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.

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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but the reasons seem more closely tied to the aftereffects of Prohibition, the laws instituted in its wake after being repealed, and an inherently developed cultural bias towards Old World red wines in particular.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?

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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...