Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Burlington Free Press: Vermont vineyards turn to Minnesota grape hybrids

Dan McLean – Burlington (Vt.) Free Press staff writer
Business – June 16, 2009 - 3:00am

GRAND ISLE, Vt. — A fierce hailstorm wiped out Bob and Linda Livingstone’s grape vines two years ago, forcing a time-consuming rebirth of East Shore Vineyard.

In addition to equipping their vineyard with netting to guard the vines, the couple plan to expand — much like the Vermont wine industry itself.

Hailstorms are just one of the challenges that face Vermont’s increasing number of vineyards. Frigid winter temperatures and a skepticism of whether decent grapes can grow in the state are other hurdles. Both are beginning to be overcome. Persistent farming and cold-hardy grape varieties developed by the University of Minnesota are making wine production in Vermont feasible.

Last year, grapes made up about 15 percent of the roughly 108,000 gallons of wine produced in Vermont, said Steven Justis, a senior agricultural development specialist at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. That’s up from no more than 2 percent a decade ago. Most of Vermont wines come from apples, but also from blueberry and rhubarb.

“We think the grape industry is going to increase very quickly over the next 10 or 20 years,” Justis said of Vermont’s growing number of vineyards, pointing to the boost from the Minnesota grape varieties .

The Livingstones started selling grapes wholesale in 2002. Five years later, they decided to make their own wine. Then came the high winds and nickel-sized hail. The storm wiped them out.

“We went from selling grapes to buying grapes within a 20-minute period,” Bob Livingstone said.

This year will mark the first time the majority of East Shore’s wines will come from grapes harvested from the Grand Isle vineyard.

The Livingstones’ property is a few miles northeast of Snow Farm Vineyard and Winery in South Hero, which has been growing grapes longer than any Vermont vineyard. (Fruit wines have been made since 1985 in Jacksonville in Windham County, the first licensed vineyard in the state since Prohibition).

“I think people are past the skepticism,” Harrison Lebowitz, CEO of Snow Farm, said of the perception of winemaking in Vermont. Lebowitz said he planted the vineyard in 1996 to help find a way for Vermont farmers to keep their land in agricultural use. He found his 14-acre plot had a “micro-climate” that was similar to Burgundy, France, a rarity for Vermont.

Lebowitz grows French hybrids, European grape varieties, and some of the cold-hardy University of Minnesota strains. He uses the Minnesota varieties for blending, however, saying “more research needs to be done” before will he will use them more broadly. Lebowitz makes 15 to 16 kinds of wines with eight varieties of grapes, he said in early June, taking a break from bottling Rieslings.

While his vineyard was growing during the first few years, he purchased all of his grapes from the Finger Lakes region in New York, a common practice for Vermont wineries. Now, 95 percent of the grapes used — enough for about 33,000 bottles — come from his Vermont farm.

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