Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Deirdre Heekin: The Siren of New England Wine

Slowly, quietly, Vermont, yes, you are reading it here, Vermont is coming to the fore as the cutting edge in cold climate viticulture and enology. Two people who are leading that cause are the Minnesota hybrid master himself, Chris Granstrom, whose program of estate wines at Lincoln Peak have been nothing less than stellar - no matter where you are from! And there is also Todd Trzaskos, writer, blogger, and winemaker who has slowly advanced the cause of cold climate and hybrid blends and has made quite a contribution in a John the Baptist kind of way for Vermont. All this against a backdrop of quality cider and now wines spreading across the state.

Enter Deirdre Heekin. She is the proprietor and wine director of Osteria Pane e Salute, an acclaimed restaurant and wine bar in Woodstock, Vermont. Heekin and her husband and head chef, Caleb Barber, are the authors of In Late Winter We Ate Pears (Chelsea Green, 2009), and she is also the author of Libation: A Bitter Alchemy (Chelsea Green, 2009) and Pane e Salute (Invisible Cities Press, 2002). Heekin and her husband live on a small farm in Vermont, where they grow the vegetables for their restaurant.

They make natural wines and ciders for their la garagista label. These wines, are what New York Cork Report Editor-in-Chief, Lenn Thompson calls, “unicorn wines” for they are rarely seen or tasted outside of their small, obscure domain.

Heekin and Barber’s elixirs have proven to be the stuff of legend. They emanate from their home base at Pane e Salute, where they have created a buzz difficult to match. The wine are very small production, but each bottle seems to produce effusive reviews and praise.
Heekin has written a book which I am late to praise. An Unlikely Vineyard. I was not granted a press copy – I had to buy mine. Happy to support!

Rather than my describing the book, I might as well use this little ditty I found on line….

"I won’t mince words about “An Unlikely Vineyard: The Education of a Farmer and Her Quest for Terroir” (Chelsea Green, $35), Deirdre Heekin’s chronicle of establishing a farm and vineyard in Vermont. I love this book, which conveys beautifully why the best wine is, at heart, an agricultural expression. While living in Italy, Ms. Heekin and her husband, Caleb Barber, fell in love with Italian food and wine culture. On returning to Vermont they established an osteria, then developed their small farm to provide vegetables, fruits, flowers and wine for the restaurant. Her husband cooks; Ms. Heekin is the sommelier and farmer. In her farming she takes a holistic approach, regarding wine as produce. She is naturally drawn to biodynamic agriculture, which views a farm as a self-sustaining unit in which the various elements all harmonize and reinforce one another. This method of farming requires meticulous powers of observation and attention to detail. It also imbues Ms. Heekin’s writing with a tactile, almost earthy quality and a well-grounded sense of wonder. The book is not solely about grape-growing. Ms. Heekin places wine in the context of a diverse farm, an alternative to the agricultural and critical view of wine as a monoculture. In the end, she writes, what’s most important is 'the shared experience around the table that is defined by the culture of food, wine, friendship, ideas and heart.' If you can find her soulful wine, produced in tiny quantities and labeled La Garagista, it resonates with every sentiment in the book.”--Eric Asimov, Chief Wine Critic, The New York Times

High praise indeed. It is a wonderful, colorful read, studded with four color photography throughout, one gets the absolute feeling of being on the farm with Diedre and Caleb, living the seasons of the farm, and experiencing the cycles of nature, from rebirth, to growth, to death, and then the circle comes full around again. Vineyards. Orchards. Winter gardens. Marvelous stuff.

You don’t need me to tell you how good it is…the praise has been off the charts….

“A writer should write what she knows; lucky for us, Deirdre Heekin knows a lot about a lot of different things. Her latest book is about a rather unlikely subject—planting a vineyard in Vermont (!)—but being an enormously skilled writer, it is a powerful lens through which she tells a much broader story, encompassing such diverse subjects as biodynamics, the history of roses, and, most importantly, her search for a sense of place. An Unlikely Vineyard is highly recommended for anyone interested in the very intimate side of growing a garden, whatever form it might take.”--Randall Grahm, founder and winemaker, Bonny Doon Vineyard, and author, Been Doon So Long: A Randall Grahm Vinthology  (BTW have I told you what a Randall Grahm freak I really am?)

"Not only does Deirdre Heekin take us on her own, personal path to this ‘unlikely vineyard,’ but she also offers us—as a vigneronne—the chance to understand something more universal: that authentic wine, with soul, can be crafted if one observes and takes care of one’s terroir and vines. By choosing a most demanding yet most rewarding way of farming—the biodynamic way in Vermont—she is an inspiration both for farmers and for every wine lover who seeks in the taste of a grape a place, a landscape, a climate, a history."--Pascaline Lepeltier, master sommelier, Rouge Tomate, New York City

“An exceptionally well written and engaging account that is beautifully illustrated throughout with full color photography. An inherently fascinating and entertaining, An Unlikely Vineyard: The Education of a Farmer and Her Quest for Terroir, is very highly recommended for personal reading lists and would prove to be an enduringly popular addition to community library collections."  Midwest Book Review

The praise goes on and on. And indeed, the book is charming.

More importantly, this book adds a whole new dimension to the cannon of East Coast viticultural letters. Books like A Gentleman’s Game by Mark Miller, The Vintage Years by Everett Crosby, The Vineyard by Louisa Hargrave, Beyond Jefferson’s Vines by Richard Leahy, and of course, the stellar Summer in a Glass by Evan Dawson are already available and worth every inch of reading today. As well as the works of Marguerite Thomas and Philip Wagner. 

What Heekin contributes is a stellar impression of the challenge cold climate viticulture faces, and the heights to which those wines can soar given the right love and attention by skilled and determined growers with excellent palates. Great wine is achievable in Vermont. Heekin and Barber have now proven that. But their testimony lies not only in the bottles of wine they produce, it can now be synthesized in a reading. Heekin brings a national audience to a ittle known region and shine a loving and bright light on the things going on in Vermont and by extension New England. She raises awareness. She is the siren of New England wine, luring, attracting foodies to the state's Green Mountains.

The other important thing to note is this – while New York is the California of the east, Virginia and Pennsylvania and Maryland and New Jersey have all made great strides in viticultural and winemaking over the last decade. Now finally, with the introduction of cold climate grapes and better winemaking knowledge, Vermont is beginning to emerge as an oasis of winemaking and craft beverages in New England. It is a significant and momentous moment.

Of course there is no replacing firsthand experience. A trip to Pane e Salute is absolutely a culinary must! And trying one of their bottles must absolutely be a part of that experience. Anyone who has been has absolutely raved!!!

An important must read book!