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VT Winemaker’s Panel: Four Perspectives

February 4, 2020

“Meet Deirdre Heekin of La Garagista, Ethan Joseph of Iapetus, Krista Scruggs of ZAFA, and Rhiannon Johnson of The Quiet One. Learn about the evolving wine culture here in Vermont, and what makes these vignerons’ wine so special.”

On Tuesday, January 14th, 2020 the Vermont Fresh Network partnered with Dedalus Wine Shop, Market & Wine Bar to present a winemaker panel discussion. The evening was so successful, such a hit - sold out with a waiting list - that we were left wondering if it should only be part one. Should we follow up with a part two at some point? Over the past couple years, in coordinating tastings, pairings, and workshops, we have found that there is a lot of interest, excitement, and curiosity about VT's wine scene.

Dedalus Wine Director, Brittany Galbraith, moderated the discussion. She started by asking everyone to explain the name of their winery.

Krista Scruggs is the founder and winemaker at ZAFA & CO Cellars. She explained that the name is a  reference to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Everything she does is working against colonization. Less than 1% of black Americans own land and women are historically marginalized.

Rhiannon Johnson has recently started The Quiet One, a young winery and it’s just her for now. Being part of VT has brought her a lot of peace and reflection. She has been in the background in the wine world (she was worked at Shelburne Vineyard and Lincoln Peak). This endeavor is a quiet announcement that she is moving to the forefront after 10 years in the industry.

Ethan Joseph is the winemaker at Shelburne Vineyard and has his own label, Iapetus. Iapetus is the ancient, 500 million year old ocean that covered the Champlain Valley. The name, therefore, reaches back into the origins of the landscape and grounds the wines into that story.

Deirdre Heekin explained that the name, La Garagista, emerged from a period of time when she and her husband bought their property in Barnard. The garage was the best looking building on the property - it was old cedar from Quebec and when dismantled, they used the wood in gardens and other places. The name also means ‘the woman who makes wine in her garage’ (or mechanic!). Additionally, there is a movement in France, La Garagiste, showing wine can be made in a garage and doesn’t have to come from a chateau!

Brittany: Wine is an agricultural product; in order to be a winemaker, you have to be a farmer. A vigneron works in the winery, but also gets dirt on their hands in the vineyard. Krista, why be a farmer in VT?

Krista explained she is from the central valley in CA, where she worked for a bulk wine company and had no connection to the actual grapes. She has since been connecting the dots between the grapes - farming and winemaking. Doing what she’s doing now wasn’t going to happen in CA (access, cost, sustainability). It’s important for her to farm; she doesn’t want to be working in wine and not have contact with agriculture. So, was looking for opportunities and connected with Deirdre. Dierdre symbolized what farming in the wine context is. Krista worked a harvest with her and then worked for her and Caleb full time, inspired by the biodynamic practices. She is now leasing two vineyards and planting her own.

Brittany asked Deirdre for a definition of biodynamic farming, why it matters, and how it shows up in the glass: 

Deidre explained the methodology of regenerative farming, whole farm agriculture, nose to tail, everything feeds and supports each other; the human element, plant element, and animal element. She owned a restaurant with her husband and she managed the wine list. Everyone on the wine list was a farmer that was working biodynamically - why were they so good? It seems undefinable, something she’s come to recognize as an energy. The method is important for her because of the energy, vitality, grace, soul of the wine, it helps express the idea and story of the landscape and place in an articulate way. Biodynamic methods have roots in science and physics. It also relies on intuition, observation, though - it is a kind of farming that requires a deep study. 

Brittany: A question for Ethan - can you speak to the challenges in VT working with our geography and climate?

Ethan explained that wine might not be the first thing you think of in VT, but they’re all here to change that. VT has a lot of moisture, annual precipitation, and cold factor limits the varieties we’re able to grow, in addition to latitude and sunlight. He has made the challenges opportunities. The important things are variety selection, site selection, and growing practices. They grow hybrids specifically bred for disease resistance, their cold hardy attributes, and they ripen earlier due to genetics - all in all, they are suited to our climate. Vineyards also take into account row orientation to maximize sunlight, site selection for good airflow, check prevailing winds, and look for a well draining site.

Brittany asked Rhiannon about her first wine released, a La Crescent with skin maceration - a style that produces brilliant hues in the wine. Why did you choose to showcase it this way?

Rhiannon explained how she left the wine in contact with grape skins to draw out pigments, adding texture and aromatics. The dry style would balance the acid this way. She left the skins on for two weeks and just went with her gut - there’s no set time period for skin contact.

Brittany: What’s going on in the winery today?

Deirdre said they are mostly in the vineyard pruning right now. There is always something to do, 365 days a year. The grape wines are sleeping in the cellar. They also make ciders: from January to March they will grind apples, punch down, and blend. They balance time in the cellar (bad weather) and are outside whenever they can be.

Ethan shared that the bulk of winemaking is done and that wines are resting from the fall. They are onto the next vintage with pruning - always a season ahead in the field. In the winery the pet nats are in the riddling phase - to get the sediment at the bottom into the neck they put them upside down and use cold outside temps to help with that process. It’s stirring the lees (yeast bacteria). They will be bottling and blending in mid-summer.

Rhiannon has one wine in the tank (250 gal) right now that is done. Her biggest task will be bottling the wine, then buying vines. She is currently renting winery space from Lincoln Peak.

Krista will start pruning tomorrow. A majority of what she makes are sparkling wines. She is putting all in kegs vs bottles to avoid waste and promote sustainability. She is starting to blend with CO Cellars. She names her wines for very personal reasons. This vintage will be a dedication to why she started this journey and why she’ll continue.

Brittany shared that Dedalus posted on Instagram Stories looking for VT wine questions. Here is one: What do you think VT will be known for?

Deirdre said it will be known for its producers - they are at the frontier, the beginning, there are no set rules, no guidelines. Creators and young people are defining what VT will be for themselves. There is a beauty and excitement in that. VT winemaking is based on terroir, the relationship between producers and the landscape that they’re interacting with. VT winemakers are coming into the game in such a modern era, are not bound by guidelines, and have a freedom of expression.  

Ethan explained that wine is rooted in tradition and we have respect for that tradition, but we are putting our own spin on that tradition in VT (the obvious one is the varieties that are being grown). Winemaking is brand new (22-23 years old) in VT and folks are not afraid to break or bend rules, to showcase what will make this place special. It is a small industry. Grape growers and winemakers are not separate - there are “winegrowers” in VT. A distinct intimacy between the two. Ethan doesn’t know if it will be associated with one thing, an overall philosophy.

Rhiannon shared that what we’re doing in VT is proving people wrong. When Ken Albert started growing grapes in 1998 people didn’t think it would work. VT can make expressive wines and prove them wrong, showing it’s possible here and we are committed to how these grapes want to show themselves to the world.

Krista does not think VT will be defined by one thing, but will show what terroir does, let us express ourselves without limitations. No boundaries are set for us - we are writing the answer right now.

Brittany: The producers are the tastemakers. Can you speak to that?

Ethan said everything in wine is slow and requires patience, experimenting, working with so many variables - it’s a long term endeavor. People rely on intuition. There’s not a lot of history yet with the couple dozens of people making wine in VT. They are seeing how the seasons have different impacts on the varieties, despite winegrower intentions. Winegrowers are accumulating experience, learning over time how to best express the wines - they all have their own unique fingerprint. 

Rhiannon said at first, 10-12 years ago, they were trying to make the grapes into what others make and what customers expect. People are now more adventurous in tasting, winegrowers can push the boundaries and this allows for more creativity. It’s too soon to tell what identity our wine will have. AS a state, we have 12 vintages of marquette under our belts vs. regions that have been making wine for thousands of years. Things are always changing, we are tweaking. We have to have patience and be willing to learn.

Brittany: Consumers are becoming more educated and excited about bold tastes, different wines (there are now natural wine festivals) - how does that affect what you’re doing?

Deirdre said it is a chicken and egg situation. There is a fluidity of potential that keeps us from any prescribed notion of what these wines should be. We’ll be bending that notion forever more. Perhaps we’ll be the poster child for natural wine in the future. Other young producers are also interested.

Krista noted that VT is an agricultural state first and foremost, and the wines are reflective of the state - being able to grow our fruit, have access to land. The wines are a reflection of our state as a whole.

Brittany asked about foraging apples - it’s part of the terroir here in VT - and combining them [with grapes]. Why add cider (50%)?

Krista started doing it out of necessity. She was supposed get fruit from a vineyard, but that fell through, and Deirdre and Caleb needed her to make cider, so she relied on apples for a full vintage. Using apples has saved her and defined what she is doing. She sees foraging for apples as insurance - can forage apples and not rely on grapes, yet still tell the story of the landscape. The apples also allow her to balance the pH. Otherwise she is at the mercy of other growers and when they harvest grapes, at what acidity level. The apples help to finesse and balance the final flavor.

Deirdre uses apples from Poverty Lane (in NH). She made fresh, young ciders the first year; they were bright and sparkling. They had planted some trees for culinary purposes, but thought they were better for cider, and thought it would be brilliant.  Erle LaBounty from Farmhouse Chocolates and his grandfather, Kermit taught her, however, that cider doesn’t get interesting until year 3, and is better at year 6. That burst her bubble, but she also found it interesting that cider could have wine-like characteristics with time: vin à pomme. Cider fermented on grape skins or co-fermentation with grapes, apples, or other fruit could become what we’re known for, a tradition in VT. 

Brittany: We want to celebrate VT wine and grow the industry. How do we excite curious farmers who are diving into this work? How do we create ambassadors of VT wine? How do we put it on the table? What do you want people to know about these wines to promote the industry?

Deirdre said she doesn’t want our wine to get special treatment. It should be on a wine list because it should be there with its own merit. It shouldn’t be like a special step child. It has the same caliber as other regions in the world.

Ethan shared that he believes that the wines are legitimate, he is not apologetic. We don’t need to build them up or talk about them in a special way. They are wines. Wines from VT. The profile is unique and different. Food friendly. The acidity keeps the palate alive and fresh and equates to a broader versatility.

Rhiannon said that people see them on a menu and think of them as a risk, especially when they see the price. It is up to all of us to add the story. Help spread the word that this is worth trying, it is adventurous, new, young. 

Krista said normalize it. The exciting phase will pass. We will no longer hear, “I didn’t know wine is made in VT,” but, “I want to taste what they have in VT.”

Brittany: What are you drinking as winemakers when not drinking your own? In terms of mentors or just a bottle on a Saturday night?

Ethan is always working on broadening and developing his own palate, so drinks many different kinds.

Deirdre described voracious jags of study when she finds herself interested in one specific kind (from Spain or Champagne), and spoke to the emotional connections with a particular wine that remind her why doing what she’s doing.

Rhiannon is in the habit of never buying the same bottle twice so that she can constantly grow her palate and know what everyone else in the world is doing.

Krista likes to drink sparkling wines to know what else is out there - tasting tasting tasting - then she moves to beer and cocktails because they are all related!

Audience questions:

How would you choose land in VT if you were buying (10 acres)? Where and why?

Ethan said there are unrealized potential in many places in VT, like south of the Champlain Valley, pockets of gravelly soil (well drained, good air flow, west facing slope), shale, slate. The state is probably untapped. He would selfishly want one acre in 10 different places to try them all out.

Deirdre said everything is so new here, we don’t know yet and are collecting data. She agreed about 1 acre in ten different places. Wherever you go would be fine - we have good soils here.

What have you learned about acidity?

Ethan said you have to love acidity if growing and drinking in VT, but there are things you can do to help balance it (sun exposure, heat).

Rhiannon encouraged us to grow as winemakers to make more palatable and rounder wines. Acid gives it structure, however - it lasts longer, holds up. Patience is key.

Deirdre spoke about the yeast and acid connection, especially wild yeast. In the winery, treat the wine like it’s going to have enough other complexities to integrate well with the acidity. The acid in the wine gives it structure, bones and ageability. Yeast relates to acid. Cornell is developing a structured yeast that will bring down the acidity BUT wild yeast from the vineyard already does that.

Krista said the reason she is making sparkling wine is because of the acid.

What are you most excited to learn about/try this year?

Rhiannon said “everything” because she is only in her second vintage!

Deirdre and her team will dive deeper into what they are already doing, including a joint project with her assistant winemaker. They are moving in sherry directions with La Crescent, an alpine expression.

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