Romancing the Vine

The ‘small world’ community of Vermont’s wine industry

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

lincoln_peak0219Photo courtesy of Lincoln Peak Vineyard

For most of us, the word “winery” conjures up visions of grapes, in vineyards laden with luscious orbs of fruit waiting to be plucked. But wine can come from many fruit sources — for example, hard cider is really apple wine.

We decided to take a look at grape wines and how they’re doing in Vermont, whose climate, until a few years ago, was thought by many to be unfriendly to winemaking. Now, the Vermont Vine and Wine Trail map shows 27 wineries around our state, and the International Wine Trail map features over 30 vineyards and wineries in southern Quebec, Vermont, and northern New York.

Of course, wild grapes have always grown up here — Jacques Cartier found them on the St. Lawrence River in 1535. About a century later, though, the climate didn’t cooperate when Samuel de Champlain tried to grow French vines for winemaking.

It wasn’t till the 1970s that farmers in the region started experimenting with grape growing in earnest. By the 1990s, breakthroughs helped develop high-quality and disease-resistant grapes that could thrive here.

We phoned up a few Vermont winemakers to learn how they’re doing. Turns out Vermont’s vintners are a big, happy family dedicated to helping one another succeed, and producing internationally award-winning wines from cold-hardy grapes. Much of their initial help came from Quebec, where commercial wine-growing has a longer history.

All the vintners we spoke with have tasting rooms. Snow Farm Vineyard in South Hero is Vermont’s oldest commercial vintner, says Julie Lane. She is co-owner with her husband, David, and their winemaker, Patrick Barrelet, of the business founded 20 years ago by Harrison and Molly Lebowitz on the Lane farm property.

Lane says the Lebowitzes approached David’s father about buying 20 acres of his dairy farm to start a vineyard — an idea he embraced as opposed to selling to a builder who wanted to build condos there. It takes three to five years for vines to harvest, so 2000 was the first year Snow Farm bottled wine.

After family difficulties arose for the Lebowitzes, the Lanes bought back the property in 2012 and continued making wine. Currently 13 acres are planted to grapes, says Lane, but 120 acres are conserved with the Land Trust.

“We’re growing French hybrids!” Lane exclaims. “Ken and Gail Albert [of Shelburne Vineyard] helped us grow them.” Only 5 percent of Snow Farm’s grape juice is ordered from other sources.

“We wanted to be different; we did not want to plant the Minnesota hybrids. We determined that the microclimate of Lake Champlain would be perfect for growing these grapes. I give all the credit to Patrick because he studied the microclimate — land temperatures, soils — for a year before they went in.”

Typical of the other winery owners, Lane’s work hours are “about a hundred a day. Even in winter, my son and I are out pruning.” They sell their wines across the state, in venues as small as a Northeast Kingdom gas station to various restaurants and supermarkets such as Shaw’s, Hannaford, and Price Chopper.

Boyden Valley Winery & Spirits in Cambridge is also turning 20 this year. David Boyden, the owner with his wife, Linda, good naturedly points out, “We planted in 1996 and were the first registered Vermont winery. Snow Farm claims they’re the first, but we pretty much planted at the same time and registered close to the same time.”

Boyden chose grapes as a way to diversify his farm. “I grew up making maple syrup, and my father and uncles always made hard cider,” he says. “We started out making fruit wines and cider, then got interested in growing grapes from some friends in Quebec in the wine business. Then we met friends in Burgundy, France, and Switzerland who were growing colder-climate grapes.”

Boyden’s wines are more Old World style, he says, “not as much oak, more acidity.” As time passed, more grapes and varieties were planted and now cover about 10 acres, but another 15, available in a land trust, is planned. Boyden also buys grapes from other Vermont vineyards and contract growers.

The biggest startup challenge involved the state’s laws and restrictions regarding tastings and serving wine by the bottle to customers outside the winery. Fortunately, he says, the Legislature was very receptive to changing those laws, a bonus of being in a small state with an accessible legislature.

For marketing, Boyden says, “We use everything: all the social media stuff, print, radio, tons of tastings with our distributor, events. Our wines are available throughout the state, and some ice wines and ice cider in other New England states.

Ken and Gail Albert of Shelburne Vineyard — the state’s third — planted their first commercial grapes in 1998, although Ken had been growing them as a backyard hobby since 1972. By ’97, having retired from a career at IBM, he had found a mentor in Quebec.

“Each of the three pioneering vineyards in Vermont — mine, Snow Farm, and Boyden Valley — independently sought out a mentor in Quebec and has a different vineyard owner who initially coached us,” he says.

Albert planted his first commercial vines in 1998 on property at Shelburne Farms. In 2006, the Alberts planted 16 acres facing U.S. 7 just south of Shelburne village and opened the tasting room in 2008. Seventy-five percent of their grapes are Vermont-grown.

Albert’s principal grapes are Marquette, Lacrescent, and Louise Swenson, all three thanks to Elmer Swenson, a dairy farmer in Minnesota, whom Albert calls “the Johnny Appleseed of these cold-climate grapes. He died in his mid-90s a few years ago, and right now the University of Minnesota is the developer.”

The biggest startup challenge was learning to work with thousands of vines “after doing 25 vines in my backyard,” he says. An ongoing challenge is getting these hybrid grapes recognized and accepted.

“The other tough thing was learning how to best manage the grapes in the field — how to manage them on the wires, and the technique that’s most labor-efficient and gets the best quality.” Having “a wonderful crew of young people,” mostly UVM graduates, helps with the labor.

In addition to events, quarterly shipments to wine club members fill a winter sales gap when foot traffic is slower.

Shelburne Vineyard’s wines are available throughout the state, “in virtually all stores that sell wine,” Albert says. “We have a Vermont distributor and a distributor in New Hampshire, and are now licensed to ship to, I think, 16 states. We sell quite a measurable amount of wine to California — kind of like shipping coals to Newcastle.”

Sara Granstrom runs Lincoln Peak Vineyard, just off U.S. 7 in New Haven, with her father, Chris. Chris fell in love with farming after working on a dairy farm between his school years at Middlebury College. He worked on apple orchards after graduation, and in 1980, he and his wife, Michaela, bought land in New Haven and started an apple nursery, followed by a pick-your-own strawberry farm.

Twenty-five years later, having heard about cold-climate wine grapes, he obtained “a shoebox of grapevine cuttings from a fellow in Minnesota” and started planting vines in 2001.

His plan was to create a grape vine nursery, says Sara. “My dad was going back to his original agricultural roots with the nursery business.” A nursery requires mature vines from which to take cuttings, but after enough cuttings were taken, the mature vines were producing grapes. “We said, ‘Oh, my gosh! What are we going to do with all these grapes?’” Twelve acres are now planted in grapes.

Chris made small batches for himself before releasing wine commercially, Sara says. The first commercial vintage was 2007, released in 2008 — the grand opening for the tasting room. Sara recalls with a chuckle that, for one of the first vintages, “my sister and I took off our shoes, scrubbed off our feet, and stomped around. My dad still claims that was the best wine he ever made.”

Lincoln Peak grows 100 percent of the grapes for its wine. Because these cold-climate grapes were at the beginning edge of their popularity, there wasn’t a lot of advice on how to plant, grow, and maintain them, Sara says. “It’s also one of the greatest freedoms, though, because if we were growing, say, Pinot Noir, then folks would be comparing this to other regions. We really got to write the book on using them.”

Most of Lincoln Peak’s sales are out of the tasting room, with a few distributed to stores and restaurants around the state.

Erich Marn, the vintner at Due North Vineyard on Skunks Misery Road in Franklin, owns the business with his mother, Kathy. The deck of the tasting room offers views of Lake Carmi.

Back in 2008, Erich was trying to figure out what direction to take with his recently acquired liberal arts degree from The University of Vermont. “I ended up picking grapes for Chris Granstrom down at Lincoln Peak,” he says. “I worked there five years; liked the hard-work aspect of it. There are a lot of angles to the job: You have to be proficient in a lot of stuff.”

Even before signing on at Lincoln Peak, Marn had started planting his own vineyard, and since 2010 has either added or replaced plants every year. “We’re working on about four acres of hybrid.”

It’s definitely a capital-intensive enterprise, he says, speaking of startup challenges. “The basic equipment runs $10,000, then $5,000 to $10,000 more for the medium equipment. Then the advanced equipment can cost up to the mortgage of your house.”

Marn, too, is growing grapes from Minnesota — “All of them, just about,” he says. “I tend to get my hands on just about any varietal that has some use to me, because when you’re looking to finish a wine, just a splash of a different grape can add a whole new color.”

Wines are available at As the Crow Flies and 14th Star Brewing Co. in St. Albans, and at markets and stores in other parts of Franklin County. •