In 2000, when Virginia Carter looked out the back window of her new home on Barnett Hill in Walpole, she thought, “If this were anywhere else in the world, it would be a vineyard. But this is New Hampshire.”
Little did this wine pioneer know what the next decade had in store for her.
Raising crops was in Virginia’s heritage. In West Seneca, New York, she grew up in a part of town known as “Gardenville” with a rose nursery next door, a perennials nursery across the road, and truck farms all around. “I’ve always been growing things,” she says. So she had to see what her windy hill might yield.
The slope was well-drained and breezy, which reduces fungal infections on grapes and vines. In a minor miracle, her soil turned out to be gravelly instead of shallow topsoil overlying the area’s typical granite ledge. “That’s important because grapevines don’t like having wet feet,” she notes.
But the vines posed a bigger challenge than that.
“There were no cold-weather grapevines,” she explains. “There are wine grapes grown in New York, Massachusetts, and even in the milder lakes region of northern Vermont, but those are classified as ‘cool-weather vines’. Vines that could survive real New England winters weren’t around at the time.”
Finally, she tracked down new strains of French-American hybrid grapes being developed at the University of Minnesota to withstand -50-degree winters. In the spring of 2004, she planted 27 varieties of them – 250 vines in all – on her hillside. Over the next two years, 25 varieties stood up to the climate and Carter replaced the less-hardy strains with new ones. Meanwhile, read everything she could find on wine-making, attended conferences and workshops, visited winemakers, and, of course, sampled lots of wines.
In 2006, she bottled her first vintages and kept experimenting with other varieties. In 2008, with two trial crushes behind her, she released her first commercial wines, one of which – her LaCrescent dry white – won a silver medal at the Eastern States Exhibition wine show. Today, she has 27 strains of wine grapes and four of table grapes.
“I’ll put in one more and then I’m done for good,” she promises. “If I get bigger, then I have to hire help to get the work done and I’d spend my time at a desk instead of working with the vines and grapes. That’s not what I got into this to do.”
The new variety is a red wine grape called Petite Pearl, which is bred for disease resistance, high sugars and tannins – which gives that dry feeling in the mouth – but less acid. “It’s going to be interesting to see what it does,” she says with relish.
From only 1,400 vines on just five acres, Carter produces from 16 to more than 20 wines each year, from her varietal white LaCrosse and Louise Swenson and red Marquette and Sabrevois to her signature Barnett Hill White and Barnett Hill Blush blends.
Why so many varieties? “In the western U.S., wineries tend to specialize,” she says. “They make a chardonnay and a merlot or they make a sauvignon and a pinot. There’s too little variety. In other areas like New York, wineries gain variety by blending peaches or cherries with grapes. I wanted to be true to the grapes and showcase what they could do.”
It’s a continuing challenge. “These are all brand new varieties,” she adds. “These aren’t off-the-shelf vines that you find in standard wineries. Making our Frontenac Gris is completely different from making a typical Chardonnay. Each has its own quirks, its own needs, its own diseases. These are new grapes created for our climate. What we’re doing here is not being done anywhere else in our region. We’re the trail-blazer.”
After the grapes have been crushed and the juice has fermented, farming and production gives way to art. If this batch ferments longer, will the balance of alcohol and sugars improve or deteriorate? If this wine is exposed to oak, will the flavor be richer and more complex or just muddy? The vintner’s palate is the artist’s eye, the composer’s ear.
And each year brings new experiments. In the spring, Carter invites a few select friends with exceptional taste – literally – to advise her in blending.
“In any wine, you look for aroma, ‘mouth-feel’” – subjective feelings of dryness, heaviness, roughness on the tongue, and so on – “and finish. Some wines may be good in one or two but weak in another. So you blend wines that will go together not just in taste but that give you balance in all three areas.” Small amounts of the blends are left to rest for a few days to see how they mingle; some wines that marry well at first turn out to be unable to live together over time. “These decisions are critical because they’re irrevocable and I have to live with the results for a long time,” she says.
So far, Carter’s palate has guided her well. The wines are selling briskly and are developing a following – shipping as far away as Florida and California to satisfy folks who’ve developed a taste for her art.
Carter’s experiment in cold-weather wines is gradually proving successful but “all of this was a gamble,” she admits. She’d worked in advertising, accounting, export, and other fields of business, so running an enterprise wasn’t a risk. She also had the support, and donated labor, of her “board of directors” – husband Paul Kranowski, who labors alongside her in the vineyard; son Nick, who designed and updates the winery’s labels and website; and daughter Mariah, her utility player. The challenge was in seeing whether these new strains of grapes would not only grow here but whether they could flourish – not to mention learning the complex and subtle intricacies involved in blending art and chemistry to make wine she could be proud of.
But she also gambled on her community of customers. “I wanted to stay as local as local can get,” she says. “My wines are only available at the Walpole Village Grocery, at the Ingenuity Shop and Hannah Grimes Marketplace in Keene, the Keene and Walpole farmers markets, and here in my shop. When someone buys my wines, they’re also buying into my philosophy of relying on local labor, using organic growing methods as much as possible and vegan winemaking practices, not expanding our carbon footprint by trucking our wines beyond our local area, and having time to offer lots of customer service.”
Her casually elegant shop and tasting room, which also offers a variety of locally-made products, is open Saturdays from 11 to 6 and Sundays from 12 to 4 through December 23, with private tastings available by arrangement. Call or check the website for additional days and hours. Private tastings are available by appointment. The winery’s fare also is available all the time at www.bhvineyard.com.
Walpole Mountain View Winery
at Barnett Hill Vineyard LLC
114 Barnett Hill Road
Walpole, NH 03608