Message in a Bottle
Local wineries join the scene
at Mass farmers markets
by Rebecca Hansen
On a sunny March Saturday, the Somerville winter farmers market is abuzz with activity. Inside the Center for Arts at the Armory, which plays host to the market, friends and families sit and chat over freshbaked pastries and coffee while customers shuffle through the aisles in cheery throngs. From table to table, people peruse the many goods on offer and fill their bags with everything from broccoli, to cheese, to … Shiraz? yes, that’s correct: Shiraz, as in wine.
Legislation allowing farmer-wineries to sell at Massachusetts farmers markets was signed into law last August, but the effort to make it possible began over three years ago. In 2007 when the Massachusetts Farm Wineries and Growers Association formed, they conducted a survey to determine the priorities of association members. The ability to sell at farmers markets was at the top, says Kip Kumler, chairman of the association and owner of turtle Creek Winery in Lincoln.
But, in a state somewhat notorious for its old-fashioned blue laws, the process of adding a new marketplace for wine proved far from simple. “We were surprised to discover that it was illegal as a Commonwealth to sell or offer wine to taste at markets, specifically,” says Kumler. But, knowing what a boon this would be to local vintners, the association pressed on until the new law came into being last summer, paving the way for wineries to sell at agricultural events across the state.
This new opportunity provides a particular benefit to smaller wineries, says Kumler, for whom a farmers market can act as a “virtual tasting room.” In other words, it gives winemakers the opportunity to sell directly to consumers in the same way that larger, better-known wineries can do on site. “A large winery in a high-traffic area with a tasting room will sell as much as 85–90 percent of their production from the tasting room, and that’s at full margin,” Kumler says. Farmers markets give smaller, lesser-known wineries access to a similar number of people and profit margin, allowing them to retain the profit margin that they give up in order to have products sold in stores.
In Somerville this past winter, three wineries joined the market as a trial run of sorts: Turtle Creek, Zoll Cellars and Coastal Vineyards. Together they aimed to get a sense of how things would go and work out any unexpected kinks in advance of the busier summer season. “Somebody needed to be the guinea pig,” says David Neilson, owner of Coastal Vineyards, “to test the waters so that come springtime we’d have a better feel for what goes on in the farmers market and how to approach it.”
And, happily for them, the Somerville winter farmers market was just as enthusiastic about playing guinea pig on the market side of things. Kumler initially approached Jaime Corliss, director of Shape Up Somerville, a program that helped initiate the winter market as part of their goal of increasing access to healthy foods. It was the first she’d heard of the new legislation. “I said, absolutely. Let’s see if we can make this happen.” The result, all parties agree, has been a success. “The first day we were astounded with their sales,” says Corliss. Neilson, who was also at the Attleboro market this winter and participated in the wine day at the Wayland winter farmers market, says things have gone better than expected. Frank Zoll, the owner of Zoll Vineyards, agrees. “People are very excited to have the wineries there,” he says. “It adds a really nice experience for the consumer.”
Judging from the scene at the Somerville Armory, people are certainly enthusiastic to have area vintners in the mix. Already at 10:30am, lines have formed at all three tables, where Chardonnay, Riesling and Cabernet Franc are just a few of the varietals available for tasting. As customers sip and savor, they chat with the winemakers, asking questions about how and where the grapes are grown, how much wine is produced each year and what type of glass is used in their bottles. “No one has ever asked me do I use Chinese glass,” says Zoll, who has been impressed by the level of interest from consumers. “They’re so excited and interested to talk to you. They want to know who’s making their food or the winery manager who’s actually making their wine.”
This connection, says Scott Soares, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR), is part of what makes wineries such a good fit for local markets. “Wineries are a growing segment of Massachusetts agriculture,” he says, “and farmers markets are intended first and foremost to allow direct interaction between farmers and those who seek their products.”
Indeed, although many of us don’t think of wine as “locally grown,” it is just as much an agricultural product as a fresh-picked tomato. And the winemakers who produce it are also farmers, cultivating their land and their crops like any other. Although some local vintners do supplement their production with grapes shipped in from other locations, they all grow at least some of their grapes here in Massachusetts. The addition of wineries to farmers markets creates an opportunity for residents to connect with this growing piece of local agriculture. “I tell every single person who comes to my table, ‘Do you know there are over 35 wineries in Massachusetts?’” says Zoll. Most, he says, are shocked.
In addition to creating the opportunity for a direct farm-to-consumer connection, wine makes for a natural addition to a farmers market in terms of many reasons that lead people to shop there. Customers buying wine in Somerville cite benefits to the environment and local economy, the same factors that lead many people to buy local produce, dairy and meat. “People who make that kind of effort to choose the food they’re going to purchase are the same people who are likely to be interested in local wine,” Kumler says.
Rebecca, a mother of two and market regular picking up a turtle Creek Riesling for her birthday, also sees an opportunity for education that fits right in with the family-friendly market. “You’re drinking more than just wine,” she says. “It’s knowing the faces and how they care. It’s a reason to go visit them with the kids to see the process and what nature provides.”
Of course, all of these benefits won’t amount to much in the way of repeat business without one key factor: taste. After all, no one wants to take home a bottle of sparkling white if the flavors aren’t enjoyable, no matter how good it may be for local agriculture. This is where the sampling comes in. As surprised as people often are to discover how many wineries exist in Massachusetts, they are clearly impressed by the quality of the wines. Customers at the market taste and comment with zeal, and everyone I see who samples walks away with at least one bottle. According to Jaime Corliss, some customers will also stock up on their favorites. “I saw some wine enthusiasts come through with half a case of wine,” she says.
Visitors to the market are not the only ones feeling enthusiastic about Massachusetts wines. Many local wineries have won awards for their quality, including Turtle Creek, which took home high honors at the 2011 Boston Wine Expo. Three of the four wines they submitted were voted in the top 7 percent out of over 1,200 wines from 13 countries. With the addition of this new element at farmers markets, customers can now get everything they might need for their Saturday dinner in one stop. “Consumers now have the ability to assemble an entirely locally based menu,” says Commissioner Soares. Neilson’s experience in Somerville indicates that people are doing just that. he estimates that around half of his customers buy wine to drink that same evening. “They had everything in their bag and were going home to enjoy all of the freshness right then.”
This summer and fall, many more markets around the state hope to offer Massachusetts residents that same opportunity. But just because the state has made it legal doesn’t mean that it’s suddenly easy. Every new partnership between a winery and a market requires a particular approval process, and the ultimate verdict lies with the licensing board of each city and town. And because this legislation is so new, it is the first time navigating through the process for everyone involved. There are concerns to overcome and technicalities to sort out.
In spite of increasing awareness of wine being part of the local agricultural economy, some communities still have concerns that adding wine to farmers markets will lead to underage drinking and other problems, says Kumler. But, he argues, markets are a very different venue than pubs or package stores, with higher prices and a different clientele. So far this winter there have been no issues in that regard, and Neilson expects that those types of concerns will be minimized as more and more markets accept wineries as vendors.
Concern about intoxication is not the only obstacle, as Rosie DeQuattro has discovered. DeQuattro, one of the market managers at the Acton-Boxborough farmers market, was initially denied by the town, which thought it would be illegal. Normally there are a finite number of liquor licenses to go around and all of Acton’s were taken. What people didn’t initially understand was that these permits fall into a separate category entirely.
“It’s been a lot of back and forth,” says DeQuattro. She has been busy this winter working with the local licensing board, MDAR and farmers market supporters from her board of selectmen in hopes of getting two local wineries at market this summer: Green River Ambrosia, which makes mead, and Still River, which makes apple wine with apples from Carlson Orchard in Harvard, Massachusetts. In spite of the initial confusion about the licensing process and the additional complication of being a Sunday market, DeQuattro is optimistic that both wineries will get approved. At the time of this writing the hearing had yet to happen, but DeQuattro says, “We’re going on the assumption that we can have the two wineries there and that they can start pouring at 10:00.” Admittedly, she’s not sure how many customers will want to sip wine at that hour on a Sunday. But, judging from the scene in Somerville, there will be plenty of interest in these new local products on offer.
So, what’s in store for the summer farmers markets near you? At the time of this writing that largely remains to be seen. The Bedford and Lexington markets both have gotten approval to have wineries on site. But, like Acton-Boxborough, most wineries and markets are still awaiting their local hearings, including Quincy, which hopes to welcome four wineries this year.
With over a dozen wineries having already applied to sell at farmers markets in Boston, Cambridge, Somerville and more, there will surely be wine at a market near you, as well as at fairs and festivals as the season begins.
The appearance of local wines at farmers markets may be a gradual process as each town figures out what works best for them. But the winter markets have helped to pave the way toward a new partnership that will promote local agriculture, small farmers and economies across the state. “We can now see very clearly, even with the limited experience of winter markets that this represents a huge step forward in terms of the economic viability of small wineries,” says Kumler.
Cheers to that!
At the time of this writing, many markets are still waiting for approvals to come through. To find out which wineries are where, visit the following websites for updates: Massachusetts’ Farm Wine Growers Association—masswinery.com, the Federation of Massachusetts Farmers Markets—massfarmersmarkets.org—and enter “wine” in the search function or you can also visit the “Mass grown” section of MDAR’s website, at www.ma.gov/agr/massgrown.
Rebecca Hansen is a freelance writer and editor living in Jamaica Plain. She is looking forward to many a hot summer evening in the back yard, paired with a crisp, cool glass of local sauvignon blanc. You can read more of her writing on all things local, organic, sustainable and yummy at www.ecofoodie.blogspot.com.