By Greg Storch
One Friday night in November, Coastal Vineyards’ owner Dave Nielson pours his wines for customers in a Lexington liquor store. The routine with every customer is the same—an invitation to taste, followed by a brief description of the wine and local roots. The reaction, too, is much the same. Skepticism, if not outright dismissal, is quickly followed by the grudging admission that, “Wow, these wines are actually pretty good!” But as gratifying as such praise can be, this kind of reaction highlights the unfortunate reality that many consumers, wine educated or not, are entrenched in their belief that Massachusetts is simply incapable of making good wine.
While Massachusetts—and Boston in particular—is one of the top per-capita wine markets in America, many of the 40 licensed local wineries struggle to gain the critical recognition and popular support that they feel their products deserve. It is true, for example, that Massachusetts cannot grow grapes that will produce wines with the concentrated, opulent richness of their California counterparts. Most familiar grape varieties—reds in particular—require exceedingly long, hot summers to achieve the ripeness that garner those wines their critical acclaim.
Instead, Massachusetts’s vintners have found success with varieties that thrive in colder, more northerly climates. While some of these grapes are familiar to many wine drinkers, such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, others are obscure university-bred hybrids, with names that lack the caché of their European relatives. Only in the fantasies of New England growers do movie stars ask for a glass of Léon Millot, Marechal Foch, or Traminette, to name a few of the grapes grown on local vineyards. Nevertheless, in the cool springs and short summers of Massachusetts, these grapes produce wines that mirror the tenacity of the vines themselves, displaying a racy, steely vibrancy that has a certain exuberant charm.
Still, even cold-friendly grapes can be finicky when it comes to how and where they are planted. Year after year, growers combat rain, rot, animals, and more, with minute changes in technique and vine location often making the difference between failure and great success. As a result, stories of viticultural struggle abound in Massachusetts, where patchwork soil types, variable temperature pockets, and irregular growing seasons all heighten the difficulty of growing an intrinsically temperamental crop such as wine grapes.
Fortunately, there are many success stories for local vineyards. Perhaps the standard bearer for long-term success in New England wine is Westport Rivers Winery, on the southern Massachusetts coast. From the first vines planted in 1986, Westport’s 400-acre farm has grown to become a highly regarded producer of Champagne-style sparkling wines, as well as still table wines. Up against the ocean, the vines at Westport enjoy a slightly more moderate climate than their northerly neighbors, allowing the winery to focus on notoriously difficult varieties such as Pinot Noir, one of the primary components of Champagne, and other great sparklers from all over the world.
But despite their reputation, even Westport has their struggles when it comes to winning over wine drinkers in the Boston market. Even with the last decade’s explosion of the local food movement, Westport has seen a decline in the number of Boston restaurants that feature their wines on the menu. When asked what may be contributing to the change, winemaker Bill Russell is quick to cite the structure of restaurant management. While many owners and chefs are passionate about local food products, their beverage directors are often highly wine educated, and serve a clientele that is equally as knowledgeable. “For a chef, cooking local is cooking smart,” Bill says. “But many Boston wine drinkers are part of a sort of anti-xenophobic culture, in which the way to look smart is to find the obscure and the international.”
Restaurants, for their part, jump to price and availability as the major factors driving their decision. Although Westport Rivers is one of the largest wineries in the state, their production volume pales in comparison to the bulk wineries of New York, France, or California. Despite being a firmly established local producer, Westport can never be price-competitive on the global scale, as their small production volumes, hand-made approach, and naturally low vineyard yields make high operating costs a permanent fixture.
Still, as high as these costs are for a decades-old winery like Westport, they are even higher for a new producer trying to establish itself in the Massachusetts market. Frank Zoll, owner and winemaker at Shrewsbury’s Zoll Cellars, outlines the financial burden of making wine for broad consumption. “To achieve statewide distribution of one label you need to make 500 to 1,000 cases. In order to produce 1,000 cases of wine, you need at least five acres of grapes. Add in land, equipment, and space and you’re looking at a $2-3 million investment.”
For Frank, then, it is clear why so few Massachusetts wineries have an enduring presence in the Boston restaurant community. As he so succinctly states, “Most people are not willing or able to make that kind of commitment for a product with less provenance than something from Long Island or the Finger Lakes [the closest major grape growing regions].”
Nevertheless, Frank offers a few reasons for his success as a new, small local winery. One important tactic is the broadly accepted practice of purchasing grapes from other growers, many of which farm only outside of Massachusetts. For Frank, purchasing fruit allows him to boost production and cash flow while maintaining consistency in his product, despite the variable growing seasons he faces.
In addition, out-of-state fruit allows winemakers to fulfill customer demands for greater variety, often in styles that growers can’t support from their own vineyards. “Making wine for your ego doesn’t pay the bills,” Frank says with a chuckle. “Why should I waste the product and the energy on a varietal that isn’t as good as the competition?” This philosophy has led Frank to buying fruit from growers all over the Northeast, and other local winemakers to look as far away as California and Portugal for fruit to fit styles of wine they cannot make from Massachusetts-grown grapes alone.
For local wineries, this kind of catering to your customers is crucial, as Massachusetts’s winemakers near universally attribute their success to the growth of direct producer-to-customer connections. When asked how any winery can grow from scratch, despite the many financial and agricultural hurdles, Frank is quick to answer. “The best way to do it is to start extremely small within your community, and turn five cases into 15 and 15 into 50.”
This focus on local interaction is why perhaps the most important stride made by Massachusetts’s wineries has been the 2010 legalization of wine sales at local farmers markets. According to a report by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR), over 34,000 bottles of local wine were sold at farmers markets in 2011, the first year of winery participation. This quantity represented almost 40% of the total production of participating wineries, leading many to increase their presence at events across the state.
In addition, the benefits of these markets extend further than the events themselves. “When people try my wine and like it, they want to come visit,” Coastal’s Dave Nielson says. “When they get here, they see the winery and the vineyards and are blown away by the small scale, the human connection, and the detail of what we do.”
In this sense, context is everything for Massachusetts’s wine. When placed on a restaurant wine list or a liquor store shelf, the standards of judgment become the deeply entrenched norms of the fine wine world—an “apples and oranges” comparison that categorically denies the possibility of quality in many local wines. At a farmers market or winery tasting room, however, producers encounter a crowd that finds value in local personal connections, as well as pleasure in the unusual fruit or hybrid grape variety wines that many wineries feature. “We can’t make wine in Massachusetts that tastes like wine from California, or Germany, or France,” Dave explains. “We make wine that tastes like wine from Massachusetts. We just have to get people to expand their definition of quality to include that.”
To this end, growers are taking their pursuit of quality outside of their own wineries. Dave has organized classes and symposiums for winemakers and growers, in which participants compare techniques, share results, and analyze flawed wines, ensuring that all mistakes are corrected. Frank Zoll is working to establish an enology program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, using modern research techniques and equipment to bolster the perception of Massachusetts’s wine both locally and across the country.
With all of this individual and collective effort, it is no surprise that optimism reigns among Massachusetts’ producers. Every year the young vineyards in Massachusetts take root more deeply, giving better fruit than ever before. Every year more people take to the road to follow New England wine trails, seeing the sources of their favorite bottles for themselves. And every year, Massachusetts’s winemakers keep on experimenting, trying new wines and new varieties in the pursuit of the magical combination of vine, climate, and the human hand that leads to great wine.
When asked if he believes that Massachusetts’s wine is still in its infancy, Westport’s Bill Russell replies, “I think it’s more of a moody adolescent. We’re starting to figure out what works, but when it comes to vineyards, every new experiment is at least a five-year commitment. But things will keep growing and we’ll keep finding out what we can do well and what we can’t.”
While we wait, the current results of all that hard work are wonderful in their own right. Just sit back with a crisp local white and an apple cider donut. It’s a perfect pairing, and one that is undeniably, unmistakably, and giddily Massachusetts.
Greg Storch is wine director for Lexington’s Berman’s Wine and Spirits by day, and a freelance writer by night (and days off). He lives in Somerville where he slowly eats and drinks his way through the best of Massachusetts. He can be reached at email@example.com.