Wine grapes are ripening in Ripton and Goshen
RIPTON — When you think of Ripton, the mind meanders to rustic country roads, kind neighbors, wonderful views, Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf campus, and the moody Middlebury River.
In about two months, Brian Ford and his dad Bill will organize grape harvests on two vineyards that encompass around 1.5 acres. One is off Lincoln Road in Ripton, the other is off Hathaway Road in Goshen. Together they make up “High Rows Vineyards,” which recent began commercial production of white and red table wines.
The company is aptly named.
The rows of grape vines growing in Ripton — acquired from Lincoln Peak Vineyard’s Chris Granstrom and planted back in 2008 — are perched on roughly three-quarters of an acre located 1,100 feet above sea level. The gravelly soil supports red varieties Marquette and St. Croix, and white varieties La Crescent, St. Pepin, Brianna, Osceola Muscat and Prairie Star.
The Goshen vineyard is even loftier, sitting at 1,500 feet above sea level. It was carved out of a long-dormant dairy farm that Brian bought a dozen years ago. It was planted in 2012. The well-drained sandy loam has proved a good match for grape vines, but Brian concedes the elevation makes the grapes vulnerable to late-spring and early-fall freezes. So he and his dad are careful stewards of their crop. They diligently prune the vines to maximize the grapes’ exposure to the sun, vital to the ripening of the fruit.
“You lose a couple of weeks on each end of the growing season relative to being in the Champlain Valley,” Brian said.
The vines will accommodate frost down to about 29 degrees, Bill said, but if temperatures go any lower than that, it can kill the leaves. Then the plant has no way to continue ripening the grapes.
“And if the grapes don’t ripen, you’re pretty much at a loss,” Bill said. “We should be at around 600 feet, rather than 1,100.”
But it wouldn’t be as fun without a challenge, right? And the Fords have risen to the winemaking challenge thus far.
“We watched a lot of webinars, watched a lot of online videos and read a lot of books,” Bill said. “I think we lost a couple years through missteps and deer and birds,” Bill said.
“Neither of us is from a farming background,” his son added with a smile. “Every year, we overcome one problem and find a new one.”
The Fords feel blessed to have benefitted from the agricultural expertise Granstrom and University of Vermont Extension System advisors.
In addition to carefully monitoring the outdoor temperature, the Fords need to pamper the often temperamental soil in which their vines have taken root.
“The soil here and in Goshen is fairly acidic, more so than grapes prefer; they like a neutral PH,” Brian said.
So the duo makes sure to return nutrients to the soil, in the form of fertilizer. Lyme is also judiciously applied.
But the biggest aid comes from above.
“(Grapes) won’t tolerate anything except full sun, because they’re so susceptible to fungal disease,” Brian said. “A dry-ish, sunny, windy spot is ideal — at least in our climate.”
It was actually strawberries — as opposed to grapes — that got Brian interested in wine making 15 years ago.
“It was ‘OK,’” he chuckled when thinking of his first viticulture experience.
But it inspired him to continue crushing and fermenting in hopes of coming up with a winner. He set up his rudimentary equipment in rented spaces throughout the county to produce five-gallon batches of his berry wines.
“I (finally) decided it was time to plant a bunch of grapes and start making ‘real’ wine,” he said.
His search for a vineyard location led him to his parents’ front door in Ripton. They had land for growing and space for winemaking equipment.
“Brian came along and said, ‘I’d like to grow some grapes,’” Bill said. “I said, ‘I have some land, but it’s covered with trees.’ So we cleared the trees, had the stumps pulled, plowed it, and harrowed it.”
The first year they made wine from their own grapes was 2011; that was a low-yield year. High Rows has tried to ramp up volume and quality during each successive season. The fledgling company produced 68 cases of wine (with 12 bottles to a case) from a 2018 crop of approximately 6,000 grapes. The Fords are on target to more than double that yield this year, according to Bill.
“As the newer vines are coming up to full production … we’re able to produce more,” Brian said simply. “The wine has improved over the years. It’s hard work, but it’s good.”
Fortunately, the Fords have a group of friends who each summer volunteer several hours tending to the vines. When the clusters of grapes are developing, you have to comb the vine chutes. You have to remove some of the chutes early, in order to not overburden the vines with too many grapes. And after the combing, you have to drop some of the clusters on the ground.
“The (vines) will produce more fruit than can ripen,” Brian explained. “By reducing the amount of fruit … you accelerate the ripening process and hopefully end up with a smaller amount of good fruit, as opposed to a large amount of unusable fruit — which would make undrinkable wine.”
Following the harvest, the red wine grapes are de-stemmed and placed into stainless steel tubs to begin the initial fermentation. After sitting for a week, the grapes (with skins, seeds and pulp) are pressed, and the fermentation continues.
“As it ferments, the tannins and color compounds are extracted from the skins — which is what makes it red wine,” Brian explained.
For the white wines, grapes are crushed and de-stemmed almost immediately, and only the grape juice is fermented, according to Brian.
Once it has fermented, the wine is aged, in bulk, in stainless steel tanks. Then it’s bottled and rests at least six weeks prior to being sold.
“It should spend a couple of months in a bottle, ideally, to make sure it has stabilized,” Brian said. “It’s a finished wine, at that point.”
High Rows’ Goshen White and Mountain Red are “field blends,” meaning they’re made with a mixture of the many grape varieties from the vineyards.
Brian described the red as a “light- to medium-bodied table wine that has a little oakiness to it.” It costs $16.99 per bottle.
The white, according to Brian, “is ‘off-dry’ — meaning it has a little bit of sweetness to it. The sweetness enhances the mouth-feel and balanced out some of the acidity.” The price: 15.99 per bottle.
Both wines are around 12% alcohol.
You can buy High Rows Vineyards wines at the Ripton Country Store, Buxton’s Store in Orwell, the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op, and by the glass at Sandy’s Books & Bakery in Rochester. It can also be purchased, by appointment, at the High Rows Vineyards headquarters in Ripton.
While High Rows is only permitted to sell in Vermont right now, the Fords hope to eventually extend their reach of their products well beyond the Green Mountain State.
Right now, the Fords are breaking even on their venture. The latest numbers show they should be turning a profit within the next year or two.
“There are sales we’re not getting this year that I am confident we’ll get next year,” Bill said, alluding to potential consumers at Middlebury College’s Bread Load campus in Ripton and other venues that will reopen once statewide COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.