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Claire Jeffers

Claire Jeffers is a freelance writer living in Portland, Maine. Follow her on Twitter: @claireeats

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Posted: June 27, 2017

It takes hardy Mainers to make wines here

But people do it, and we tell you where to find them.

Written by: Claire Jeffers
Savage Oakes grows its grapes on the owner's family farm. Photo courtesy of Savage Oakes Vineyard & Winery

Savage Oakes grows its grapes on the owner’s family farm. Photo courtesy of Savage Oakes Vineyard & Winery

We know that Maine’s climate is not for everyone – just look at how our population drops in the winter. Well, the same goes for agriculture and what can grow here. While we’re the leading producer of wild blueberries, there are other things that are much harder to grow in Maine than, say, California or the south of France. Grapes are just one example of a hard-to-grow product in Maine, but not surprisingly, there are several hardy Mainers who have devoted their lives to figuring out how to harvest grapes and make wine.

There are nearly 20 wineries and vineyards in Maine, though not all of them grow and harvest their own grapes. Some make wine from blueberries, pears, honey or other products, and some those who grow their own grape varieties still source grapes and grape juice from other parts of the country to then ferment here on Maine turf.

Photo courtesy of Savage Oakes Vineyard & Winery Savage Oakes has the state's largest selection of Maine-grown grape wine.

Photo courtesy of Savage Oakes Vineyard & Winery
Savage Oakes has the state’s largest selection of Maine-grown grape wine.

“There aren’t many people who have been making wine for a long time in Maine,” said Ned Swain, professional wine geek and owner of Devenish Wines, a supplier to shops and restaurants all over the state with the slogan, “Wines that taste like where they came from.”

“It’s not like France, where there’s a 10th- or 18th-generation family producing the same wine with 600 years of accumulated experience.”

Swain said every wine in Maine has been through its own adventure. When grape seeds are planted in Europe, the vines are producing as soon as year two, whereas in Maine, a grower can wait five or more years before the plants are producing. “And even still,” Swain said, “the grower may only be able to produce 30 cases of wine from those grapes, if that.”

Devenish Wines seeks out smaller wineries that support growing their grapes more naturally, and often have a relationship with the land they work on. Swain is a big fan of several producers in Maine, such as Brian Smith of Oyster River Winegrowers in Warren.

“Brian is really trying to work the environment and use wild yeast,” Swain said, “visiting his winery is like visiting a little farm winery in Europe.”

Smith lives on a 2-acre farm with his wife and two children. He got a job at a vineyard in Vermont after college and since then has received a graduate degree in winemaking in California before moving back to his wife’s native Maine, where they bought land and started their vineyard in 2007.

“We wanted to be near the coast, for both the tourist traffic and the slightly milder winter climate,” Smith said. “We figured we might get away with more winter varieties (of grapes).”

Smith likes that he isn’t tied to a longstanding Maine wine style or tradition, so he can really have fun and be creative with what he grows.

The tasting room at Oyster River is open Friday through Monday in the summer. Photo courtesy of Oyster River Winegrowers

The tasting room at Oyster River is open Friday through Monday in the summer. Photo courtesy of Oyster River Winegrowers

Oyster River wines come from a natural style; Smith tries to make what the grape wants to give them. He uses an all-organic practice, and the vineyard is 100 percent horse-cultivated. Smith works with native yeast fermentation and minimal preservatives when possible.

“We make the style of wine that we think suits the grape the best,” he said. “Our customers are a little younger, and they really want unique, creative, interesting and new. Lucky for us we have a funny climate with funny grapes.”

Oyster River sells to four core distributors in Maine, New York, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, with smaller amounts of wine in about five other states, marketing more to urban centers. You can find Smith’s wines at Maine & Loire in Portland, the Portland Food Co-op, Rosemont Bakery and through Devenish Wines. For the summer, the winery’s tasting room is open from noon to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday and Monday.

Fifteen minutes away in Union is Savage Oakes Vineyard & Winery run by Elmer and Holly Savage (whose maiden name is Oakes). Savage Oakes boasts the largest selection of Maine-grown grape wine, selling about 1,000 cases a year – 80 percent of which is sold right out of their tasting room. The other 20 percent is sold around the state in about 20 different stores. About 90 percent of Savage Oakes wine comes from grapes grown on the land, with the other 10 percent made from out-of-state grapes.

The land is Elmer Savage’s family farm, where he’s been working since 1985 and which he bought in 2000.

“We started (making wine) with wild blueberries and then growing grapes in 2002,” he said. “We opened the winery in 2005 with our first harvest.”

Some of Savage Oakes’ most popular wines have won awards. The Bard Red won double gold in a New England wine competition, and the Nor’Easter Dessert Wine won a gold medal in a cold-climate competition.

The tasting room is open every day, May through October, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on weekends in April, November and December.

“What’s happening with wine in Maine is really, really cool,” Swain of Devenish Wines said. “It’s what my business is driven by. I’m passionate about wines that taste like where they come from, for wines with a real sense of place and climate. I can’t not be excited about winemakers who take this crazy leap of faith to plant vineyards where there weren’t any vineyards and figure out how to make wine.”


Bartlett Maine Estate Winery
161 Chicken Mill Pond Road, Gouldsboro, 546-2408.
Tasting room open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (pouring wine until 4:30 p.m.) Tuesday through Saturday, through Oct. 7.
Established in 1983, Maine’s oldest winery offers more than 20 varieties, including blueberry reds, pear-apple whites, dessert wines and meads.

Breakwater Vineyards
35 Ash Point Drive, Owls Head, 594-1721.
Open noon to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
A variety of wines sourced from California and New York, along with cider, mead and blueberry wine made with ingredients from Maine.

Cellardoor Winery
367 Youngtown Road, Lincolnville, 763-4478.
Open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tours are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
The first harvest of wines from hybrid grapes grown on the estate was in 2012. Cellardoor also has a tasting room at Thompson’s Point in Portland.

Sweetgrass Winery & Distillery
347 Carroll Road, Union, 785-3024.
Open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, through New Year’s Eve, with tastings, self-guided tours and a store.
Blueberry wines include the Bluejolais, with hints of chocolate and bramble fruits, and a cabernet sauvignon, sold along with cranberry gin, hard apple cider and the “Maple Smash,” a brandy made with the famr’s maple syrup. Sweetgrass also has a tasting room in Portland’s Old Port.

Bar Harbor Cellars
854 Route 3, Bar Harbor, 288-3907.
Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily through August, then 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through Oct. 22.
Wines produced with grapes from Europe and California, as well as specialty wines made with Maine apples and blueberries and ice wine.

The Sow’s Ear Winery
303 Coastal Road, Brooksville, 326-4649.
Tasting room open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, through the fall.
Dry organic fruit wines include rhubarb, blueberry, wild berry and choke cherry varieties. Sparkling cider also avaiable.

Winterport Winery
279 South Main St., Winterport, 223-4500.
Open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday through October, then 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday, through Dec. 19.
Wines made from apples, blueberries, cranberries. pears, apricots — and even grapes. Also has a brewery on site, under the label Penobscot Bay.

Catherine Hill Winery
661 Blackswoods Road, Cherryfield, 546-3426.
Tasting room open 2-5 p.m. Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Berry and grape wines made from fruit grown on and off site.

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