Win(e)ding Roads: The Connecticut Wine Trail

By: Marguerite Barrett, Contributing Writer

Hello to VinoVerve fans! As an extended member of the Neuman clan, affectionately referred to as “Aunt Maggie,” and a recent émigré to New England (after 24 years in Chicago), I’ve promised Gretchen that I would contribute articles to VinoVerve about my wine adventures throughout New England.

Imagine my surprise after moving in 2007, to find that Connecticut not only had wineries but a full “wine trail!” Somehow Connecticut and Wine never ran together in my head. But a thriving local industry it is – with many award-winning wines and wineries in the bunch.

Over the next several months, I plan on visiting as many of the wineries as possible, and as promised, will provide regular updates to Vino Verve of my progress. But I thought it worth beginning with the trail itself, since I believe its existence is relatively unknown outside of Southern New England.

The Connecticut Wine Trail was established in 1988 and is comprised of 15 vineyards divided between the western and eastern half of the states. The western wine trail is located in the area known as the Connecticut Highlands – the hills of Litchfield and Fairfield counties. The Eastern trail lies in the area known as the Connecticut Shoreline, running between New Haven (home to Yale University) and Mystic/Stonington (home of Mystic Pizza – and yes there is a real Mystic Pizza).

Both wine trails will take you through miles of gorgeous scenery and quaint New England towns, and if you’re an architecture or history buff, you’ll find colonial farmhouses, 18th century churches and New England stone fences all along both trails.

As the sun is now starting to burn off the morning fog, I’m off to check out the first winery on my list: Heritage Trail which is part of the Eastern Wine Trail and located on Route 169, a National Scenic Highway, in Lisbon, CT.

What wine do you drink with spicy food?

Yum Nue and Tom Yum Kai! My favorites! The soup is hot and sour with chicken and vegetables… the salad is broiled skirt steak marinated after cooking in chili-garlic paste, nam pla (fish sauce), rice wine vinegar, lime juice and chopped coriander. I like to marinate the thinly sliced onions too…. So, tasty.

Not a traditional wine kind of dinner though. In college we ate these kinds of dinners with beer. Then again, we ate a lot of things with beer…

This time we tried pairing our Thai feast with fruity wines. One, a Liebfraumilch from the Sycamore Winery. It was drier than the Blue Nun of my childhood and contained fewer bizarre mental images (Why did they put that nun on a bike? I never did understand that…oh, and as an extra note, when did it STOP being a liebfraumilch?). It didn’t fight the food and actually added a nice balance. Our second choice (as we were feeling particularly mellow after such a satisfying home cooked meal) was a wine from the Savoie region of France (near the border with Italy) called Apremont which was produced by Pierre Boniface. It was also fruity, smelling of melons and pears which was perfect with the sharp curried flavor of the soup. I picked up this bottle at the Wine Discount Center for about $7.00 (if memory serves)

Kevin and I were satisfied with our choices, but would love to hear what You (there are people out there reading these things, right?) would choose to drink with this kind of meal. I won’t cook it for you… but I might just share my recipes…. Just ask!

Getting Naked for Jesus!

I know, I know… you are wondering how that phrase relates to wine…. But it does, really.

See, back in 2003, Kevin and I, along with our friends Richard and Charles and Maggie made a trip to Napa to celebrate Richard’s 40th Birthday. We hired a driver, Grant, who made wine in his garage and he drove us around to the lesser known vineyards that he enjoyed. Around lunchtime, we stopped at a local market picked up some food and then headed up Howell Mountain.

When we got to our destination, we were at the Summit Lake Winery. There we were met by Sue Brakesman one of the owners of this vineyard. Sue sat us down at her dining room table and while we ate she talked to us about her wine, her winery and her family… because really all three were tied together.

See, the deed to the vineyard was given to Sue in her birthday card… from her husband Bob. So the next available weekend they went up look at their new vineyard. The plan was that it would be a romantic getaway and Sue dressed for it… The problem was that it snowed, and the house had no heat and Sue’s heels were deep in the mud. That was the beginning of the great adventure that only ended with Sue’s sudden death a couple of years ago.

Over the years, Bob and Sue cleared the weeds and poison oak from the abandoned (during prohibition) zinfandel vines and started producing wine… and a family. One day while trying to get her grand daughters bathed, one questioned why they needed to take a bath… Sue tried to explain that cleanliness was next to godliness… to which her grand daughter exclaimed, “We’re getting naked for Jesus!” According to Sue, this was a phrase that inspired her to liven up the talks that she increasingly gave to potential buyers of her wine. While off-putting, it was a way to shake up the way to think about wine.

Family was important to Sue and she loved being a grandmother. In fact their best vintages were named for her grand daughters… Emily Kestrel… a very tasty wine and then every one’s favorite. Clair Riley… Maybe it is just the story. But then that was the thing with Sue, she saw the humour in everything… When asking Sue whether she would have a wine named after her, Clair Riley, misinterpreted the answer… instead of being Clair Riley Private Reserve, she squealed in delight and shrieked in that toddler screech, “PIRATE RESERVE?!”

Well, what is a grandma to do? Naturally, the label was changed to Pirate Reserve. That wine is several years old now… and we are still waiting for an event exciting enough to enjoy it.

But that is the thing with wine. It makes us remember the time and place where we first enjoyed it. Making us wish to return to the past but still enjoying the future.

Niagara Regurgitated

I know, I know… you are getting sick of my description of this trip. Well, I don’t usually travel so far and get to drink new wines, so please bear with me…

Freedom Run was named for its proximity to Canada which meant freedom for slaves escaping the south via the Underground Railroad. Indeed many of the older homes in the nearby towns and villages have hidden rooms in their basements for the purpose of aiding the escape of slaves. This stop on the tour was unique. There was a huge pack of cousins there and the winery was owned by a friend of my cousin, John (Buddy). So we got the VIP treatment.

Freedom Run was by far the most visitor friendly (if you are over 12), having a spacious and comfortable tasting room. Complete with leathers sofas and chairs and bars decorated with blown glass flowers in the style of Dale Chihuly (made by winery co-owner, Sean Manning).

We however, because we had such a large group were escorted into the wine making facility which is visible but separated from the tasting room. We learned about the individual wines while catching up with cousins. Our tour was led by two of the co-owners of the winery, Larry and Sandra Manning. The wines we tasted were:

  • Cabernet Franc
  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Catawba
  • Chardonnay
  • Manning Manor Blanc
  • Manning Manor Reserve (a dry Niagara aged in oak… most unusual)
  • Manning Manor Rose
  • Merlot
  • Niagara
  • Riesling
  • Semi dry Riesling

As we finish the tasting we were then treated to a tour of the wine making facility. We learned how the grapes are crushed and de-stemmed, how the juice is extracted, the need to turn the juice and fruit to extract the highest amount of flavor from the grapes (we even got to participate in the process…), how in larger fermenting vessels the fruit along the top of the barrel may be so strong that it can support the weight of a person, learned about the fermentation process as well as barrel aging.

The camaraderie and family feeling made me enjoy this winery more than all the others on the tour. The Manning’s are planning on restoring a barn on the property to be turned into a champagne house and also for use for community dances and other events. I wish them the best of luck in their endeavors and look forward to ordering more wine from them in the future!

And of course, thanks to my Mom for keeping the Angel and Imelda out of our hair so we could enjoy our tour…

Fox Valley Winery

A couple of weeks a go, Kevin and I visited several wineries…

This is the second in the series.

Fox Valley Winery was the most commercially viable winery that we saw on our little outing. The vineyard is not open to the public except on certain occasions, but there are three tasting rooms. One in Oswego which also contains the winery and a tasting room, and other tasting rooms in Sandwich and Geneva.

Kevin and I went to the Geneva tasting room which is in an auspicious location on 3rd Street. This is auspicious since the town of Geneva seems populated with couples waiting to get rid of their unwanted visitors so that they can make use of his application of Cialis. The town bans skateboarders and unaccompanied minors (as near as I could tell) which meant that the shop operated at a peaceful hum.

The woman behind the counter was clever and knowledgeable and full of the family lore that would accompany a family business… We particularly enjoyed the story of a wine called Grandmas Blush… It turns out that the family’s grandmothers enjoyed a regular white zinfandel but were told that a redder wine was better for their health… As a result the family came up with a wine with a white zinfandel-type wine with more color and body. Ahhhh.. suddenly Grandma, physician and family are all happy.

Fox Valley also produces another 24 wines that range from dry to sweet and include:

  • Chardonel
  • Seyval Blanc
  • Vidal Blanc
  • Deux Blanc
  • George’s Red
  • 2004 Chambourcin
  • 2005 Traminette
  • 2004 Traminette
  • Riesling
  • Grandma’s Blush
  • 2004 Vignoles
  • Niagara
  • White Cin
  • Old Glory Red
  • Old Glory White
  • Old Glory Blue (not available at the time of our tasting)
  • 2005 Chambourcin – (not available at the time of our tasting)
  • 2003 R.A. Faltz Vintner Reserve
  • 2004 R.A. Faltz Vintner Reserve
  • 2005 R.A. Faltz Vintner Reserve – (not available at the time of our tasting)
  • Reserve Chardonel
  • 2005 Reserve Vignoles
  • Ruby Zin
  • 2005 Chardonnay Reserve
  • 2006 Chardonnay Reserve

Fox Valley Winery:

5600 Route 34
Oswego, Illinois 60543

120 South Main Street
Sandwich, Illinois 60548

33 S. 3rd Street
Geneva, Illinois 60134