BARNARD, Vt. — It is the strangest of sights. Arriving at the newly erected Fable Farm Fermentory here in Barnard, a strapping young man approaches our small group and we exchange the usual pleasantries. He’s dressed in lumberjack chic with a classic newsboy cap and long trousers rolled up a notch or two. We are standing on the driveway that’s covered with fresh, sharp-edged stones hot from the sun. The man with the cool hat has no shoes on. HE IS BAREFOOT, and his feet look like he they have not had the benefit of shoes for a very long time. And I’m not even kidding.
Note: This long-form story was first published in Quench wine magazine, though parts were gleaned from an earlier, more personal, blog report immediately posted after a trip to Vermont with other bloggers attending TasteCamp, an annual independent writers journey exploring lesser known wine regions. Travel, lodging and most meals were paid by the bloggers with some help coming from sponsors of the four-day visit to Vermont.
It is only later, when we are introduced to the Fable Farm cider makers, that we realize the man with the exposed tootsies is Jonny Piana, who along with his brother Christopher, envisioned and built the fermentory, a farm-based cider winery producing aged “cider as wine” and vinegars, among other herbal elixirs. The fermentory is part of a larger family of organizations working in unison to steward farmland, develop rural businesses, and promote community experiences in Vermont.
Turns out going shoeless runs in the family, as both brothers hold court in the cool confines of the cider cellar. They are telling us about their vision for Vermont cider, the future of all things delicious in one of the union’s most beautiful states and how it’s all tied into a sort of spiritual nirvana.
Their mission statement:
“As farmers, we cultivate landscape as it is our body; as Earth is Gaia, our farm too becomes a single organism made up of fractaled life forms and repeating geometry.”
I honestly don’t know what the hell that means. But I digress. The reality is, the Piana brothers are making some of the most fascinating and interesting ciders you will ever taste. They are exploring the outer boundaries of creativity by taking the wine process and melding it to the anything-goes-craft-beer-and-natural-wine philosophies to offer exciting, pure, refreshing ciders of immense character.
They get their apples (while their own estate orchards continue to take root) from wild, abandoned and cultivated trees found throughout their farm and neighbouring fields, forests, backyards and orchards. Yes, they forage for apples, what they call “gleaning,” and climb trees in their bare feet and shake those suckers to the ground to begin the journey of making ciders in a range of zany styles that are closer in style to wine than cider.
Everything is wild fermented and made without any additives. After fermenting the ciders dry they are sent to the cave “to cure and mature through a species succession of micro-organisms in both barrel and bottle.”
According to the brothers: “Ciders that are alive mature into an extremely diverse continuum of flavours and will evolve from year to year. Our supply of cider is limited by the purity and phenomenon of the farm and seasons.”
To these guys, cider is a spiritual and other worldly experience, and their method of making them, as pure and natural as possible, results in a range of intriguing elixirs.
Fable Farm Rosary 2013 Cider: A black currant and apple pétillant naturel cider with a burnt-orange hue and subtle sparkle. Notes of mature baked bin apple, spice, wild honey, currants, citrus and anise.
These young bearded siblings — part mountain men, part surfer dudes, but all business — are the epitome of the craft-focused, small-batch, unique drinks and culinary scene emerging in the second smallest state (population 620,000) in the U.S.
They walk the walk (damn the shoes!) and talk the talk of a cider/beer/distillates/wine industry that has it all working in mellifluous harmony. They are stronger with all the elements entwined and focused on the real prize — offering a diverse and complete “Vermont” experience for consumers. It’s a symbiotic relationship; an understanding that shared ideas and methods of creating their products — like what works and what doesn’t — lifts the entire community. They feed off one another.
Vermont, trying to venture beyond a limiting reputation for its legendary maple syrup and the vast green canopy of forest that covers 75% of the state, is a fast emerging destination that is quenching a lot of thirsts and filling up a lot of bellies with culinary and liquid goodness in an honest and genuine way.
Our small collection of bloggers from across the U.S. and Canada based ourselves in Waterbury, a quaint town that punches well outside its weight class in terms of cool places to eat and drink. From there, nothing is particularly close to anything else in terms of quick and easy traditional wine trails that you see in other wine regions. But that is part of the charm of Vermont; lovely picturesque drives surrounded by green-covered mountains, rivers, lakes and gorgeous little towns that are irresistible.
The Vermont wine industry is relatively new when compared to the rest of the vinous world. Trying to grow grapes in temperatures that can plummet to -40 C in the dead of winter renders most vinifera (noble grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir) useless — they wouldn’t survive a season.
A small group of wineries has emerged to champion what they now know they can grow — hardy Minnesota-developed hybrids such as La Crescent, Marquette, Frontenac Gris, Frontenac Blanc, Frontenac, Brianna and St. Croix with a sprinkling of Riesling in the warmest pockets of the state.
At La Garagista Farm and Winery, in the breathtaking Piedmont chain of hills in Barnard, the backdrop is a scene of serenity as alpine meadow flowers sway in the warm breezes of spring. Here, the approach is to grow only alpine grapes guided by organic, permaculture, and biodynamic thought.
At the home farm, while observing the native terroir, La Garagista not only grows grapes, but also vegetables, fruits, flowers, and herbs for their restaurant kitchen.
Winemaker Deirdre Heekin says they have attempted to grow vinifera such as Riesling on the farm but it failed to ripen. So, they have embraced hybrids to great success.
“We don’t need to make Riesling (and other noble grape varieties). We have enough interesting prime material to make really interesting wines that have so much potential and show so much of what our terroir is here.”
The extraordinary La Garagista Ci Confonde Petillant Naturel White 2014, made from the Brianna grape, was a highlight for me from the wines tasted during our visit, so fresh and vibrant, with floral notes, papaya, minerality and citrus.
At Shelburne Vineyard, a pioneer in Vermont winemaking and a snapshot of what can be achieved with grit and determination in a hostile wine-growing environment that shuns traditional vinifera grape varieties, the owners/partners have set lofty goals.
“We will probably make some of the best wines in the New World,” Quebec lawyer and one of the new partners at Shelburne, Sam Coppola, proudly tells us as we taste upcoming vintages of the Great Red Hope in Vermont — Marquette.
The winter hearty hybrid, a descendant of Pinot Noir, has no trouble dealing with the kind of winters Vermont experiences. At Shelburne and other local wineries, it is the superstar among red wines — rich, complex, bold and age worthy.
Bravado and proclamations aside, it can lead the way the way for red wines, but judging from the wines we tasted both in bottle and in barrel, it is best when oak is used judiciously to better show the currants and blueberries and less of the savoury, meaty notes that oak can amplify.
Shelburne founder/owner Ken Albert had a vision 35 years ago that it could be possible to make commercial wine in Vermont. He planted (and replanted) vines on land he leased from Shelburne farms and experimented with different grapes. The star grape that would emerge from his research ended up being Marquette, which was released as the first commercial wine at Shelburne in 2000.
From the success of that first wine, Albert made the decision to purchase the land that is now their flagship site. Their LEED-designed winery opened in Feb 2008 surrounded by Marquette vines. The operation includes 17 acres of grapes, mostly the super-hardy Minnesota hybrids, with a small planting of Riesling and Vidal.
“I had a crazy notion to plant grapes in Vermont,” he says. “I developed a passion for it. If they can do it in Quebec, we can do it here.”
For such a young wine industry, Vermont’s “identity” is already established, a major hurdle already out of the way. At the few wineries we visited, there was a sense that grapes such as Marquette, La Crescent, Frontenac Gris, Louise Swenson, Frontenac Blanc, and Frontenac, all grown in a responsible, sustainable way, are going to drive the industry.
That’s not to say there won’t continue to be experimentation, even with vinifera. I tried the Riesling with Albert in the tasting room. The 2014 vintage was a tad on the sweet side, but the 2015, made much drier, was spectacular, all citrus and river-rock minerality with notes of pear and apple. It was, for me, a style somewhere between Finger Lakes and Niagara. The challenge is finding the right place to plant it so the brutal winter doesn’t murder it every year.
A quick bus ride takes us to Lincoln Peak Vineyard in Middlebury. The story of owner Chris Granstrom and his family’s journey from apple tree farmer to strawberry farmers to full-fledged grape winery is inspiring. For Granstrom, grape growing all started in 2001 with a shoebox full of grapevine cuttings from a fellow in Minnesota strictly for experimental reasons (wink-wink).
“I had heard about these new, winter-hardy grape varieties and I sent him an email. I stuck the cuttings in the ground; they grew. Within a few years, grapes took over our strawberry fields, and now we find ourselves one of the largest grape producers in the state of Vermont,” he says.
The first batch of commercial wine was made only in 2006 while production has now grown to 25,000 bottles of wine a year.
“Some folks may have thought we were crazy to start an enterprise like this, but with some good land, careful farming techniques … it’s all working out. We like to think that we’re helping to turn a new page in Vermont’s long and varied agricultural history.”
The wines we tasted were delicious. His Marquette was a winner, a lovely, personable red that wasn’t overdone with oak. His blended and varietal whites all had freshening acidity and a range of fruit flavours that were appealing and well made.
“We’re still learning here,” Granstrom says. “We’ve only taken baby steps. We have a long way to go.”
Marching side by side with the cider and wine industry is the equally tasty craft spirits and beer side of all this awesomeness in Vermont.
Innovation abounds from boutique distillers such as WhistlePig, Smugglers Notch Distillery, Appalachian Gap Distillery and Stonecutter Spirits.
The Bar Hill Reserve Tom Cat Gin from Caledonia Spirits is one of the most unique spirits you will ever taste; it screams Vermont.
Barrel aged in new, charred Vermont White Oak, the Tom Cat is a completely unique gin. It has a whiskey-style profile with lovely notes of juniper, sweet wild honey and a floral accent that emerges on the smooth finish.
The craft beers, from the breweries we tried — Hermit Thrush Brewery and Brattle Beer, Upper Pass Brewery and Foley Brothers Brewing — all had a distinct hopped up flavour from a flourishing home-grown hop industry. Fresh, vibrant, flavourful beers that were a nice complement for the range of tipples and locally-grown feasts we enjoyed over three days in Vermont.
Our finishing note in Vermont was the Ploughgate Creamery at Bragg Farm in Fayston and the impact on us all was immediate. Stunning vistas of glorious green mountains, some carved gently with wicked ski trails, was our backdrop. Tables were set up outside in the middle of a giant field, dairy cows grazing happily in an adjoining field. A spectacular barn, the creamery, was in the background and glowed from ambient light once the sun had set.
Ploughgate Creamery’s cultured butter is made from fresh Vermont cream sourced from the St. Albans Coop. The cream is cultured for 48 hours before being churned, giving the butter a distinct tangy, nutty, and slightly cheesy flavor.
Butter, exquisite cheese from Cabot Cheese Cooperative and Jasper Hill Farm and a feast of BBQ pulled pork and beef tacos was supplemented by a dizzying array of wine and spirits — some from Vermont, others that were brought here for this occasion to share with old friends on a glorious last night in Vermont.
Bravo, Vermont, bravo.
The Fab Five From Vermont
Fable Farm Old Earth 2013 Cider — A pétillant naturel cider from foraged (wild) apples that is barrel fermented, barrel aged with nothing added. It’s super cloudy with bruised apple and brown sugar notes that’s rich, toasty and elegant on the palate.
WhistlePig 12 Year Old World Whiskey — Sensational whiskey that’s finished in a combination of Madeira, Sauternes and Port oak casks. Smooth as silk with notes vanilla/caramel, dried apricots, dates and honey with a long, long finish. Worth the $117 US.
Citizen Cider The Dirty Mayor — A lovely cider with a subtle spritz and not-so-subtle ginger note on the nose and palate. There is lemon-peel and floral notes leading to a refreshing finish.
Shelburne Vineyard L’Acadie Blanc 2015 — This import grape from Nova Scotia has found a new home in Vermont. The nose is all melon, apple and freshening citrus with stone fruit and vein of salinity on the finish. A delight.
Lincoln Peak Vineyard Marquette 2014 — Marquette is the stand out red grape in Vermont and this one is typical with bold and sassy notes of black currants, plums and ripe cherry with round tannins and a spicy bite on the finish.