Turning a Profit on Juice

A former spy picks forbidden fruit and sells health in the produce aisle.

By Christopher W. Davis from Reader's Digest | July 2009

A tall, brawny Irish American walks into your office, puts a crystal goblet on the desk, and pours out a serving of a deep-purple nectar.

“This stuff used to be illegal,” he says in a gravelly voice. “We’re the guys who got the law changed. Twice the antioxidants of blueberries, four times the vitamin C of orange juice, as much potassium as bananas. Try it.”

Something like grape juice but heavier, not as sweet; tart but not as much as cranberry; dry, strong, and complex, like a good red wine. Meet Ribes nigrum, aka the black currant, and one of the misbegotten little berry’s most dynamic champions on American shores, Greg Quinn. As a farmer, a juice maker, and an entrepreneur, he has big plans for the super-fruit.

Greg QuinnPhotographed by John MadereCold warrior turned citizen juice maker Greg Quinn.
He hesitates to go down the list of the currant’s potential health benefits, he says, because it starts to sound like snake oil: improving night vision, lowering blood pressure, managing pain, and preventing Alzheimer’s.

The rest of the world has known about the black currant for generations, he points out. The fact that it is a stranger here, and just poking its head up now, is a story that starts, oddly enough, with the Vietnam War.

As a young broadcasting school graduate, Greg Quinn drew a single digit in the draft lottery, which meant an almost certain plane ticket to Southeast Asia. But after a battery of tests revealed that Quinn had an unusual aptitude for languages, an Army recruiter leaned across the desk and whispered, “How’d you like to be a spy?”

After 47 weeks of total language immersion and training, Quinn was off to the tiny German town of Rimbach, on the Czech border. There a huge mountaintop antenna monitored radio chat behind the Iron Curtain. But spying left plenty of time to sample the local cuisine. To Quinn, who grew up in a middle-class, blue-collar Connecticut household, the foods of Europe were a revelation. And what better way to learn to cook them, he reasoned, than by opening a restaurant? With the blessing of the Army (and discounts on food and liquor from the PX), he rented a space and went into business.

Behind the restaurant were six bushes with dark-blue berries he knew nothing about. Schwarze Johannisbeeren they were called in German—black currants in English. He started to use them in sauces and tarts.

Fast-forward: Quinn sells the restaurant, goes to New York, works in the food business for several years, starts a family (two girls and a boy), and takes up gardening. Soon he’s writing a monthly gardening column for the local paper, lecturing at the New York Botanical Garden, and appearing on Fox as the Garden Guy. He writes eight children’s books about nature, enough to provide a modest income.

Then Quinn’s three kids head off to school; he gets divorced and finds a new love, Carolyn, who’s willing to help him take his hobby to the next level. The couple find a 140-acre ex–dairy farm in New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley, and Quinn is ready to become a citizen farmer.

With about 25 acres for cultivation, Quinn knew that if he wanted his farm to be profitable, he would need a niche crop that he could sell to?high-end restaurants. He started visiting his neighbors, farmers who seemed to be hanging on by their fingernails. Then he met vintner Ben Feder, who made specialty cordials. Among them was cassis, a black currant dessert wine.

“Where do you get your currants?” Quinn asked.

“Now, that’s a real problem,” Feder said. “I have to go to Canada for them. Because, of course, you can’t get them around here.” Why not? Because they were illegal to grow in New York. Of course.

That struck a chord with Quinn. He knew—and loved—black currants from Germany. And he vaguely recalled what had led to the ban—something about a fungus. So he did a little digging.

Harvested in the wild, currants have been used for centuries as food and medicine. In the early 1900s, there were more than 7,400 acres of commercial red currant fields in North America. Nearly half of those were in New York State, most in Quinn’s neck of the woods. But in the late 1800s, an Asian blight called white-pine blister rust?arrived in the United States. It thrived on two hosts: currants and white-pine lumber. With their industry threatened, lumber lobbyists fought to ban all currant farming.