And Why No Grapes?

Posted 04/15/22

Hermit Woods Winery has been crafting fine wine, mead, and cider from locally sourced fruit (other than grapes) since June 2011. Except for our first three years, we have not used grapes of any kind to craft our wines. To some, this may seem obvious, as grapes don’t grow well in this part of the world. Others, like those who have visited the hundreds of other wineries in the North East that produce grape wine, might wonder why Hermit Woods doesn’t include grapes in its wine production. 

In this article, I hope to shed some light on this question. So read on to learn the answer to this intriguing and somewhat complicated question.  

First, we need to understand the background and experience of the Hermit Woods founding partners with regard to classic wine. Long before we ever contemplated opening a winery, we all developed a taste for fine, classic wine. However, each of us came at it from a slightly different place. 

For myself, I became interested in wine in my mid-twenties while living in Southern California – not hard to do in a state that is home to over 4,000 wineries. My wife, Jerilyn, introduced me to wine tasting soon after we met, something I had not previously experienced. From very early in our relationship, visiting the many California wine regions and wineries was one of our favorite things to do. Over the next five years, Jerilyn and I would travel to literally hundreds of wineries from Temecula to Mendicino and everywhere in between. 

During this period, I developed both my taste for classic wines and my interest in learning everything there was to know about wine. With every tasting experience, I learned about the wide variety of grapes used in wine production and the associated growing conditions required for those grapes. In addition, I learned about the different styles of wine, from bone dry to sweet dessert wines. Early on, I developed a taste for dry, complex white and red wines crafted from the Vitis vinifera grapes of California. As my knowledge expanded, I began to explore wines worldwide. Ultimately, I developed a fondness for old-world European-style wines. Little did I know at the time how this period of my life would become so critical many years later. 

Although I am less familiar with Ken’s introduction to wine, I know of a pivotal time that set Ken on an irreversible path to his appreciation of fine, classic wines. While studying for his Doctorate in Geology at UMass Amherst, Ken became friends with Gordon, a fellow student who had been exposed to fine wine far earlier than Ken and was quite an enthusiast at a very young age. He also had a natural gift for understanding and appreciating the finer qualities of wine. Gordon owes this in part to his father, a serious wine collector.

Gordon’s father had a comprehensive collection of wines from around the world. With his new friend Ken, young Gordon began to explore his Dad’s collection. I am unsure whether Gordon’s Dad was aware of or condoned his son’s exploration of his wine cellar. Either way, this experience provided Ken and Gordon the opportunity to sample some of the finest first-growth wines from Burgundy and Bordeaux. Ken will tell you this experience was life-changing. Unlike most of us who learn to appreciate wine from the bottom up, Ken got to dive right in at an early age and drink some of the finest wines in the world. This experience impacted every aspect of Ken’s interest in wine since. 

As far as I know, Chuck acquired his taste for fine wine a little later in life. When I first met Chuck, like most people, he was interested in wine and knew what he liked but not necessarily why. Although he had a limited understanding of wine, he thoroughly enjoyed drinking it. As the three of us became friends and discovered our mutual interest in the subject, we sought to broaden our knowledge together. Chuck was both an avid learner and a quick student. He had a natural and excellent sense of taste and smell, and he quickly learned to appreciate wine in new ways. As an international pilot, Chuck also had the unique opportunity to discover wines from around the world. 

During the early days of our friendship, we formed a wine tasting group amongst our closest friends. For the next five or six years, about twenty of us hosted monthly wine tasting parties at each other’s homes. Each host would establish a set of parameters whereby we could discover and learn about different grape varieties, wine regions, and wine styles. Our group sought to learn everything we could to improve our understanding of the vast world of wine – a world that is infinitely deep and takes a lifetime to learn. 

During this time, Chuck, Ken, and I began to hone our knowledge and understanding of wine. We all favored the classic, old-world wines of Europe, primarily dry white and red wines with the occasional Sauterne or Port to pair with the sweeter things in life. But most importantly, all the wines we appreciated the most were crafted from Vitis vinifera grapes. 

Vitis Vinifera vs. Cold Climate Grapes

As we try to answer “why no grapes,” we first need to explain a little about cold-climate – or hybrid grapes – and Vitis vinifera. As we explored our love of wine together, we wanted to learn about the wines crafted in our region. The New England wine industry has increased dramatically over the past 20 or 30 years, with hundreds of new wineries popping up across the area. 

As we learned, Vitis vinifera grapes can be very challenging to grow in the colder climates of the Northeast. It is almost impossible except for southern New England along the sea-coast; however, some farmers, especially in Canada, have developed complex farming techniques that have made it possible. Still, needless to say, it is not easy. For this reason, most grape growers in the Northeast plant what is known as cold-climate grapes. These include American grapes in the Vitis labrusca family, French hybrids, or Minnesota Hybrids. It is estimated that 98% of all wine in the world is produced from Vitis vinifera grapes, leaving only 2% from the other varieties I mentioned above. 

Although wines made from cold climate grapes are rapidly gaining popularity, they remain a small niche market. As the three of us began exploring these new wines, we often found they did not rise to the level of quality and style that we had grown to love from more classic European wines. 

There are, of course, exceptions. We have come to love some of these wines produced by a few select farmers around the Northeast, and the quality of New England wines is likely to get increasingly better in the decades to come. This part of the world is relatively new, with a few exceptions in New York, to growing grapes for wine production. As farmers and winemakers become more adept at these growing cold climate grapes, we will see more and more high-quality wines being produced. 

So why did we not go in this direction? The most obvious reason has to do with the fact that we are not farmers. During our early days of learning about wine and winemaking (again, before ever deciding to get into the business), we planted a small vineyard of 120 vines in my backyard. We selected eight varieties of hybrids recommended by Cornell University and the University of New Hampshire.

After cultivating our grapes for three years, we began making wine. We discovered two things right away: one, that farming was not a vocation we were adept at, and two, that the grapes we had grown did not produce the quality of wine we had hoped for. Of course, we could have learned how to become better farmers. We could also have found other varieties of grapes that better suited our soil and pallet. Still, the prospect that both of these things, considering the time and investment necessary, simply was not within our grasp. Another important reason we shied away from growing cold climate grapes was that growing them organically was exponentially more complex than otherwise. And organic farming was the only option for us. We had no interest in using modern chemicals. 

Discovering Non-Grape Wines

In addition to discovering the many American and Hybrid varieties of wines, we also found non-grape wines. Most of us are familiar with these wines from our past, although sadly not in the best light. Everyone remembers Boone’s Farm wines, right? In fact, Boone’s Farm wines remain popular today. But you won’t find many wine connoisseurs gravitating to that section of the wine rack.  

Wineries across the Northeast craft wines from various fruits other than grapes. Unfortunately, most of these are sweet and have little resemblance to classic wines. That is not to say they are bad. In fact, they have become enormously popular in this part of the world, and consumers of all types find these wines quite to their liking. However, your typical wine connoisseur is less likely to seek them out. 

That is the case for us. Having developed a taste for classic European wines, we found most fruit wine produced in the Northeast was not to our liking. But, I again want to stress that I am not suggesting in any way that these wines are not good, simply that they are of a style and flavor that differs from what we typically enjoy.  

Producing wine from grapes or juice from other parts of the world

As we explored wines in the Northeast, we discovered that not all wineries make their wine from fruit or grapes which they grew locally. Instead, many wines are crafted from either grapes or juice imported from other parts of the world. However, this strategy had little interest for us for several reasons. For one, it is not sustainable. Bringing grapes or juice from California, South America, or other parts of the world is expensive, produces a much larger carbon footprint, and inevitably produces lower quality wine. 

Talk to any grape farmer who produces wine in California or any other part of the world. They will tell you they harvest their grapes in the early morning when it is coolest and process them as close to harvest time as possible. When grapes are transported across great distances, they must be carefully packed and kept cool, sometimes for weeks, before they make their way into the hands of winemakers. Even with today’s modern transportation system and exceptional fruit handling, some degree of degradation inevitably occurs during transportation. 

Winemakers are further distanced from the vineyard when purchasing juice instead of grapes. In addition to the freshness issue discussed above, the winemaker gives up an essential step in the winemaking process because they are no longer in control of the maceration or pressing of the wine. This is especially important when dealing with red wine, which typically achieves its color and tannin extraction during fermentation. When processing red wine grapes into juice, pre-fermentation requires heating the grapes to extract the color

To be clear, many wine producers in the Northeast craft wine from imported juice and grapes. These wines are perfectly acceptable. Most people, including wine connoisseurs, might not discern the difference from other large commercial wine producers. However, we did not see a future in crafting local wine from fruit grown elsewhere due to the lack of sustainability and our interest in working with the freshest fruit possible. 

We did not decide against importing grapes or juice lightly and without research. In fact, we imported grapes from California and Chile for many years before deciding that this was not the direction we wanted to go in. We made this decision for two reasons: first, to provide our early customers something they would be familiar with; and second, and even more importantly, it allowed Ken to learn age-old techniques used in crafting wine with classic grapes. What we learned from this process could then be applied to the other fruits we worked with. Therefore, in 2014, we discontinued producing wine from imported grapes. 

The early days 

Ken, Chuck, and I spent many years learning about wine, traveling to wineries near and far, and making wine on a small scale. Finally, it became clear that we needed to pursue opening a winery of our own. Based on the options I have explored above, we knew we were not going to become grape farmers. And the idea of making other people’s wine from fruit grown around the world was also out of the question, as a long-term solution anyway (even though this method did help us get to where we are today). Since these decisions left grapes off the table, we had no other choice but to look to the fruit that grows prolifically right here in our backyard. However, the prospect of crafting sweet single fruit wines was not an option either. We wanted to craft wines we loved to drink. 

Unfortunately, in all our travels, we had only come across a few wines which we liked that were crafted from fruit. Most never came close to the classically styled wines we love from European wine regions. The wine we wanted to make simply didn’t exist, not anywhere. We wanted to create rich, complex, dry-styled, barrel-aged wines that could mature with time in our cellars and give us the same pleasure as the European wines we had come to love. We came to understand that there would not be a road map to follow on this adventure. What we wanted to craft simply didn’t exist, at least not that we knew of. If we were going to open a winery, we needed to learn how to make wine in ways no one had before. There were no books, and you couldn’t google it to find the answers. We were on our own. 

We knew we were entering uncharted territory, and we had a lot to learn. So, for many years before we decided to go commercial, we began to explore the possibilities afforded us with the fruit (and vegetables) that grew in our very own backyards. Since there were no rules or guidebooks, nothing was off the table. So, Ken began fermenting every imaginable thing, from the obvious apples, berries, and honey to the not so obvious Japanese knotweed, tomatoes, flowers, rosehips, and rhubarb. The only rule we set for ourselves was that the fruit we used must be whole and be able to thrive in Meredith.

We learned early on in our exploration that there are very few, if any, fruits growing in the Northeast that share the many unique assets of classic wine grapes. Wine grapes have developed over thousands of years to embody all the characteristics that come together to make great wine. The right sugar content, Ph, acidity, tannins, skin to juice ratio, etc. The fruit we were working with had some of these characteristics, but none embodied all of them. Furthermore, many ingredients we pursued were not commercially grown at a scale that could supply our needs, if at all. As a result, many of the fruits we first experimented with had no commercial source and needed to be hand-harvested. 

These early challenges served only to inspire Ken and the rest of us further. It was a puzzle that needed to be solved. Ken was out of control. He was fermenting everything, blending, and changing the rules of engagement in the process, daily. We were living in exciting and challenging times. There were more failures than successes, but an abundance of learning. 

What we learned

In time, things became more apparent. What seemed impossible just a few months or years before began to take shape. We knew we were on the right path, but it would take many years to achieve our hoped-for results. Nevertheless, early learning revealed some crucial ideas that helped us shape our new winery for years to come. Let us explore some of those ideas. 

One of the most critical aspects of much of the local fruit we work with is the lack of natural sugars. Sugar is what makes alcohol. We measure sugar in fruit in brix. Your average wine grape will achieve 24-26 brix of sugar, enough to produce alcohol of 12% to 13%. A standard wine is considered between 11% and 14%. Most fruit grown in the Northeast achieves between 7 and 13 brix, making 3.5% to 7.5% alcohol, not enough to be called wine.

Of course, you can simply add sugar to achieve the desired alcohol level. The grape world refers to this as chaptalization. However, if you’re going to produce the highest quality wine, it’s not that simple. So we started by making sugar wine. We fermented water and sugars, cane sugar, corn sugar, beat sugar, and corn syrup. When all the sugar was converted to alcohol, we bottled the sugar wine and aged it in our cellar for three or four months. 

After sampling the resulting wine, we determined, without doubt, that the highly refined corn sugar (dextrose) produced the least amount of flavor and aroma and the cleanest alcohol. Since it was only the alcohol we wanted, this was a perfect result. It was like watered-down ethanol. The other sugars left residual flavors and aromas that adversely affected our finished wine, and we wanted to ensure that the flavors and aromas in our wine were entirely derived from the fruit, not the sugar we added. 

We experimented with using honey, sap, and syrup as fermentables to bring our alcohol levels to where we desired them. This resulted in excellent results for some of our experiments and remains in use today. 

The other important lesson that we learned is our ability to “build a grape,” as Ken would say. As we discussed, many fruits in our area have one or more of the necessary ingredients to make great wine, but most don’t have all of them. So, over the years, Ken searched for the best blends of fruits and flavors that would bring all those necessary ingredients together in a single wine. As it turns out, blending is also critical in the grape world. Very few grape wines are a single variety of grape. Those that are of a single variety are usually a blend of different production techniques. For example, combinations of lightly pressed versus heavily pressed, extended maceration vs. short, barrel-aged vs. non-barrel-aged, and the list goes on. 

Because of the diversity of the fruit Ken works with, the blending equation becomes greatly magnified. The combinations of fruit and winemaking techniques blended in our world are exponentially higher than in the grape world. Ken has made tremendous strides in his understanding of “building a grape” from the wide variety of fruit we work with. However, in truth, we will be improving our wines in the blending process for the rest of our lives. We may never achieve the perfection we desire (but we will get close, as we already have in some of our blends). 

Yet another consideration when working with fruit other than grapes is the extreme diversity in how the local ingredients express themselves. From the fibery stalks of rhubarb, the giant pits of peaches, the ever-so-small wild blueberries, every fruit is unique and requires a unique means to extract its goodness. So again, over the years, Ken has explored dozens of extraction methods involving maceration, freeze-thaw, crushing, grinding, various pressing methods, etc. But, again, even after years of exploration, we are still developing new extraction methods.

There are, of course, many other things to consider when producing dry-style wines from fruit that have never been used to craft commercial wines before. We have been studying these ideas for over fifteen years now. We consider our knowledge to be in its infancy. We are only just scratching the surface of the endless possibilities that await us. Quite frankly, when you consider the innovations that have developed in the grape world over the past fifty years, our efforts are aligned with the greater wine industry. We are all attempting to craft the finest quality wines we can produce. However, the truly dedicated will never be fully satisfied. 

The ultimate decider is Mother Nature and our farmers. We must first begin with the best quality fruit, something every farmer will tell you doesn’t come easy. Next, we must trust Mother Nature – from the growing process to the quality of yeast and the desired fermentation of the sugars, a natural process that we have only a limited ability to affect. We must trust our tools to deliver the desired performance as we age our wines. Finally, Mother Nature’s other players are eager to impact our outcomes, like bacteria and other microbes that we can experience but not see. 

In the end, we have to sit patiently as our wines mature and age in tanks or barrels, hoping that we have made all the best decisions to ensure the right outcome. Of course, these are issues all winemakers must contend with, grape or otherwise. It is also what truly makes the process of making wine simply magical. 

I continue to be amazed and impressed by Ken’s dedication to the process and commitment to sussing out every last possibility to improve our wine quality every year. I believe we have made great strides in our fifteen years of exploration, but Ken, Chuck, and I all agree that we may never actually get to try the best wine we ever make. Many of our wines are exceptional, but all of our wines can improve, and Ken is dedicated to that pursuit. In the decades to come, I am confident that our wines will continue to get better, and once bottled, improve yet again with age. For that reason, the three of us will likely be long gone before our best wine ages long enough to reach its peak, and it will be others that get to consume Hermit Woods Finest wine, as it should be. 

Since our Journey in wine began over fifteen years ago, the public acceptance of dry fruit wine has changed. More importantly, the mainstream wine media has started to take an interest in what we and other pioneers of dry fruit (non-grape) wine are doing. 

The following are just a few examples of the growing acceptance and appreciation of this growing segment of the wine world: New York Times, “Fruit Wines Move Into a Sophisticated Realm” By Jan Ellen Spiegel, Oct. 8, 2011. Wine Enthusiast, “Local Crops and Balanced Flavors: Meet the New Generation of Fruit Wine” By Lauren Mowery. Portland Press Herold, “Why New England wines are starting to get some serious attention,” by Meredith Goad. Vine Pair Magazine, “These Winemakers Are Redefining Fruit Wine With Wild Berries and Yeast,” by Shana Clarke, Merrimack Valley Magazine, “Hermit Woods Serves Fruit Wines Worth the Search” by Steve Goddu, Wine Enthusiast Magazine “Passion and Old World Techniques Drive ‘Exponential’ Growth of New Hampshire Wine Scene” by Rebecca Toy, Food & Wine Magazine, Ray Isle, Wine Editor, identified his favorite craft beverages in each of the 50 states. Hermit Woods Petite Blue was his favorite craft beverage in New Hampshire. Lastly, in 2014, Hermit Woods Winery was the only all-fruit wine wineries included in Food & Wine Magazine’s list of 500 best wineries in America. Wine Enthusiast Magazine, Hermit Woods Winery & Deli, One of Three Prominent Wineries to Know in NH”.O, The Oprah Magazine, Oprah Magazine says Hermit Woods is the one place not to miss in NH. 

In conclusion, we want to thank everyone who has gone on this ride with us and helped us shape the future of non-grape wine. We look forward to both furthering the progress we have already made at Hermit Woods and working with leaders of our field raise the bar across the industry in the years to come.