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Vermont Grape Growers by by Ed Janeway on 2009-08-03

 


 

Hopes for a Lake Champlain grape growing region for wine production are beginning to take root in the soil of several key areas of the lake. The Snow Farm Winery on South Hero Island where Harrison Liebowitz first planted grapes three years ago is now into its third year of operation. He took a gamble on a former dairy farm on the island and is now marketing a Snow Farm Nouveau statewide.

Behind him is Ken Albert of Shelburne, a retired engineer with IBM, who has planted grapes on land he has leased from Shelburne Farms, a non-profit agricultural and environmental educational organization. This coming fall he plans to harvest his first grapes that he planted in 1998 on two and one half acres of land, with additional grapes from other neighboring tracts. He has secured a conservation easement from the Meech Cove Trust which assures continuing agricultural use of neighboring land.

They have joined with Ray Knutsen, a Rutland-area veterinarian, and David Boyden, of Cambridge, VT, to form the Vermont Grape Growers Association. Knutsen says the group feels that Vermont, in general, and the Champlain Valley, in particular, hold great promise for an important viticultural area and they are working together to bring this idea to fruition. Knutsen says, "New York State is the second largest producer of grapes domestically behind California, and our climate is very similar to the Finger Lakes region. The number of wineries as well as the quality of the wines from there has increased dramatically in the last 10 to 15 years. We should draw on that success in our region. As one grower has told me, 'Lake Champlain is largely a displaced Finger Lake'."

Knutsen and his colleagues are banking on the strength of Vermont's agri-tourism as a growing segment of the tourism industry. They would like to establish a wine trail that would link the various participating wineries across the state with Boyden who is located in the Lamoille Valley region. There are such trails in the Finger Lakes and along the southern New England Coast in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. While the others are cultivating grapes in former dairy pastures, Boyden has approximately six acres under cultivation on the family's dairy farm which has been in operation for several generations.

Knutsen is experimenting with growing grapes on dairy pastures once farmed by his father at Benson, which is the narrowest part of Lake Champlain. After some extensive testing of temperature and soils, he concluded that the area would be ideal for this purpose. He found that it had moderately cold temperatures, unlike the 20 to 30 degree below zero nighttime temperatures which can occur farther inland in the mountainous region. The area has a gray slate soil that is common to wine growing areas of Germany where the renowned Johannisberg Riesling is cultivated.

The first planting took place last spring with 900 vines on one acre of land. "I am trying 14 different varieties of grapes ranging from an extremely winter hardy variety developed at the University of Minnesota to several of the finest European varieties like the Riesling and Cabernet Franc. Those will require protection during the winter months. After I see which wines grow best, as well as produce the best wine, I will expand from there."

Other varieties include pinot gris, seyval blanc, marechal foch, vidal, and bianca, a Hungarian grape. All of these he has seen flourishing on Long Island and the Finger Lakes. "If they grow there, why not in Vermont, despite the colder temperatures?" he reasons, exuding enthusiasm for trying new things.

Knutsen foresees that a natural offshoot of the vineyard would be a nursery where people can acquire their own locally grown vines that are well suited to our area and also get the advice needed as to how to grow them.

But before the vines sprout and Vermont can call itself a wine growing region, several issues must be dealt with at the state level concerning the labeling of wines and the manner in which they are marketed.  The Grape Growers Association is seeking VQA (Vintners Quality Assurance) for wines made from Vermont grapes.  The group is developing its own guidelines modeled after similar ones in Ontario, Canada, whose purpose is to assure that growers follow standards and provide customers with the assurance that the product they are consuming is made from grapes grown i the region.

The first step in this process is to obtain the Seal of Quality from the Vermont State Department of Agriculture for which the applicant must meet the rigorous standards applied to maple syrup, dairy, apples, and other products made i the state.  It is hoped to have the standards adopted i this year's sessio of the Vermont Legislature.  When it comes to grapes, only the Snow Farm Winery would be eligible for the seal.  Proprietor Liebowitz says 75 percent of the grapes must be estate grown, which would apply to the Nouveau, Pinot, and Vidal, which will be harvested next spring.

Boyden had the first harvest of grapes last fall at  his winery which has up t now been making fruit varietals  He said the grape growers want to stimulate information sharing, research, an development in grape growing in a cold climate region such as Vermont.  To date, much of that information has come from he University of Minnesota which has a climate similar to here and from wine growers in neighboring Quebec. Knutsen has asked that anyone interested in grape growing and producing wine in Vermont to contact him for further information: (802) 775-6167; E-Mail RayKnutsen@aol.com.


Ed Janeway is a freelance writer who ahs also written for the New England Wine Gazette.

This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2000 issue of the Vermont Chapter AIWF newsletter.

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