It might be one of the last things you’d expect to see on a wine bottle — “Made on the North Shore.”
Yet, there are currently three wineries operating in this region. What’s more, some of their products are squeezed from fruits grown here despite cold, wind and miserable winters.
“People are drinking wines from California and the West Coast,” says Amanda Fancy of the North of Boston Convention Center & Visitors Bureau, which is currently promoting local wineries. “Now people on the East Coast want to play.”
One reason they’re able to is simple — wine does not rely on grapes alone.
“A wine made from blackberries can be very similar to a red wine made from grapes,” says Miranda Russell of Russell Orchards in Ipswich, which began selling wine in 1988. Working with her husband and brother-in-law, Russell makes up to 25 different wines and hard ciders, filled with such exotic ingredients as gooseberries, black currants, raspberries and even dandelions.
“It’s a tricky area to grow grapes,” she acknowledges, and Russell Orchards’ production of them is limited to table grapes. But the farm has seen a steadily growing interest in the fruit wines produced on its 120 acres, with a staff topping out at 75 people during the picking season. Among other products, they press 5,000 gallons of wine.
Each fruit offers a different experience for the wine drinker, Russell explains. You can taste the raspberries in the raspberry wine. “And the bouquet. If you take a nice big sniff, you can really smell the raspberries,” she says.
Growing fruit is a complicated business. The weather in New England remains a challenge. The virtual lack of winter this past year was as problematic as the expected piles of snow. Waiting for the freeze to return, dreading what the unseasonable March heat would do to the fruit, left a nervous Russell wondering “if we could lose the whole crop.”
Selling isn’t easy, either. Shipping alcohol involves complex state and federal regulations.
“We sell a lot of our stuff locally,” she says.
Richard Adelman of 300-year-old Alfalfa Farm in Topsfield has that in mind as he celebrates a new state law allowing wineries to sell their products at farmers markets.
“People have been really happy to have us there,” he says.
On what was once a farm stretching for hundreds of acres, he raises grapes on only 10 acres, producing 1,000 cases of wine, 12 bottles to a case, each year.
Working with his brother Dave and sister Judy, along with lots of volunteers, he first planted grapes in 1995. He isn’t growing rich, however. Adelman’s primary job is teaching sociology and economics at North Shore Community College.
“It’s a lot of work,” he says of the winery. “A huge amount of work. We start at the end of March. We start pruning.”
Some grapes have to be cut away so the rest will thrive. Which to abandon is one among dozens of difficult decision that farmers must make each season, Adelman explains. “You try to get the grapes to grow the way you want them to grow.”
He also produces fruit wines — strawberry, blueberry, cranberry — all becoming increasingly popular. “Cold, hardy grapes,” designed to be as tough as the people who live here, go into his regular wines, which are created in a traditional wood press.
Despite his passion for wine-making, Adelman admits he’s not a big drinker. The fun for him is the process and the people.
“I like the people part of it,” he says.
That’s a contrast to a lot of winemakers who were drawn by their affection for the product. But Adelman laughs that he was warned early on, “If you like it too much, it could be a problem.”
In Rowley, Salem native Donna Martin takes a scientific approach to wine at Mill River Winery. She is a retired chemist who once worked on more caustic elements in industry. Today, she’s measuring the chemical nature of her wines, made in seven stainless-steel tubs. “A lot of what we do here is testing to make sure everything is well-balanced.”
She works with partner Rick Rousseau, growing some grapes locally.
“We have a vineyard out back that we planted this spring,” she says.
She’s expecting a “bumper crop” this year.
Some of her grapes are imported from as near as Amherst, a farm run by the University of Massachusetts, and from as far away as Chile and California. “The most important thing is the quality of the grape,” Martin explains. The level of sugar contributes to the alcohol content, “and each (variety of) grape has its own distinctive flavor, which expresses itself in the wine.”
Ultimately, she says, “a great wine needs a great grape.”
After more than five years in the business, the pair opened the winery to the public for the first time this past year.
“We do all the crushing and processing and make the wine here on site,” Martin says.
Mill River Winery is a restored cider mill dating from the late 1800s on 3
acres, turning out 2,000 cases of wine a year.
A tasting bar is constructed with “reclaimed wood,” and a retail shop features cheese selections, olive oil, jams and jellies.
“You’re not only buying wine here,” Martin says, “you’re getting the wine experience.”
A GUIDE TO LOCAL WINERIES Alfalfa Farm Winery 267 Rowley Bridge Road, Topsfield www.alfalfafarmwinery.com 978-774-0014 Mill River Winery 498 Newburyport Turnpike (Route 1), Rowley www.millriverwines.com 978-432-1280 Russell Orchards 143 Argilla Road, Ipswich www.russellorchards.com 978-356-5366 The North of Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau is among a number of agencies that have supported creation of a brochure listing winemakers and cheesemakers throughout the state. The brochure is available online at www.massvacation.com.