Article By: Harvey Finkel
Massachusetts is not generally thought of as an eastern Napa Valley, but we do produce wine here. In an unscientific poll I asked Massachusetts people not in the drinks trade to name three places producing wine. The responses, in rank order, included California, France, Italy. There was a single mention of a source in the northeast, Massachusetts. In fact, we have 36 licensed wineries in production in the Bay State.
In 163O, the first year of European settlement of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, wine was made from wild native grapes. (I imagine the wine was wild too.) Governor John Winthrop tried growing vines on an island in Boston Harbor, now part of Logan International Airport. In 1635, Dr. Robert Child, an Englishman, envisioning Burgundian côtes, planted French vines in what is now Massachusetts apple country. Late in the 17th century, Indian-harassed Huguenots in western Massachusetts attempted to grow wine grapes. None of these efforts was successful. Grapes were grown along the Charles River in and near Boston during the mid-19th century, then crushed in presses set up under the city reservoir. I find no surviving comments about the wine. There were no large vineyards, but European varieties were grown in hothouses. In 1849, Ephraim Wales Bull, goldsmith, viticulturist and teetotaler, developed in Concord, Massachusetts, the grape named for that town. It became a popular source of juice, jelly and, unfortunately, wine. Because of a defect in his patent application, Bull never profited from his work, although the Welch family certainly did. He died in distressed circumstances. His tombstone proclaims, “He Sowed Others Reaped”. Shoots from the original vine are still growing adjacent to Bull’s Grapevine Cottage and elsewhere in Concord.
The first viable commercial winery in Massachusetts was Chicama Vineyards on Martha’s Vineyard, planted in 1971. When George and Catherine Mathiesen arrived, they found, to their surprise, no vineyard on the island. It is said to have had its name transferred from a smaller island to the south, apparently rich in wild vines, named in 16O2 for the deceased infant daughter of English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold. It was also known as Martin’s Island during the 17th century, probably after Gosnold’s captain, John Martin. Chicama became a lighthouse for New England wine producers, but it could not survive the recent death of George Mathiesen. The Mathiesens and David Tower helped get the Farm Winery Act passed in Massachusetts, enabling direct sales to wholesalers, shops, restaurants, and consumers. Tower’s Commonwealth Winery in Plymouth (1978 to 1988) was an artistic success but financial failure – a familiar story. When I helped write a small book on the wines of New England 2O years ago, Massachusetts had only 8 wineries. Four of those remain in business: Nashoba Valley Winery, Plymouth Colony Winery, West County Cider, and Nantucket Vineyard. Some of the others are infants, just learning to toddle.
Massachusetts, on its southeast coast, boasts of part of the federally recognized Southeastern New England AVA. The marine surroundi ngs temper the climate, easing the survival of vinifera vines. Still, the rigors of the New England weather make every kind of farming a struggle, but an honored adage maintains that fruit stressed in their growth make the best wine.
Although most of the wineries are quite small, their collective impact is significant. The number of wineries and wine production are rapidly increasing, as are planted acreage and agritourism. Winegrowing preserves open space and provides employment. Wine is the highest value-added commodity in Massachusetts, the fastest growing agricultural product. Massachusetts leads all states in per-capita sales of farm products sold directly to consumers. It is hoped that our busy farmers’ markets will be permitted to sell wine – that will take a change in the law.
The wineries are scattered throughout the state: three in Boston, two in Boston’s western suburbs, seven north of Boston, eight south of Boston, two on Cape Cod and one on Nantucket, seven in central Massachusetts (west of I-495), and seven in the far west (from the Pioneer Valley/Connecticut River/I-91 to the New York border). They vary in production from over 15,OOO cases per year down to under 2OO. Twenty-seven are named for places, not all real or particular places. Four are named for people. Several of the proprietors are farmers, a handful are physicians; some have migrated from unrelated professions, a few highly technical. Italian family tradition and home winemaking or brewing are frequent backgrounds.
Many of the wineries raise at least a portion of the fruit they use, some all. Some purchase all their fruit locally or from Long Island, the Finger Lakes, even from California. Some use only grapes. An increasing proportion use vinifera grapes, the classical European varieties, though French-American hybrids are still raised. A number make wine from both grapes and other fruit. A few major in non-grapes. One vinifies only honey.
To my knowledge, four of the wineries also produce beer: Nashoba Valley, Nantucket, Westport Rivers Vineyard and Winery, and Harpoon Brewery, whose main product is beer, but which is included herein because of its Harpoon Cider. Nashoba and Nantucket also distill spirits. Westport Rivers is renowned as a source of labor-intensive, time-consuming fine champagne-method sparkling wines.
Massachusetts is blessed with extraordinary apples of many varieties. The Baldwin apple was discovered in Wilmington, Massachusetts. Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman) was born in Leominster. Part of the central section of the state is commonly referred to as “apple country”. Hard cider was a traditionally popular beverage among English and French settlers in New England, New York and Canada, in fact holding the place beer now enjoys well into the 19th century. Our ninth president, William Henry Harrison, was elected in 184O using the motto “log cabin and hard cider”. Hard ciders and apple wines are made throughout the state. Still River Winery’s sole product is an apple ice wine that’s a dessert in itself. Other fruits thrive here as well, notably peaches and all sorts of berries. Cranberries are almost a signature. All these wind up as wine at some facilities. One may even run into nearly forgotten dandelion or rhubarb wine on rare occasion. Pears, on the other hand, seldom put in an appearance. They pose some difficulties in vinification, perhaps because of available varieties. Probably of greater impact was pear leaf scorch, a bacterial disease that decimated the pear trees here abouts 3O years ago.
Honey wine (mead) is possibly the oldest alcoholic beverage, dating back 9OOO years. Widespread in its appreciation, including in Asia, it has long been popular in grape-deficient northern Europe, and remains so among descendants of immigrants from that region.
Much of winery goings-on are accessible to the public, welcoming visitors for tours, tastings and purchases. A number run special events, festivals and the like. Their websites give details. For smaller wineries especially, it is advisable to call before visiting. Purchases can often be made online. One can be guided in participatory winemaking, and purchase the result, at Boston Winery and Zoll Cellars. (The latter also grows and vinifies in the usually way.) Vintner’s Cellar Winery will custom blend. Some will custom label.
Excellent overarching sources of information are maintained by the new england wine gazette (print edition or online at newenglandwinegazette.com), the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, which encompasses the Massachusetts Wine and Cheese Trail (mass.gov/agr/massgrown/wineries.htm), the Massachusetts Farm Wineries & Growers Association (masswinery.com), and the Coastal Wine Trail of Southeastern New England (coastalwinetrail.com).
Local wine goes well with local food. Go for it.
Alfalfa Farm Winery, Topsfield
Boston Winery, Dorchester
Cantina Bostonia, Jamaica Plain
Cape Cod Winery, East Falmouth
Coastal Vineyards, South Dartmouth
Echo Hill Orchards and Winery, Monson
Furnace Brook Winery at Hilltop Orchards, Richmond
Green River Ambrosia, Greenfield
Hardwick Vineyard and Winery, Hardwick
Harpoon Cider, Seaport District of Boston
Headwater Cider Company, Hawley
Jewell Towne Vineyards, South Hampton, NH/Amesbury, MA*
Lazy Valley Winery, Indian Orchard (Springfield)
Nantucket Vineyard, Nantucket
Nashoba Valley Winery, Bolton
The Neighborhood Cellar, Winchester
Neponset Winery, Needham
Obadiah McIntyre Farm Winery at Charleton Orchards Farm, Charleton
Pioneer Valley Vineyard, Hatfield
Plymouth Bay Winery, Plymouth
Plymouth Colony Winery, Plymouth
Plymouth Winery, Plymouth
Red Oak Winery, Middleton
Running Brook Vineyards, North Dartmouth
Russell Orchards, Ipswich
Still River Winery, Harvard
Travessia Urban Winery, New Bedford
Les Trois Emmes Winery and Vineyard, New Marlborough
Truro Vineyards of Cape Cod, North Truro
Turtle Creek Winery, Lincoln
Vineyard Hill Winery, Westminster
Vintner’s Cellar Winery, Wilmington
West County Cider, Colrain
Westport Rivers Vineyard and Winery, Westport
Willow Spring Vineyards, Haverhill
Zoll Cellars, Shrewsbury
* Jewell Towne’s vineyards straddle the New Hampshire-Massachusetts border,
but the winery is on the New Hampshire side.