UNION, Maine — When Elmer and Holly Savage started growing grapes here 10 years ago, there were only a handful of wineries in Maine.
Now there are eight wineries in the midcoast area alone.
The area seems to be at the center of the state’s burgeoning wine industry — despite, not because of, its profitability.
The Savages — owners of Savage Oakes in Union — are one of the only businesses in Maine to grow, process and sell their own wine.
“Our grapes travel 300 feet from picking to product. Maybe a bit farther,” Holly said as she stood on the sunny, south-facing hill where her grapes grow.
“This is Maine. And this is Maine wine — from beginning to end,” added Elmer.
The 95-acre farm where the couple grows their 3.5 acres of grapes has been in Elmer’s family since the 1790s.
When his parents lived on the farm, keeping chickens and sheep was mostly a hobby. Elmer wanted it to be more than that and he bought the land from his parents.
But the Aldermere beef cows, chickens, pigs and blueberries aren’t enough to pay the Savages’ bills. So they diversified.
“We wanted to make the farm profitable. The grapes make it a sustainable farm,” Elmer said.
Holly quit her job in banking to run the tasting room and market the wines, although the couple confess the wine doesn’t make them rich. They do, however, sell out of their 1,000 cases of wines every year.
The profit margin is slim because of how labor-intensive the crop is.
“Maine is far from the ideal place for a vineyard. Most vineyards in the state haven’t done well,” Elmer said.
In California, grapes get up to half a year to grow. In Maine, the growing season is much shorter. And many plants can’t bear the cold.
Elmer had to pick hardy hybrid breeds created in the Midwest that could survive the winter.
“I could bring in grapes from elsewhere much cheaper. On such a small scale, this is labor-intensive,” Elmer said. “But we were a farm first. We want a farm. This is a sustainable approach to agriculture and winemaking.”
This spring has been the worst-case scenario so far, Elmer said.
“Those 80-degree days got them into gear. They broke dormancy — you can’t stop them once they break dormancy.”
The gnarly brown vines haven’t yet burst their buds and spurted green shoots — but that process could begin too soon. The buds already are engorged. Once the green material comes out, the plants are susceptible to frost.
To worsen the situation, Elmer said it’s the first green shoots that produce the most grapes from each vine.
“You could risk no fruit production,” Elmer said.
To prevent this, Elmer trimmed all the vines early, making huge stacks of dry plant matter around the vineyard. If it gets too cold at night in the next few weeks, he will go out and burn some of the plant material and keep fans going to raise the field’s temperature a few degrees. Worse comes to worst, he’ll get space heaters in the field.
While Elmer and Holly run one of the few Maine vineyards that made commercial wine from their own grapes last year, more and more grapes are maturing in local vineyards.
In Unity, the Younity Winery plans to have a full crop this year for wine.
Cellardoor Winery in Lincolnville planted vines in 2008 and will pick a full crop this year for next year’s wine list. Plants have begun producing fruit at Oyster River Winegrowers’ Warren farm, but making wine from the grapes will take a couple more years.
For now, those wineries all use imported grapes.
Other vintners, such as Winterport Winery, use locally harvested fruits including blueberries and apples for fruit wines — although that winery recently began importing grapes for wine, too.
Like Savage Oakes, none of these wineries claim to have enjoyed large profits. Many owners take on other jobs to help make ends meet.
“It’s a tough business with thin margins,” said Dan Bookham, executive director of the Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce. “You have to be diligent and patient and make the investment.”
Bookham compared the midcoast wine industry to windjammers, which he said took about five years to become profitable.
“There have been lonely pioneers for a long time. It’s one of those industries that has begun to gather steam. It grew organically. It’s like any cluster when it starts to form,” he said. “It’s a long-term process.”
Cellardoor Winery — which has a tasting room in Rockport — is the most visible winery in the midcoast. Its wines are in some local restaurants and stores and some varieties have won awards.
Owner Bettina Doulton wouldn’t comment when asked if the winery financially supports itself.
“I made big investments in this and we’ve grown it quickly. We believe to make it work, the model has to be different. We have many small wineries in the state. For them to be self-sustaining and to make a full-time living you have to have quite a few numbers of cases moving or it doesn’t work,” she said.
For people such as Clem Blakney, owner of Younity Winery and Vineyard, it’s his love of winemaking — not the money — that keeps him in the business.
Blakney works a full-time job to support his winery. His operation is small and will only make about 20 cases of wine this year from his grapes.
“Do we get a return to break even on the grapes? No. But it’s not just about making money. It’s about people and the passion,” he said.
The more wineries, the better, Blakney said. By having eight wineries in the midcoast, they have been able to make a wine trail and start wine tours and help each other, he said.
“We don’t compete with each other, for the most part,” he said.
The midcoast, he said, works for wineries because it is a bit warmer on the coast than other places, and there is affordable farmland.
Brian Smith, owner of Oyster River Winegrowers, agreed with that.
“I think wineries popped up in the midcoast because there is land fairly close to the coast and we need the tourist traffic. The tourists in the summer are near the coast. Southern Maine doesn’t have farmland easily accessible to tourist traffic. Further north might be similar as well.”
As the vineyards begin to experiment with grape growing in Maine, entirely new wines will be created — perhaps a bit acidic from the cold climate, perhaps mixed with imported grapes, maybe both.
“It’s exciting,” said Doulton. “It takes three to five years for a vineyard to mature, so it will be interesting in the next few years to see what comes out of this, as people are planting now.”