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Grapes of Vermont

  • Christine Makris poses for a portrait between rows of grapevines at Brick Cape Vineyard in Reading, Vt. on August 19, 2013. Makris planted the vineyard in 2010, but this year will be the first that it will produce in quantity. Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage

    Christine Makris poses for a portrait between rows of grapevines at Brick Cape Vineyard in Reading, Vt. on August 19, 2013. Makris planted the vineyard in 2010, but this year will be the first that it will produce in quantity. Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage Purchase photo reprints »

  • Red wine grapes are photographed as they begin the process of verasion at Brick Cape Vineyard in Reading, Vt. on August 19, 2013. Verasion is the process by which sugars move into the grapes prior to being harvested for winemaking. Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage

    Red wine grapes are photographed as they begin the process of verasion at Brick Cape Vineyard in Reading, Vt. on August 19, 2013. Verasion is the process by which sugars move into the grapes prior to being harvested for winemaking. Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage Purchase photo reprints »

  • Christine Makris poses for a portrait between rows of grapevines at Brick Cape Vineyard in Reading, Vt. on August 19, 2013. Makris planted the vineyard in 2010, but this year will be the first that it will produce in quantity. Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage
  • Red wine grapes are photographed as they begin the process of verasion at Brick Cape Vineyard in Reading, Vt. on August 19, 2013. Verasion is the process by which sugars move into the grapes prior to being harvested for winemaking. Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage

Christine Makris’ newest aspiration in life is splayed over an acre and a quarter in Reading, Vt.: 26 long rows of grapevines, winding along trellises and stretching over the crest of the hill.

The grapes have grown full and heavy in bunches, a promising indication of the harvest just weeks away.

A total of 875 vines make up Brick Cape Vineyard, a budding operation run by Makris and her husband, Jeff MacKenzie.

From a wicker chair on the porch of her white cape, Makris recently gazed beyond the lilac and hydrangea bushes, and across the narrow dirt road to the vineyard beyond. Chimes quivered in a breeze that carried a hint of the chill of autumn.

Makris, who will be 50 in October, has had a multiplicity of jobs and careers, working as a birthing assistant, corporate administrator, a volunteer ski patrol and homemaker, to name a few. Now she is employed as senior administrative assistant for the biotech firm GlycoFi in Lebanon. In the evenings and on weekends, she tends to her grapes.

By the end of August, Makris will begin checking the grapes daily, using a refractometer to test the sugar content for ripeness. The harvest will come soon after, a spur-of-the-moment gathering of family and neighbors for a festive day of picking grapes by hand, with food and music and wine in the afternoon.
This year, despite July’s rain and clouds, Makris expects a yield of between 1,200 and 1,500 bottles of wine.

Yet even as she hovered over the grapes like an overprotective mother, she added, “This is a heck of a lot more work than I thought it would be.”

Makris, a Massachusetts native, moved to Vermont in 1999 and began living in Reading year-round in 2008. Not long after, she started attending grape-growing workshops in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and at Cornell University.

She’s long been a wine drinker, she said. “I’ve always thought, ‘Oh I’ll have a vineyard sometime, but I’ll have to move to California and all that.’ ”

Makris soon discovered that in the Northeast, growing grapes and making wine was not only possible, but offered an industry full of potential. And with little experience and relatively few growers in the field, it allowed for experimentation and a learn-as-you-go methodology.
“There are two trains of thought about grape growing,” Makris said. “One guy told me, ‘just throw the darn things in the ground and see if they grow!’ Others say you should systematically do all the soil adjustment and drainage and measuring the weather and conditions before you even think about planting.”

Makris found a middle ground. In 2008, after attending her first grape-growing workshop, she prepared and turned a 10-acre field across from her house, and began to keep a thorough record of the sun, precipitation and temperature. She had her soil tested and continued to learn all she could about the process, taking out library books, and making connections with vineyard owners across the state.

In 2010, she planted 32 rows of grapes, about 95 percent of the vines she has currently. Makris grows eight varieties, both red and green grapes, many of which will tolerate temperatures down to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit.

Meanwhile, Makris had started attending meetings at the Vermont Grape and Wine Council, an organization founded to build collaboration between grape growers, educate the public and promote Vermont’s wines.

The council, which is run entirely by volunteers, holds tastings, advertises for its members, and has lobbied to amend tasting and tax laws.

Makris served as president for the first half of 2013, before Sara Granstrom, who works at her father’s Lincoln Peak Vineyard and Winery in New Haven, Vt., took over in June.

The council also serves as a resource for those hoping to get into the business. Even for more experienced winemakers such as Granstrom, the sharing of information and expertise is necessary for a more polished product. “Here at Lincoln Peak, we’ve been doing this for 12 years and we’re still learning new things every season,” Granstrom said. “It’s a constant effort.”

And relatively speaking, the state’s wine industry is barely out of its infancy.

The first vineyard was established in Vermont in 1997, and since then, grape growing has taken off, with around 20 wineries and many more vineyards of various sizes. The development of new varieties of grapes spurred the growth: cold-hearty hybrid grapes, the “grandchildren or sisters or children,” Makris explained, of Europe’s Merlot and Chardonnay.
2012 was Brick Cape Vineyard’s first harvest, and despite a banner year, the birds got to the grapes before Makris did. They made 100 bottles of wine — a batch of La Crescent, some Marquette, a few bottles of Frontenac. If all goes as planned, Makris hopes for more than 10 times that output this year.

Both Makris and Granstrom emphasized their belief that the wine industry in Vermont is here to stay.

“At Lincoln Peak Winery,” Granstrom said, “we’ve been really embraced by our community. A lot of tourists coming through are excited to learn about and try these new varieties. Almost everyone’s been interested.”

Makris echoed the sentiment. “We as an industry are working toward 100 percent Vermont grown, as local as possible. I’d add this to the list of things that Vermont will be doing on a long-term basis.”

The Brick Cape Vineyard winery is a small room off to the side in their post-and-beam barn, a clean-smelling space with a concrete floor. A metal grape crusher and destemmer sits on a table and on the floor are several demijohns and a larger fermentation tank. A shelf inside the door holds several glass carboys, fermenting a deep, ruby marquette from last year.

Makris is thinking of naming it after the birds, she said, as a nod to the birds that devoured much of the harvest.

On the wine rack, just one bottle of the white La Crescent remained, the one unequivocal success in the first batches.

Brick Cape Vineyard is not yet licensed to sell its wine commercially, though Makris hopes to eventually market products to restaurants and stores locally. Before she undertakes the meticulous documentation necessary to obtain a license, she wants to refine her product, and become more established and confident as a winemaker.

“We’re so young in our winemaking lives right now,” Makris said. “I’d like our wine to reflect Vermont, and speak to the beauty of the place I live.”