A Lie Launched The “Bugnay Wine Revolution” In Adams, Ilocos Norte

Bugnay (or Bignay) wine has made the tiny town of Adams in Ilocos Norte famous.
Bugnay (or Bignay) wine has made the tiny town of Adams in Ilocos Norte famous.

Telling a lie need not be a contemptible act all the time. Sometimes it can be rewarding. In the case of the tiny town of Adams in Ilocos Norte, for instance, a lie launched what we might call the town’s “bugnay wine revolution”.

Bugnay, by the way, is the Ilocano name of the berry-bearing tree that is widely known as bignay in other parts of the country. Its botanic name is Antidesma bunius.

Dr. Bielmajo Bawingan posing with her bugnay wines.
Dr. Bielmajo Bawingan posing with her bugnay wines.
Adams is about the smallest town of Ilocos Norte but it has become well known because of its bugnay wine. Would you believe that the town only has a population of 2,700? Yet not just one but 65 of the families have become commercial bugnay wine makers, forming their own association.

The big lie happened in 2007 when the provincial government staged a food fair in Laoag City. All the towns in the province had been told to exhibit their own products. Because Adams did not have anything special to showcase in their booth, they decided to buy bottled bugnay wine from a supplier in Baguio City.

The five ladies at left are members of the panel of wine tasters that make sure the wine produced by each wine maker meets the standard in the market. At right are Dr. Bielmajo Bawingan, wife of the mayor, and municipal assessor Rove Paul Agupan, both wine makers.
The five ladies at left are members of the panel of wine tasters that make sure the wine produced by each wine maker meets the standard in the market. At right are Dr. Bielmajo Bawingan, wife of the mayor, and municipal assessor Rove Paul Agupan, both wine makers.

The bugnay wine attracted a lot of visitors and they liked its taste. When the visitors asked where it was produced, the lady attendant said it is a product of Adams. Not only one visitor but many had asked the same question and the answer with straight face was the same.

That gave Dr. Bielmajo Bawingan, the wife of the mayor, the idea that they might as well stand by their claim. Fortunately, many of the women in Adams are experts in making rice wine (tapuy) so it was easy for them to shift to bugnay wine making. Also, there were lots of wild bignay trees not only Adams but also in neighboring towns in Pagudpud and Burgos in Ilocos Norte, and in Sanchez Mira and Alcala in Cagayan.

A fruiting bugnay tree in front of a house in Adams.
A fruiting bugnay tree in front of a house in Adams.

Dr. Bawingan said they bought a lot of berries from the other towns but at the same time they started planting their own trees in 2009. The good thing about bignay is that grafted and marcotted trees start bearing fruit in just one year from planting. The wine makers collected various cultivars from the different towns. One favorite of Dr. Bawingan is what she calls Saliksik from the town of Pagudpud.

Saliksik, she said, has a high brix of 22 percent. The higher the brix, the sweeter is the berry. This makes very good wine, according to Dr. Bawingan. Other varieties may have only 8 to 12 percent brix. Nevertheless, varieties with low brix reading can also be made into good wine but you have to add sugar during fermentation.

Elaine Mateo with a bottle of bugnay wine.
Elaine Mateo with a bottle of bugnay wine.

It did not take long for the government to take note of the wine making in Adams that generated jobs in the community. In 2009, the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) donated 2,000 grafted seedlings of the Palamuti variety from the Mariano Marcos State University in Batac City. This is a prolific variety that was originally a selection by the Institute of Plant Breeding in Los Baños.

Besides the wine makers, there are other people who are deriving income from bignay wine making in Adams. Rove Paul Agupan, the municipal assessor who is himself a wine maker, said the beneficiaries include the gatherers of the berries from the forest as well as in plantations. Unsorted berries that may include leaves and small twigs are bought at P15 to P25 per kilo. Sorted berries, on the other hand, are bought at P40 per kilo.

Dr. Bawingan shows a bottle of passion fruit juice which she also makes. Beside her are bottles of bugnay wine.
Dr. Bawingan shows a bottle of passion fruit juice which she also makes. Beside her are bottles of bugnay wine.

Women and even school children who sort the berries are paid P10 per kilo. Others are employed during the racking. This is the process whereby the juice that is being fermented in plastic jars is transferred from one jar to another by siphoning. This is to get rid of the sediments. Usually, the juice being fermented into wine is transferred four to six times before it is ready for bottling and then marketing.

A panel of women tasters was formed to certify that the wine meets the standard in the market. The wine cannot be marketed unless approved by the panel of tasters. That’s necessary to maintain the quality of the product, according to Dr. Bawingan.

The bignay trees start to flower in March and harvesting runs through June to August. This span of time is the busiest month for the workers not only in extracting but also in racking months beyond August. The 65 members of the association market their own product. Many of them sell them through stores in Laoag and many other towns. Gov. Imee Marcos is a favorite customer because she buys a lot for giving to visitors.

Normally a 750-ml bottle of bugnay wine sells for P250. In the case of Dr. Bawingan, she has a special edition with cork that sells three times higher. Last year, she made 6,000 bottles priced at P750. Other wine makers also produce substantial volume. Rove Paul Agupan, for instance, made 1,700 bottles last year. Others also produce more or less similar quantities. The volume of production is expected to rise as more plantings by the wine makers themselves are being made.

The municipal building of Adams.
The municipal building of Adams.
Bugnay wine has made Adams famous and is big factor in attracting visitors. Much of the road going to the town has been paved, making it easier for tourists to visit. Tourists, according to the Adams Tourism Council, have been coming in bigger numbers.

Of course, the people who are into wine making have become more entrepreneurial. They are also making rice wine. And Dr. Bawingan is into making passion fruit juice and other juices. She is experimenting on growing strawberries right now. Who knows, the money they derive from bugnay wine could be used to finance other livelihood opportunities.

Mayor Eric Bawingan of Adams, Ilocos Norte.
Mayor Eric Bawingan of Adams, Ilocos Norte.

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