Sunday, August 7, 2011

Second Annual Live Free & Wine Festival

It was warm on Saturday and the fairground buildings didn’t ventilate very well. A lot of tickets were sold, twice as many as last year in fact. The configuration of the space didn’t allow the wineries to spread out as much as they ultimately needed to when the festival goers really showed up. OK, the logistics sucked.

Now with 24 licensed wineries in the state, the NH Winery Association again came together to host the Second Annual Live Free & Wine Festival on August 6th at the Rochester Fairgrounds in Rochester, NH. The event was bigger than its first year in both the number of participating wineries & vendors, but also in ticket sales and attendance. Growing out of a location in just one year is a strong sign of interest in the industry. The day wasn’t without some headaches that are inevitably going to get bandied about by anyone who went, but overall there is something so New England about a small and growing collective of craftspeople showing off their style. I had fun, not as much as I had hoped, and came away with an accomplished mission.

Many of the recent Wine Blogger Conference recaps included rants about the excessive heat in Virginia for the event. Yes it was hot yesterday in NH, but it was nothing close to VA; and bearable for someone who survived Monticello with a heat index of 115, tasting lots of wines and catching the last bus out. But not everyone is me, no really, you’re not, so the conditions on Saturday were bad and that is thusly depressing to write about. The rest of the logistics are things that the winery owners and organizers will take away just like they did from last year. They’ll do it again, and they should, and it will be better. Michael Fairbrother of Moonlight Meadery tweeted the following this morning using the new #NHwine Twitter hash tag.  He also retweeted all of my messages during and after the event yesterday. Go Michael with the early morning Tweets!

“#nhwine we could have used way more space, and double the meter staff, sorry for long lines” from @MoonlightMead on August 7th at 6:22 AM.

See, next year will be better still.

On to the fun stuff. Growth was visible at the event with several newly opened AND not yet opened wineries participating.

Sap House Meadery was the first of the newer wineries I visited. They have been successful enough to sell out of other products they previously had available except the Sugar Maple which they were pouring for tasters. I had had the samples of it at several previous tastings and being an enjoyer of mead I went in for another.

The nose contained pungent aromas of honey & maple with a hint of nuttiness. It is off-dry with a rooty palate, a good dose of acidity and a clean finish. This is a very smooth product and would be a great aperitif candidate.

I didn’t have a chance to stop by the Windroc Vineyard table but from what I heard of conversations at it that they are not operating yet, but are expecting that in a short time. Nice to see them attending and marketing themselves ahead of time.

Hermit Woods had a very impressive presence for a new winery and were pouring wines from their sizable collection of fruit wines, meads and traditional dry table wines. I had their Crabapple wine, finding it to have tart apple and cider like aromas, finishing like a bit of apple flavored Jolly Rancher candy. The wine is distinctive and was enjoyable so I’d recommend trying it for something that is just that much different!

Coffin Cellars had the most interesting table setup and thematic tie-ins with their business name. A great play for a new winery. As I understood the story the Coffin name is a family name and of a family of long-time New England residents who came to America as whale hunters and ultimately changed trades into coffin making? I asked if there were any old graveyard sites that are now vineyards. The response was that since the wines are fruit based at this time no. Scary possibilities… I tasted the Elderberry wine made in a dry red wine style. It had a punget nose of red fruits and elderberry. It wasn’t complex or highly concentrated but had a clean finish. Margot had the blueberry and had a lot of good things to say about it.

I think this growth is incredibly positive for the NH wine industry. In the 10 years I have been getting to know the wineries and wines I’ve seen consistent growth, and those businesses that have flourished are doing something recognizable to the wider wine interested world; making for good models. Some amount of growth has to be expected to be lost in the economic shuffle and indeed that has also been seen in NH. It will and should continue for the industry to grow sustainably. Ideally quality would be driver for this, but ultimately it is not when you have players with different backgrounds and differing amounts of money to commit to their businesses.

Issues of consistency and quality are front and center for any product business . Knowing some of the owners of the NH wineries personally I know they consciously deal with these issues season by season. What is the report from the ground? Well, mixed to be clear and blunt. Being a New Englander, and a winemaker, I have a sense of how the wine reflects the people and this place. And so do many of the NH wineries, and they do their best job in expressing the quirkiness we are famous for. Hybrid grapes, sweet white and red blends, honey, maple syrup and local fruits all thrown into a blender is pretty much our thing here in New England.

Wine drinking New Englanders though are likely used to drinking something very different, like domestic wines from the West Coast and imported wines from France, Spain and Italy. How do those wines compare with the local juice? They don’t. To judge the local wines fairly is to take each on its merits and as you get to know a winery being able to compare the consistency of a particular label from one year to the next.

I had two wines from Olde Nutfield this week. The first was a Marechal Foch. A flaw in this wine was the lack of concentration. Even hybrid grapes when vinified in a traditional method to make table wine can be judged on concentration. This wine was very much a watered down image of what would be intended for it. I was disappointed but don’t know the winery and wines at all so can’t say anything else. My second tasting was their Clementine dessert wine. The Clementine aromas and flavors were present but could be amped up. It was not sweet enough to be a dessert wine for me. A touch of sweetness might even give the flavors the bump they need for a 2 for 1.

Farnum Hill is an example of one of the operations that forms the foundation of the NH wine industry for me, and is the most complete reflection of New England style in my opinion. Cider isn’t technically wine to a lot of people, but again in New England we do things our way, so come along and enjoy it!

I enjoyed their Dooryard #1108 sparkling cider. They didn’t have the Kingston Black which I would have burned several tickets on! The cider had a nose full of tart apples. It was dry with a strong tart finish. These batched ciders used to be sold in growlers from the cider house thus the name Dooryard. I’d take one home for sure!

Next up was the Jewel Towne Seyval Blanc. This wine has a complex mouth on it that is introduced with a pleasant hybrid grape nose, just a little perfumed to the right and to the left. This is my best example of a consistent product that I have enjoyed going back 5 years now. I also know from talking to festival goers that the South Hampton red they were also pouring fit the profile I know of that wine as well. Peter and the whole team at Jewel Towne have been working really hard to get where they are and I think it is a good example of responsible growth.

Moonlight Meadery is the current growth example for the NW wine industry. And here we go with “it’s mead, not wine.” Exhibit A, map of New England with a big you are here sticker on it! Michael Fairbrother and his team at Moonlight are dogged in their desired to get the Moonlight name out there. Having a great product with wide appeal to back up your marketing is a recipe for success. We’ve visited the meadery several times and reviewed their products here several times as well. We love the product and with the range of offerings feel many other people will and should too. I didn’t get a picture of them working their booth and I am disappointed at that. Another time!

I sampled Moonlight’s Sumptuous, a mango  flavored mead, and Margot checked out the Kamasumatra, a coffee flavored mead. The Sumptuous is some serious juice. The tartness that backs up the sweet fruit flavors is just right. It tastes like honeyed baked mangoes. Rock on! The Kamasumatra is interesting because it tastes more like a coffee liqueur than a mead. The strong coffee flavor overpowers the fermented honey flavors I am used to picking out, but in a positive way. I’d like to mix some cocktails with it real soon.

We caught Amy Labelle amongst the crowd before we had stopped by the Labelle Winery table. We asked what was new since we saw her last, almost a year sadly, and she mentioned the Three Kings Port. She went on to talk about some plans she has underway. She did admit to getting a ribbing from her husband and business partner, Cesar, about the number of labels she is juggling right now. It is true, the LaBelle web site boasts over 20 different styles that may be available for tasting or purchase.  With plans of getting bigger underway Amy did acknowledge that such growth in distinct labels is not sustainable, and that some styles might not be economically feasible in larger batches. As a consumer it is nice to have businesses share their challenges and ideas with you as their fans, friends and customers. Margot and I did both try the Three Kings Port which is a blend of blueberries, red raspberries and Marechal Foch grapes. LaBelle produces well-made varietal versions of all these wines making for a natural blending opportunity with a slight twist.

Amy & I have a blueberry wine story going back a few years. At a winery association dinner I was drinking a blueberry wine of hers and went on to explain my issues with blueberry wine and why I couldn’t explain why I wasn’t a big fan of them. Whoops! I didn’t lead with my thoughts on her wine which was well made and flavorful, despite my seemingly singular struggle with blueberry wines. I hope my coming back makes up for it!

The LaBelle Three Kings has huge nose on it with dried fruits and some grape-ness rolled in. The berry flavors are really intense and linger through the finish. The wine is in a port style which is to say that it is left somewhat sweet and is fortified with apple brandy. It isn’t as concentrated as port, but that is notable for expectations only. We would have bought one to take home but didn’t feel like fighting the crowds. They aren’t that far from us so we’ll go and pick one up at the winery real soon!

The next wine I tried was the Haunting Whisper Blackberry. Margot made a pretty killer blackberry wine in 2010 so I wanted to contrast this with it. The Haunting Whisper wine had strong dark berry fruits in the nose, was semi-dry and had a richness to the flavor that will have me keeping an eye on this wine in the coming years. Margot's was more of a red wine with the added Cabernet juice so not a fair comparison.

I had the Fortune Cookie from Candia Vineyards next. Bob Dabrowski and I have known each other for a few years now and I have always admired his keep-it-small approach. He does a lot with a small vineyard and simple operation adjacent to his home. With the long lines I was dashed in my hopes to try more than one wine from several wineries that I had planned to. Candia was one of them and I wish I had tried the Diamond or Foch instead. Fortune Cookie is advertised as a Cabernet blend. I didn’t find it had much character though. It was dry and had some stylistically accurate aromas and flavors, but lacked punch. I’ve enjoyed the Classic Cab from Candia before and maybe this wine just isn’t for me. No harm, no foul. I will be making a trip out to pickup some wines from several NH wineries that I want to try again, and Candia is on the list. I’ll be sure to report on my year over year impressions and recommend the solid performers for your local wine exploits.

Our last tastes were at Sweet Baby Vineyards. I’ve met Lewis several times before and while he was on-site during the festival the lines were long and he wasn’t there when I stepped up to taste so I didn’t have a chance to catch-up. His 2009 Blueberry wine was my “Surprise of the Day” at the 2010 Live Free & Wine Festival and I was looking forward to trying a new batch for another year. Unfortunately it didn’t measure up. The prior vintage was highly concentrated, very red wine in nature with profound aromas and flavors. The newest version was lesser in all regards. Wine is an agricultural product and without more information about how it was made I can only say it wasn’t consistent. While not the end of the world, it isn’t a big positive.

So there were some hits and some misses. We tasted new products that aren’t consistent with their predecessors yet others that with no track record seem destined for success. We felt a great sense of excitement at all the interest in the local wines and feel like that alone makes this event worth it. I would follow that with the idea that if you really want to get to know the wineries and their wines plan to visit the tasting room. You can’t get enough of the story in a festival setting.

Three local authors were there representing their New England and New Hampshire winery books. Chris and Nancy Obert are friends of ours and are the authors of “The Next Harvest, Vineyards & Wineries of New England.” Chris and Nancy embarked on quite a few adventures around New England to research and experience the wineries in operation. Clearly they were able capture and present stories of similarities, differences, and passions for making wine from all corners of New England. I have bought and given away many copies of their book as a way to give people a glimpse of what is going on here in New England, where fermentation and alcohol production have such a long and sordid history.

I highly recommend this book as a survey of the New England wine industry (it is slightly dated, but such books always will be)  and as a guidebook for adventures of your own. You can get more information at the Pear Tree Publishing web site.

I met Carla Snow formally for the first time Saturday. I knew of her and know many people who are likewise connected with her and her wine experience. She is the proprietor of A Grape Affair, a Portsmouth-based company that sponsors wine and food events to help increase wine appreciation in New England. She was on site to represent her book, “Wine & Dine with New Hampshire”, focused on the wineries of New Hampshire with winery profiles and then presents recipes cooked and/or paired with each winery’s wines. There is a brief history of the New Hampshire wine industry which backs up my rough recollection of it from my last post on the Live Free & Wine event. I am looking forward to reading this book for sure!

At the end of the day I went on a quest to find some wine I had personally made in 2010 that could cap off a day of such diverse local wines. Sadly I found quite a few things I made last year to be lost causes. I did find Black Currant / Pomegranate and our Chocolate/Raspberry Port that at least gave me a smile…




Anonymous said...


Megan @ Foodalution said...

Wow! Quite a tasting! Too bad about your own makes though... glad to hear some of it made it!