Vintage New England

It’s barely 10 o’clock in the morning, and we’ve just polished off our third glass of sparkling wine. The taste is crisp and luscious, the way a world-class bubbly should be, with just enough fizz to tease and tickle the nose. A tray is passed, holding freshly picked orange and yellow day lily petals generously smeared with Camembert. Chased by the wine, this is heaven.

Napa? No, it’s Westport, Massachusetts. Outside at a picnic table under pristine blue skies, Bob Russell, owner of Westport Rivers Vineyard & Winery and his constant companion, wife Carol, are leading a group through a tasting of their estate-bottled brut.

“The perfect wine,” says Bob, with a smile, “has a lot of interesting defects.” Perhaps, but this one, a favorite of the Russells, is surprisingly pure for a product grown as far from Champagne as can be.

While Long Island is slowly earning its place in this country as a source of seriously good wines, a handful of wineries on the so-called Heritage Farm Coast of Massachusetts and Rhode Island also have started generating buzz. It makes sense. This pocket of southeastern New England, just minutes away from Long Island as the crow flies, has a climate similar to that of France’s Burgundy in both temperature and duration of the growing season, with sandy soil and constant ocean breezes to keep the weather relatively consistent. The upshot is an environment conducive to growing chardonnay and other cool-climate grapes, such as vidal blanc and cabernet franc.

Winemaking here is not about money. It can’t be, considering the high cost of land, the small scale of the wineries, and, frankly, the public’s preconceptions about the wines. Instead, local vintners focus on both creating spectacular wines and saving the land that could very easily be overrun by cookie-cutter vacation homes and strip malls.

Is this region producing the lush berry-packed pinot noirs of Oregon? Or the crisp, grassy sauvignon blancs of Sonoma? No. But it is excelling at fine, delicately fruity chardonnays and bold cabernet francs. What’s more, southeastern New England has succeeded at producing wines in the European style that is quickly becoming the vogue in this country. These wines steer clear of the hard-hitting, super-oaked Napas to let the beauty of the fruit shine through.

The first thing you notice at Westport Rivers is the aroma. It’s a thick, lusty smell heavy with fresh-turned earth, ripe grapes, and yeast. It permeates the air around the vineyard, wafting out from a picture-perfect red-roofed barn that serves as the anchor for the winery. Near the adjacent farmhouse, now functioning as a wine shop and offices, a black and white cat dozes atop a wine cask. Beyond, rows and rows of towering, pruned vines stretch to the horizon.

This time of year, the vines are drooping, weighted down with ripening grapes. A peculiar game of anticipation is played as the winemaker waits for the perfect moment to pluck the fruit: too soon, and the wine will be flat, immature, and disappointing; too late, and the grapes could be lost to rain or heat or cold, or to birds, animals, or insects.

But when the grapes are picked at the right moment, the results are amazing, as Bob and Carol Russell, owners of Westport Rivers, have proven. Theirs is the largest vineyard in New England producing sparkling wines, in the traditional méthode champenoise, and chardonnays. After a career in the metals industry had kept Bob on the road more often than not, the Russells decided it was time to spend more time together. Carol’s father had once run a winery in the Finger Lakes, and it seemed an ideal solution. “We looked at locations all over the world,” says Carol, “but we chose this area because of the tranquility.” At the time, making drinkable wine in New England was unfathomable. For that matter, world-class wine from California was still a new concept. Even with help from architect son Rob and winemaker son Bill, the Russells understood the challenges. But they had more in mind than just great wines.

Essential to the Russells’ philosophy is the “stewardship” of the land the preservation of the region’s natural resources. Realizing that without intervention developers would gobble up the farms of their beloved New England helped them choose the location for their winery. “We built deep roots here,” says Carol. “We wanted to see this farmland preserved and utilized the way it should be.”

Five years ago, the family bid on a nearby 140-acre historic farm when it came up for sale. Not having expected to outbid a real estate developer, they were surprised to find themselves with a total of 300 acres. So they launched their Buzzards Bay Brewing company, which now produces six locally made lagers and ales. They also began donating some of the earnings from the sale of their wines and beers to the preservation of farmland in Massachusetts.

In 1996 chef Kerry Downey Romaniello, an area native who had spent the previous few years training in wine and food pairing at California’s Beringer Vineyards, approached the Russells about creating a wine-education facility at Westport Rivers. The result is the Long Acre House Wine, Beer, and Food Education Center, which hosts wine events that feature Westport Rivers wines paired with meals made from local ingredients. “We always enjoyed food, and we wanted people to know that enjoying food and wine together in moderation is part of a healthy, family lifestyle,” says Carol.

Their message has not been lost. Recognition has come in the form of awards and favorable ratings from wine critics, and also in more unexpected ways. Westport Rivers wines have been served in the White House and appeared on The West Wing; the TV show’s fictitious president hails from New Hampshire, and the producers like to use New England products.

But no TV cameo compares with sitting under a blue sky on a cool autumn day and sipping the actual wines. Their complexity is surprising, the experience delightful.

Located a short drive from Westport Rivers, just over the state line in Little Compton, Rhode Island, sits Sakonnet Vineyards and Winery, owned by Susan and Earl Samson. The winding road that leads there is quintessential New England: here a tiny, whitewashed country store, there a glimpse of a quiet harbor filled with fishing boats. This is the coast at its picturesque autumn best, seemingly designed for a wine tour. Turning onto the lane that leads to Sakonnet, oldest of the area wineries, you know that something great lies ahead. The land here rolls, affording snatches of the ocean in the distance. Then all at once, the vines appear: tall, majestic, perfectly aligned. And at the crest of the hill sit the winery, tasting room, and barns.

Susan Samson is a former Broadway actress and producer, a gregarious blonde who understandably extols the dramatic beauty of the property she and her husband bought nearly 15 years ago. Earl is the serious one, distinguished, with a salt and pepper beard and confident manner that betrays his New York financial consulting past. They combined their backgrounds and went into business with no grand ambitions. “Our goal was just to create a nice place where people could come and enjoy the wines,” says Earl. Since then, though, Sakonnet has earned high marks from the Wine Spectator as well as numerous awards. The winery now produces 50,000 cases annually and distributes them throughout the East Coast, making this the most recognizable New England label.

The Samsons’ interest in the business began in the ’70s, when Earl and his business partner were called in as financial consultants to a California winery. The lifestyle, he says, was attractive enough to plant the idea of one day owning a winery of his own — one that would rival those he saw in California.

Today Sakonnet does. The newly built wine tasting room could have been transplanted right from Napa. A slate-topped bar is the centerpiece of the room, surrounded by tables loaded with the wineries’ wines, each thoughtfully accompanied by enough information to help even the most inexperienced wine drinker. Slate floors and aubergine-colored walls complete the scene, with the gently rolling vineyards stretching away outside the old-time screen doors. In the heart of autumn, the stately trees blaze with color, urging visitors to linger. Some even stay overnight at the vineyard’s on-site bed and breakfast, the Roost.

But it is the wines that are on show here. Winemaker John Sotelo brings to the process 18 years of experience at Sonoma’s Iron Horse Vineyards, and manager Joetta Kirk has handled Sakonnet’s land for nearly 20 years. Their efforts have produced confident and delicious results. Sakonnet’s chardonnay, vidal blanc, and gewŸrztraminer (which Earl challenges any European gewŸrztraminer to beat), all outstanding and audacious, reflect the long work put into perfecting them.

Still, getting the word out that New England’s wines are drinkable, let alone desirable, remains a problem. “The wines weren’t good in the early stages,” says Earl. “But we’re producing quality wines now, and that’s what keeps us interested. If it were easy, we’d be doing something else.”

A substantial part of the strategy involves luring visitors to the winery to experience the wines for themselves. To that end, the Samsons have placed picnic tables all around the vineyard. Visitors can bring their own goodies, or buy bread and cheese at the wine shop. And there are plenty of events, including this month’s harvest festival at which the new releases are celebrated.

“People forget that we’ve got a good industry here,” Earl says. “And they can get there easily and come and see it.”

A 15-minute drive away, to Aquidneck Island on the well-beaten path to Newport, dwells Newport Vineyards. This is not a particularly idyllic spot, plunked as it is on the side of a busy road, but it is an interesting stop if only to meet owners John and Paul Nunes, the region’s youngest winemakers. Both barely 30, the Middletown natives possess the self-assurance of a new generation. They are smart businessmen who recognize the value of publicity: Being situated on the main road to Newport is no small asset.

Like the Russells at Westport Rivers, the Nunes brothers had environmental concerns when they bought the 30-acre vineyard six years ago. “It was important to us to protect the island from overdevelopment,” says John, who left a corporate job in Boston to return to Aquidneck.

Upon assuming ownership, the brothers quickly implemented an expansion plan. First, they experimented with varietals, growing seven different kinds, including chardonnay, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon. They also invested in top-end bottling and manufacturing equipment. Next, they opened the tasting room right off Route 138, making the winery an instant hit with Newport-bound vacationers. Although there is a $3 fee for a tour and tasting of five wines, the room is a pleasant enough spot, and the friendly staff will talk even the most inexperienced wine taster through the many varieties offered.

Newport Vineyards wines still have years to go before they show a maturity or depth comparable to that of Sakonnet or Westport Rivers, but the Nunes brothers and winemaker George Chelf aren’t fazed. “The biggest risk would be to not take one at all,” says John. “Of course, it doesn’t always work, and some years are better than others. But we stick to sound winemaking and disciplined management in the vineyards and see what happens.”

Five minutes from Newport Vineyards, at the end of a lane lined with purple and white hydrangea that’s more English than American countryside, sits the 50-acre Greenvale Vineyards in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Greenvale is tucked away in a much less bustling and much more striking spot. Bordered on one side by the Sakonnet River, the land is quiet and peaceful, reminiscent of any in northwest Europe.

Cortlandt and Nancy Parker first planted grapes in 1982 and ran the vineyard until the early ’90s, when daughter Nancy Parker Wilson took over. Nancy elder still publishes the New England Wine Gazette, but fresh-faced, energetic Nancy junior now drives the business. She has help from vineyard manager Hever Ortega and winemaker Richard Carmichael, who has experience at vineyards in California and Virginia. Husband Bill Wilson, a Boston architect, also devotes his spare time.

At one time, this land served as a “gentleman’s farm,” begun more than 150 years ago by a distant relative who planned to retire here at the age of 36 after making his fortune in the China trade. He built the grand Victorian estate house, now shared on the weekends by Nancy’s family, her parents (who live here full time), and as many as seven dogs.

After a few years of growing grapes to supply nearby Sakonnet Vineyards, the Parkers decided it was time to try winemaking themselves. In the beginning, it was a small experiment: Nancy and her father sold their first 350 cases of chardonnay under a tent pitched alongside the vines. “People would come creeping down the lane, not sure what they’d find,” she says with a laugh. “But nearly all those people have been back.” Eventually, they honed their winemaking skills and began to think big.

Last year, Nancy and Bill converted the original 1870s-era stable into a rustic tasting room. It’s a cheerful, straightforward spot, reflecting the family’s honest and easygoing personality. A contented golden retriever lolls on the tasting room floor, hoping for a scrap of attention from visitors sipping the award-winning vidal blanc. Inside the barn, Nancy has displayed early photographs of the barn and grounds, along with antique carriages, wheelbarrows, and other farm relics.

Each weekend last summer, local jazz musicians performed, something that’s certain to continue through the fall harvest, which is, says Nancy, one of the best times to visit the vineyard. “It’s incredible to be here and just smell the fruit as it’s brought in,” she says. Harvest time means not only picking the fruit for the following year’s wine — and celebrating that with tractor rides, music, and other festivities — but also tasting the release of that year’s vintage.

Which is not always easy. Last year’s cabernet franc crop was much more lackluster than the 1999. A trip to the Loire Valley, though, inspired Nancy and Bill to try a different winemaking process. They also put the vintage in a sloped-shoulder Loire-style bottle to reflect the change. “This bottle shows that it’s something different,” Nancy says.

When she sips the 2000, she is noticeably disappointed that the flavors aren’t as round as she had hoped. “We could have called it cabernet fran [sic],” Bill jokes, which cracks Nancy up and seems to make her feel better. The family’s shared sense of humor and shared passion for wine are on display here; the signature labels depict the Victorian tiles in the entryway to the main house.

For the time being, Bill and Nancy are content to focus on improving the quality of their wines, expanding their marketing efforts, and tinkering with different grapes. Bill hopes that one day Greenvale will be able to produce a fine pinot noir, one of his favorites. For now, the wines are example enough of the potential of this little vineyard, with its beautiful, undulating acres and views of the ocean. “It’s just tremendously satisfying,” says Nancy. “Our mission is simply to produce delicious wines and be able to conserve the land and the buildings too.”

What makes this corner of New England so interesting as a wine region — even more so than Long Island — is the unknown. No one is quite sure which varietals thrive here, though the vintners are quickly learning from their hits and misses. (At Greenvale, a mislabeled shipment of pinot noir posing as cabernet franc quickly established that the latter is much more adaptive, for example.) Greenvale and Newport are experimenting with merlot, while others are trying their hands at pinot gris, sauvignon blanc, and even dessert wines such as Sakonnet’s ice wines and port. “It’s about proving that southeastern New England can make wines that are just as good as any you’ll find in the rest of the world,” says Newport’s John Nunes. In other words, the possibilities are limitless.

For a visitor to the Heritage Farm Coast’s wineries, it’s about discovering a well-kept secret just an hour’s drive from Boston. At the end of that road, the rewards are sweet.