Appreciating the vision, passion, and perseverance fueling a small business success.
In these times with the world moving so fast, often leaving us over-programmed, burned out, or disconnected, meaningful moments become increasingly important to seek out; moments to laugh or learn; chances to let life’s challenges melt away and lose yourself in an event; opportunities to bond with friends or loved ones; and memories to fuel you until the next break from the daily grind.
One such moment for us began with a revealing statement from winemaker and owner Mark LaClair: “I feel like what I’m doing matters. Not that it matters in the grand scheme of things,” Mark said self-deprecatingly, before adding earnestly, “But it matters to me.”
No, Mark, it matters to us as well. Like us, you’re likely to find an experience that will also matter to you at Seven Birches Winery in Lincoln, New Hampshire’s RiverWalk Resort.
Mark would proudly say he’s a winemaker. Although he spent years refining his craft and taking risks to evolve it from a hobby shared with friends and family into a growing business, it can be argued that he’s doing much more than that: he’s setting up a chance for people to have the meaningful experience that they want.
Over time, Mark refined his craft and found an opportunity to produce his wines commercially, for the Windy Ridge Orchard, west of Lincoln on the Vermont border of New Hampshire. While he continues producing wine for them, in 2016 he had the opportunity to scale up production at the new RiverWalk Resort that sits in the shadow of Loon Mountain.
When you visit Seven Birches, Mark’s goal of pairing great wine with a great experience may be subtle, but it’s pervasive.
You have several ways to sample the wine, from the more common: tasting of five samples to enjoying an entire glass; to the less common: a tour and education hosted by the winemaker; or joining the “Barrel Club”, which is an opportunity to create custom wine with input on the harvesting and bottling.
Obviously, wine is subjective. So, the better feedback we’d offer is that Seven Birches’ overall wines are as good top-to-bottom as any we’ve found from New England wineries we’ve visited to date, which means everyone should be able to find something to suit their preference.
The wine, however, is only the foundation of your visit. It’s enhanced by the locally made snacks, accessories, and crafts that create a very New Hampshire feel and provide fodder for conversation.
The tasting room has a feel combining the ruggedness of the White Mountains with the elegance of a vineyard; a large window directly across the hallway allows you to observe their production facilities. Adjacent to the tasting room is a covered veranda overlooking RiverWalk’s large, outdoor pool, with the Pemigewasset River and woods beyond it – perfect in the warmer months. These all provide options for how you want your afternoon to unfold.
The last obvious aspect of Mark’s focus is how he and his team interact with you. They are extremely knowledgeable, helpful, and friendly. With our two lengthy visits, we had the time to study them. They all seemed to intuitively understand the unique experience that groups sought. In some cases, they filled glasses and allowed people to be immersed in their own conversations. In other cases, they expertly explained details of that wine, and lingered when sensing people might have questions or thoughts they wished to share. Staff sometimes wound up in conversation with multiple groups, who then chatted with each other.
In our case, Mark tended to us. We were interested in learning more about the wines themselves, and their production. He proudly shared his knowledge, and made us feel as if we were chatting with a friend, despite routinely (and understandably) slipping away to tend to other customers. He also remembered us upon our return visit and we all seemed to pick up where we’d left off. Such personal and genuine interactions were meaningful to us, and provided us one of the highlights of our trip. That personal touch reflects his attention to so many details.
Mark is not interested in getting Seven Birches into retail stores. This stays true to his desire to remain a winemaker who runs a business, rather than evolving into a businessman who runs a winery. It’s also consistent with his broader goal: if the easiest way to buy a bottle of Seven Birches wine is by visiting the winery, it allows him to promote quality wines and experiences. He’ll soon be scaling up from his current 3,000 cases per year to over 10,000 and moving into a new tasting room and production facility, as part of RiverWalk’s planned expansion. But Seven Birches will remain on-site, and Mark will carry his experience and lessons learned with him that will preserve Seven Birches’ unique touch.
We bought several bottles before we left, and came back a second time to buy a few more. When the time comes to drink them, we’ll enjoy some great bottles. We’ll also relish reliving our time at Seven Birches Winery, and we’ll undoubtedly talk about the opportunity for a return visit and another moment where we can forget our cares and enjoy a most pleasant wine tasting experience.
Killing four birds with one stone (history, exercise, food, and scenery)
The Fort Hill historic district in the Cape Cod town of Eastham is a small attraction. But it has several activities that can easily evolve into a full afternoon of enjoyment.
The area was originally settled by English colonists in 1644 amidst worries against an invasion by the Dutch. Over time, it developed an agricultural focus. Soon, the natural resources were over-consumed and scarce, leaving a largely barren landscape. Life was challenging, and drove many young men to the sea for work.
Now, the Fort Hill district offers one of its best attractions right from one of the two small parking lots. It’s perched on a rise, overlooking Nauset Marsh. The amazing, panoramic view includes inlets, marshes, the beach, and the ocean beyond, as well as fields of flowers sloping towards the water. Plenty of boats can be seen on the main waterways, with kayakers weaving through the marshes. Whether taking in the view at sunrise without even leaving your car, or picnicking with family in the small field next to the parking lot, the scenery is spectacular and easily accessible.
Fort Hill’s parking lot is also a trailhead. A sandy trail gently works its way down from the rise and weaves along the edge of the marsh. Views constantly change, giving a feeling of variety despite the easy hike. Several routes exist, allowing for shorter or longer walks. Despite choosing one of the lengthier routes, our walk was still under two miles, lasted about an hour, and was easily managed even by the younger children in our group. Markers and a brochure educated on some of the plant life and historical significance of the area. Also, the Red Maple Swamp Trail includes a long, meandering boardwalk through the swamp that created further diversity to the hike.
The district’s last attraction is the Edward Penniman House. Penniman, like many young men, was driven to the sea. He returned in 1868, a successful 35-year-old, and built an impressive house. He raised the land several feet to afford views of the ocean and bay. The house itself featured hot and cold water and an indoor bathroom – both rarities for the day, and was decadently furnished.
The house is routinely open to the public and the ranger and volunteer during our visit were very knowledgeable about the house, family, and time period during our visit. The barn behind the house is currently undergoing renovations. Once open, it will offer even more antiques and places to explore.
The combination of the views, hikes, and tour offer something for everyone: they can capture the imagination of children or the interest of a history buff or environmentalist; they can deliver a unique trail run for the athlete, a casual walk for a family, or a bench for those looking to sit and relax.
While easily overlooked in favor of the beaches or the hustle and bustle of some other activities, Fort Hill in Eastham is a great alternative for people looking to explore a quieter corner of New England.
Enjoying my reward for venturing off the beaten path!
With the explosion of craft breweries in recent years across the country and certainly in New England, it becomes a little more challenging for a place to distinguish itself. The recent opening of Rek-Lis Brewing’s tasting room is one example of a new business clearly getting it right, which is quickly creating its own challenge of maintaining what makes it special.
Rek-Lis moved a few months ago from a shed to a wonderfully renovated site on Main Street in the small and picturesque town of Bethlehem, New Hampshire. It feels spacious, offering different zones, from a bar to some tables, and an upstairs as well as the covered porch. In fact, it’s actually a small building, and we lucked out with one of the last tables when we checked it out recently.
Rek-lis is so named for the way of life the owners, Ian and Marlaina, embody on a daily basis. The general goal is to take a chance on a labor of love, and to brew beers as over-the-top great as the adventures they or others might have enjoyed before sitting down for a cold one.
Speaking of their beers, there’s a constantly evolving list. In part, it’s based on the mad scientist attempt to pursue perfection. And, in part, it’s because Rek-Lis quickly became enough of a hit to now need to hustle to keep up with demand. Our visit was an example, with six of the eight samples in our flight being Rek-Lis brews, with two guest taps rounding out our flight. There was a clear tilt towards IPAs, which provided a chance to compare styles, but limited our ability to go in other directions, such as porters and stouts.
As their website illustrates, they’re zealous in their pursuit of craft brewing. But they do have a small yet solid menu and now also offer wine, creating options for those in a group who might not be beer connoisseurs. This also allows people to linger longer, which is important because it ties to what distinguishes them from many others.
The upscale farmhouse ambiance was instantly inviting, with interesting lighting and flights served in reclaimed wood. The beers were tasty and well crafted. But what really jumped out at us was the cheery vibe and immediate sense of community. The table we snagged was next to one end of the bar. As we looked around, we observed people happily engaged in conversations: locals critiqued their beers alongside tourists; millennials fell into discussions with retirees; and the friendliness of staff and owners inevitably pulled us further into the scene. We wound up chatting happily with transplants from Massachusetts, laughing with several waitresses, and were introduced to the owners as well as members of a barbershop quartet serenading the crowd (one of whom was the father of an owner).
That, to us, ultimately represented the true test that Rek-Lis will face. Their beers were legit. But the immediate sense of belonging, of being sincerely welcomed in like long-lost friends is what made our visit truly fun and worth driving out of our way. We felt as if we temporarily but clearly belonged there, and if we returned with any sort of regularity that we’d be remembered and appreciated. It’s not easy to start up a business or to create a series of solid beers, and it’s extremely hard to so quickly create such a genuinely inviting community.
Rek-Lis is already outgrowing its footprint, and is now looking at an addition to the building. The challenge isn’t just scaling up beer production. It’s on being able to grow while maintaining what makes it special and unique. For now, at least, the best advice to anyone journeying anywhere near the Franconia Notch region would be to set aside a couple of hours to enjoy the beers, food, setting, and especially the friendly enthusiasm that Rek-Lis joyfully serves up.
Wishing I could note my occupation as "cowboy" in the next census
Franconia Notch is a beautiful, rugged part of New Hampshire. The notch itself is lined with views and natural attractions, and Cannon Mountain and its ski trails loom large on the north end of it. But if visitors are willing to venture down some back roads, there’s more to be found. Franconia Notch Stables is one such place that, while off the beaten path, offers a chance to explore the area and enjoy the scenery in a different way.
Franconia Notch Stables, part of the Franconia Inn, is behind Cannon Mountain. It’s only a few minutes’ drive off of the highway. But it becomes quickly apparent that you’re in a more remote area. The Franconia Inn and adjacent stables are nestled in a little valley, surrounded by woods, mountains, and adjacent to a grass airfield. Everything has a more casual feel than the pleasant but more business-like places we sometimes run across in more hectic locales. This set things off on the right foot, as we prepared for our ride.
We’d lined up an hour-long trail ride at Franconia Notch Stables and were joining four other people. While we observed all of the horses to be well trained, each is still unique with its own personality. Accordingly, horses were matched with riders based on personalities, skills, and experience. However, prior riding experience isn’t necessary, and some riders had never been in the saddle. Also, these rides only proceed at a walking pace; no galloping to worry about for the newbie!
Setting out from the barn, the trails traversed fields, rivers, and woods. At times we were nestled in amongst the pines, and other points afforded us views of the surrounding mountains. The trails often include switchbacks, allowing the guide to easily observe the group and to offer helpful pointers.
Our guide, Abbott, was perfect for the ride. He was conversational and casual, but always observant and clearly experienced. His demeanor, obvious enjoyment of his work, and his watchful eye put some nervous riders at ease, while his conversation engaged the group.
The ride was also a great chance to allow all of us to fully engage with nature. Traveling at a slow pace, being in the woods on narrow trails, and seeing the world from atop a horse instead of in a car allowed people to see things differently. After settling into the ride, some began asking questions while others conversed with strangers, bonding over the ride. Sometimes people seemed alone with their thoughts while other times we were locked in on the task at hand, such as a river crossing. It seemed as if people’s work stress or any broader themes in their lives melted away and they could lose themselves in the trail ride, atop these beautiful animals, either proud in overcoming their nerves or happy in the purity of that moment.
We were sorry to see the ride end. But after taking a little extra time to walk through the Franconia Inn, we realized there’s plenty to enjoy with this property without having to leave: in addition to the horseback riding, there are tennis courts, a pool, Jacuzzi, restaurant, airplane rides, inviting chairs on the front porch, and in the winter the trails can be used for cross-country skiing. We resolved to come back and turn it into a weekend getaway, and are excited to have discovered a new place to explore further.
Witnessing the evolution of a place over three centuries
Sometimes, great things are easy to go unnoticed. So was the case with Armeno Coffee Roasters, on the border of Northborough and Westborough, Massachusetts. Tucked away in a small building on a side road, it’s easy to drive past without a second glance. But if you stop and go inside, you’ll be quickly rewarded.
The site itself has a long history, stretching back almost three hundred years. The store is on the site of a mill dating back to 1727, adjacent to Smith Pond. Over the centuries, the site operated first as a saw mill before evolving into a grist mill. The namesake stemmed from the next incarnation of the site, into Armeno Cereal Company, before its current iteration as Armeno Coffee Roasters began in 1994.
The store has a great ambiance, with many signs of its past. These range from the original Armeno Cereal Company sign and equipment to storage bins and equipment used in separating wheat from chafe during its earlier years. Beyond the front room where coffee is sold, the middle of the building where the roasting takes place can be seen; you can walk around, checking out the burlap coffee bags from around the world, lots of old wood, and equipment supporting the roasting operation.
The coffee business was the brainchild of Paul Kalenian, who sold it a half-dozen years ago to loyal and trusted employees Chuck Coffman and John Parks. But they’ve continued to grow the business. At this point, there are typically about 50 coffees to choose from, sourced from around the globe and fresh roasted daily to maximize the quality and flavor. These are available for in-store or mail order purchases.
The owners have also diversified; beyond the roasting operations is a temperature- and humidity-controlled room filled with a small but enticing wine selection. Wines are sourced from the world over, while also including local, boutique wineries such as Broken Creek, Zoll Cellars, and Turtle Creek. Armeno’s holds wine tastings most Saturdays (monthly during the quieter summer days), from 1:00-4:00, and offers attendees discounts from 10-20% on individual, half-case, and case purchases.
Also, across the street is the Berberian farm stand, with local produce; combing the two into a single stop can allow for a quiet, fragrant break in an historic building, followed by enjoyably searching for just the right local wine and food for a nice dinner on a Saturday night, all of which supports local businesses and farm-to-table concepts.
The Good Life...
can't exist alone. Places form the setting for your memories. People around us allow experiences to be shared, enriched, and leave us feeling connected and loved.