Grape Expectations

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Ken Albert has planted his roots deep in Shelburne soil

Ken and Gail Albert photoIn 1997, Ken and Gail Albert turned their hobby into a business with the founding of Shelburne Vineyard. Today, as their wines are winning awards and fans, they have opened a tasting room and are about to break ground on a new winery building.

Vermont wasn’t always high on Ken Albert’s list of places a commercial vineyard could thrive. That doesn’t mean he didn’t believe grapes could grow here. An avid gardener, he planted them in his Shelburne back yard in 1972, just three years after he, his wife, Gail, and their 6-week-old daughter arrived in Vermont from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., courtesy of IBM. 

A native of New York City with an engineering degree from New York University and a couple of years of U.S. Army service under his belt, Albert landed a job with IBM in 1964 and, unusual for the times, was transferred only once — to Vermont in 1969.

Until the early 1990s, Albert contented himself with tending his grapes in his spare time, making wine for personal use from those that ripened. “I was never fully successful growing grapes there,” he confesses, “because it’s a semi-shaded area, and they never ripened.”

It was the IBM connection that helped open his eyes to the commercial possibilities. 

“One of my projects for IBM was going to a facility in Quebec just north of the border,” he says, “and lo and behold, in the middle to late ’90s, I kept going by these commercial vineyards there. I thought, if they could do it there, we could do it here. We’re closer to the lake and the climate is a little bit better.”

Once the idea was planted, Albert was like a man on a mission. He sought out a mentor from among the Quebec vintners who could introduce him to commercial growing. “The third place I went to — Morou Vineyard in Napierville — the husband and wife who ran it agreed.” 

Along the way, Albert became close friends with the owners, Monique Morin and Etiénné Heroux. He visited Morou Vineyard many times in the next few years, and Heroux shared his expertise in the vineyard and the winery.

“It’s interesting,” Albert points out, “that all three pioneering vineyards in Vermont, mine, Snow Farm and Boyden Valley — and those are two years older than mine — each of us independently sought out a mentor in Quebec, and each one has a different vineyard owner who initially coached us.”

By 1997, Albert realized that he wanted to dedicate his life to viticulture, and decided to retire from IBM. “I retired because I wanted to do this before I was too old,” he says.

His first challenge was to find land for the vineyard. “We needed absolutely agriculturally good land,” he says. “You need absolute drainage.” That describes most scenic properties that flow toward the lake. “The challenge was, How can we do it without having a lot of capital?”

Harvesting photoKen Albert says he has been surprised by how many people are interested in wine and vineyards and are willing to help out at harvest time. Right now, he has six part-timers.

Since moving to Shelburne, Albert had served in town government, on the Select Board for 18 years — five of those as chairman — and before that, 10 years on the planning commission. This had brought him in contact with Shelburne Farms on more than one occasion. He approached Shelburne Farms with the idea of leasing a few acres to plant his grapes on a commercial scale.

“It took many months of discussion, because it’s a long-term commitment. We’ll probably be doing it for 25 years on the same site.” This is different, he says, from the organization’s other partnerships with farmers, whose plantings are year-to-year.“ Basically, we’re tying up their property for a generation ... we hope!” he adds with a grin. “They’ve been a tremendous supporter.”

It wasn’t long after Albert went public with his plans for a vineyard that he received a call from Scott Prom, a Shelburne resident, with an offer. “He had read, I guess, some articles in the Shelburne News,” says Albert, “and said, ‘I used to make wine.’”

Turns out that Prom was a recent transplant from Washington state who had been a member of Boeing’s Wine Club, an extracurricular employees’ group begun in 1972 that Paul Gregutt, in a special to the Seattle Times, called “the Triple A farm team for the Washington wine industry,” because it has produced a number of people who have established wineries in the Northwest.

Albert was delighted to find such expertise right in his own back yard. “Up to that point,” says Albert, “I’d never made wine other than in a five-gallon carboy, and there’s a big difference in that and a 5,000-gallon-tank.” Prom joined Albert as consultant and winemaker, and they became partners in the business.

That first spring after his retirement, Albert went to work for Harrison Lebowitz, the owner of Snow Farm Vineyard in South Hero, helping to plant vines. He worked there through the fall.

When the time was right, Heroux made several trips to Shelburne to coach Albert on how to lay out his vines. His first planting was in 1998.

“We planted similar varieties to what the Quebecers did,” says Albert. “These hybrid grapes developed around the turn of the 20th century, a cross between European varieties— for example, Merlots and Rieslings — and wild Northeastern American grapevines. All vines throughout Northeastern North America were these French-American hybrids,” he continues, “because the French stock was found to be subject to phyloxera, or root louse, and the American vines were highly resistant.”

Unfortunately, says Albert, the compromise produced “a very nice wine, but not great wines.” The French then discovered that they could do a hybrid graft, using root stock from the American varieties and physically jamming into it the vines they wanted to grow. 

Drawing of the new buildingPlans are in the works for a new state-of-the-art facility for the tasting and processing of Shelburne Vineyard wines. It’s to be built on the west side of U.S. 7 just south of Bostwick Road.

Although French-American hybrids developed over the last century have turned out to be hardy in the Finger Lakes, Albert says, we’re just about 5 degrees colder, and Quebec is about 8 degrees colder. That’s enough to make production of them very dependent on the previous winter.”

In some years, a French-American hybrid variety such as Cayuga white “will produce 4 tons of grapes per acre after a mild winter, but in the fall following a severe winter, I’ll get a ton.”

To the rescue came Minnesotan Elmer Swenson, “the Johnny Appleseed of grapevines,” says Albert, who crossed the French vines with wild Midwestern grapes, “which are good to 35 below.” Albert is realizing 4 tons per acre per year from them.

Shelburne Vineyard is “virtually one of the only Northeastern commercial vineyards with organic certification,” says Albert. That’s primarily because of a disease called black rot. Organic vineyards in Northern California don’t have that problem, because of their dry climate. In wet summers, black rot occurs on some of the traditional European varieties Albert grows, which might eventually lead him to turn to traditional chemicals, although he will continue with organic certification on his hybrid vines.

All along, Albert’s aim has been “to produce quality wine compared to what you get on the shelf,” he says. “We blended very carefully so our wine didn’t taste like a Concord or a Manishewitz.” This was especially important since the early business model was to bottle for wholesale only, and to succeed in the wholesale market required quality wine. 

Kevin Clayton, the owner of Village Wine and Coffee in Shelburne and a longtime wine aficionado, says the quality and the potential are there. “I think his wines are really good,” says Clayton, who also thinks they’re priced right. “He has increased the price on some of his products, and they’re worth the increase. He had done his homework. I’ve had a lot of reps from around the world who have tried his Riesling, and they’re very impressed with it — given him really high marks.”

Clayton commends Albert for attempting to grow organic grapes, adding, “It’s a very big risk-reward ratio to pull it off here.” 

Reward has been slow in coming.

Because of limited start-up capital, Albert started slowly. The first planting was about three acres on Shelburne Farms in 1998, then plantings on land leased from Meach Cove Trust, near Shelburne Beach. Eight and a half acres of vines have been planted, of which six acres are yielding. He is looking forward to the first harvest in the fall of 2008 of two Minnesota varieties: a red called Marquette and a white called Louise Swenson. This fall will see the harvest of La Crescent, the first of his home-grown Minnesota hybrids.

“We didn’t introduce our first wine until our own grapes were ready,” says Albert, “so from 1998 to 2001, we sold zero bottles of wine. It was a long start-up. We were able to afford to do that because we didn’t have a lot of capital invested. We do now,” he says, pointing to the state-of-the-art equipment that fills the winery facility he leases at Meach Cove. 

“It’s the classic kind of business: The more we grow, the worse the cash flow looks,” says Albert. “The goal is to produce 5,000 cases a year. We’re at 1,000 now. Until we started investing in all this equipment, it was self-financed. Now we have a silent investor helping us, and he’ll be a partner.” 

Although the model has been a wholesale one, Albert acknowledges that “the growth of a winery in nontraditional wine-producing areas is really retail.” Retail requires tasting rooms, and he recently opened one at the Shelburne Farms Visitor Center.

The company is in the process of buying a 14-acre site on U.S. 7 just south of Bostwick Road, where Albert will soon break ground on a state-of-the-art facility for tasting and processing. “It will take a significant loan to build the new winery,” he says, “and we are working with local area financial institutions.”

Right now, Albert is the company’s only full-time worker, although Gail, his wife, who handles marketing and public relations, “is inching toward being the second one.” About six others work part time.

OKen Albert poses with award winning winesak barrels represent the Old World connection to modern wine-making, which is largely a high-tech, finely tuned effort. Ken Albert holds two of his many award-winning wines.

Of great concern early on was the availability of labor in Vermont. “The time spent pruning the grapevines is the secret to quality wine,” Albert says. “It’s hard work to be out there pruning, when it’s 85 degrees and can feel like a hundred, and at harvest time, we can use all the hands we can get.” 

He was surprised by the number of people interested in wine and vineyards. For several years, he has had help from a housewife, three retired men and a group of University of Vermont students, including a couple of interns, who have worked for him and moved on — one as head winemaker for a high-end California winery, and one running her own winery near Montpelier. 

As the winery grows, so does his concern about finding labor. He’s had discussions with dairy farmers who have begun hiring migrant Hispanic laborers.

As for the future, he and Scott Prom have developed a succession plan. “He’s about 20 years younger than I am,” says Albert. “We’ve got it planned out, because at my age, doing it alone, it wouldn’t have made sense.” •