A winemaker’s quest to capture Vermont in a bottle
By Ellen Bhang
CAMBRIDGE – Vermont winemaker Deirdre Heekin calls herself a farmer. When you meet her, you understand why.
Earlier this month, Heekin, 47, breezed into the cozy bar of Oleana, apologizing for running late. Parking was impossible. “I feel like a country mouse in a big city,” she exclaims, brushing away a stray blond curl. She’s here to talk about her latest book, “An Unlikely Vineyard: The Education of a Farmer and Her Quest for Terroir,” and is eager to discuss soil health, organic agriculture, and cold hardy grapes. Now in her fifth vintage, she acknowledges that she has taken an unconventional path into wine.
When she and her husband, Caleb Barber, arrived in Vermont almost 20 years ago, they were smitten with the idea of opening a restaurant, inspired by their time living in Italy, near Umbria. The couple established the tiny Osteria Pane e Salute in Woodstock (Barber is chef, Heekin runs the dining room and wine program) and began growing their own vegetables for the menu. Back then, she admits they barely knew how to garden. They now farm 8 acres north of Woodstock and lease additional vineyard plots.
“I am constantly listening and responding to what the fruit wants to be,” she says. The land will tell a grower what it needs. Her approach might sound mystical and even risky to some, but Heekin isn’t concerned about her critics. She is focused on capturing terroir, a sense of place, which she describes as six sides of a honeycomb: geology, variety, geography, climate, social culture, and the human hand.
Her wines are stunningly delicious. If you have ever had a lackluster experience with native cold hardy grapes, put off by “foxy” aromas and flavors, Heekin’s La Garagista wines ($20 to $32) — the name a nod to France’s garagiste artisanal wine movement of the early ’80s — will change your mind. A sparkling “Coup de Foudre,” made from the brianna grape, is finely frothy and tartly textural. A “Damejeanne” red blend of marquette and la crescent is full of crushed floral and cranberry. Both are splendid with food.
“An Unlikely Vineyard” is the story of how she and Barber became farmers — initially to grow food for their restaurant — then planted their vineyard, and began bottling. As such, it’s a tale that goes beyond winemaking. “I hope people are inspired to plant something, even a pot of basil on an apartment windowsill,” she says. “It might even inspire someone to plant a vineyard,” she adds, and winks.
Deirdre Heekin will pour tastes of La Garagista wines on Dec. 15 at Central Bottle Wine & Provisions (617-225-0040, www.centralbottle.com) and Belly Wine Bar (617-494-0968, www.bellywinebar.com), both in Cambridge.
Ellen Bhang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.