Neither Rain, Nor Sleet, Nor Bicoastal Flights

Local vintners go to surprising lengths to make great wine right here in viticulture-unfriendly New England.

Frank Spadafora isn’t above bribery to get you to step inside his tasting room. Want a few slices of the prosciutto his dad, who’s from Italy’s Abruzzo region, taught him to make? Done. How about a jar or two of homemade sauce? “I make the best, kick-ass pasta sauce—none compare to it,” he says. In fact, trek the 30 miles from Boston to Red Oak Winery, in Middleton, and he’ll even stand there with you, pouring the samples himself.

Spadafora has been serious about wine-making for as long as he can remember—ever since childhood, when he turned out vino alongside his dad and granddad. As an adult, Spadafora continued making wine with friends as a hobby until he decided he needed a career change. In 2004—at age 49—he closed the family steel-fabricating business to run Red Oak, which today produces upward of 80,000 bottles of wine a year. But since Red Oak vintages aren’t readily available around town (yet), Spadafora’s had to resort to unconventional marketing methods. And that’s where the cured meat and red sauce come in.
Like Spadafora, many local winemakers are willing to go to impressive lengths to get you to taste their wares. But that’s not even the half of it. Just making them is an uphill battle. Realistically, New England vintners can only dream of having as many hot, sunny, grape-ripening days as their West Coast brethren. So they get creative.

For his part, Spadafora procures raw materials from the place they grow best: California. Red Oak uses grapes from several vineyards in the Central Valley, 60 miles east of Napa Valley, that he’s worked with for years. And every year he keeps buying more. “We have the potential to produce up to 15,000 cases, but we don’t know how much to make yet,” says Spadafora. “It’s like throwing a dart.”

So far, he’s hit some bull’s-eyes: His 2005 chardonnay recently won a gold medal in the Pacific Rim International Wine Competition in San Bernardino, California, and his barbera, cabernet, and merlot bottlings consistently place within the top three levels at contests nationwide—thanks in good part to Spadafora’s investment in new French oak barrels, the likes of which cost between $650 and $950 apiece. “I’ve experimented with American, Hungarian, and Russian barrels, but the aromas and textures and flavors of these French barrels are far superior,” explains Spadafora. “People can’t believe I make these wines here.”

Other area producers prefer to leave California out of the picture, focusing on cold-resistant varietals like chardonnay, gewürztraminer, pinot gris, and pinot noir—grapes that can be grown here, once you suss out how. Bob and Carol Russell understood this challenge when they bought an old dairy farm in Westport and founded Westport Rivers Vineyard and Winery back in 1982. Though it was their oldest son, Rob, who planted their first vines in 1986 (40 acres of chardonnay, pinot noir, and riesling), their second son, Bill, joined in 1989 as winemaker and helped expand the vineyard to 78 acres that today include pinot meunier, rkatsiteli (a variety transplanted here from the former Soviet Union), pinot blanc, and pinot gris. Westport Rivers is now the largest winery in New England, and its success can be attributed to an emphasis on cool-climate wines, such as its dramatic sparkling vintages, which have garnered international acclaim—Westport Rivers’ Brut Cuvée RJR is legendary—as well as classic whites, like its estate-grown chardonnay, and its constantly sold-out rosé.

Clearly, Westport Rivers stands out among local winemakers because it’s learned how to get the best from local grapes. Peter Merriam, on the other hand, chose to sidestep what Mother Nature might provide him by taking the California grape ideal to the max: The Boxford vintner grows his own in Sonoma County, where he produces and bottles his popular wines. So, apart from being proud of a local boy made good, why should we care? Because the vast majority of Merriam’s wines are sold exclusively to New England. That’s right: Even his neighbors in sunny California are hard-pressed to buy his delicious wine because most of it’s allocated for us.

Merriam and his wife, Diana, caught the winemaking bug while running a wine shop in Burlington, which they owned for 15 years. Some of their friends moved from Merriam’s native Maine to Healdsburg, California, and after subsequent visits the couple decided to buy a vineyard with the goal of making wine for the New England market. The grapes the couple grows there are strictly French, specifically the red Bordeaux varieties of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc, with a smattering of petit verdot, all aged in 60-gallon French oak barrels.

In addition to winemaker Keith Mietz, the Merriams have retained heavyweight consulting winemaker Margaret Davenport to help grow the brand. Davenport was a longtime winemaker at Clos du Bois, where during her 16-year tenure she shepherded the winery from 175,000 cases to more than 1.5 million. Those figures make Merriam’s head spin. For now, he’s happy to sell his 2,000 cases of wine to Boston-area retailers like Gordon’s, the Wine Emporium, DeLuca’s, and Marty’s, and restaurants that include Sibling Rivalry, Grill 23, the Federalist, Radius, and Davio’s.

And that means there are more ways—and reasons—than ever to get behind the local guys. Especially now that it’s not such a sacrifice, taste-wise. As area winemakers work harder to do what they love, it, by contrast, becomes much easier for us to support them—even if, at least in one case, we have to drive out to Middleton to sample their creations.