A unique passion drives oenophiles, people who love drinking wine, learning everything they can about it, collecting it, sharing it with others, even making it themselves.
Like beer and bread and cheese, wine isn’t just a nice thing to consume, it’s a living thing. Making wine — or beer or bread or cheese — involves living processes that require certain specific conditions for optimal results, and those processes can be tweaked repeatedly for endless variation.
In Vermont, winemakers are starting to catch up with brewers and bakers and cheesemakers.
More than 30 wineries and vineyards are scattered throughout the state, most producing wine from grapes cultivated to withstand long, cold winters; a few are using other types of fruit, mainly apples. They join dozens of breweries, as well as a handful of distilleries making vodka, brandy, and rye whiskey.
One thing these enterprises all have in common is a commitment to making use of agricultural resources and processes indigenous to Vermont. Until the late 1990s, that meant using fruit other than grapes, since typical wine grapes won’t survive a harsh winter climate.
But over the past 20 years or so, botanists at Cornell University, the University of Minnesota, and, more recently, the University of Vermont have developed varietals that can withstand long frozen winters and still produce decent wines.
“It’s one thing for a grape to survive, but it’s another thing for a grape that survives to make a good wine, and that’s what they’ve done,” Charles Dodge, owner of Putney Mountain Winery, said on a Fox Business News interview. “They’ve made it possible to make good red wines and good white wines from winter-hardy grapes.”
Dodge himself makes wine from other fruit, but he is active with the 17 members of the Vermont Grape and Wine Council and supports the industry as a whole.
Putney Mountain Winery, which began in Charles and Kate Dodge’s basement in 1998, relocated to the Basketville store on Route 5 in Putney in 2008. With Jason Hubner as production manager and associate winemaker, the Dodges produce around 3,000 cases of wine annually — somewhere between 30,000 and 35,000 bottles.
Mostly apples, but also pears, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, black currants, and cranberries make their way through the fermentation process, and except for the cranberries, everything is grown within 25 miles of Putney.
A recent addition to the lineup is rhubarb, a stalky vegetable that pairs as naturally with strawberries in wine as it does in pie. Rhubarb also makes a surprisingly good wine on its own, with a pleasant, slightly astringent quality.
“It’s all sort of an ongoing experiment, because we keep thinking of new things to try,” Dodge said while pouring tastes at the winery recently.
Honora Winery in Jacksonville uses some grapes grown locally but mainly makes wines with California grapes. Those wines wouldn’t be eligible for an official Vermont appellation, but that doesn’t concern owner Patricia Farrington.
“I love the process of winemaking, from the grape to the bottle,” she said while tending the winery’s cheese counter over Memorial Day weekend.
For Farrington, the focus is on vinification (winemaking), not viticulture (the science, production, and study of grapes in the vineyard), which she takes care to point out are two distinct activities. Some growers, she explained, don’t make wines themselves but are producing high-end grapes for others to vinify. (See sidebar.)
Instrumental in making those wines is Janice Stuart, who started as an intern at Honora and, as a winery employee, worked her way up to winemaker and vineyard manager, having worked in a degree in environmental studies and plant science along the way.
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