Christina Castegren was a 17-year-old, about to enter the University of Vermont, and wondering what she might do in her adult life. “’Why don’t you make wine?’” suggested her father.
“Shut up, Dad!” she said in shocked disbelief, not disrespect
Flash forward 16 years, and Castegren, at 33, is making wine.
But first she had to study plant and soil science at the university; read every book on winemaking she could find; work at Shelburne Vineyard in Shelburne, one of Vermont’s earliest and best-known wineries; and obtain advice from the University of Minnesota, the leader in the research and development of cold-hardy grapes.
Castegren and her husband, Kris Tootle, with a landscaping background, both originally from Massachusetts, own Fresh Tracks Farm in Berlin, just south of Montpelier, one of more than two dozen grape wineries that have cropped up in the state over the past two decades.
Fresh Tracks last year grew 41 tons of grapes that were hand-harvested from hillside vines, crushed, and brought to the winery’s geothermal- and solar-operated facility on Route 12 in the Dog River Valley. There, the juice fermented and much was stored in oak barrels for aging to make their six labels of grape wine, plus an apple wine.
The snoots of the world can say what they wish about the quality of Vermont wines, about the impossibility of ever measuring up to the excellent wines of, say, France or California, but make such argument to any of the new vintners of Vermont and expect major push back.
The vintners argue that Vermont’s wines are nothing to sniff at unless, of course, you’re considering bouquet. The wines like those made at Fresh Tracks and other wineries often come from quality disease-resistant and cold-hardy grapes (roots and vines able to withstand 30-below temperatures), like the Marquette and the Frontenac, grapes developed in recent years at the University of Minnesota’s Horticultural Research Center.
Thanks largely to these grapes, vineyards are getting a roothold in the land of venison, cheese, and maple syrup.
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It’s largely a Vermont crowd at Fresh Tracks Farm on a recent Friday night, a laid-back group. There are 20-somethings from Montpelier, starting their evening with tastings (four samples, $4.50 total, plus the glass to take home); a few singles; couples getting a break from the kids; and staff unwinding from their week at Norwich University in nearby Northfield.
Several visitors are from away, but tourists mostly don’t arrive until summer.
Tastings boost awareness and consumer loyalty, and Fresh Tracks takes that strategy to heart. “People come to a wine tasting, and they often walk away with a couple of bottles,” says server Tracy Roux as she pours a sampler of white, then, 10 minutes later, a glass with another white, followed finally by two rosés, including the colorfully titled “Little Piggy Pink.” Though impossible to say 10 times without stumbling, the winery uses the words “cheery ruby-colored rosé with a unique cherry palate” to describe it.
The winery is down a wine, its red, but promises soon to be uncorking its latest version of that wine, “The Digger’s Dance,” made from a blend of grapes producing “flavors of red berries and dark chocolate” and a finishing of “a bit of pepper.”
In addition to tastings, Fresh Tracks offers informal tours; musical performances, including a blue grass festival in the fall; and it rents the premises for private parties, weddings, and reunions.
And what Fresh Tracks offers is what visitors will find at most of Vermont’s larger grape wineries.
“Hosting free concerts or other events gives guests another reason to visit a winery,” says Wendy Knight, a spokesperson for the Vermont Grape & Wine Council, representing three dozen grape and fruit wineries and meaderies, from around the state.
Such events become “a night out or a family day rather than a quick stop to sample the wine,” says Knight, whose organization (www.vermontgrape
andwinecouncil.com), among other things, promotes a “Vermont Wine and Vine Trail” to follow, and a “Wine Passport Program” offering chances to win prizes to those who visit 10 or more wineries.
This evening at Fresh Tracks it’s “Sushi Night,” presented by a pop-up sushi restaurant, Himitsu, from Stowe. The menu offers more than a dozen options, and Roux helpfully recommends “spicy tuna and yellowtail roll, topped with avocado and Sriracha ($14).”
As the sushi server delivers manifestations of sea bass, salmon, eel, and octopus, a three-member jazz band performs.
On non-sushi nights, customers can order plates featuring various two or four Vermont cheeses ($10 or $20) or a cheese and charcuterie plate ($25, enough for two). You like chocolate truffles with wine? Well, that option exists, thanks to the winery’s supply from Laughing Moon Chocolates, also of Stowe.
And if you want a T-shirt, or “Little Piggy Pink” poster, a corkscrew or stopper, those items also are available.
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The high-ceilinged and woody (pine, cedar, and spruce) Fresh Tracks production and tasting building opened two years ago, but Castegren and Tootle bought their 1,800 hillside acres in 2002 and began planting grape vines. They have built a home, barn, sugarhouse, and, finally, the production and tasting building with its 36-panel, 8.1-kilowatt solar system out front.
With much of their land forested, the couple sells firewood, and in early spring sets out 1,000 taps to produce and sell maple syrup, and this year to create a maple dessert wine.
Castegren says the hillside vineyard, once a farmer’s hayfield, is perfect with its sharp southwest slant, offering full-day exposure to the sun. Its drainage is excellent thanks to the rocky soil, probably the bane of previous farmers’ existence. The steep grade is advantageous in another way: It can send frosty air downward before the cold has time to kill the buds of early spring or the grapes of late autumn.
The winery also grows Frontenac Gris and La Crescent grapes, more fruits of the research at the University of Minnesota, plus the St. Croix grape, which was developed by Elmer Swenson of Wisconsin, who was a pioneer in the field of grape breeding and who worked closely with the university.
Peter Hemstad, a scientist at the University of Minnesota Horticultural Center, who advises several Vermont wineries, among them Fresh Tracks, considers vineyards a perfect fit for Vermont, with its small-scale farms and popular support for local foods.
He acknowledges the enduring bias against wines from Northern states but says they will get their deserved respect with time. “Unlike Burgundy, Vermont has not been growing grapes for 1,000 years,” he says. But he adds: “Now wineries have the grapes that work, and this is not just some novelty or gimmick.”
At Fresh Tracks, the tweaking is constant. Castegren and Tootle go nonstop.
On a recent weekday afternoon she is busy in the production room, checking barrel samples of The Digger’s Dance and noting the fermentation progress of what will be labeled, simply, Maple Wine.
Asked where else she can go with this winery, Castegren says, “I just want to get the work done and not be frantic all the time.”
Dirk Van Susteren can be reached at email@example.com.