Letter from Westport, Massachusetts Letter from Westport, Massachusetts

June 1, 2000

As you drive along the roads among the winding, rolling hills of Westport, Massachusetts, you pass farm stands, dairy farms, cornfields, glimpses of Buzzards Bay, 1950s-era gas stations, and vineyards. Vineyards? Unexpected as it may seem, 80 acres of a one-time Westport dairy farm are planted to wine grapes. Westport Rivers Winery, along with Sakonnet, another winery just over the meandering state border in Rhode Island, is attempting to turn "fine wines of New England” from an oxymoron into a sustainable business.

Since Colonial days, New Englanders have made alcohol from fruits and even honey, but only recently from classic European wine grapes. The past few decades have seen wineries sprouting throughout the region. Roughly 270 acres of Massachusetts are devoted to grapevines.

Pioneers like Bob and Carol Russell, the proprietors of Westport Rivers, moved into a tradition-laden industry in an unconventional location."We are risk takers. All winemakers are. You put all this effort into something, and you don't get any feedback for at least two years,” says Bob Russell.

When the Russells started thinking of winemaking as a second career in the late 1970s, they considered the Pacific Northwest and New Zealand. But they felt that New England was their home - they'd gone to school in Boston and lived in southeastern Massachusetts since their graduation in the early '60s. A couple of wineries had started in the region, but hadn't been in operation for very long. Bob discovered that the climate between the Cape Cod Canal and Newport, Rhode Island, was the most temperate and sunniest of any place in New England, approximating that of the cooler wine regions of France. The nearby Atlantic buffers the area from temperature extremes, even though the occasional fog can hinder the ripening of the grapes. The soil, sandy deposits from ancient glaciers, is very similar to that of France.

Then there is the Westport area itself. Westport has a long history as a farming and fishing community. The Russells were looking for an area where neighbors were familiar with the sights and sounds and smells of farming. "We didn't want to be the only farm in town,” says Carol. "We wanted to be able to get the tractor repaired, to be part of the fabric of the place, rather than to be the last vestige, the historic farm that everyone rallies to save.”

Since they purchased the 110-acre property in 1982, they have been facing the particular challenges of winemaking in Westport. The combinations of temperature, soil, wind, rain, and shade vary throughout the vineyard much more dramatically than in California. The Russells have planted special varieties of grapes that can withstand the area's cooler, wetter springs and shorter growing season. They have also adopted technologies and methods to reduce costs and improve production - a new way of training the vines to maximize their exposure to sunlight, a special sprayer that allows very targeted application of fungicide.

Sparkling wines make up half of Westport Rivers' production. In part, this is dictated by climate; grapes for sparkling wine are picked earlier in the season, before they are fully mature, and therefore are less prey to frost. For three to ten years, the wines rest on their sides in unlabelled bottles, aging in the old barn's cool silence. Among the still wines, the silver label Chardonnay is aged in French oak barrels and stainless steel tanks, giving it a clean, acidic finish. The gold label is aged only in new oak casks for a different character.

Westport Rivers is now producing 7,500 cases per year. That is far less than its neighbor Sakonnet, but enough to make the Russells feel that they have achieved "critical mass.” Their wines have won awards every year since the initial 1989 release. New England wines are different - its whites are particularly bright and lean - and it will take time for the public's tastes to adapt. California's big buttery Chardonnay also had to fight to become the standard. Still, their biggest challenge remains the reaction to the phrase "fine wines of New England,” which is reminiscent of that elicited by Steve Martin's Muppet Movie waiter when he declaims, "One of the fine wines of Idaho - would you care to sniff the cap?”

Experts are split in their opinions of the region's future in wine. Some feel the area is where the Pacific Northwest was 20 years ago and that time, marketing, and consistent quality will make New England's wines equally well known. Others believe that the costs of production are high enough that the wines will remain a regional phenomenon. Westport Rivers is poised to make its first profit this year. Whether its wine becomes a player on the national stage will be, like a great vintage, a matter of time.

Ann Leamon loves exploring New England and its wines.

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