UNION, Maine — The grapes were plump, deep purple and bursting with flavor — all of which bodes well for the 2015 harvest, according to Elmer Savage, co-owner of the Savage Oakes Vineyard and Winery in Union.
The 3½ acres on a sunny, south-facing slope planted with about 2,000 vines were ready for harvest, with the grapes destined to be turned into the award-winning selection of white, red, rose and blush wines that are sourced nearly completely from the Barrett Hill Road vineyard. That fact makes Savage and his wife, Holly Oakes Savage, fairly unusual in the state of Maine, where only a handful of winemakers make wine from grapes they grow on their own farms.
“Wines taste like where they’re grown,” he said on Sunday. “Producing something that’s made right here is what we wanted to do. The wines are unique to Maine, and there’s the pride that you’ve grown them right here.”
Not many years ago, drinking wine made from Maine-grown grapes was not really an option. Maine wineries were noted for wines made from blueberries, apples, cranberries — even honey — but not from grapes. Conventional wisdom had it that our harsh winters and short growing seasons made it impossible for delicate, sun-loving wine grapes to thrive or even survive. But conventional wisdom doesn’t always get it right, according to Savage and other experts, including Commissioner Walt Whitcomb of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
“It’s exciting,” the commissioner said Wednesday. “We’re getting more growers and more interest in Maine wines. And we’ve got a good climate for certain grapes.”
Reflecting the ‘terroir’ of Maine
At Savage Oakes, which used to be a hobby farm where Elmer Savage raised sheep and beef cattle and grew wild blueberries, finding the right grapes has been a key element to the winery’s success. When Elmer and Holly purchased the property from his parents in 2000, they decided they wanted to make a living from the land and figured they’d try their hand at growing grapes and making wine. They found cold-hardy hybrid grape varieties that largely were developed for the winemaking industry in midwestern states such as Minnesota. Some of those are hardy to 40 below zero, which is important when factoring in tough winters like the one that happened last year.
In 2002, they began planting vines on a sunny slope with well-drained soils, and began to imagine a future where they would make good wines, build a tasting room and bring crowds of people to the farm by holding special events there. Four years later, they got their first crop of grapes, and just a few days ago opened their brand-new tasting room.
“We had a vision, and we really kind of fulfilled it,” Elmer Savage said.
Keith Bodine of the Maine Winery Guild said there are fewer than 30 wineries in Maine, and 21 that belong to the guild. Just a few make wines from their own grapes, including Prospect Hill Winery in Lebanon and Dragonfly Farm & Winery in Stetson. Cellardoor Winery in Lincolnville, a much larger producer, does make some of its wines with grapes grown there, but also brings in grapes and grape juice from vineyards across the country. Bodine said that Sunday, Sept. 20, marked the fourth annual Open Winery Day, an event intended to both celebrate and bring attention to local wineries, he said.
“We want to let people know that we exist,” Bodine, who studied winemaking at the University of California at Davis and owns Sweetgrass Winery & Distillery in Union, said. “A lot of people — even our neighbors — don’t know that we’re here. And we’re producing some really great products. World-class, actually.”
Richard Carle of Prospect Hill Winery said that in his opinion, the dry wines he and his wife, Anita, make from their own grapes more than hold their own in a crowded market. In Europe, where the couple traveled and visited vineyards before they decided to try their hand at growing grapes in Maine, people talk a lot about “terroir.” That describes the place where the wine is produced, including the vineyard’s soil, the climate and the weather, and all of those factors are important at the Carles’ winery.
“Our wines beat California,” Richard Carle said. “Our wines are more of a European-style, which tend to reflect the terroir where they’re grown. That’s the one concept that drives us to make wine only from our own grapes. We want to present the climate and soil where we are.”
What’s the future for Maine-grown and made wine? Elmer Savage said that he’d love to have his industry follow in the footsteps of the booming craft beer industry.
“Beers in Maine are very big and very accepted,” he said. “It would be great to see Maine wines get to that state.”
But the gulf between the wineries and the craft beer industry, which has more than 60 breweries producing more than 200 brands of beer, is pretty vast. It can be hard to find Maine-grown and Maine-made wines, but even in small towns far off the beaten track, it is normal to find Maine-made beer on tap. Whitcomb said that Maine-grown wine “fits very well with the local-food mindset,” but that he’s not convinced it’s going to become as big as beer has.
“There’s no doubt in my mind [local wines] will continue to grow,” he said. “Whether there’s going to be very many full-time people employed remains to be seen.”
And other factors will help determine how big the Maine-grown wine industry can get. Consumers might try a wine grown in Maine once for the novelty of it, Whitcomb said.
“But you won’t do it many times if you don’t like the taste of it,” he said. “Ultimately, your customers are going to tell you how good it is. You can only get so far by promoting, and being unique and local.”
Shane McCarthy of State Street Wine Cellar in Bangor says that luckily, Maine-grown wines can be very good. He sells Savage Oakes wines at his store and is glad to have the opportunity to talk about Maine’s burgeoning vineyards and wineries to interested customers.
“People want Maine wine,” he said.
Elmer Savage, getting ready for the grape harvest, looked around his vines and his fields with a satisfied smile on his face.
“It’s really labor-intensive work,” he said. “But it’s fun. It’s a great place to work, out here in the vineyard.”