Instead of the usual round-up of the year’s best booze and wine books, all recommended without consideration for the delicious drops of liquid to which each tome pays homage, I’ve decided to run a series of reviews that include an appropriate pairing. Because what’s the point of reading about wine if you can’t simultaneously taste it? This is part one of your 2014 wine pairing gift guide.
First up, the unique grapes of Vermont.
An Unlikely Vineyard: The Education of a Farmer and Her Quest for Terroir
By Deirdre Heekin, Chelsea Green Publishing, $35
Winemaking occurs in all 50 of the United States, including Vermont. But good wine — wine you want to drink repeatedly and discuss, open with friends, and compare with food — is a different story.
In this volume, author Deirdre Heekin tells the story of fine winemaking in Barnard, Vermont. She’s not just the writer of a book that chronicles a fledgling farmer’s first foray into vinification, from country bathtub to biodynamic vineyard management and minimalist (or “natural” or “real”) winemaking — she happens to be the winemaker, and farmer, plus photographer and a restaurant owner, too. Her husband, Caleb Barber, also wears a few hats, namely as chef for their Woodstock restaurant pane e salute, so named and conceived after an Italian sojourn inspired them to recreate the food and wine culture of an osteria back home in New England.
Heekin’s tale begins with a curious epicurean who had a strong desire to learn how to make wine. She and her husband drank it regularly; they paired it with food in the restaurant. Understanding the processes of pressing grapes, fermenting juice, and preventing potential wine from turning to vinegar seemed like a logical jump. Eventually, humble inquiry (like that of many hobbyists-turned-professionals) led to the cultivation of grapes through ownership and leasing of vineyards, to building what is now a small but impressive 500-case wine business called la garagista.
The wines, however, are not typical Vitis vinifera. Vermont’s snowy winters, and short growing seasons, would devastate Europe’s less hardy vines. The local vintners (of whom Heekin believes there to be about 25) work with crossings bred to withstand cold-temperature extremes. These grapes include Le Crescent, Marquette, three types of Frontenac, and St. Croix (which, ironically, conjures thoughts of a warm, Caribbean island).
Heekin gives a lyrical description of her earthly discoveries, of the interconnectedness of local flora and fauna — a salve made from nearby plants healed an injured vine — and imbues her accounts with the wonder of a child discovering an earthworm in the mud for the first time.
Her gentle, flowing cadence and consistent use of imagery (both written and photographed) carries the reader across passages that might otherwise be, dare I say, dull. Yet the casual reader looking for a human interest story on the transformation of a woman and her farm, with little care for the intricacies of pruning methods, might nonetheless find themselves engaged as Heekin describes orchard tree limbs as “fast-growing whiplike branches that rise towards the sun,” and considers them in the philosophical framework of nature’s ability to find its own balance against human intervention.
No matter how pretty, poetic, and heartfelt Heekin’s narrative, however, the ultimate arbiter of her efforts is the wine itself. For while backstory provides invaluable context for appreciating a wine, context can’t hide flaws or dress up grapes that don’t want to be bottled.
The wines, fortunately, taste perfectly at home in a 375mL bottle (from the 2013 vintage on, all wines will be in 750mL bottles). They have an intense, vivid purity and mouthwatering alpine acidity, making them perfect food wines. The 2012 Damejeanne, made from 90 percent Marquette (a red grape), and 10 percent La Crescent (a white grape), speaks of wild berries, flowers, and crunchy Vermont soil.
To buy the book and the wines (I highly recommend you do both), visit Frankly Wines (66 West Broadway, 212-346-9544). Proprietor Christy Frank currently carries the Coup de Foudre 2013 (Pet Nat), Vinu Jancu 2012 (skin-fermented white), and the Damejeanne 2012.