Vintage Granite State: Wineries flourish in New Hampshire
Lewis Eaton, owner of Sweet Baby Vineyard in Kensington, harvests grapes with his daughter, Amaya. (COURTESY)
New Hampshire winters are cold — really cold — its summers typically wet and humid. Our fields teem with all kinds of invasive flora and fauna, as well as nasty-for-plants pests. Indigenous vegetation — made of sturdy stuff — can handle all that, but grapes? Forget it.
So why are there nearly 30 wineries spanning the New Hampshire landscape, from the Connecticut Valley to the Seacoast, from the southern tier to the North Country? It is not hyperbole to describe the New Hampshire wine-making scene as enjoying a boom.
“To say that the wine industry in New Hampshire is growing — I can't even express how true a statement that is,” said Heather Houle of Flag Hill Winery and Distillery in Lee. “I started at Flag Hill in 2004, and back when I started, there were less than half a dozen wineries. So you're talking about less than a span of a decade (in which) we have almost ... what does that make it — more than quadrupled? We've seen such a boom in the industry.”
Most of the wineries are intimate affairs, offering tastings from small batches of experiments along with tried-and-trues. They sell mostly in local shops and farmers markets, but some have managed to branch out onto the rough-and-tumble shelves of chain stores such as Hannaford's, Shaws and New Hampshire Liquor Outlets. Some — including LaBelle Winery of Amherst, which did not respond to interview requests — have even managed to make a name for themselves beyond the region.
And the local products aren't limited to novelties or whim wines, many having earned their makers medals in national and international tastings. They've also created their own network of experts and professionals through the New Hampshire Winery Association.
Producing with passion
So who are these people, and what does it take to be a wine maker in New Hampshire? For most, according to Houle, wine making started as a hobby and developed into a passionate pursuit.
“You get this bug,” she said, “and it produces this thing in you that makes you want to learn more, to see more and to do more.”
That's certainly true of one of the oldest operating wineries in the state, Jewell Towne Vineyards in South Hampton.
“I think that there are a lot of very creative and motivated people who've worked in corporate America and don't like that environment,” said Peter Oldak, wine maker and owner of Jewell Towne. “They want to feel a greater sense of creativity, of ownership and being able to go back to the land and creating something with one's hands that gets public approval. To get public appreciation is very gratifying. The wine business is not a get-rich business; there's a lot of hard work.”
Back in 1977, Oldak was an emergency-room physician when he and his wife settled on a 12-acre farm in South Hampton. In 1982, as a diversion, he planted grape vines.
“It's really capital intensive,” Oldak said. “You have to buy the land, you have to buy the equipment, and even after you plant the grapes, it's four years before you get a harvest. You have to have a building where you make the wine, crushers, bottles, labels, caps — all bought before you sell your first bottle of wine. “
By 1986, Oldak was indeed producing wine, and by 1990, he was the owner of Jewell Towne Vineyard and a bona fide wine maker. His winery is now the state's oldest still in operation.
“They opened somewhere between three and four months earlier than Flag Hill,” Houle said of her winery's friendly rival. “We joke with them; we give them oldest winery, and we take largest vineyard.”
The Flag Hill journey started from a different point, but has led to a similar place. Frank Reinhold Jr. grew up on the Lee property, which back then was a 200-acre dairy farm. But after 18 years on the farm and with an urge to see the world outside of Lee, Reinhold left his family and struck out for the U.S. Navy and submarine service.
“He likes to say he was 'in a tin can under the ocean with a bunch of very nice, but stinky men for a long time,'” said Houle.
After 26 years in the Navy, Reinhold was more than ready for life on terra firma. He took over his parents' farm in the late 1980s, but it was several years before he discovered the best way to use the land.
“He wanted something that could be a viable business,” Houle said. “It wasn't spurred out of a hobby so much as it was out of a love for agriculture and farming.”
He turned to grapes.
“A lot of people would tell you he was crazy,” said Houle. “And they were very justified at that time to think that.”
Reinhold planted his first crop in 1990, and Flag Hill produced its first bottle of wine in 1995. Today, it is among the best-known wineries in a state that has seen dozens follow its lead.
The New Hampshire way
One of the factors that has made wineries in New Hampshire viable is the advance in the breeding of French hybrid grapes. These grapes are bred to be able to sustain frigid winters and humid, rainy summers, making them ideal for New Hampshire.
Another factor is that juice from non-hybrid grapes can easily be trucked in and used to make a variety of wines. This allows the winery to just be a winery and not necessarily a vineyard.
Still, “New Hampshire” and “winery” haven't exactly become synonymous.
“I think because sometimes it does seem kind of unnatural to have a winery in New Hampshire, we're trying to get the word out that we're out here,” Flag Hill's Houle said, noting that when people think of wine-producing states, they first think of California, then New York or Washington or Oregon. “And, you know, getting someone to realize, hey, you just have to turn around and we're right here in your back yard — it's still something that we're all trying to overcome.”
For some wineries, being small and having a local focus has meant openness to experimentation, particularly when it comes to fruit wines. Bob Manley, co-owner of Hermit Woods Winery in Sanbornton, cites his winery's partnership with Ken Hardcastle, who in addition to being a wine maker is also a doctoral-level geologist.
“As a scientist, he brings the science to the wine-making business and has really developed some excellent skills,” Manley said. “But Ken is also appreciative of the art of wine.”
To that end, the folks at Hermit Woods have spent the past few years experimenting with ways to make fruit wine that take away the stigma of malt-liquor-variety predecessors such as Boone's Farm and Mad Dog, creating something that is actually a sophisticated wine and not a sweet, spiked fruit punch.
“We really care about the idea that we can learn about making wine from fruit that is indigenous to this area,” Manley said. “There are dozens of fruits that grow right around us that grow naturally, (that) don't have any pests, (that) don't need to be sprayed, that grow wildly. Once we started digging in on that concept, the whole world has opened up for us.”
Another thing New Hampshire wineries have going for them is a lack of pretention, Houle said. Granite State wine makers generally like each other, like what they do, like wine and just want others to like it, too.
“I think people think to go someplace like Napa (Valley), you have to know certain things just to walk through the door,” Houle said. “And I think we're all trying to overcome that. The best thing we say here is: It doesn't matter what you know or don't know. All you have to do is taste something and decide whether you like it or not. That's it.”
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