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Vermont wine industry shows room for growth

Published: Aug. 17, 2021 at 4:20 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont’s wine industry has undergone several recent changes with some familiar vineyards changing ownership or shutting down. Cat Viglienzoni recently visited Grand Isle to see how one of the new players to the wine scene is taking a fresh look at old vines.

Ellison Estate Vineyard winemaker Kendra Knapik didn’t get her start in winemaking -- she’s a veterinary oncologist. But the demands of that job and a growing family led her to explore new careers. “I realized that I wanted to have more control and open my own business,” Knapik said.

She always loved wine and took a viticulture course through the University of Vermont. That’s where her professor presented her with an opportunity in the picturesque Champlain Islands. That was three and a half years ago. Initially, she says she and her husband planned to ease in, just selling the fruit to other winemakers. “We made wine the first year we ran the vineyard and just loved doing it and decided to speed that process along,” Knapik said.

They released their first wines last September with little fanfare due to the pandemic. “We had people come to help harvest and they were like, ‘Can we buy your wine?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, actually you can!’ And that was our release,” Knapik said.

The couple did have an advantage when they started because the vines that they have are already mature and ready to produce beautiful fruit. Not every new winemaker is as lucky. Still, bringing these vines back after they were left untended for years has been an ongoing challenge, but a fruitful one. Knapik says they’ve been helped by other more seasoned Vermont winemakers. “The community here is fantastic. We have had support from day one,” she said.

Kenneth Albert with Shelburne Vineyard says when he first started planting his grapes in Vermont in 1998, he had to seek out advice from winemakers in the Finger Lakes because there was no one here. Decades later, he says he’s glad to have helped blaze a trail for up-and-coming wineries. “It makes us feel good. It sort of validates what we’re doing,” Albert said. “People say ‘grapes in Vermont?’ ...We and some of the other pioneers have proven that you can do it. But it’s always nice to see other people coming along, feeling confident enough to dip their toes in it.”

Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: Is there enough room in the Vermont wine scene for all the players who are coming on board? Kenneth Albert: We are definitely not overcrowded, definitely not.

Ellison Estate opened its new tasting room on the vineyard last month. They have six grape varieties and a focus on naturally-produced wines. Their goal is to double production this year.

Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: What are you hopeful for for your future here?

Kendra Knapik: Oh, building a successful business, I hope... We just want to share the wine with people, we want to share our property because it’s a really special place.

VINEYARDS AIM TO MAKE A NAME FOR VERMONT IN ‘NATURAL WINE’ NICHE

There are currently 24 members on the Vermont Grape and Wine Council. Their products range from traditional grape wines to fruit wines, meads, ciders, and other varieties. Many of the newer winemakers, like Ellison Estate, are delving into a growing sector of the wine industry known broadly as “natural” wines, a type that has minimal intervention as it’s produced and relying on the grapes’ natural yeast for fermentation. They might be farmed more sustainably or organically and winemakers avoid additives and use little or no sulfites.

Vermont winemakers are making inroads in this niche market because they say, it fits with the state’s brand. “Even though the Vermont wine industry is super small, it’s this hotspot of people farming responsibly, regeneratively, and making wine naturally. All our wines are low-intervention, natural wines, so we do all native yeast fermentations, we don’t filter,” Knapik said.

“I think Vermont, in general, has a reputation of being a place of the land where things are happening that are real, not artificial. I think what we’re doing and what some of the other winemakers are doing with natural, minimal intervention wine movement is a very positive thing,” Albert said. “They’re starting to take us seriously.”

Even wineries like Shelburne Vineyard, which has been doing more traditional wines for decades, have been expanding their natural wine offerings to meet growing demand.

Knapik credits a lot of their natural wine tutelage to La Garagista, a Barnard winery that’s been selling biodynamic wines since 2010.

Related Stories:

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Boyden Valley to stop wine production; will focus on liquor

Vermont winery dropping wine to focus on liqueurs

Route 7 wineries complete merger

Shelburne Vineyard acquires existing Addison County vineyard

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