Lincoln Peak Vineyard: Turning Grapes into Wine
“Back to stomping– Chris”
That is how Chris signed off on the first email response I received from him. He was fearful of this grape season, which had come early due to unusual weather patterns in Vermont this year, and Chris was stressed to say the least. He hadn’t slept, he didn’t take time for meals, and most times I saw him, he was wearing the same clothes. Naturally, his anxiety was heightened by the fact that he chose not to sleep in favor of working through the night. He anticipated the season to be short and if he didn’t get all his grapes picked and into safety before the first frost, his winery would be in trouble. So, he was working day and night beginning at the start of their early season.
On twelve acres, Chris grows all his own grapes that he processes to make all his wine. There is no middleman. Every drop of wine that is bottled at Lincoln Peak Vineyard, the largest in the entire state, has been raised as a seedling on his vineyard in New Haven, Vermont. Chris has explained to me how uncommon it is for a vineyard that produces wine to grow all its own grapes; most employ numerous other vineyards to grow a percentage of their grapes. This unique quality represents the small and local feel of the vineyard that Chris strives to maintain. He also thinks it is important for townspeople to be involved with the vineyard any way possible; that is why on the first Friday of every month, even during their busy harvest, Chris has a local band come perform on the vineyard. Locals are welcome to attend the performance, free of charge. Flocks of townspeople come to sit outside by the vines, pond, and barn with a picnic dinner and purchase wine from the vineyard by the glass. The whole concept of customers sitting in the fields where the wine they are drinking came from is one that Chris is fond of as he explained, “I have seen every bottle of my wine from start to finish. I have probably even touched every single bottle I have produced. I love seeing people enjoying my hard work. Seeing that makes everything worth it.”
The first time I met Chris in person was at one of those Friday music events that happened during the peak of their harvest. I was surprised when I pulled my car around to the back of the barn and saw that the entire field was filled with people. I don’t know why, but I expected the event to be low in attendance. People of different ages were there for different purposes, families with small children were sitting next to older couples on dates. Most had brought lawn chairs or blankets and baskets full of food. I walked across the field and wove my way through the people in the front who had already begun to dance. I was walking towards the public tasting room that I first visited a year ago.
Last year, after I turned 21, I went to the Middlebury Farmer’s Market and sampled some of Lincoln Peak’s wine. There was one particular wine that I tasted and really enjoyed, but they were sold out. Chris’ daughter, Sarah, told me they had more back at the vineyard if I wanted go buy some there. We began talking and she started telling me about growing grapes in Vermont. That was the first time I had heard of Chris and his vineyard.
Now, I recognized the oak barrels that filled the room. The woman manning the tasting and selling told me that if I stayed in one location for some time I would run into Chris eventually. He had been running all around, talking to guests, checking on the fermenting grapes, watching some of the performance, and administering some of the tasting. He came bustling into the front room in hiking boots, jeans baring fresh red stains, a flannel, and his short, gray hair looking rather chaotic. Chris began pouring wine for attendees, and I used that moment to make my introduction because I had been warned that within a second, he could be gone. I was hesitant to interrupt him at such a busy time, but knew this might be my only chance.
I talked to Chris’ back as he turned away to grab a wine glass, pour wine, grab another, and pour some more. His gaze was so intent upon the glass that I found my eyes were absentmindedly staring at it too, and then I realized I was talking to the glass. Chris was too busy to realize that we hadn’t looked at each other once while I told him that I wanted to profile him and his winery.
Chris didn’t respond right away and I thought he didn’t hear me or realize I was talking to him. Then, I was afraid he was not going to be okay with a college student shadowing and videoing everything he was doing. Far from confirming my fear, he set down the bottle of wine he was holding, looked me straight in the eye, and in a slow, soft tone that contrasted with his hurried movements, said:
“Well, Bry… let’s see…there’s plenty to do in the heart of harvest. We start early every morning, so anytime you come, there’s bound to be something to do and see. Pressing starts tomorrow morning at 6:30—come on by then…”
“I’m a morning person. I’ll be there.”
“You’ll be there at 6:30?” Chris asked skeptically.
He raised his eyebrows, thought, and nodded his head in approval.
The next morning at 6:30 AM, I walked into the work barn, where the cement floor was still wet from its fresh sanitation, and the odor of fermenting fruit filled the muggy morning air. Fermenting grapes do not produce a particularly pleasant smell. In this premature stage, the juice has not developed the lovely smells that complicated wines possess. The grapes that were sitting in the large stainless steel tanks were picked last week and put into the tanks. Yeast was added to the tanks and over the course of the week the fermentation process was in full effect. The skins separated and floated to the top of the tank, the seeds fell to the bottom, and the juice was in the middle level.
Chris was in the work barn setting up all the equipment for a long day of pressing. He was wearing the exact same clothes that I had met him in the previous night. I don’t think he ever went to sleep. His hair managed to look even untidier, like he had come straight from his pillow to the barn without looking in a mirror. His clothes displayed stains from last night’s dinner, which settled in perfectly next to the now permanent wine stains.
Chris stood with his finger resting on his chin, staring at the 4,000-liter tanks filled with fermenting grapes that towered before him, but solemn thought was interrupted by his intern, Erik, who had just walked in:
“Did you go to sleep last night, or were you up all night picking?”
Chris mumbled some vague response, accompanied by a shoulder shrug that confirmed that he had, indeed, been up for the past 24 hours picking grapes.
Chris turned to me to offer some sort of explanation as to why he knowingly deprived himself of sleep, “Harvest doesn’t last long. It’ll be gone before you know it. This is the peak of everything; in a few weeks the main season will be over. And this year, we’re 2-3 weeks ahead of schedule because of the weather we’ve had…so let’s get pressing!”
Every year, Chris only hires one man to help with harvest and has only one intern, so he has become a very efficient person. Every move needs to be purposeful, and there is no time for distractions. “In the mornings, we are machines and don’t talk. We just want to get the work done…and we’re probably not fully awake,” Chris explained. So, it was a quiet start to the morning, but the silence was eventually broken because Chris had started to wake up, or because he thought I ought to learn something important:
“You can tell that the tanks have been fermenting just by feeling them. The warmth will let you know that they’ve been in the process.”
I reached out to touch the tank next to me and let out a squeal because I nearly got frostbite from the metal.
“Oh, well, not that one. Those grapes are still waiting for yeast, so we’re keeping them chilled. Try one of these.”
I stepped over a few hoses on the runway between the two rows of tanks and touched a tank that Chris had pointed to. This tank was warm. I kept my hand there for a long time to warm it back up.
Chris told me why the tank was naturally warm, “When yeast is added to sugar [the grapes], the product is alcohol and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is the heat you are feeling.”
When I climbed up the ladder to look inside the tank, I could only see the layer of skins that had risen. The skins were so clumped together I could not imagine the layer of liquid, which was the incipient wine, below that was keeping them afloat.
Chris had finished preparing the large, cylindrical metal presser and the hoses, and was ready to press the grapes. He showed me how he was going to transfer the juice and skins from the large tank to the pressing machine. At the end of a clear hose the size of my thigh, was a steel strainer that prevented any solids from getting through. I realized the purpose of the strainer when the hose was inserted into the middle layer of liquid in the tank and some solids were unsuccessful at passing through. These remaining skins were shoveled into a press machine to try to get whatever juice was still left in them after the fermentation. The machine inflated and squeezed the skins.
“All right Erik, I’ll leave you with it.”
Chris left the work barn and a young man with red hair named Erik checked that both the valves were tight before starting the transfer machine. The newly pressed red liquid rushed through the clear hose that led to an empty tank. A flowing creek of juice was filling the empty tank with what in a year, would be a delectable Marquette.
Immediately as Chris left the barn, the redhead strode across the room, hand outstretched, ready to shake my hand. Tucked inside his oversized, heavy, plastic work boots were his red juice-stained jeans. He wore a traditional red flannel over a yellow tee shirt that had an imprint of a lion rampant. On his pale skin were more freckles than were countable. And his red hair clashed horribly with his red flannel.
“Hi! I’m Erik! I’m interning here with Chris.” The redheaded man spoke with a friendly, genuine and slightly feminine voice that was instantaneously contagious and so obviously not from the East Coast.
I introduced myself and explained what I was doing at the vineyard.
A few superficial questions were thrown around and I learned that Erik had just arrived from Minnesota two days before. Having graduated in the spring from St. Olaf, in Minnesota, with a degree in Mathematics and Physics, he was going to be in Vermont for five weeks during the heart of harvest.
Erik was skilled enough in wine pressing that he was able to engage in conversation while working. He sincerely wanted to know about Middlebury, my friends, family, and what I did in my free time. In a few minutes, I was talking with him about many characters in my life and he followed with more probing questions. We got along instantaneously. He was so easy to talk with and hilarious at that. I was keeled over laughing when he was telling me that his father had met a woman from the Czech Republic online only three times before “shipping” her to the U.S. to marry her. He showed me pictures of the wedding and laughed at how she and the “daughter she came with” didn’t even speak much English. During any conversation, Erik would interject, and without a breath would explain exactly what he was doing with the wine and why. I could tell he knew a lot about wine because he was able to explain everything to me clearly.
“Do you hear that hissing sound?” he asked.
I put my ear against the stainless steel tank. I don’t know if I was meant to hear anything, but to be polite, I said I did, even though I did not.
“We can’t see what is going on in the bottom of this tank, but I can tell that the spigot is turned upward by that hissing sound. The juice is shooting up, getting aerated, and being disturbed more than we would like. I need to turn the spigot down.”
Erik was able to tell in which direction the valve was pointed from listening to how the wine hit the other liquid in the tank, and then turned the valve so that even though we couldn’t see it, it was perfectly pointed downwards. At one point, he began the laborious task of shoveling the skins. I soon found myself involved in a two-person shoveling rotation when he showed no hesitation in taking a break and would pass the shovel to me.
Hours had passed before I noticed that it was already noon. The two of us had been working, talking, and learning so contentedly and naturally that we had not stopped once to take notice of the time that had escaped us.
During that time, I had been watching this young man skillfully work an assortment of different machines and tools in order to press red grape remnants and transfer 4,000 liters of red grape juice into an adjacent stainless steel tank. I was just beginning to realize that I never found out why or how Erik knew so much about wine. Chris had left me in the work barn with a pale, redheaded guy, who had a goofy smile spread across his face, but who knew a ton about wine making. I probed Erik for answers.
“Well…my dad also grows wine. We have a vineyard in Minnesota.” he began.
Chris suddenly appeared from the field and threw out, “You can’t just say your dad grows grapes, Erik. I grow grapes. Your dad is the brilliance behind the grapes I grow.”
Chris turned to me to elaborate, “Erik’s father is the man who invented the grapes I grow. And is the inventor of most of the grapes that are able to grow in cold weather. I am able to grow a competitive, award-winning wine because of him.”
Many days each week, I would drive to the vineyard, usually with a friend or two in tow, because they too, had become friends with Erik. We’d head there after his workday was done, and pick him up for dinner, show him around Middlebury, or just hang out on campus. These were the times I got most of my background information. I knew that Chris didn’t like to talk much while working, so I honored that. Erik, however, was a talker. He loves to talk and that was great for me. Wine became part of our conversation and I was able to pick up so much information this way. He knew all the history of Lincoln Peak and pretty much everything else except for Chris’ opinions about a few things.
In 2001, Chris cleared out the strawberry bushes and apple trees and planted there newly invented Minnesota grapes, by Erik’s father, that were said to survive minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit. Not surprisingly, the cold-hearted grapes thrived in Vermont.
Lincoln Peak Vineyard previously grew strawberries and apples—two crops that grow well in the Vermont climate. After dabbling mainly in those two crops, Chris decided to try his hand in grapes, and luckily for him, when he started, he was able to avoid the hardships of trial and error that Erik’s father had encountered while trying to grow grapes in tough, cold climates.
Erik recalled what he remembered of his father’s mission to cultivate cold-climate grapes that would maintain comparable taste and high quality.
“Before my dad said, ‘Screw it,’ and began to experiment with hybridding, we had some rough seasons. The quality was all over the place and we weren’t even sure that some grapes would grow. If a vine didn’t succeed, we would have to prune it down and then break off most of the branches and bury it under hay. This wasn’t only really sad to trash all our work, but it was extremely labor intensive.”
Erik’s family’s vineyard in Minnesota only grows on eight acres of land. St. Croix Vineyard produces three times the amount of wine that Chris produces thanks to a law in Minnesota, which states that a vineyard is able to put a label on a bottle of wine and call it theirs if at least 51% of the grapes are grown on that particular vineyard. So, even though they don’t grow as many grapes as Lincoln Peak, they produce more wine.
Erik noticed the puzzled face I had just made, “Yeah, I know. That’s crazy to you, huh? Growing a lot of your grapes on other vineyards—it’s weird. But, I swear, 51% is a lot more than the 10% that Napa Vineyards usually produce on their own land.”
St. Croix Vineyard will approach a farmer and ask him to grow a particular variety of grapes. Once enough farmers are employed to grow the grapes that will be needed to produce the wine, their farms must be monitored. Quality tests are taken by Erik’s dad and the sommelier and the farms are visited frequently during the growing season in order to track progress. Naturally, all the farms have different soil and different environmental factors that are bound to impact some aspect of the grape’s growth.
“Sometimes we’ll go taste the grapes at one of the farms that is growing for us and they’ll be completely gross. There are many aspects we feel we can’t control when we depend on other farmers. It’s really hard to find a farmer who will honestly baby the grapes the way we do,” said Erik as he explained the setback to not growing all of one’s own grapes.
If a grape doesn’t taste right, a vineyard cannot use any of that variety from that farm. Similarly, sometimes a grape from Farm A does not taste like the same breed from Farm B. Then, the vineyard has to decide if they want to move forward and just mix the two, or if they’ll need to trash one or both. But, Chris has prevented his vineyard from having to deal with any of those issues by growing all his own grapes. “That’s why we’re really jealous of Chris’ vineyard here in Vermont. His quality is almost guaranteed. Ours is a crapshoot.”
“It’s particularly sad for my dad to have to taste some shitty quality grapes. Those were his babies that he spent years inventing and he knows how they are meant to taste. He has to trust people to produce his grapes and sometimes it just doesn’t work out…”
It may be sad, but Erik’s dad can deal with that because his vineyard isn’t his life. The way Erik’s dad and Chris run their vineyards is completely different. Chris eats, breathes, and sleeps his vineyard. Lincoln Peak is in his backyard. Chris has no days off or vacation. Erik’s dad has a job other than the vineyard, which he considers to be more of a hobby. St. Croix vineyard is an hour away, and he usually only goes on weekends. Chris chooses to go the extra mile and grow all his own grapes because they are his life. He is so invested in his wine and doesn’t want to risk sacrificing the quality, so he grows it all himself. I remember Erik telling me how he wanted to do something with wine in his future, but he didn’t want it to be his 24/7. Although he was in awe of seeing Chris work so hard, he knew he didn’t have it in him to do it year after year.
Chris said, “Sure, sure… some mornings it’s hard to drag myself out here. I don’t have the luxury of calling in sick. I am my work. And during harvest, it’s rough. Really, really rough. But there’s always something that happens that reminds me why I keep on going. And then, I fall back in love with what I do.” Chris kept explaining, “I still remember that first wine we made. It was hilarious. We had planted those two… sticks, and what do you know? They grew. And they made a hell of a good wine. Our first bottle was amazing. And I remember that my two little girls stomped those grapes with their bare feet, and they loved that. That’s what I remember all the time.”
When I first began my exploration of the wine making process at Lincoln Peak Vineyard, I was merely an observer and a helpful participant, if needed. Thanks to Chris’ and Erik’s incredible knowledge, I came to understand everything an observer and questioner can understand about making wine. But, I wanted to understand everything about making wine. I wanted to be able to act instinctively, like Chris does. I knew that it took Chris and Erik years to build a vault of aptitude and comfort, but I wanted to get closer to that level. I realized that the only way for this to happen was if I actually made wine. I asked Chris how hard it would be for me to be all hands-on in making a small batch of “my own” wine. I thought that it might even be logistically impossible because the machines are so massive. But, Chris was immediately receptive, “Sure, Sure… We can do that. That’s a great idea.” Thus began my wine making process.
I went through the motions that I had been so intimately taping. Erik took me out to the field to choose the grapes I wanted to pick for my wine. Even though I typically drink red, I knew that the process to make red was harder because it had to sit and ferment for a week, whereas white wine can ferment while in a bottle. So, I chose a white grape called Frontenac.
The pressing machine was too large for the small bucket of grapes I picked to make two bottles of wine. So, we used a technique that Chris remembered from when he first started making wine and was only producing single bottles. I picked the grapes off the vines one by one—878 grapes total. I pushed a metal rolling pin over my grapes which were on a sheet of perforated steel that allowed juice to drip down to a pan located underneath our makeshift strainer. Erik stayed with me the whole time because he had every other Sunday off, and we had come to enjoy each other’s company. Plus, he had a great time laughing at my “skill.” Chris would pop in every hour or so to check on me, always with encouraging words, “Bry, that looks great. Keep it up… mmm,” as he’d dip his finger into my wine. I then transferred my juice to two dark colored bottles so that no light would affect the fermentation process. I added yeast to my juice in the bottles and rubber-banded guaze to the openings of the bottles. Oxygen would still be able to pass, but dust particles would not.
This process sounds easy, but know, that it took two full days to prepare my two bottles. De-stemming 878 grapes took hours because of the precision it took to not “pop” any which would lose the juice. And, rolling out all the grapes was very labor intensive. Chris produces nearly 5,000 bottles of wine with not much extra help. My wine began fermenting on September 26, 2012. It will be ready some time in May 2013.