.

I remember Lolo Celing (Marcelino) made basi in the cellar, the ground floor of our house made of thick brick wall. In dad's time we had around 500 jars. He was one of the biggest brewers in town in post Commonwealth era, and probably after the infamous Basi Revolt in 1807 when the Ilocanos took arms but lost to the Spaniards who took monopoly over the industry. Many were killed in that short-lived revolt along the Bantaoay River, a river where my brother Eugene and I used to fish purong (mullet) in summer.

Getting drunk at an early age

I was already a farmhand before I was of school age, but dad always warned me not to be an aliwegweg (curious at doing things), the experimenter that I was. One morning as dad went on his routine, first to hear mass in our parish church just across our residential farm, I went down to the cellar with a sumpit (small bamboo tube) to take a sip of the sweet day-old fermenting sugarcane juice. I didn't know that with a sip too many one can get drunk. And that was precisely what made me feel sick, but 1 did not tell dad. He called a doctor to find out what was the matter with me. When the doctor arrived he found me normal. What with the distance from Vigan to San Vicente - on a caleza (horse-drawn carriage)? . But the doctor was whispering something to dad.

Then it happened. Dad had left for the church, so I thought. I went to the cellar and as soon as I probed the sumpit into a newly fermenting jar and took a sip, someone tapped my shoulder in the dark. It was dad!

Imagine the expression of his face (and mine, too) in the dark. I sobbed with embarrassment while he took a deep sigh of relief. Since then the doctor never came again. And I promised dad never to taste my “beverage" again.

Sunset and revival of the basi industry

Years passed. I left home for my studies in Manila, so with my brother and sister. Dad continued the industry until he became very old. By then the demand for the local drink declined as beer and all kinds of wine and liquor, local and imported, began flooding the market. It was requiem to a sunset industry. In 1981, dad died, so with our home industry.

Even after finishing agriculture I did not go back to the farm. So with my brother who also became an agriculturist. Not when you are young and thinking of adventure and opportunities. I pursued advanced studies in biological science. Eugene went back to the farm later, so with our sister, Veny, who joined the Divine Word College of Vigan faculty. But the thought of reviving basi was never in our mind.

For how can a local product sell in a highly competitive market? Foreign products have been flooding the market under the import liberalization program of the government. Other questions propped up, but all boiled down to one possible solution - business viability.

As a researcher I studied the indigenous process of basi making. After I had sufficient materials about the subject I made it into a paper which I read in an ASEAN-New Zealand symposium upon the recommendation of Dr. Romualdo del Rosario, a fellow professor at the UST Graduate School. But the native product needed improvement. It was at first a losing proposition, and I realized I was blazing a lost path. But I did not give up.

Rotor Basi won the Business Incentive Development Award (BIDA 1998). 
Author (center) with former National Food Authority administrator 
Jesus Tanchanco and Mrs Tanchanco.

When I opted for an early retirement from government service in 1989 I found more time with my experiments. The improved product was analyzed by the Food Development Center, a government agency that collaborates with the US Food and Drug Administration. Surprisingly the new basi product passed the European standard for champagne, sherry and port.

But it was no guarantee that it is acceptable in the market. It means that if the product is really that good, it can command a premium price. I began to standardize the product. Soon I was able to establish a consistent level of strength (proof), desired range of acidity, and crystal clear color and clarity. There was improvement in aroma, bouquet, sweetness, aftertaste, among other criteria, which constitute international standards for wine. All these were done in various experiments, often in trial and error method, in others through intricate laboratory procedures. Still in others, only after a yearlong aging of the wine.
Product diversification to fruit wine and natural vinegar 

Lastly, I began working on product presentation. The labels I developed are a series of color photographs of historical places of the Ilocos Region, and the story of the Basi Revolt of 1807.

A breakthrough came after receiving the Business Idea for Development and Achievement (BIDA) Award, and a favorable product endorsement by the Department of Agriculture (MARID). Other than the Ilocano balikbayan, the market expanded to include tourist shops, wine connoisseurs, and even church groups.

I am sure Dad must be smiling up there. Here is a toast for you, Dad. ~

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