No longer just a place for a quick sniff and swirl of the latest vintage, several local vineyards have become places to spend some quality time — and even bring the kids.
Here in southeastern New England, we are fortunate to be part of a distinct wine region, or viticultural appellation, as it is more correctly, if cumbersomely called. Specifically, it's the Southeastern New England American Viticultural Appellation (SENE AVA), which stretches from coastal Connecticut through coastal Rhode Island and the south coast of Massachusetts on its way to Cape Cod and the Islands; and it is 30 years old this year.
The SENE APA is a cool region, specializing in white and sparkling wines, though the member vineyards produce several superior reds as well.
Stretching from Stonington, Connecticut (Stonington Vineyards recently rejoined the group and is being added back to the map) to Truro, near the tip of Cape Cod, the Coastal Wine Trail is dotted with ten vineyards, several of which have become destinations in their own right.
Very locally, Greenvale Vineyard, with beautiful grounds, a newly-renovated tasting room, and events including live jazz every Saturday, is a particularly easy place to relax and soak up some vineyard ambiance. Likewise, Carolyn's Sakonnet Vineyard, the former Sakonnet Vineyard recently acquired by Alex + Ani founder Carolyn Rafaelian, is making some big changes, all designed to make the vineyard an attractive destination.
Steve Krohn is the Director of Wine Education at Carolyn's Sakonnet, and true to Rafaelian's business model and well-known mantra, her ownership has breathed new energy into the almost 40 year old vineyard. Notably, she bought new wine barrels made from oak from Russia, Hungary and France as well as the U.S. (different kinds of oak impart different flavors in the wine.) The new barrels will make a tremendous difference in the wines that require oak aging to fully develop their intended flavors. "It's like a symphony," says Krohn. "Different oaks are like different instruments. Winemaking is art and science at once, and Elaine (winemaker Elaine Bernier) is a master of her craft."
Of course, man doesn't exist on wine alone, and the member wineries of the Coastal Wine trail understand this, holding culinary events such as Running Brook's Farm-to-Table tour and cooking class, Chowder and Oysters on the Deck at Langworthy Vineyards, and Wine, Art, and Appetizers at Truro. Together, they collaborate on the annual Wine, Cheese, and Chocolate Festival.
Music, too, is a welcome addition, from Greenvale's Jazz to Westport Rivers' Sunset Music Series. Not to be outdone, Carolyn's Sakonnet is offering outdoor concerts every Thursday night throughout the summer with a $10 per carload entry fee (and half-price rates in the tasting room.) Russell Morin catering has also taken up residence at Sakonnet, with an excellent restaurant under the capable leadership of Bristol chef Jimmy Tsimikas, drawing diners to Little Compton.
Wine educator Krohn is looking forward to expanding the Vineyard's offerings, with seated private tastings scheduled to begin this month, featuring seven of their best wines as well as small bites from Tsimikas' kitchen.
"Carolyn's Sakonnet Vineyard is a secret destination we don't want to keep a secret anymore," says Krohn. "Carolyn Rafaelian is very open to new ideas; she wants people to discover this place and enjoy it. It's not about the massive numbers that some of the less out-of-the-way vineyards attract. We are especially interested in focusing more on estate wines — the ones made primarily with the grapes that are grown onsite."
They've recently released their first new wine in some time. It's called "Blessed Blend" because Rafaelian, who is by all accounts a very spiritual person, had the vidal blanc and chardonnay vines blessed. It won a gold medal at the prestigious finger lakes International Wine Competition, so it stands to reason that the blessing of the reds should not be far behind.
Earthly vine health and wellness is handled by Lorraine Frank, who oversees the management of more than 35 acres — all by hand. "Wine is made in the vineyard," Krohn says, "and it's hard, physical work. People should make a point to tour the vines when they come visit. It's a successful, working farm, and the harvest is a different experience every year."
As Frank tends the raw materials and Bernier makes them sing, Krohn's job is to teach guests the language of wine, making them more accessible and less intimidating.
"The difference between the U.S. and Europe is that Europeans grow up with a familiarity and understanding of wine. Without that understanding, many Americans lack the confidence to verbalize what they are looking for when buying wine. By giving people the terms they can use to communicate about wine, they will have the raw materials to articulate what they like, and what they want to buy."
He finds people to be quick studies. "Usually after someone has tasted that first wine, it takes the veil away, and they are ahead of me moving on to the next wine. It never fails."
The complete Coastal Wine Trail is meant to be traveled in two to three days, though most locals will break the visits into several weekends. The Trail produces a passport that can be picked up at any of the member vineyards. For more information, visit coastalwinetrail.com.