Stacks of sandy-colored wooden barrels stood in a corner in a back room at Lincoln Peak Vineyard in New Haven, several sporting deep purple stains, suggestions of the wine that sat aging inside.
Until about eight years ago, said vineyard co-owner Chris Granstrom, this room held the checkout counter for the strawberries that grew on the 12 acres of farmland. Now, on the same land, wide, orderly rows of grape vines stretch back to the treeline.
Barrels of 2009 Marquette, Lincoln Peak's most popular wine, age in the back room.
These days Lincoln Peak’s product is enjoyed by the 21 and over crowd, and the tasting room accordingly sports a burnished wood finish, warm lighting and a newly expanded deck with tables and chairs looking out over the pond. It’s a far cry from the strawberry farm, but after 22 years in the strawberry business, Granstrom said he and his family hasn’t looked back. He, his wife Michaela and their two daughters, Sara and Maren, still have a small strawberry patch for themselves, but strawberries are a high-intensity crop and can get tiring. Though grapes aren’t easy, they provided a welcome change.
But the transition to a vineyard wasn’t immediate — the Granstroms spent a few years scaling back their strawberry fields as they were taking the first steps toward creating a vineyard in the harsh Vermont weather. The grapevine operation’s first incarnation was as a grapevine nursery.
“We heard about these new grape varieties that had been developed, mostly at the University of Minnesota,” said Granstrom. “It looked like a great opportunity to start growing vines for what by all accounts appeared to be sort of a promising, up and coming field.”
These days, grapevines occupy the space where strawberries once grew.
For six years, the vineyard sold plants to those hoping to start their own vineyards, distributing between 25,000 and 50,000 plants per year in the Northeast and Midwest. All this was happening while the grapevines were flourishing, approaching the age where they could grow larger quantities of grapes.
And then came the winemaking. At first, the family tried out wine on a small scale, just for themselves.
“I enjoyed wine, but I wasn't an avid collector or connoisseur or anything like that,” said Granstrom. “I'm probably in the minority of people, but I kind of came to it more from the growing end than from the winemaking and drinking end. I don't think there's another Vermont grape grower that was doing any kind of farming before. So that was good.”
But all of the home experimentation led to more questions, and those questions led to books, websites, and a winemaking seminar in Virginia. And, of course, a whole lot of trial and error.
But Granstrom said that the process isn’t as hard as one might think.
“It’s not that complicated, the basic way you make wine,” he said. “Making really bad wine is just a matter of being careless.”
So in 2006 they made their first bulk batches of wine, purchasing equipment with the money they’d made with the nursery. Then, in 2008 — almost exactly two years ago — they began selling the wine.
In the past two years, said Granstrom, they’ve encountered their fair share of skepticism.
“People are surprised that we’re growing grapes at all here,” he said. “They don’t think the wine can be good. We still get that.”
After a first year’s production of more than 900 cases, Lincoln Peak has increased production to around 2,000 cases each year. With a small staff — the family, plus two other employees and people to pick the grapes during the fall harvest — they have managed to rake in accolades, as well as a great deal of surprise from those who equate vineyards more with the warm weather of California and southern Europe.
Granstrom picks up a pallet of boxes being sent to his Rutland-based distributor. From there, they go to stores across Vermont.
And the Granstroms are finding themselves a step ahead in one area. Ice wine is made from late season grapes, harvested after they have already frozen — it yields a highly concentrated juice, which turns into a heavy dessert wine. The high acid content of the grapes in this region serves as a counterpoint to the sweetness.
Nightfires and Silk, Lincoln Peak’s two ice wines, are also the vineyard’s most expensive, since the frozen grapes yield a much smaller amount of juice. And then there is the extended season for fending off pests — deer and birds find the grapes tempting targets late in the season, even when the vines are surrounded by nets.
“It's a delicious product, but it's a nuisance to make,” said Granstrom.
Life on a winery isn’t easy, per se, but Granstrom said he wouldn’t trade it for anything — he knew from a young age that he wasn’t suited for an office job. And he’s happy to see so many young, energetic people starting farms — as a young Middlebury College graduate, he was one of very few to choose the fields over a cubicle.
“I think it's neat to see this young generation coming along, and getting really interested in all this,” he said, gesturing at the fields. “My impression, if you can generalize, is that they're really smart and have a really clear idea of what’s involved. They understand that you've got to make good decisions, you've got to have some investment, you've got to have good business practices. and all that. It’s good to see.”
The renovated porch and tasting room at Lincoln Peak.