When Kip Kumler left the business world for winemaking in 1997, he had no background in viniculture. “I didn’t have any preparation, I would say, for what I’m doing now,” he says. “I just became more and more interested in it and I read everything I could read and then I began traveling and talking to winemakers in California and around the Finger Lakes and then eventually in Burgundy and Germany and Alsace.”
By 1999, Kumler had secured a commercial license and founded Turtle Creek Winery in Lincoln, which now produces about 1,200 cases of wine annually; the vineyard is exactly the size he likes and prefers to remain. “I have no interest in expanding. If I try and be bigger than that, there’s financial pressure obviously, but I would end up managing people instead of treating this as a craft, which was the whole idea.” His wines are available in 40 area stores and 20 restaurants, including The Four Seasons, Ten Tables, and Il Casale in Belmont.
Q. What was your goal in creating Turtle Creek?
A. I think it gradually morphed into the idea of trying to demonstrate you could make a world-class wine in a place that most people find incredulous. And that has two components. One is actually producing the wine, in some cases for us certainly, from fruits from other places, California or the Finger Lakes. But we also have a small vineyard of about 4,500 vines, all of which are vinifera, the most difficult grapes to grow, especially in this part of the world. The vineyard has probably been the biggest challenge of all this. I purchased fruit from other places initially because it’s three or in our case four years before you get a commercial crop and I wanted to be able to see what kinds of problems I would encounter. But having done that, I concluded that I wanted to continue purchasing fruit.
Q. What are the challenges of producing wine from Massachusetts grapes?
A. I’d say you can probably summarize it in three areas. One is the short growing season we have here, compared to a place like Central Valley, Calif. The second is the fact that historically there are some winters that are sufficiently cold as to be lethal to the vine. That has two pieces: one is that it might kill the buds but not kill the vine; but it’s also conceivable it could kill the vine. And the third is that all the rain in this country falls this side of the Rockies at least during the growing season and with that comes humidity and fungal disease pressure. We probably have more than a dozen fungal diseases to contend with, whereas California has really one, which is mildew.
Q. What’s the learning curve for winemaking?
A. Sometimes we make bad wine, like I think most wineries do, but because we’re small, that wine is discarded, whereas in a bigger winery that would never be thrown away; that would be put into a larger tank and blended. I think I learned and got incrementally better, but part of this is knowing what you’re looking for and it’s hard to know what you’re looking for when you get started. Your palate changes in the course of that. And I think if you’re a responsible winemaker, you spend a lot of time tasting wines that you admire, that you think are better than your own, because that knowledge or experience informs what you do.
Q. What avenues do small wineries have in growing their customer base?
A. I had a hand in writing the legislation to offer wine to farmers’ markets a little more than two years ago and I think for small wineries that are not in a tourist area or who do not have a tasting room, this helps them introduce their wines directly to consumers. Things like the wine club we’re about to launch, wine subscriptions, whereby people make a commitment to purchase a certain number of bottles in a year and in return get discounts and other special benefits, are another tool. And then, though we don’t have a tasting room, we are trying to organize a couple year-round large tastings to introduce new wines and to sell larger quantities.
Q. What have you taken from the last 15 years of winemaking?
A. One of the joys of being in this business is people are intrinsically curious about wine, how it’s made, what the characteristics are. There are some people that like to turn wine into baseball cards and there are other people with other aspirations for how they think wine should be evaluated. And I find that a little frustrating. Certainly it benefits from some intellectual comparison — how you compare one wine with another, what its history is, where it’s grown, all those things — but fundamentally drinking wine is a pleasure and best shared with other people. There’s a limit, I think, to how much intellectual analysis can be brought to bear on that. In fact, we sort of took the statement attributed to Pliny the Elder, “In vino veritas,” and on the back of our labels we have a slightly different version, “In vino narratio mirabile dictu,” which translates to “In wine is the story, marvelous in the telling.” I think wine and stories are natural companions and wine is best enjoyed when you’re having it with food and sharing it with [others], and that’s got a pretty big scope to it. I don’t think it needs to be overly analyzed.
An earlier version of this story said Kumler studied wine in Belfast. He traveled to Alsace.