Saturday, May 23, 2009

Westport Rivers Celebrates Chardonnay’s 20th year

By Linda Murphy
GateHouse News Service
Posted May 19, 2009 @ 06:09 PM

Westport — .Vineyard manager, alchemist and fortuneteller. Rob Russell has donned all those hats and more as Westport Rivers Vineyard and Winery celebrates the 20th anniversary of its first vintage, the 1989 chardonnay.

“We’ve proved that we can produce world-class wines in New England,” said Russell, general manager of Westport Rivers Vineyard and Winery.
Twenty years later the lauded chardonnay is still its most popular wine, but the vineyard’s sparkling wines may rival it for garnering the most acclaim from chefs, critics and industry experts. Russell said noted chef Madeline Kamman visited the vineyard several years ago and said the sparkling wines were better than many of the champagnes in France.

“They’re always a favorite at sparkling wine competitions,” said Russell.

Westport Rivers’ rose and white sparkling wines are produced in the traditional French champagne method, and the varieties they make take between three to 12 years. One of the greatest lessons Russell said he has learned over the years is the law of supply and demand.

“We’ve overproduced and we’ve underproduced. I need a magic ball to determine what the demand is going to be five years from now,” he said.

Westport Rivers non-sparkling wines include pinot gris, reisling, pinot blanc, pinot meunier, Rkatsiteli, a Georgian varietal that grows well in this area, and the fruity dessert wine pineau de pinot.

Russell’s parents, Bob and Carol Russell, bought the former Smith’s Long Acre Farm in 1982 with the intention of maintaining the 140-acre farm and establishing a family business on the property. Rob, the oldest son, began farming the land in 1985 and his brother Bill began making wines a few years later. Over the years Bill developed an interest in brewing beers, and he started brewing micro brews under the Buzzards Bay label in 1998. The original 140 acres has increased to more than 500 acres through subsequent land purchases.

In the past 10 years the vineyard has moved toward more environmentally friendly farming. Russell said he became more aware of the issues of sustainability after attending several conferences on organic growing practices in the late 1990s. But he said excessive humidity and rain make it virtually impossible for a vineyard east of the Mississippi River to produce organic wines.

“It’s proven to be a somewhat far-fetched for a vineyard in New England,” he said. “California has it easy; they’re growing wine in the dessert and pumping in water from the Colorado River.”
Russell said he’s implemented some of the concepts, but the two main hindrances are the pests and mildew fungi resulting from New England’s climate. The vineyard uses composted material and practices Integrated Pest Management, which minimizes the amount of chemicals used over the growing season. Hooded sprayers that direct the pesticides and fungicides directly on the plants also cut the drift of chemicals by 95 percent.

Finding that environmental balance is one of Russell’s main initiatives as he embarks on the next 20 years.

“I want to continue what we’re doing but find ways to do it better. We’re always striving to find the balance between economic viability and environmental sustainability.

The rise in eco-tourism has been a boon to the vineyard, drawing customers who attend the vineyard’s tours, wine tastings, and wine and food pairing dinners.

“All of those things help sustain this,” he said sweeping his arm over the trellised vines.

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