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Shelburne Vineyard Tour for Restaurant Staff - Sept 24, 2018

September 30, 2018

Shelburne Vineyard Tour with Hotel Vermont and Juniper Bar and Restaurant Staff

Monday, Sept 24th, 2018

For restaurants and bars that focus on local food and beverages, getting their staff out to experience such places is a no-brainer and is quite common.  Staff end up being much more knowledgeable about the products, and restaurants end up selling more as a result. Wineries are happy to host and accommodate large groups; they just appreciate planning the visit in advance.

Why is it important for restaurant and bar staff to take field trips, to tour and visit Vermont’s producers?

Vermont is a tight-knit community with a great food scene; people come to experience it.  We [restaurants and bars] are the liaison, we convey the Vermont culture and inner workings of our farms, wineries, distilleries, cideries, and breweries. - Matthew Farkas, Hotel VT bar manager

It’s important for them [our staff] to feel a connection to what they are selling and to see the faces of the people behind the product. That comes through when they are talking about wine. And in this case, new styles of wine. So it’s definitely a unique opportunity. - Matthew Canning, Hotel Vermont’s beer concierge

The owners of Shelburne Vineyard, Ken and Gail Albert, winemaker, Ethan Joseph, and tasting room manager, Tory Walters welcomed a group of us for two and a half hours on a Monday.  Ethan was down the road harvesting Petite Pearl with his crew, destined for wines like their Capsize Rosé and Harvest Widow’s Revenge. The day was beautiful, the conversation was rich, and the wines were delightful.  We started outside for background on how the winery came to be and basic grape growing.

IMG 4281 2   grapes

How do you choose what grapes to grow and what wines to make?

Ken explained that unlike other grape growing regions of the world, destinations unto themselves, visitors come to Vermont for various reasons. If some visitors happen to stop at the winery, they likely won’t want to taste everything to educate themselves about Vermont wine.  Shelburne Vineyard offers a range of products to appeal to everyone. Everyone’s palate is different - “too sweet, too dry, just right.” More below about the tasting room philosophy!

As for the grapes, Ken explained the innovation of hybrids developed by the University of Minnesota: native North American grape varieties crossed with European vinifera (wine grapes) to produce cold-hardy (as in, will survive at -20 to -30 winter temperatures) grapes.   In 1998, after he and his partners discovered hybrids, they planted a strain that turned out to be marginally hardy in VT.  In 2003, however, they planted the first of the really cold-hardy vines (bred in MN). They were so impressed with their potential that Ken and his partners planned for a more extensive operation, investing in land and a winery.  This year will be their 21st anniversary growing grapes in VT.

If you don’t have passion for it, don’t do it! advises Ken.

Can you speak to adding other wines, like the orange and natural wines?

The natural wine movement began in France, with less intervention and no additives  in the winemaking process, and came to the states in the 90s. More recently, it’s become popular in the Northeast for consumers interested in a minimally manipulated wine. One defining feature of natural wine is the use of wild yeast (what exists naturally on the grape) instead of inoculating with yeast - an approach that can appeal to “terroir” purists who want the wine to taste only of the land around it. One trade off is the process becomes more variable and less consistent, although consistency has improved greatly with other controls (temperature, for example) in the wine room. For consumers who seek out new flavors and experiences, this slightly unpredictable style, with the capacity to produce delicious results that taste unlike anything else, can be highly appealing.

Currently, about 20% of the grapes are grown for Ethan’s new place-driven, or geocratic wines, called Iapetus (pronounced “YAPetus”), after the ancient ocean that once covered the Champlain Valley.  Both still and effervescent wines are made under the Iapetus label. They are “living” wines.  The sparkling ones end up being naturally carbonated, as they’re usually bottled before the end of the first fermentation, unlike Celestial Louise, another of their products made under the Shelburne Vineyard brand that is artificially carbonated and results in a bubbly brut style.  Ethan also produces an orange wine under the Iapetus label, which is indeed orange in color (Ken joked it’s beige, you be the judge).  There is no such thing as “orange” grapes, rather the color comes from making a white wine as you would a red - fermenting with the skins, instead of removing them after the grapes are pressed.

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We then moved to the crush pad and the winery itself, where the air locks were happily bubbling away.  The Marquette had recently been harvested. The air smelled of newly fermenting wines. Tory gave a full walk-through of the process, stainless steel tanks, oak barrels, punch-down to racking, before we moved to the tasting room.

How do you present your wines in the tasting room?

These grape varieties are often new and unfamiliar to most visitors.  Tory explained that tasting room staff ask visitors for some examples of wines they’ve liked, which lets staff know where to start, what to offer them.  She lets the wines speak for themselves and does not say “this is like such-and-such European variety” because it’s not! They don’t give out tasting notes and want people to have a positive experience, not think they are wrong if they don’t pick up apricot flavors, for example.  Whatever you taste is right; our taste buds are like fingerprints.  Tory led us in a side-by-side comparison of three Shelburne Vineyard branded single varietals and their Iapetus counterparts.  We tasted Louise Swenson (named for the grape breeder’s wife), La Crescent, and Marquette - all developed in MN.  The differences between the “traditional” method wines and the “natural” Iapetus wines were obvious and fun to experience (try for yourself!).  Both were delicious.

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The visit ended with a stop at the harvest site to chat with Ethan.  Folks were able to taste the grapes still on the vine and wondered why grocery stores don’t carry such flavorful grapes!  (Sometimes they do - and you can occasionally catch a Vermont winery’s grapes gracing a cheese plate - but table grapes are another topic all together.)  Ethan explained that prior to harvesting, he checks the Brix count (sugar content) to make sure the grapes are ready to be picked. Questions for him from the crowd ranged from, what is the difference between hybrid breeding and GMOs (a good question, because they are NOT the same thing; these hybrids are not GMOs, but were developed by selecting for disease resistant and cold hardy traits achieved by making crosses), and what do the next 10 years hold?  It’s hard to tell, but much depends on the year-to-year weather and long-term climate; there are certainly many challenges to growing grapes.

 Ethan in vineyard   IMG 4304

Ethan spoke about Itasca, the newest variety to come from the University of Minnesota in 2016.  Unlike some of the other cold-hardy hybrids, it is a relatively low-acid white grape. They will have their first harvest this year and aren’t entirely sure what to expect, but researchers say it should make a dry white wine.  Trying new things is clearly something Shelburne Vineyard embraces.

The group left with an appreciation for the complex process of grape growing and winemaking in Vermont, a better understanding of hybrid grapes, and an insider’s look (and taste) of the newest trends shaping Vermont’s wine industry.

If you think you or a staff group would benefit from a closer look at Vermont winemaking, there are several options:

  • Contact VFN to help arrange a visit. We have funding for another year to connect Vermont winemakers and Vermont restaurants.

  • Talk to a winery that interests you. VFN member wineries are, by definition, interested in connecting more with restaurants, so give them a call!

  • Use to find wine events and tasting rooms - check out profiles of winemakers open to the public and visit the calendar to find winery events.

  • Get on the list to be informed of special events arranged by VFN for restaurants and winemakers - these happen at different points in the year and we’re always happy to invite more participants. The next one is Oct 23rd at the Mad River Taste Place with a focus on ice cider, mead and (non-grape) fruit wines paired with local food.


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