Happily chipping away at visiting the New England wineries
Sharpe Hill produces a number of wines, with a mix of whites and reds, as well as rose and dessert wine. There is also a mix of grapes, from more traditional Chardonnay and Riesling to less common St. Croix and Dornfelder. Offering some as blends allows for a more diverse lineup, and all grapes are estate except for what’s obtained in nearby Rhode Island.
The tastings can be done based on your choice of six wines, or you can try the entire suite of wines. The summaries of the wines helpfully lists how many awards each wine has garnered, as well as the food that pairs well. This very helpfully allows you to think about the wine in the context of broader meals that you might be creating.
Each wine was presented very knowledgeably, not just repeating the details on the write-ups, but with added information about the vineyard, grape, and winemaking process. Those conversations provided a deeper understanding of the wine and its unique production, and details on grapes with which we were less familiar were helpful in growing our knowledge.
Our favorites were the Ballet of Angels, an interesting white wine comprised of ten different grapes. It was light, but with a nice mix of citrus flavors that would be particularly delicious on a summer’s day, but was still great even in the dead of winter. While we also enjoyed the Cabernet Franc, a medium bodied wine more flavorful than many we’ve sampled in New England, our favorite red was the Red Syraph. We found this to be unusual and wonderful, building on the Cabernet Franc with Dornfelder and Gamay grapes for a complex wine. It was unlike most wines we’ve had, particularly for a New England red. While it would pair well with meats or Italian, it’s unique enough that we’d expect to savor it by itself.
It was impressive to see so many estate-grown offerings, and helpful to be served by such knowledgeable staff. With a quiet atmosphere and bucolic setting, Sharpe Hill was a delightful visit. This was a good winter alternative to skiing, given it was a rainy day. But in summer or during foliage season, with the beautiful surroundings, it would also be part of a wonderful day. Unless you’re fairly local, it’s probably best to incorporate this into a broader day trip, such as visiting the nearby Putnam Antiques District, and perhaps adding Taylor Brooke Farm’s wine tasting as well. The tasting room is only open Friday through Sunday, but as part of a (long) weekend, that won’t cause a problem for most people. Overall, this is definitely a local winery carving out a well-earned niche for itself.
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 have enough options that this is as worth visiting as any New England winery we’ve visited to date; everyone should be able to find something to suit their preference, and we've returned every time we're in the area.
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’s scaling up from 3,000 cases per year to over 10,000, and has added a second, stand-alone tasting room room in a stand-alone building on the same property as part of RiverWalk’s expansion. But Seven Birches will remain on-site, and is also offered in the on-site restaurant. 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 continue to seek out opportunities for return visits and more moment swhere we can forget our cares and enjoy a most pleasant wine tasting experience.
Finding new ways to enjoy a Saturday afternoon.
As spring crawls out from its winter hibernation, bringing the first color of the season and taking the edge off of the chill, we opted for a road trip along a stretch of New England’s coastal wine trail. This “trail” is made up of over a dozen wineries along the edge of southern New England.
Carolyn’s Sakonnet Vineyard is one such winery, located in Little Compton, Rhode Island. It absolutely did not disappoint, featuring great wine in an almost other-worldly environment.
Little Compton is on the eastern side of Rhode Island, surrounded by the Sakonnet River, the Watson Reservoir, and the mouth of Buzzards Bay, with the open Atlantic Ocean beyond. Unlike so many coastal towns, it’s not heavily developed; there are farms and open land that stretch down to the shoreline. It’s also very flat. This quiet combination creates a significant open expanse of land unlike most places someone could visit.
The vineyard was founded in 1975, making it one of the older ones in the area. Its location creates a microclimate and soil condition allowing for slower-developing grapes that have low sugar levels and high acidity. You’ll mostly find white wines, with a rose, blush, couple of reds, and couple of dessert wines to round out the offerings.
Sakonnet Vineyard is designed to encourage you to linger; there are more tables and chairs outside than I could count, mostly filling up a rock wall-lined field. The far side of the field creates plenty of privacy from the scrub trees so commonly found by the coast. On warm summer days, it would be hard to not spend a couple of hours sitting around and enjoying good wine and conversation, and taking in the ambiance. With a gift shop and café, there’s even more incentive to stick around for a while. On the day we visited, there was a chill in the air so we stayed in the tasting room.
That tasting room created a different but complementary feel to the outside fields. It featured a lot of stonework, large pieces of artwork, music in the background, and a large bar with several staff tending to the tastings. It creates a feel of an upscale wine bar that you might find in a city, but it maintains an intimate feel.
Sakonnet’s tastings run $13 for seven samples. With more than seven wines, you can choose the ones closest to your preferred wines, but still with some room to experiment. We found the overall lineup to be solid from start to finish. The whites were a mix, with both a lighter and heavier chardonnay for whichever season you’re in; and the vidal blanc seemed perfect for an upcoming a summer’s afternoon after the beach, or with a seafood dinner on the back patio.
Sakonnet’s rose was particularly strong, with a deeper pink hue than many, and flavorful for a rose, with notes of strawberry and cranberry, which would allow it to be perfect not just in summer but also for Thanksgiving.
Our favorite turned out to be the “blessed blend red”, a mix of cabernet franc, lemberger, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon. This wine has been winning medals for several years running and it’s easy to see why. It evidenced tastes of dark chocolate and cherry. It was flavorful but not heavy, as some blends can be. This was bold enough to be a good wine in winter, but still light enough to work well in warmer seasons and to accompany barbecued meats on the back grill.
We finished with a dessert wine, their Winterwine. It’s an ice wine that was unusual and great, served very cold. It’s thicker, with honey and apricot flavors and a very long finish, and is a perfect after-dinner wine during these colder months. While the warm weather is now approaching, it’s still worth buying and setting back for when the cold months return.
We purchased the blessed blend red, for $30, which was on the high end, as Sakonnet’s wines run $19-$30, not counting the Winterwine at $40. On this day, the store and café were closed, and the café was in the process of getting a facelift. With a couple of bachelorette parties making appearances, and with the weddings and events that Sakonnet can host, it’s clear that it will be a busy season for them. But, again, the amount of seating and open space are conducive to still feeling as if you’ve got your own space to enjoy an afternoon of peaceful and enjoyable conversation and wine.
I've found my new favorite barn!
The tasting room itself is in a renovated barn from the late 1800’s. It’s kept a lot of the old wood and so much character, making it a uniquely interesting building. However, you can sit outside or stroll the grounds if you choose but don’t go too far. Down the hill sits one of the older homes in the area, which is still a private residence to this day. They also host live jazz every Saturday afternoon from May to November.
Greenvale Vineyards itself was founded in 1982, so the oldest vines have matured over the course of 36 years. They produce about 3,500 cases (all estate grown) per year from 27 acres of grapes. While they lost a lot of grape leaves in a storm a few years ago, which hurt the yield that year, the vines all bounced back with even better production since then. The tastings covered seven wines and a vermouth, with an eighth wine being sold out. What was great about the tastings was that they covered the entirety of the wines produced. Sampling the full range offered a broader understanding of the winery and left no opportunity for buyer’s remorse.
Like other vineyards in the area, there were more whites than reds due to the climate and soil. However, over five whites and two reds, we found a nice variety, and wines that would combine to cover any occasion and pair with any food. The chardonnay was particularly interesting, with two versions. One paired newer vines with reused oak barrels; the other combined the oldest chardonnay vines with new barrels. Vermouth was their bigger experiment, which was unexpected but fun to try. The cabernet franc topped our list, with a classic taste – flavorful but light, good for any season. With springtime beginning and barbecue season not far away, this wine will pair very well with grilled meats.
Greenvale Vineyards is quiet and off the beaten path. But with the live jazz and historic feel, it’s a great location for functions, or bachelorette parties, a couple of which we saw during our stay. However, it likely wouldn’t ever feel crowded and cramped. The staff also were excellent: knowledgeable of the product, friendly and attentive, and they truly hustled hard and went out of their way to make sure our experience was as great as possible.
Slowly accumulating far too many souvenir glasses from this place!
The Broken Creek Vineyard and Winery is a family-owned, small vineyard in central Massachusetts. This boutique winery is a labor of love, but it takes absolutely no work whatsoever to fall in love with the place.
The winery started in 2015. It's currently cultivating only six of its 40 acres, but is growing steadily in terms of its vines and production capabilities. It has more than doubled its output to 8,000 bottles, with all facilities on-site. Impressively for a newer, smaller winery, Broken Creek’s offerings include several estate-grown wine options.
There are four reds and four whites, along with a special edition offering, and they continue to add to their lineup. Despite their doubling of capacity and their newness, Broken Creek has still had wine flying off its shelves, so not all wine was in stock when we visited. However, it had sufficient variety for a five-sample tasting that included a souvenir glass.
Two of the whites we sampled were great summer options, with a richer vignoles perfect for colder weather, similar to some chardonnays. The cabernet sauvignon is a delicious red, but much lighter than some of the incredibly bold, heavy, fruit-forward offerings common in stores these days. It still had great flavor, more akin to a robust pinot noir. Broken Creek also featured an estate-grown marquette. Interestingly, this is a hybrid grape created by the University of Minnesota about a decade ago to better survive in colder climates. It’s uniquely flavorful, can work well on its own or with, say, a Thanksgiving Dinner, and is hard to describe other than “delicious”.
This winery grew out of owner Eric Preusse’s hobby of fermenting beer, cider, and, predictably, wine. His pastime then grew to a business concept and then reality. Eric and his wife, Peggy, got this winery off the ground while still working demanding jobs in Boston. After an off-season that included expanded production and a much-needed trip to the Caribbean to recharge, the Preusses are now winding down on a second successful season. They’ve also finished work on a new tasting room and a back deck that are absolutely beautiful, along with event space. Whether you sit at one of their indoor tables playing backgammon or cribbage, enjoy the serene views from the back deck, or stroll the grounds with a glass of wine in hand, you can’t help but be extremely impressed by the wine and the whole operation that Eric and Peggy are building in this peaceful, little corner of town.
Glasses are $6-8; bottles vary, costing roughly around $20. Given their roles, the owners know their wine intimately, so can also help pair perfectly to meet your needs. They’re currently open on weekends, but event space is available during the week. When you meet truly nice people pursuing a dream and producing a great product, you can’t help but wish them all the best. Fortunately, Broken Creek is clearly well on its way to establishing itself as a fantastic boutique vineyard!
Spending a beach day afternoon doing something different.
Cape Cod Winery's bottles can be bought either from your table, or from inside of the store. Tastings also get you a free glass.
New England's Vineyards & Wineries
You don't need to fly to the west coast to find estate-grown wine. There are plenty that are just a drive away. Plenty more may import the grapes, but it's the winemaker's "special sauce" that leaves you wanting more!