In early May, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy stopped at the Jones Winery in Shelton to kick off the 2017 Passport to Connecticut Farm Wineries Program. While winery owner Jamie Jones acknowledged that his place was chosen to accommodate the governor’s schedule — Malloy was slated to appear at another event in Stamford and this was the closest winery on his route — Jones appreciated the attention that the governor’s stop generated for himself and the wine industry in Fairfield County.
“We are local businesses producing a product,” said Jones. “This brings more attention to it than we’ve had in the past.”
Compared with other states, Connecticut’s wine industry is relatively young. The first licensed farm winery, Haight-Brown Vineyard in Litchfield, opened in 1975. More than four decades later, there are 37 licensed wineries in the state, including three in Fairfield County, that produced more than 160,000 gallons of wine last year, accounting for more than 800,000 bottles of Connecticut wine and approximately $1 million in direct sales, according to estimates by Malloy’s office.
For Connecticut grape growers, “One of our biggest challenges is dealing with the unpredictability of the weather and how that affects your stock,” Jones said. “Every year is different. The New England climate is extremely variable, so dealing with those challenges keeps a farmer on their toes.”
“Since we are direct marketing our crop, with so many people coming here on weekends, it is also essential to have good weather on the weekends too.” Jones said. “So, we are either the victims or the beneficiaries of the weather, both on the growing and the sales sides.”
At DiGrazia Vineyards in Brookfield, business manager Mark Langford lamented being in an area away from the main tourist attractions. “We are in a residential area, as opposed to being next to a casino or the seashore,” he said.
Location is also a challenge for White Silo Winery in Sherman, the outermost town in the northwestern corner of Fairfield County. Co-owner Eric Gorman credited both the state’s Passport to Wine Connecticut Farm Wineries Program — where wine enthusiasts get a passport-style booklet that can be stamped at Connecticut wineries to qualify for several prizes — and the Connecticut Wine Trail promotion by the nonprofit Connecticut Vineyard and Wine Association — with calling attention to his operations. “This brings in a nice percent of customers, especially towards the fall,” he said. “We sell out pretty much every year.”
White Silo sells approximately 1,200 12-bottle cases a year, while DiGrazia sells 4,000 cases and Jones sells approximately 5,000. White Silo’s sales are anchored at its tasting room, while DiGrazia and Jones sell from their wineries and also self-distribute to independent wine and spirits retailers across the state. Each winery accounts for less than one-fourth of their respective sales through retail channels.
“We needed to develop a wholesale market to bring in adequate sales through Connecticut,” said Langford, whose winery also uses e-commerce to sell wines to buyers in New York, Florida and California.
Jones said he considered pursuing e-commerce, but felt the level of work required would distract from a focus on keeping in-store customers satisfied. “Shipping wine is complicated and each state has its own rules about how to deal with alcohol,” he said, adding that his retail sales would be more lucrative if the Connecticut legislature lifted the longtime ban on wine sales in supermarkets.
In addition to their wines, all three of the county’s farm wineries incorporate other activities related to the fruits and vegetables cultivated on their properties into their revenue streams. These include various events pegged to specific produce. White Silo, for example, has its annual Asparagus Festival in May, while the Jones location sells pumpkins in the early fall and Christmas trees in season.
Having a diversity of crops also helps a winery meet a key state regulatory requirement: at least 25 percent of the fruit in wines made by licensed farm wineries must be grown in Connecticut. Although the threshold is relatively low — major wine-producing states such as California, Oregon and Washington require 95 to 100 percent of a vineyard’s wines to contain locally grown grapes — it has created problems. In 2012, state inspectors found evidence that some Connecticut vineyards were below the 25 percent threshold.
Since Connecticut’s weather and soil do not enable cultivation of many of the wine grapes associated with Napa Valley or other wine industry centers, wineries here also sell imaginative fruit wine offerings from their farms. While some discriminating Merlot-sipping oenophiles might raise an eyebrow at, if not a glass, of White Silo’s rhubarb wine or Jones’ proprietary Harvest Time wine mix of apples and pears, buyers in the area enjoy the nongrape vintages.
At DiGrazia Vineyards, “Our most popular wine is made from blueberry, with a little brandy added to it,” said Langford.
Vintners interviewed by the Business Journal all said their hiring practices for field labor will not spur visits by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. “We don’t hire illegal immigrants,” said Gorman at White Silo Winery, and Langford and Jones said the same.
Organic wine production is an industry trend that is just now starting to take root in Fairfield County. At DiGrazia, Langford said he is experimenting with a chemical-free approach, stressing both the ecological and economic value of providing organic products.
“It is daunting to give up synthetically grown fruit,” said Langford, who also runs a landscape business accredited by the New England Organic Farming Association. “But I think that organic is the way to go and we are already seeing healthier leaves and better yields.”