DEIRDRE HEEKIN

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Photo Credit: Deirdre Heekin


Twenty-one years ago, when my husband and I drove up the steep hill called Mount Hunger on a bright September day full of the brilliant hallmarks of Vermont autumn—pumpkin orange, burnt sienna, delicious gold, crisp red, and still-vibrant green, that particular color a remnant of summer days—I had no idea that the little chalet-style summer camp in an alpine meadow and its attendant acreage would change the course of my life. We had simply gone to go look at a house, a hot tip from a friend who happened to live across the road from the chalet.

When we arrived the view was spectacular: seventy miles to the north on a clear day, and that day was clear as glass. Mount Lafayette, one of the grandes dames of New Hampshire, was the focal point: a single, snow-covered mountain hinting at a memory, like a line of lace hanging beneath the hem of a skirt, of the view out of a hotel window in the shabbily elegant Italian city of Torino, a vision of a snow white necklace of alps. When we began to walk toward the little house with the realtor and survey the overgrown land, we joked about the sweet southeast facing slope which would be perfect for a vineyard. We all laughed, me a little wistfully, believing that I never would be able to grow vines in such a northern clime as Vermont.

Many years have passed since that day, and it’s no longer surprising that grapes are grown in Vermont, or that wine of great potential and heart comes from here. That southeast slope ended up serving very well for the first hundred vines: bought on a whim and planted late in the hot humidity of our summer, but a whim that felt like the last piece of a puzzle, a cog clicking into a wheel. Over the last twenty years, much work has been done pioneering Vermont as a new wine region, planting vineyards in available raw or evolving farmland, making wine, researching agriculture forms, developing connections between winegrowers and wine drinkers. Admittedly, this has been a choppy ride as it is for any burgeoning wine region, but I feel we have finally come to a place where we can start to look beyond elements of sheer infrastructure, and begin to learn better the parcels that dot our landscape that have been planted under vine. From a more scientific perspective of the concept of terroir, we need to begin to do the work of what kinds of varieties thrive and excel on what kind of soils and in what kind of microclimates, what areas or sites might be especially propitious for tapping into the unfolding story that is wine in Vermont.

When I mentioned this notion recently to a friend, he responded, “The Crus of Vermont!” and while there is an intellectual part of me that is interested in these questions and supports the efforts to track and research data, and claim which areas are true for growing wines, I find that my desire is to approach the idea of vines married to land in more personal pragmatic, prosaic, and romantic ways. Many people have asked me over the years why I chose Vermont to grow wine, how I ended up on Mt. Hunger planting a vineyard, or leasing vineyards in the Champlain Valley. This is my pragmatic answer: it is where I live. I didn’t necessarily choose Vermont for this farming and this task; it chose me. Vermont was a place I wanted to live and love because I had a connection with the landscape, from summer vacations, to college years, to romantic nostalgia.

When I fell in love with the idea of growing vines and making wine, I lived on a pie-sliced piece of land at 1600 feet in south central Vermont. I had become attached to this place over years of crafting a home and building gardens and small orchard. I also bonded with the vineyards we now lease and farm sixty some odd miles away from that homefarm. I bonded with that landscape long ago when I was a university student studying so many things other than the land around me, but the open and honest terrain of the Champlain Valley dug in deep, reminding me of the long views and rolling hills of my childhood in Southern Indiana on the slow Ohio River. This northern topography, so new yet so familiar, encouraged me to think and challenge myself.  

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Much later, when I began buying fruit from these two vineyards owned by two brothers in this big sweep of a valley, I was caught off guard and transported by the courage of the vines and the land in which they were planted. I found I had no choice; a gauntlet had been thrown down by the vineyards themselves, challenging me to assume the role of steward, custodian, curator, and interpreter when the complicated circumstances of life found them in need of a caretaker. At the risk of sounding clichéd, in these three places I had begun to put down roots, and while a part of me always pines for a time when I lived in Italy and the sweet and dramatic landscapes there, my little wedge of land in the mountains, and these two parcels that border the edge of Lake Champlain, have become not only home, but more than home. They have become a part of me, my emotional DNA. I am entangled in the history, the present, and the future of the flora and fauna that surround me and as a consequence I am inextricably enmeshed in the wine I shepherd from the fruit I grow. This is the human element, or imprint that is part of the six-sided honeycomb that is terroir: geology, geography, variety, microclimate, social culture, and the connection between oneself and the land, and in the case of wine, the relationship to the fire of creation of the wine itself.

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I used to like to take visitors to see one of the oldest wild grape vines on the edge of our homefarm property to illustrate why vines might thrive in our location, and sometimes I still do. But now I am more likely to lead a guest into the pulsing center of the farm, winding through the raised bed gardens and orchard plantings flanking the once plain and scrappy summer camp. If it’s June and the roses are in bloom, I’ll take them through the thickly populated beds with lost roses cheek by jowl with pedigreed heirlooms twining around a haphazard wall of espaliered apple trees that doesn’t do much to separate the roses from a petite cherry orchard bordered by beds of crimson dahlias handed down over three generations from Winslow Homer’s master gardener.

To reach the vineyard, we’ll cross a little swale that directs the stream in the direction it needs to go. The vineyard is a hodgepodge experiment of six different alpine and cross-pollinated varieties planted at different times—marquette, la crescent, frontenac noir, gris, and blanc, and st. croix—a myriad of ages cataloging the rise and fall of our own fortunes and knowledge as every season I learn new things that informs planting the next block. In some instances the rows are planted so intimately that in the height of summer I must crouch beneath a bower of green foliage and fruit to walk between them.

The soils here are volcanic. There’s clay and limestone too, but also amphibolites that seem to push out of the ground every spring and summer as if the breathing of the earth itself is exhaling stone. There is the lauded gneiss, that metamorphic formation from either igneous or sedimentary rock, a word descended from the Middle High German noun gneist, or spark, because the foliated layers sparkle. There is granite, and different kinds of schist. There is much quartzite that flashes white even on a gray day, and on a sunny day glitters like a rough diamond, catching the eye of the crows that live in the rook on the hill behind the farm.

The geology maps tell me that buried beneath somewhere are rich veins of garnet, the red glasslike crystals comprised of sun-loving silicates. Garnet comes from the fourteenth century Middle English gernet, a word meaning dark red, tracing its roots back to the Latin granatus from granum which means grain or seed calling to mind the small ruby pips of the melograno, or pomegranate, the same fruit Eve plucked from the Tree of Knowledge. I have yet to see the garnet myself, but I wait patiently for the day I strike this certain gold hoeing in the rows or turning a garden bed between the vines for planting pearl white onions.

This vineyard is full of experiment and promise and midwifery. We till lightly between every other row in order to plant companion flowers and vegetables that we pick and eat, a myriad of chicories, radicchio, carrots, parsnips, radish, and the  party-colored, paper thin-petaled flowers commonly called cosmos because they look like so many stars in the sky.

The keystone of the vineyard is what we call the Secret Garden, a small square of land devoted to growing all kinds of vegetables and fruit trees, long rows of cutting flowers.  The garden is nestled roughly in the center of the vineyard, a courtyard of sorts embraced on three sides by vines. The fourth side will eventually be hidden by the dwarf apple trees we have planted called Old Pearmain, the oldest English apple on record, which reaches back as far as 1200 in the county of Norfolk. Cherry-cheeked and bright green, the fruit is shaped like a big-hipped pear. In any given season there is garlic, popping corn, eggplant, cabbage, dahlias, sunflowers, zinnia, bush beans, climbing beans, drying beans, broccoli, bok choy, squashes, bunching onions. In a wet corner of the garden, just this past year, we did our first trial with two old Italian varieties of rice.

This original vineyard, the plot I have finally named Les Bonnes Femmes, (The Good Women, named after the lady farmers before me who cultivated this meadow), has now become two since friends bought a fallow field across the road that we farm  together, joining this farmland that had been separated for almost fifty years in vineyard and wine. I’ve heard somewhere that the rule of thumb in France is that a vineyard must be worked and known for at least fifteen years before it can be named, and this is a good rule I think, prizing patience and commitment and understanding. But these field-vineyards have found their names easily, the newest planting becoming Les Forestières within its first year, a term I take to mean anything “of the forest”, like wild gatherers or mushroom hunters or woodland nymphs and other wild creatures on the edge of the woods.

I used to take photographs of the meadow in every season and think to myself prophetic things like “Maybe someday” or ”If it’s meant to be.” With an even better exposition than our garden vineyard, sloping up toward the crest of our old mountain, its broader girth allowing for more sunlight south to north on any given day in any given season, the parcel beckoned for vines. We almost bought it twice, but timing and circumstances did not join forces, so each time we had to let the opportunity go. Then finally, one day just a few years ago, friends of ours with whom we had long had the idea of planting a vineyard together, found themselves looking at the wild field. At the end of the week, the land was theirs. And by extension, we too now share in its cultivation and growth, learning its habits and heart, watching when the crab apples blossom in the spring, and awaiting the fourth leaf and the first partial harvest that will become a part of the overall field blend from both sides of our country road, co-fermenting with the jewel-toned opalescent white, almost-black, red, and coppery-colored fruit to make the two wines of the garden, vins de jardins, the creamy, sparkling red named House Music, and the bright electric still version named Native Love. In a prolific season, we can make a few small lots of single variety wines from any of the six cultivars planted, other lenses with which to experience this particular landscape in a particular vintage.

I am bound to these two vineyards, this home, but I am also deeply connected to the two parcels we lease and farm in the Champlain Valley, another world away sculpted from broad plain and luminous lakeside.  The land is rich in five different clays—black, grays, yellow-oranges, browns, and greens—and supported by profound layers of limestone. The particular valley where our two vineyards reside was once the Champlain Sea, a saltwater refuge that poured in after the Ice Age melted away. Both the homefarm vineyard and these two are founded on some of the oldest bedrocks that cover our earth.

In the small outpost of West Addison at Crown Point, I Selvatici (The Wild Ones) is tucked in close to the shore at Owl’s Head Bay, just below Potash Bay. Crown Point was once home to the Mohawk, and the French settled there in the late 1600s. In 1759, Fort Ticonderoga, right across the lake, was taken by the British and on retreat the French burned their forts at Chimney and Crown Points, the settlers abandoning their farms and fleeing to Canada with the troops. These once well-kept homesteads went to ruin. Weeds and trees overtook gardens and cellars, the charming farms returning to a primitive wilderness. A history born of wildness, now a primeval forest full of undulating and wild vines climbing into a narrow, but thick stand of maple and birch separates the cultivated vines from the water’s edge. A natural clos with a band of forest on three sides, it is an intimate vineyard defined by the wild flora and fauna that populate it. Purple aster, daisy fleabane, goldenrod, and wild mint grow in the vineyard rows and beneath the vines, the blooming flowers conjuring the feeling of working in an impressionist painting.

During the season, the flowers climb up into the canopy of the vines (not unlike the wild vines into the trees of the protecting forest) and the essential oils and fragrance of the flowers protect the fruit hanging off the trellis, Nature’s response to finding her own balance on these heavy clay soils riding the crest and crust of limestone. I like to call this flower mixture garrigue after the French scrubland forest. It too is found on limestone soils and generally found near the seacoast, though the soils also tend to be alkaline. Perhaps our Champlain garrigue is really more of a maquis, a similar kind of scrubland found in Spain and Italy, but more associated with acidic limestone soils. But also like vineyards in these Mediterranean locations, our maquis leaves a wild impression that defines not only the fruit, but the wine itself.

There are three wines we make from this vineyard: Vinu Jancu, Loups-Garoux, and Cybele. And all three are poems to other wines or other forms. Vinu Jancu is an ode to another wine from another place, but there is a visceral and experiential connection for me to both the wines and the parcels where they are grown. The inspiration here is a wine no longer made also called Vinu Jancu, Sicilian dialect for white wine, but a white wine understood to be made in the old-fashioned way, fermented on golden ripe skins.  The Vermont la crescent fruit grown in this wild vineyard on the edge of the lake, descendant from moscato d’amborgo and moscato giallo, ferments on the skins in small, open vats and ages in glass. Loups-Garoux, the frontenac noir, is an ode to ripasso or even the noble Amarone made from dried fruit, since frontenac raisinates naturally as it begins to ripen. I wait until about half of each of the bunches has begun to dry on the vine, then we take the whole bunches and co-ferment the dried and fresh fruit on skins. The wine ages in old Burgundian barrels, the only wine we see in barrel, because it is the only one where I feel the wild, mercurial, forestlike, and animalistic character is well-met by wood.

The Cybele, the final wine grown in this vineyard, is a Champagne-method wine made from the skin-fermented la crescent and aged for a year as a base wine, then seeded with fresh juice from the la crescent the following vintage for a second fermentation in the heavy green bottles. While completely different in style, this wine is an homage to a Piemontese sparkling that struck my fancy many years ago, the Erpacrife, a Champagne-method made in this same ancestral way, with no selected yeast, no added foreign sugar. Erpacrife is a wine born of friendship, a collaboration between four people and a place, and while the Cybele is not about friendship in this way, it is the collaboration between a winegrower and the mythology of the land she farms, described by the symbol of the Great Spangled Frittelary of the nymphalidae family, the sprite-like butterfly that inhabits this enchanted vineyard, the Latinate name Speyeria Cybele.

The fourth parcel is on the outskirts of the village of Vergennes, but technically on the backside of the commune of Panton. This vineyard is expansive. It falls down a gentle slope that faces the western sky and the majestic gray and white faces of the Adirondack mountains. The sky is a major character in the dramas that unfold on this land, a field of clouds and light and weather. In the winter, dove grays, metallic blues, and seashell pinks paint the sky, often streaked with snow showers in the distance. While we silently practice the quotidian winter work of pruning, buffeted by the swells of wind born on the deep lake in the distance, rolling across the open meadows cultivated for hay and corn in the summer, we can watch the snow storms travel across the plain, moving either toward us or away from us. In the summer, we watch the rain, dark sheets or water spouts smudging the sky while the wind chimes and rustles the leaves of the big old Japanese maple near the farmhouse at the top of the slope, the only tree nearby.

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A dowser once told me that each watershed has a library tree that houses the memories of that area of land, and that an accomplished dowser can lean her back against the trunk of such a tree and see those stories unfold, the images and energy of Nature’s memory transmitted through the kinetics of bark, leaf, flower, fruit, skin, muscle, blood, and bone. I suspect that this tree carries the history of this land, a cinematic journey of ice, fire, water, wind, ocean disappearing into old growth forest giving way to herds of sheep replaced by cows lowing in deep grasses to the present of thirty-two rows of ninety grape vines each, perennial creatures that twist and turn, their muscular and gnarled trunks providing a map to the history of each season, each vintage. While I think of the other three vineyards as little gem-like poems, this vineyard is an epic romance full of grand gestures, battles of bravery, lost and found love, stories of courage and heart.

But it is a also a vineyard of contemplation; they all are, as all should be. There is a moment in the late afternoon, well into the evening, when the wind halts. At this time of the day, I am surrounded by a quiet multitude. The redwing blackbirds sing their spring or summer songs and flit from post to trellis post; they teach their children, born in intricately woven nests found in the vineyard or in the grasses surrounding, to fly above our heads. This vineyard we call Les Carouges, after those red-shouldered birds.  The light begins to shift through the clouds, becoming cathedral-like shafts drawing eyes upward, and I can sense the shifts happening beneath me, the teeming world of plants and creatures in cohabitation, collaboration, the Queen Anne’s Lace, the wild chrysanthemum, purple clover, daisy fleabane, the cinquefoil, the false foxglove, the burdock, the larvae of Japanese beetles, the foliar tumid gall.

This theater unfolds on a stage of glacial lake plain comprised of calcareous estuarine and glaciolacustrine clays, about a foot of dense gray, brown, and yellow threaded with quantities of iron sitting on a wave of limestone sliding down into clay fields once prized for growing wheat where in the 1820s farmers would transport the heavy sacks of grain in the winter on sleds down to the river port of Troy. But constant wheat production exhausts soil, depleting it of minerals and energy. The farmers at that time knew they needed another kind of agriculture to supplement and that planting cultivated hoeing crops would be difficult in the hard structures of the clay. In the early 1800s, the American consul at Lisbon confiscated 4,000 sheep from a flock belonging to Spanish nobles, the Infantado family, and those sheep arrived in Vermont and populated the fields of the Champlain Valley giving rise to the most significant wool industry in the country at that time.

We make almost too many wines to count from this field as it is planted to four different varieties: marquette, la crescent, frontenac gris, and brianna. Single varieties. Field blends. Sparklings. Stills. There is the trio of Ci Confonde, those bright, lively sisters, the young petillants naturels, all single variety. The white from brianna, rosé from frontenac gris, and red from marquette. Ci Confonde in translation is that which confounds us, surprises and delights us, a coup de coeur, a lightning strike, a dizzying fall into love.

Then there is Damejeanne, a skin-fermented red raised in glass demijohns, or Lupo in Bocca, the still rosé that is always juicy and reminiscent of alpine strawberries, or the Harlots and Ruffians, typically a field blend between la crescent and frontenac gris, a still wine with skin contact, aromatic and mineral, with a lush architecture. Or Loup d’Or, the lees-aged white that is sueded and fruity laid on a structure of limestone and slate.  Or Grace and Favour, a sparkling la crescent, while different every vintage, always dreams of the exotic, calling to mind grapefruit pith and blooming night jasmine, white pepper and lychee.    

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In the end, what intrigues me is learning the nature of the vineyards that have already been planted, or learning the map of virgin and simply available land, even though none of these acres may be the most sublime or potentially exalted piece of land for planting vines. I’ve come to believe over many years of working as a wine educator, and through my own relationship to my own parcels, that every piece of land has character, and that I am even more interested in the dark horses of vineyard parcels, the ones that work the hardest, who show incredible beauty in their homeliness. None of the vineyards I farm, with the exception of the newest in the mountains, are particularly perfect pieces of land for vines. They are immensely flawed. But they each somehow thrive under the care they are given becoming stronger, more resilient, and more articulate each season, telling their own stories more fully and more elaborately much like I imagine the dowser’s library tree.

And each season they teach me something new. Every summer, I catalog their flora. I try to read the clues left by the vineyard floor of how I can better understand the prismatic worlds in which these wines grow. I myself have now become embedded in each season’s story, still always and only the attendant, but inseparable from the land and the wine. And each vineyard has imprinted upon me its core, its pure essence. Each one embodies a mathematical absolute of Nature. I Selvatici is magic; Les Forestières is gratitude; Les Carouges heart; and Les Bonnes Femmes, the good women, the deepest part of the soul.