My First Real NY Wine Romp

Oh Baco baby... oil on stretched cotton sweater 22" x 22"

A long while ago I went on a buying rampage - well maybe more like a bonanza - fueled by my excitement after reading 'A History of Wine in America' by Thomas Pinney and wondering why, as I looked around at the plethora of wineries that littered the landscape nearby, they weren't taking a more prominent place in the shops of New York City. Granted New York City is a saturated and very competitive market but these wineries must have been around for decades, making wine and clearly supporting themselves, so why did it seem so difficult to get them beyond their vineyard boarders? I bought a number of New York and Connecticut wines at first and then spread my buying power to other states, keeping log of what states I could have shipped to me and what they had to offer. I knew I was stepping into an open ocean of possibilities where it seemed far easier to pick out possible clunkers than slam dunkers.

If you've read any of my past posts from this section, you'll know that I've stated the common reaction from people when you mention stateside wines not based on the West Coast or Finger Lakes, it's at best an askance doubtful look with some dismissal mixed in. Ultimately these areas are more of an outlier compared to the vast sea of options offered by importers and restaurants, by wine enthusiasts and writers, by magazines that focus your attention, that give points and aim the prestige of one category over another: focus, buy and reinforce. It's a system that has been around for decades, it's the construct we live in that has established history (region and grower) and is based on market demand - no one's going to deny the world class wines their due, nor even more recent stars from regions flung far across the globe - but at the same time, lingering in the air, is this miasma of not disdain but perhaps aversion to acknowledge that wines produced in these "petri-dish" pocket areas, that in their own right have been around for decades winning awards and acclaim behind the scenes, are not worth or given the same attention. So they're not on our radar because they're not in our cultural purview; we don't have context for them, a kind of forgotten history where the romance has been exported over generations through social osmosis, across the ocean to a fictional ideal log-jammed in dense history - all fun stuff no doubt. The interesting part, once you begin to uncover the wineries in your backyard, is that you learn about a long history stretching back to the late 17th century: settlers and farmers who tilled the ground for agricultural purposes - the vine included - sprawled out and made with what they had, at times having to convert to other forms of sustenance to keep them and the nation growing through its own in fits-and-starts and as Prohibition eventually reared its ugly head.

The Temperance Movement - god rest their souls and whatever - ruined the cultural legacy of generations of immigrants by reacting to the ills plaguing society with an unwavering clenched fist against all things alcohol. They saw it as a moral fight to save the country from ills it couldn't see or didn't think could be overcome and in the process snuffed out, without discern and broad strokes, a whole way of life for many who wanted to emulate the drinks of their homeland because it was a point of pride like a fine collection of paintings or architecture. It was a fight waged initially in reaction to the  scourge of rum and whiskey turned against any libation, or derivative thereof, where alcohol was present. Rum and Whiskey were the more common drinks of choice, easily accessible because they were readily available and often very cheap but it soon the fervor spread to wine, cider and beer - drinks that were at best low in alcohol (less than 5%). After the 18th Amendment was passed a permit was required to process anything deriving from grapes, especially to make sacramental wines during this dark decade (i.e. The Brotherhood Winery). A strange loophole existed though, given a permit to process grape based product you could, in the privacy of your own home, turn grape bricks into a limited amount of wine for personal consumption, but otherwise your business was probably shut down or smashed by the anti-Saloon League. It wasn't really until the 1960's and 1970's that you began to see winegrowers rebounding from this period and coming together legislatively to solve this anachronistic and anti-cultural issue; laws were eventually enacted to allow farms and producers to begin growing and processing their grapes into fermented juice, using varietals I might add, culled from the long history of trying to solve the vitis vinifera problem in America. Hundreds of hybrids were created throughout the 19th century, some championed to be the solution for the issues plaguing their growth without knowing that it was a nasty louse called phylloxera that was hampering their attempts since colonial landfall. In many instances these homegrown French-American hybrids were planted throughout the Northeast, the Midwest and the South as alternatives and made - and still do make - serviceable wines that have found support over the decades. But at the same time they've almost been caught at their source, cultivated, grown and produced, again, under-the-radar and known only to those interested in searching them out or who live nearby and have discovered their charm. In an industry dominated by the FIGS nations and then by  the larger wine producing regions in the United States, it's really quite easy to get blindsided by these familiars that have been established over the past few hundred years. Perhaps I'm making too much of this, yet I work around a lot of wines from the FIGS nations, drink a lot of FIGS wines and grew up with only FIGS wines, so the mention of varietals or wines made anywhere else are generally dismissed raising that underdog spirit within. It's a point that still seems pertinent even though every state now makes wine, no doubt has  a burgeoning business for their wines and has probably invested enough time, energy and skill to turn the curve and begin crafting unique local wines. 

I'm clearly coming at this from the standpoint of someone whose time is taken up by Old World wines, I mean, they're everywhere and they have a proven track record but I'm continually discovering what my backyard has to offer. Maybe I'm playing an old fiddle or blowing hot air, playing a little too much of the soap box but I just had to get this diatribe off my mind before I continued further on this exploration into American wine. If I'm repeating myself, I apologize, I'm just eager and excited and will refrain from these outbursts any further. 

The rather important part of North American wine history to remember is that grape breeders have been hard at work for more than a hundred years developing varietal hybrids, the focus being to maintain the characteristics of the vitis viniferia yet reflect the hardiness of the native varietals in order to withstand the harsh climate and pests - so they wanted their cake to eat it too! The Baco Noir is just one of these French-American hybrid grapes that managed to climb above the rest and gain traction across the Northeast, Midwest and Canada due to it's hardiness, versatility and characteristics. The grape is a hybrid of Folle Blanche (a French white grape) plus and unknown native American varietal - yea, you got that right, a fairly obscure French grape from Armagnac mated with a an unknown vitis riparia grape from North America, bred in 1854 by Francois Baco with the intent of creating a varietal that could withstand the ills of the region but as always, retain it's French characteristics - more cake! The varietal has come to be known for its brick red color, spiced aromas, medium body, high acidity and most importantly lacking that "foxy" aroma that so many native American grapes can have and which I find to smell awfully like a crude form of gasoline. 

So in my buying spree I purchased the Baco Noir Reserve 2011 "Casscles Vineyards" from Hudson-Chatham Winery, put it in my rack alongside a slew of other wines and simply kept putting off the time I was going to tackle New York. I'm more than certain a year has passed since I purchased this bottle and it's still singing in my head as I compose this entry days later. To start off, the Hudson-Chatham Winery is located in the Hudson River Region AVA, the most dominating feature is obviously the Hudson River that helps to moderate the temperatures in both the summer and winter, the steep trailing palisades channel the warmer Atlantic breezes inland where the vineyards can be found planted on the western side of the river. Since this is the Northeast, the intense winter climate plays a huge role in what can be grown here, the land is no stranger to the likes of Chardonnay or Merlot but they can be more sensitive to late or early frosts and are often disproportionately affected by the climate, that and phylloxera forced many growers early on to turn towards the burgeoning hybrid grapes. It shouldn't be a surprise that the region has a long history of wine and cider production going back to the late 17th century, it's about as American as American can be in fact. In the colonial days fruits like apples, pears, grapes and even pumpkins were farmed for their produce but also made into fairly weak and comforting drinks - still safer than trying to drink water. New York still maintains the country's longest continually operating winery, The Brotherhood Winery - from which I still have their "Port" hold up in my rack - as well as claiming the earliest planted vineyards in 1642. But nowadays the Finger Lakes and Long Island get much of the press. From what I understand, much of this has to do with the region struggling to find its identity, an identity that is coming more clearly into view. 

Case in point: the Casscles Vineyard, named for Stephen Casscles - the winemaker at Hudson-Chatham, and whose original wines were made all using Baco Noir planted back in 1990 making the vines approximately 20 years old - has garnered a lot of attention since the aughts. Mr. Casscles has worked at Benmarl Winery and written a history of New York State varietals that I'm eager to pick up. Though the estate has a list of wines spanning the usual suspects - grapes purchased from abroad to make into their own cuvees - they've become known for their Baco Noir, a wine likened to characteristics found in Burgundy and Barolo, something that I was quick to pick up while glass after glass disappeared. 

At first I wasn't sure what to make of it, the aromas were varied and dare I say strange, yet the longer it was left open the more its parts came together and I grew accustomed to it, no infatuated! Being unfamiliar with this varietal and the Hudson River Region AVA, I was caught off-guard to say the least. I'm quite familiar with where the Hudson Valley is, I grew up in southern Westchester after all but it's only in the past year or so that I've made short trips to a few of its wineries, some less amazing than others. More recently a few friends and I went up to Warwick Valley Winery, ciders are awesome and a few of their wines definitely caught my eye. 

Swinging back around to the wine at hand, aromas started out with robust baked spices, darkened cranberries, ripened and warm - somewhat like a Zinfandel but a little askance - yet balanced with a leanness I'd expect lurking around the edges of a dirtier earthier Gamay - think Chiroubles. Being a hybrid grape some might be inclined to note its "foxiness" and I certainly could see where one would bring that to the table: there's a strong tannic grit on the palate that on the nose translates over to an almost greasy slickness coursing around the edges and appears just beyond the aromas, it's almost quintessential pulverized, liquefied and preserved rock over centuries beneath the ground: something like compacted meteorites is the main visual that keeps coming to mind as a I kept sleuthing to discern exactly what was going on. Perhaps this was the "foxiness" of which people speak, a sort of pockmarked gray-silver rock bed, if aerated it takes on an almost gasoline-like scent or exists as a dirty rocky scent carried over into sensation, always distinct, always present but never subdued completely. I've tasted something akin to this in the few other New England wines I've had and noted the discord that followed if not harnessed with skill, but this wine does something beautiful. On the second day I found the dark cranberried notes matured into a deep tired cranberry, faded by the sun and singed with yeasty breaded qualities while in the same breadth being bound by that sleek smoothness, almost like ones confident smirk, rimming the edges of every conversation with slight hidden energy, containing this enigmatic wilderness that desperately attempts to lead you into it's mystery but for some metaphysical reason, like a dream, you cannot cross over. Few wines have come across to me as enchanted gateways let alone maintain a fine line of continued structure, austerity and charm; a wine that through to day three was comfortable in itself and settles into you without worry as to whomever is looking on, taking command of its sour cherry and sweet flower notes along with what became an ever growing savory expanse that it's resting self exuded, calling like a pheromone for juicy meats or plump seasoned mushrooms from his position at the head of the table; the roll of the early morning sea air welcoming the dusky colors of dawn. And the wine was balanced, so wonderfully balanced without being boring, weightiness pitted against tannin that allowed the array of flavors beguiling my senses to roll out and reinforce the subtle power of this wine. 

This isn't an easy pleaser, one that you could quaff without thinking about but that needs patience and time for its story to unfurl. 

As much as I feel it's a cop-out to compare wines to Old World examples to get a certain kind of profile across, I can't help but put together this equation: the color of aged Barolo + a dash of Zinfandel spice + earthiness of a Chiroubles  + a dash of Sherry = Baco Noir. It might seem like a discordant mess but everything was well in tune. 


PoP: Astor Wines & Spirits; price unknown....



Connecticut Part 2: DiGrazia Fieldstone Reserve

So it's been a while since I purchased this bottle and most recently it seemed a good time to start trying wines that have been in my stockpile for almost a year now. I know, hoarding wine is pretty much tantamount to a terrible idea, you never know what wines might turn or if even they can be held for a year, but honestly flew past me and though I just posted Part 1 tonight... here is Part 2. 

I swear I'm trying to catch up! 

  DiGrazia Vineyards 

DiGrazia Vineyards 

So as the Connecticut Part 1 entry summed up, some family and I went to two wineries in the Western Connecticut AVA and weren't all too thrilled with what we had. Not to be dissuaded, I bought DiGrazia's Fieldstone Reserve to try when enough time had passed (...didn't think it would be this long...) and I could give the wine a fair shake.

At the tasting I did find the wine appealing, yet in reality and in retrospect it was hard to get any accurate feel for what I was tasting since the pours were so small and I wonder, since the bottle had been open for a day or more, it showed differently than what I tried straight out of the bottle. Now with an entire bottle before me, nursing it since around 1 PM this afternoon -it's now 7 PM- I've tried putting the glass aside for minutes on end, leaving the bottle to breath, and even thrown out what I had in my glass as I seriously contemplate moving onto another wine altogether. I usually have no problem imbibing a chosen wine throughout the day but this one takes the cake, it's simply the hardest to constantly sip with any sense of enjoyment, it's not getting better, just more awkward and almost cloying: it's like sucking on a grape/black cherry jolly rancher that had been run through a seeping pool of runoff from the nearby mechanic landfill. 

The wine is thick in a jammy kind of way but not entirely, the tart black cherry -the same that coats your mouth all the way to the end- lightens the effect somewhat, nay, jostles the consistency of the wine creating a kind of dissonance along with the anxious minerality that pervades the wine; the minerality subsumed and shatter to the edge as the strange musk, toasted quality and a subtle undertone of ink recalls the days when I was a teenager and went searching through the old mechanical landfill behind the semi-abandoned shop where the landscape was redolent with its steeping residues, decomposition, and oily filth. The wine has all the vital components, they're just coated by the juice's thickness, the intermingling is strange and certainly off-putting- it's like someone tried marrying a lower grade, fruit forward, high acid Beaujolais with a hulking, dark fruit laden California Cabernet Sauvignon that was then slapped around by an even bigger Zinfandel leaving a rather shocked wine in the end. I will venture out into a few more, after all this is my first Marechal Foch. 

Time to test another one I guess. 

  DiGrazia Vineyards Fieldstone Reserve, Marechal Foch (?); colored pencil on paper sketch.

DiGrazia Vineyards Fieldstone Reserve, Marechal Foch (?); colored pencil on paper sketch.

Update! - January 31, 2014: So after being sick all week it skipped my attention that I had three-fourths of the bottle still sitting on my mantle. Now I may not be back to 100%, but I poured a glass, tried it again, and although it didn't evoke the same pungent aromas on the nose  and tastes from before (for what I could with my limited senses)-it was velvety smooth and more palatable yet still harbored some quirks with that distinct undertone of dark cherry sourness. It seems that this wine or this grape perhaps needs aging, maybe wood treatment or allowed to rest in steel vats for keeping to tame the wildness that the aromas and flavors produce, maybe even some exposure to oxygen as it rests to allow some of those more astringent notes to blow off. 


Connecticut Part 1: DiGrazia Vineyards & Winery


I'm of the mind that I should post soon after experiencing a wine, formulating an image and blurb so that when I do get to painting it for an entry it feels more sincere and authentic; this goes for the recounting of events as well, but since August things have been hectic and now is as good a time as any. 

So back in August I pitched the idea of visiting wineries upstate with my aunt, uncle, sister and her fiancée, as I've said in the previous post overviewing this adventure, and off we went to find a few somewhere between Mahopac, New York and Norwalk, Connecticut. Who knew we'd find a few there as well as a great lunch place called Down the Hatch overlooking Candlewood Lake -it's a great place for all-American eats, seafood, and some beer. YUM. Luckily it was a sunny crisp day and we were able to enjoy our burgers and beers on the deck but at some point towards the close of our meal I was beginning to get antsy, I knew that wineries closed around 5pm usually and perhaps I was being a little lofty thinking we'd visit three or four.

One of the many things I didn't know before starting this trip was that there are vineyards spread across the state, mostly within the only two designated American Viticultural Areas hugging either the western edge with New York or the Long Island Sound. The Connecticut Wine Trail tries to entice wine-centric folks to visit them all with a Wine Trail Passport where, if you collect all twenty-five wineries, you win a trip to Barcelona, Spain (hello Cava!). However, Connecticut, although small is still large enough that driving up to Woodstock and Pomfret would take a good two hours by car since they exist in the far north-east corner of the state. With that as the start, circling around to the coast would probably take a good day and I'm guessing by the third or fourth winery you're going to want to pack it in. But here we were in the Western Connecticut Highlands AVA visiting two wineries within twenty minutes of one another and an hour and change between both Mahopac and Norwalk. Perfect!

I'm not going to try and pull one over on anyone, I didn't know what to expect as I'm just now getting into this seemingly neglected niche of the wine world. In going out there I certainly wasn't expecting something to change my life, I mean I hardly ever do when opening a bottle because it's really about the experience captured within that silica vessel rather than trying to taste the romanticism of some detached nostalgia that we are inherently coaxed into believing (or were) when approaching wine as a cultural/experiential product. Throwing all that out the window, experiment and enjoy, we all know no wine is made equal but it's only a matter of time when these "petridishes" of wine may give way to something as unique, distinct, or succinct as some of those found in those old world wines that we have come to cradle -at least these are my hopes. 

With that said, we made our way to our first stop at DiGrazia Vineyards in Brookfield, CT, winding through the forest on our way to what, at first, seemed like a suburban home with a large yard but was indeed the winery perched on the crest of a hill. Having parked we strayed up the elongated bluestone stairway to the porch, a small grape covered pergola with some couples drinking together to our left, the lawn beyond that, and then entered the tasting room. The bar was bustling with people and as soon as a spot opened up we filled the void, were presented with our tasting mats, and asked to pick six as our glasses were placed before us. The winery offers thirteen wines -three whites, three roses, one red, and six dessert styled wines- and under the high ceilings of this rustic country-inspired room I chose: the Winners Cup, a dry style Vidal Blanc with noted "reduced acidity" (was the harvest especially cool?); the Wind Ridge, an off-dry Seyval Blanc; Anastasia's Blush, a somewhat sweet blend of Niagara, Elvira and...?; the Fieldstone Reserve, a dry, medium-bodied red made with the St. Croix (or so I was told as the bottle says it's made of Marechal Foch); the Blacksmith Port, also made with the St. Croix, Leon Millot and...?; and last the Harvest Spice, an off-dry pumpkin spice blush...

I've heard of Vidal Blanc and Seyval Blanc, two French-American hybrid varieties grown across Canada and most notably New York State due to their cold resistant qualities and early ripening. But the others (St. Croix, Leon Millot, Niagara, Elvira and whatever else they might be using because I tried asking to no real clarity and didn't want to come off as some kind of wino-inspector) I had never heard of and figured this to be the perfect opportunity to get acquainted.

Throughout our tasting we were not shy to voice our likes, dislikes or plain indifference to the wines. I very much dislike stingy pours - we were given miniscule pours, how are you going to try and assess a wine if you're getting maybe an ounce of it? My aunt had chosen the Yankee Frost, a late harvest dessert white wine made from Vignoles and noted as "a distinct flavor created by blend of honey and spices," was the most vocal with obvious sounds of disgust or a comment on how awful one or another tasted. I'm of the mind that if it's not to my liking I pour it in the bucket and spit the rest out as one would do at a tasting, it's a bit more polite, after all you're not forced to buying the product. Inherently it's subjective, one flavor profile might be more tolerable or pleasing to another and our reactions are gauged by this test. At this point in the tasting, I refrained from asking any more questions, I felt like I was being too intrusive almost with someone who apparently didn't know some of the fairly basic facts about the wines: what exactly is Vignoles variety (at the time it sounded like a word for field blend)? I got mostly partial facts with moments of pause and answers that trailed off into the ambient chatter of the room. With the Anastasia's Blush I was told that they harvest from vineyards a few miles away, one that straddles New York and Connecticut and asking why in particular they had to mention the 'reduced acidity' in the Winners Cup, the answer was unclear.

Overall the wines were okay, pleasing and something new. So here's my rundown:  

The Winners Cup and Wind Ridge: ghostly, light and evasive to the senses

Anastasia's Blush: dark with earthy hints, mostly dry with a touch of sweet

Fieldstone Reserve: exactly as described on our sheet, medium-to-full, enticing with a touch of toastiness that was well done (natural or oaked, I'm not sure)  

The Blacksmith Port: I have to preface this entry because I have always been seduced and enamored by Ports since my early twenties; maybe it was the sweetness and the high alcohol in those days, but the more I tried the closer I was pulled toward the fire and toasted campfire notes of tawnies, and the dark raisin-date-berried notes of rubies and late bottle vintages, I knew they'd be something I'd go after when I could taste them. So here I was deeply disappointed, maybe it was the grapes used, maybe the process, maybe it needed breathing time -I don't know. All I know is that taking a whiff of this was like inhaling the licorice scent extracted from the black magic marker you used as a kid; someone could have just swiveled that in the wine as it left the rest to struggle for equal or any attention. It was smothering.

Harvest Spice: Here I tried for something different and was sorely defeated. I mean, this was the most off putting concoction I have tried in a long time. I felt like my senses were assaulted, imagine being in a Michael's or A.I. Friedman's, wandering around and loosing yourself in their tall narrow isles of crafts only to turn around and find yourself drowning in the faux flower section, the powerfully hyped up artificial scents overtaking your senses and as you try to leave, the candle selection just around the bend buttresses those floral scents with spices, fruits, and whatever crazy scents the Yankee Candle Company is now producing. It was quite possibly the most vile Autumn cornucopia stuffed with waxy fake fruit and potpourri ever bottled. But it did have a dry finish...

In the end I did purchase the Fieldstone Reserve as something to sit with outside of a tasting room and will write a proper review for it soon. Since my intent is to learn more about local wineries and the hybrid grapes they cultivate, I will make an effort to purchase wines from DiGrazia and other wineries in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and beyond. 

Digrazia Vineyards and Winery

Winemakers: Dr. Paul DiGrazia and Aaron Cox

Wines Produced: 16 included brandy, spiced, and fortified wines

Varietals: Elvira, Frontenac, Leon Millot, Marechal Foch, Niagara, Ravat Blanc, Seyval Blanc, Traminette, Vidal Blanc, Vignoles

Connecticut Wines: Of the first...

Sometime in mid-July I pitched the idea of visiting some local wineries up in the Hudson Valley to my aunt and sister. If it were left up to me I'd have gone gallivanting all over the Hudson Valley to parts up near Millbrook and then gone across the Hudson river to the other side with the hopes of hitting up seven in one day. Well I don't have a car and they aren't into a crazy adventure, and perhaps better for us to focus our sights on a select few than wishfully think we'd be able to do an odyssey-styled wine romp. The main factor that focused us was that my aunt and uncle live in Mahopac, NY and my sister and fiancée live in Norwalk, CT. An interesting challenge was born, not only had I never given much thought to wineries and Connecticut -I know that every state in the USA produces wine to some degree but when you come to the reality of this your perception on the possibilities is jolted awake in face of the obvious. Suffice it to say I was excited to visit Connecticut terroir. The other part of the challenge was keeping the driving down to an hour from either direction, in my research I found two wineries from both of these base camps and within twenty minutes of one another: DiGrazia Vineyards Winery and McLaughlin Vineyards.


Let's face it American AVAs aren't widely known and seem to be shrouded in mystery outside of the West Coast, upstate New York or Long Island. I mean they're not a total mystery but most of them have been around and functioning for a good thirty to forty years or more, it's just kind of surprising as to why people still seem to be in the dark about them let alone have even gotten ahold of their wine.

The reasons seem multifaceted, we could bring up the nuisances of the market and economy, advertising power, old money, new money, or the varietal choices used but the reasons seem more closely tied to the aftereffects of Prohibition, the laws instituted in its wake after being repealed, and an inherently developed cultural bias towards Old World red wines in particular. I would even put this kind of cultural bias at the forefront as most people can nowadays find ways around Prohibition's fading shadow in our ability to buy wine (Amazon anyone?). From state-to-state their laws can be a labyrinth of regulation and bureaucracy as to how you register wines, how many times you have to renew labels regardless of vintage change, varietal composition, alcohol, or even something as small and as a minor as a design change; how much and how many times a year you have to pay to keep them in compliance year-to-year; renewing your license in that state, gathering your letters of authority stating you're the sole distributor in that state for said wine - this goes for foreign wines as well as wines brought in from the state next door; and even whether a wine can be sold in that state because someone else holds the rights to do so. The list can be any combination of friendly, cheap and expense. The friendliest states so far seemed to be Rhode Island (easiest website to navigate for this purpose...) to California (who doesn't seem to have anything said about wine regulation) to states who are bureaucratic paper trail black holes like South Carolina where you have to mail in everything (labels, letters of authority, wine analysis readings, etc) each year for every wine you plan to sell there- this gets a little excessive if you plan on selling your entire three-hundred wine portfolio; then there is price-posting from month-to-month for each state otherwise you can't sell those items within that territory... yikes...

In part much of the thinking, aside from the residue of religious "reasoning" and poorly established social myths, wine is still essentially grape juice, an agricultural product as much as a commodity of value of society that has to be regulated like milk. However, it goes from a product that is of lower value to one with more value to finally investment value. And here in lies part of the issue up until about the 1990s.

Prohibition essentially erased the headway of most wineries, winegrowers, and anyone dedicated to making a fermented product -remember, most states since colonial times were already cultivating grapes, berries, and all manner of fruits (apples, pears, etc) for turning into wines, ciders, and brandies as well as basic food products. There is a lot of imperial bickering for turning to home fermentation and then brewing of beer instead of wine, but it's just good to state that than go into the details for now. Just know that every state has had it's own struggle reviving viticulture as a cultural essential and as an economic essential. After Prohibition many states, although repealed, enacted their own concurrent laws upholding those very same anti-alcohol laws or making them more restrictive up until the point of nonsense -what's the point of making a product that is 2.75% maximum alcohol by volume if you can't sell it within city limits or can only sell a maximum of a gallon of your product per person once a year? It's not hard to imagine how this could influence the number of dry counties still in existence between Texas into Pennsylvania and much of the deep South. The other reason being that much of the hoopla around Prohibition was supported and created by many Protestant religious, as well as social groups spanning many an unlikely bedfellows, and these things have seemed to get grandfathered in until someone builds the need for change. For the purposes of Connecticut, just as an update -NEWSFLASH!- Bridgewater is the last remaining "dry town" in the state and as of 2012 alcoholic products can now be sold on Sundays.

But I think what more closely gears our preferences are those in our direct environment: what they imbibed, how they interacted, and how they validated one type over another. I'm sure most of us grew up around the influence of our elders -they're food, they're drink, they're history -that's no surprise- and we inadvertently picked up these unsaid cues without much thought otherwise. Today there is a vast variety of wines to choose from and people have always had a habit of settling into one set of profile tastes over another, running with it, hold it up as superior (regardless of whether it is or not, or even if their reasoning to do so is sound) and essentially silently swaying those around them to drink the same -this is not unusual behavior, it might even be attached to group bonding (?). And this behavior has tended to lean in the way of Old World wines -no surprise there- it's what was established, marketed and available, but today's wine consumer has many more varieties to choose from: petillant naturel wines, biodynamic wines, organic wines, wines from South Africa, India, Canada, etc... this list goes on. Meanwhile, in our own backyards, wineries and viticulture were growing up but these pre-AVAs, and the movers behind them, had to deal with the post-Prohibition laws and moods in order to get started, and if there weren't laws in place then they had to be molded and people had to be swayed.

For some perspective the term 'American Viticultural Area' began being instituted in 1978 with the Augusta Missouri Region being the first to receive this designation in 1980.  Also in 1978 the Farm Winery Act was passed and a few years later Connecticut gained its only two American Viticultural Areas in 1984 and 1988 respectively: the Southeastern New England AVA covering some two-million acres along the coastline and includes some of the islands (including Martha's Vineyard sub-AVA) stretching from just south of Boston, Massachusetts to west of New London, Connecticut, while the Western Connecticut Highlands AVA covers some one-million acres completely inland, hugging the New York boarder, containing all of Litchfield, parts of Fairfield, New Haven and Hartford counties. It's this vast area that we dipped our big toe of discovery into and in glancing at the map I'm starting to wonder if it could be split into sub-AVAs like what's done with Martha's Vineyard?


The Western Connecticut AVA has a short growing season with soils mostly of glacial schist (bedrock affected by the movement and pressure of glaciers) and granite. They often use varieties like Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, St. Croix, Seyval Blanc, Vidal Blanc, and a variety of cold resistant hybrids of which I'll certainly cover in my discoveries.  Although once rich in farming, cider brewing and viticulture, only a handful have existed pre-1980 and are still in operation today: St. Hilary's Winery, McLaughlin Vineyards and Winery, Haight Vineyard, DiGrazia Vineyards, and Crossroads Winery were some of the earliest and pivotal in catching-up Connecticut laws regarding viticulture in the twentieth century. Many of their founders had some hand or connection in reshaping viticulture in the state.

It's probably just good to note straight out that according to Connecticut Law, in order to be considered a farm winery twenty-five percent of the grapes must come from the property; by federal law seventy-five percent of the grapes grown must come from in-state to be labeled 'Connecticut;' in order to be AVA labeled eighty-five percent must be grown in state, and to be labeled 'estate grown' one-hundred percent of the grapes must be planted on the winery property. This is a good thing to keep in mind: would you rather have wine from the area where you're visiting using the grapes that are grown on that terroir, or would you prefer having a wine using grapes from abroad but vinified in that state?  Or does it really matter, if it tastes good then it tastes good?

It's just something to keep in mind since I think it's about time to get to reviewing some Connecticut wine... 






Local Wine Adventures: Preface on Petridishes...

Ever since visiting DeMarest Winery back in February and then a few in North Carolina from the summer of 2012, I've been caught in the allure of what American Viticultural Areas outside of the typical hotspots are, why they exhibit the traits and reactions they do, the grapes being used and why it seems counter intuitive that the wine culture east of the Rocky Mountains seems so far behind in recognition since Europeans settled here and began producing wines and ciders since colonial times. So why did it all so suddenly stop and why has it taken so long for areas along the East Coast to reach the level of California or Oregon?

More recently my interest in this topic has grown because about a month or so ago I pitched to my aunt and sister that we visit some wineries up in the Hudson Valley. The only stipulation was that it should be about one hour between either of them (one lives in Mahopac, NY the other in Norwalk, CT and whose ever heard of wineries in Connecticut, not I!). So in an effort to do this right I did my research, found a few wineries that fit the bill, and our trip was laid out. The weather worked with us, the roads were clear and we stopped at lunch at this great all-American food place beside a lake.

We all had a great time but I was preoccupied, I kept wondering how long these wineries had been around, what their history was, why we didn't see them in our local stores or at least the larger markets, what varietals they were working with and the taste preferences' they're aimed at; they're all literally next door but seem relatively unknown, perhaps overshadowed by the Finger Lakes or the North Fork on Long Island? It seemed a bit more complicated than just based on popularity, perhaps stronger marketing exposure was the reason or even the timespan that they've been around?

I found myself at a loss, even when thinking about wines from North Carolina I felt like I was visiting a niche industry that though established hadn't made the impact on a broader market outside the state or even the region; the market is a big place and saturated with hundreds of thousands of wines, but even so it seems crazy that within a days trip you could be drinking wines of that state but not have them in your hometown stores. Perhaps it's unfair to make the comparison to someone living in Madrid, Spain and not having an Albarino on the shelf, but then I don't know the situation there, it just seems like an idea worth mulling over as I continue this blog stream.

One major factor still at work in the USA culturally and legally, as I've been apart of researching compliance in multiple states on the East Coast, is the National Prohibition Act (a.k.a. the Volstead Act, a.k.a Prohibition), which in some respects still dictates how we view and purchase wine from abroad, locally, and between states.  I feel like when one starts working in the wine industry -most likely a store or a restaurant- you're exposure is centered on Old World wines with some highlights from New World places like Australia, California, South America and South Africa. I mean, it depends on where you're from and where you find yourself working, but for the most part I think this holds true. Nowadays you'll probably get to taste something from the Finger Lakes AVA or North Fork AVA, but to really get acquainted one has to go out of their way to get a real feel for these wines, their terroir and their history. An Old World cultural bias, plain disinterest, lack of those wines on the shelf or most likely a combination of all three usually seem to dictate if someone picks up let alone appreciates these wines, or leaves them as a sort of novelty while selling you on something more "traditional" -whatever that means, right?

So to do diligence and educate myself on what seems to be a somewhat cloaked history, I've been buying books mostly centered around some aspect of the history of viticulture in the USA, whether it's broadly historical ('A History of Wine in America by Thomas Pinney), about a specific state's viticultural history and its winegrowers (A History of Connecticut Wine by Lehman and Nawrocki and 'Maryland Wine: A Full-Bodied History' by Regina McCarthy), or literally 'The Geography of Wine' by Brian Sommers which highlights some more East Coast regions, or 'Understanding Vineyard Soils' by Robert White. 

It'll take some time to read through all of them but in the course of hunting down samples of wines from the East Coast and Mid-Western AVAs, I'll begin to wrap my head around this experimental history.

Demarest Hill Winery... 2/16/13

Back in February my then girlfriend and I went away for the weekend. We stayed at a cute bed and breakfast called Peach Grove Inn - a restored 19th century Greek Revival home. We arrived fairly late in the night, probably around 9 o'clock, and walked into this uninhabited and seemingly untouched house; every room was carefully curated with pieces of furniture from the same time period, antiques that caught our attention and for me the light fixtures and fire extinguisher were amazing! We wandered into the dining room where the dining table was set to the hilt for the next morning: dishes with soft floral decorations, silverware, napkin rings, intricate place mats and other amenities that read like a fairy tale dinner. The innkeeper John lives downstairs and eventually heard us, he was understanding and accomodating, leading us to our room and in fact was up late when we were having some minor water pressure issues with the shower. We stayed in the Colonel William F. & Juliet Wheeler Room, one of only two master suites and furnished with a queen sized bed, a working fireplace and a private bathroom.


The next morning we made our way down to breakfast and found out that the inn was in fact fully booked through that weekend; the other guests were a colorful crew of couples, one in fact from around the corner in Bushwick, Brooklyn where I live! The food was great, the pies and jams were awesome and the idea to make ice cubes from coffee to keep your iced coffee chilled was a winner. Though we only stayed for the night it was comfortable, accomodating and warm. I can see doing this again at some point in the future but now onto the winery....

Local wineries have always held a specific kind of allure in my mind. I feel like wine drinkers start out from a similar position: they drink what they've grown up around whether it be wine from a specific region or a set of grapes they've come to know and expand from there guided by adventure, culinary experimentation, or to continue a personal taste aesthetic because that set of wine epitomizes the pinnacle of "wine". There are many reasons why we drink more of one type of wine over another, why we drink from one region or set of regions, or even one country over another - we're after a sense of mythical/historical continuation with our experience wrapped in that one bottle.

It's this sense of story that draws me towards smaller wineries. It started out as an idol interest while working in wine shops but was peaked when I visited relatives in North Carolina. We went to a handful of wineries, tasted obscure american-french hybrid grapes that I thought were fascinating and tasty alongside the usual staples found in almost every other region, and though I wasn't blown away I felt like I had stepped into the petridish of wine making (who knew a Sangiovese from Cellar 4201 in Yadkin Valley, North Carolina would be one of my favorites from that day). The allure of tasting varietals grown for decades, if not longer, from unexpected places is exciting and speaks to that collector in me: trying as many variations and combinations as possible because each experience is a concise compact expression of it's place, methods, and history. Plus, the idea of going off the beaten track has always been something of a habit of mine.

It's not so unusual today to find sections (or even a few bottles) of New York State wine from the Finger Lakes Region or from the North Fork of Long Island in our local wine shop, they've come a long way, are often worth the money and many times this is how we begin learning the wines closer to home.  Prior to this getaway we had already gone off to the Brotherhood Winery in Washingtonville, New York for a tasting and found success (reviews to come) and so in planning this trip for the weekend I thought it would be great to see what another nearby winery had to offer.  In doing some research I drew the list down to the few that matched up with our day and time restrictions and settled on Demarest Hill Winery in Warwick, New York. I chose this winery because it's website boasts over a dozen wines, distilled beverages, and other assorted libations. This should have perhaps been a bit of warning but it again fit our schedule and thought it would be fun.  

On this cold breezy day, flecks of snow whipping from the snow drifts, we made our way into the tasting room that sits atop a hill overlooking the vines. It was but a fifteen minute drive away and the temperature didn't change much from outside to inside, but we found ourselves in a large room with every wall covered in wine along with a central table populated by their distilled beverages and fortified wines. The bar was being run by, who I could only assume, was the winemaker: an elderly gentleman who at the time was pouring for another couple as we looked around. In the face of the sheer volume and variety of wines I felt like we had hit it big time. When it came to our tasting ($5.00 for seven samples) we started with a few whites: the Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Supreme Chardonnay, and the Chardonnay. Instantly I found something off the wine, something that wasn't overt but persistent throughout each of them and not only that, but the pours were... well... sips, literally sips of wine that were hardly samples. Next we tried a few reds: the Bacchus Noir, Red Bouchet, Zinfandel, Warwick Ruby Red, and the Warwick Red Deer Local I believe (I could be wrong as I know I bought two of the reds I hadn't had in the tasting). Except for one of them, this flight had the same flaws as the whites, something was awry and instantly I knew that whatever we were being served was far from fresh, tasted a little rancid, musty and corked but almost not enough to really be sure (saved by the small pours!). Even the sherry and ports offered the same flawed note and by the end, regardless of grape or make, we could have been served the same wine just filtered to be lighter or heavier, fortified or not...

The balsamic vinegar was by far the best I'd ever had, albeit slightly on the acidic side but zesty and flavorful. Suffice it to say I was rather disappointed in this winery that seemed to offer so much. With my remaining optimism I purchased three bottles anyway in the hopes that what we were being poured was some expired wine and not the true expression of what they offered.

Demarest Winery 1.jpg

Fastforward to mid-April. I popped open the Red Bouchet and not having even having poured a glass red berries followed - this was what I was waiting for! With the first glass the nose was tight, reminiscent of red fruit but as I kept drinking through the first hoping that the off-putting note of mustiness would subside it became obvious that aeration wasn't going to save this wine. I couldn't even get through a second glass and hoped leaving it over night, having now been exposed, would help a bit.... but no it turned fairly quickly.

And then last week I opened the Victoria Merlot and this one was even more in your face with a combination of mustiness, wet cork, raisined fruit and berry notes. In trying to taste it I felt like I was trying to swallow a berried fireball: the acid was so high and the alcohol was so promiment (both wines were only 12.5%), caused me to spit it out, try another glass with a similar reaction, and pour the rest of the bottle down the sink. In hindsight both were strangely reminiscent of watered down port that was on the cheap and kept past it's prime, and actually the last bottle I have left is the Porto Fino which I'm hoping actually tastes as it should. 

Although this first trip wasn't a success, I'd more than love to go back and give Demarest Hill Winery a second try. Perhaps going in the dead of winter wasn't the best choice, maybe they had no fresh wines open or didn't want to pop any new ones, but that wouldn't explain the blanket experiences throughout all of them or why picking random bottles from the inventory would all taste so off.