A man and his mead
A longtime friend describes Michael Faul as almost bee-like -- always busy, rarely resting.
An apt description, because Mr. Faul, owner of Rabbit's Foot Meadery in Sunnyvale, makes mead, a wine that's made out of honey.
Rabbit's Foot is one of only about 60 commercial meaderies in the United States; there are fewer than 10 believed operating in California, according to the Web site Gotmead.com.
"Most people don't know what it is and if they do they only know about it in passing from reading Shakespeare or Beowulf or movies like "Braveheart" or some Viking movie," Mr. Faul says. "They always think that it's something that's not going to be enjoyable -- too sickly sweet; it's made from honey so it has to be."
But Mr. Faul's products range from the light and bone dry to the sweet, from still wines (those without the bubbles) to sparkling. Rabbit's Foot Meadery also offers a port mead along with a brandy and its signature product, a pear-honey wine.
"A meadery is kind of a cross between a winery and a brew pub," Mr. Faul explains. "We use equipment from different styles of making beer or making wine."
Mr. Faul had been making small amounts of mead in his garage since 1990, after arriving in Silicon Valley from his native Ireland by way of a software job in Maine. A serious illness in the youngest of his three children got him thinking about priorities, he says, prompting him to start planning for a commercial meadery as a full-time family business.
A software engineer by training, Mr. Faul says he did well during the dot-com boom. But as the boom began falling apart, he, like others, began to look for a more stable income. He says rather than going further in software, he decided to put into commercial development his hobby of making mead.
"And then Sept. 11th came around and, ka-boom, we're doing this," he says.
The Fauls decided they would move ahead as quickly as possible with the business.
"We decided to put all of our energy into it and make a success out of it. Come hell or high water, this is it," he says.
"Who knows? I could have been on one of those planes. I travel a lot for business and it could have been me."
Although still working part-time in software, Mr. Faul is spending increasing amounts of time in his meadery.
"A business like this requires a lot of work -- heavy lifting, sweaty, sticky, dirty work -- but you know what? When you open those barrels and taste it, you know you've got something. And when people come in, they get a lot of satisfaction out of it."
Ron Herardian, chief executive officer of e-mail software and services company Global System Services Corp. of Mountain View, had worked with Mr. Faul at another company. He says he's tasted "every one" of Mr. Faul's meads.
"It's unusual to see someone take that initiative in a poor economy and to enjoy early success," Mr. Herardian says.
J.F. Sullivan, product marketing director for SendMail of Emeryville, also has sampled the mead over the years. He characterizes Mr. Faul with bee-like industriousness.
"I would classify Mike as sort of the 'grand shaman' of brewing techniques," says Mr. Sullivan, who has worked with Mr. Faul on high-tech projects.
"There are a lot of people going by the book trying to make mead, but Mike is the only guy I know who's got that combination of 90 percent science and 10 percent magic -- or is it the other way around?"
Says Mr. Faul: "This is 90 percent craft and 10 percent science. There's some 'black magic' involved in making wine. It's in the barrel -- when does it come out? Everybody's taste is different. I've been working on a formula since 1990 for my signature product."
Mr. Herardian has a different take.
"He's one of the very few natural geniuses I've ever known in my life," he says.
Mr. Faul buys his honey in steel drums weighing 600 pounds each. It's primarily American honey, but, depending on where the bees collected the pollen, it has distinctly different flavors which transmute into the wine.
"The milder types of honeys are the better ones -- raspberry, blackberry or clover. The stronger honeys tend to take over the flavor and the aroma of the wine itself," he says.
"A buckwheat honey, which is strong and dark, "might be something you put in with a malt to make a stronger 'beer' kind of wine."
In another example, he makes a wine based on honey from bees which collected the pollen from jasmine flowers. It is one of his most aromatic wines, with the scent of jasmine clearly in the wine.
By using different types of honeys, Mr. Faul is able to craft wines ranging from those dry like a Chardonnay to deep, dark wines that look like beer. In each case, though, the wines flow much like those made from grapes -- there's no syrupy ooziness to what he makes.
Commercial wineries are closely regulated by all levels of government. But that's just part of the territory, Mr. Faul says.
"The downside of this business is going to be selling enough of it to make it big enough to where it can sustain incomes for multiple people. Our goal is well over a thousand cases a year," he says.
This year the meadery is releasing just 200 cases to meet the demands of insistent buyers.
"The ultimate goal is to have a business like any other winery where you can have a family-owned business where the family can all be involved," he says.
Once established, Mr. Faul says he'd like to move out of the city to more traditional winery areas. A larger tasting room and a place to hold weddings at the winery are in his plans.
"Honeymoon. The whole term came from honey wine," he says. "In the Middle Ages when a couple got married, their families would give the couple enough honey wine to last a month: honey moon."