Vermont Winemakers Win Acclaim and Consider Growth

  • Planting 650 vines in the author’s plot of land in Barnard involved digging 650 holes. (Laurel Tobiason photograph)

For the Valley News
Published: 6/28/2016 10:00:27 PM

It began with a book.

Of course it would. I was a book critic for 25 years. So when Deirdre Heekin’s book, An Unlikely Vineyard: The Education of a Farmer and her Quest for Terroir, crossed my desk I was ripe for the picking. An urban friend took one look, sighed a wistful sigh, and pronounced, “artisan-farmer porn, Vermont-style. One-hundred percent effective. No cure for it.”

Heekin planted her first vineyard, La Garagista, on a modest piece of land in Barnard. She cares for her soil and grapes with biodynamic preparations. The juice ferments with natural yeast. A dedicated community of volunteers helps pick, prune, press and taste. The wines are complex, evocative, and delicious.

Heekin and her husband, Caleb Barber, are part of a growing community of Vermont winemakers — at last count I tallied almost 30 with a half-acre or more. “We really expect to see it grow,” says Philip Tortora, director of communications for the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development. It’s happening.

And the wine world is ready for it. Tired of over-oaked Chardonnays and chemically fabricated big reds, wine lovers want something that won’t make them feel like a junkyard dog the next day. They want wines that lovingly evoke the places they came from. They want a piece of Vermont.

There’s a lot of debate out there about the terminology (as usual) — natural, biodynamic, organic, sustainable — but the impulse is the same: it all starts with the soil, so be nice to it. You can’t make good wine from bad grapes, so be nice to them, too. And your body would prefer fewer chemicals. Many producers and tasters swear by the idea that the cleaner the wine, the better you feel when you drink it.

On the first weekend in June, around 30 wine writers, bloggers, producers and distributors came from New York and environs, across the country and from Canada to sample the wines and ciders of Vermont. Taste Camp 2016 was a two-day whirlwind of serious tasters, descending, like happy pollinators, on La Garagista, Barnard’s Fable Farm Fermentory, Shelburne Vineyard and Lincoln Peak Vineyard in New Haven. Along the way, they met with a few dozen other vintners, cider makers, distillers and cheesemakers.

The taste campers were a chatty bunch, with some strong opinions, politely and deferentially offered. These folks know how much work and love go into growing grapes and making wines, particularly in cold climates. Most were familiar with the cold-hardy hybrid grapes (created in Minnesota by the God of cold-climate vineyards, Elmer Swenson) Vermont producers depend on: Marquette (red), Frontenac (gris, red, and white), La Crescent (white), and Brianna (white, named after Swenson’s granddaughter), to name of few of the most popular.

They wanted more — more Vermont, more of the flavor of the grapes (and apples). Don’t try to make these wines into something they aren’t! Don’t over-oak the Marquette! Let the flavors of the grapes express themselves! They loved the wines and ciders, and the people making them.

“The Vermont drink industry, from wine to spirits, cider to beer, is exciting, innovative, and experimental,” wrote Richard Auffrey in his wine blog, The Passionate Foodie.

That said, all of the tasters understand the problems of scale and profitability faced by Vermont producers. Artisanal is all very well — if you can pay the rent without taking on three other jobs. But when demand increases, and it is for all of these Vermont wine- and cider-makers, how do you scale up without losing the lifestyle and the attention to detail that made you famous in the first place? How do you give the people what they want (which might be very sweet, very oakey wines) and educate consumers about the wines and ciders (and everything else) made here in Vermont?

Ethan Joseph, winemaker and vineyard manager at Shelburne Vineyard, has made his peace with the scale and the consumer. “Winemakers are in a growth phase in Vermont. Here at Shelburne Vineyard, we are growing steadily at around 10 to 20 percent a year,” he explained. “But Vermont is not an established wine region. We just don’t have the labor force. The equipment is very expensive. When we grow, we have to make choices. I wouldn’t want to see us outgrow that artisanal mindset. What we can do when we reach a certain scale is diversify our products. We can make some crowd pleasers. Maybe not my kind of wine, but why shouldn’t we make the consumer happy?”

And so, inspired by Heekin’s book, I set out to make sure the nine consumers in my immediate family would never want for wine. I have a modest piece of land in Barnard. I love natural wines. The idea that your land has a particular flavor imparted by the rocks and plants and trees and terrain is endlessly fascinating. I devoured the book, with its gorgeous photographs of chickens and vines and apple trees and tables laden with fresh produce; friends and family and fellow farmers raising their glasses.

I emailed Deirdre, asked if I could volunteer for the summer and harvest. I learned so much and have loved the hours spent pruning, pressing, bottling, and eating delicious vineyard lunches made by Caleb, who is also the chef at the couple’s Woodstock restaurant, Pane e Salute.

Last fall, we hired Barnard sage Jim McCullough to dig up the half-acre in Barnard, had the soil tested, planted cover crops (daikon radish to break up the clay, clover, and buckwheat), and planted a cow horn filled with manure — a biodynamic procedure. In the spring, we dug up the cow horn, scooped out the manure, diluted it, and spread it on the plot with spruce boughs. We will use biodynamic preparations to foster vine and soil health and to discourage rot and vine- and leaf-eating insects. (Jim made me feel a bit better when he said his grandfather did something similar.)

Six hundred and fifty vines arrived on my doorstep the first week in June. Enough to make roughly 1,000 bottles of wine if all goes well. That’s more than my immediate family can drink (I think, I hope).

So, in the early mornings and evenings, while the taste-campers were sampling local foods and drinking local spirits, I crept out to the little half-acre and planted my vines in the 10-inch holes my husband dug with a post-hole digger — 650 holes. I soaked the rootstock, clipped the roots, dipped them in mycorrhizal inoculant, which helps to create what some call the internet of dirt — a nutritional network that enriches the soil. I put them in, pulled the soft dirt around them and whispered a little encouragement: “Yes, it gets cold, but I think you’re going to like it here,” sort of thing.

After a week of this, and many long days, it became clear that this was a lot more work than reading books for a living. Hard physical labor. Sometimes heartbreak. Sometimes joy. This is pretty much how Deirdre, Caleb, Christina Warnstedt and Will Tracey, the core team at La Garagista, would describe it.

La Garagista is now famous in the world of wines. Last summer, The New York Times’ Eric Asimov called Deirdre’s wines one of his top labels of 2015 in a glowing piece about the wines, the people and the place. Wine Spectator chimed in this fall with another big story. Todd Trzaskos’ delightful, long-awaited, and comprehensive book, Wines of Vermont was published last fall to critical acclaim in the wine world and beyond.

Pioneers Gail and Ken Albert at Shelburne Vineyard and Chris, Michaela, and daughter Sara Granstrom at Lincoln Peak Vineyard are generous with their hard-won wisdom.

The Fable Farm brothers, Christopher and Jon Piana, offered encouragement — remembering their early days starting the Barnard CSA that has brought new life to a small town.

And Chris Granstrom describes his winemaking beginnings with a fatalistic shrug: “Life took a right turn.”

Dave Broderick, one of the founding partners of Worthy Burger and a Barnard neighbor, empathized when I worried about starting a venture with too much romanticism. “Are you kidding?” he said, “that’s the only way to start!”

Susan Salter Reynolds is a writer, mother, and gardener. For 25 year, she was a features writer and book critic for the Los Angeles Times. She can be reached at

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