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After settling in to a “very active fruit-growing community” in Putney, Vt., just down the birch-and-maple-tree-flanked road from groovy Brattleboro, Charles and Kate Dodge, former musician and lawyer respectively, mulled over the idea of making wine with local fruit and vegetables. They thought it would be a mindful way to creatively link to the land and community they’d grown to love and respect — while also giving a nod to a family tradition.
“Kate’s parents enjoyed wine for its taste and a wine’s relationship to its place of origin,” Charles Dodge tells VinePair. “Kate’s father frequently quoted the adage that ‘a meal without wine is like a day without sunshine.’”
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And so, what began as a hobby ripened into a home business — first out of the married couple’s Vermont farmhouse and today, with a main tasting room in Putney and a satellite tasting room in Quechee Gorge Village in Quechee, Vt., about an hour away.
“When we launched our business in 1998, there were only four other wineries [two fruit, two conventional] in the entire state, along with one distillery and a couple of cider makers, one of whom was using apple concentrate instead of local apples,” he says. “There were just a few brewpubs, and the first prominent Vermont beer makers — Otter Creek, Long Trail, Catamount, McNeill’s [now closed] and one or two others — were just beginning to distribute their local beers throughout the state.”
It was an exciting time for the beverage alcohol industry in Vermont, especially for wine. The Dodges and the newly formed Vermont Grape and Wine Council were able to influence legislation that would allow the couple to sell at farmers’ markets and have off-premises tasting rooms, too. According to Dodge, Putney Mountain Winery and Spirits “helped establish the groundwork for the now-flourishing alcohol industry in Vermont.”
By about 2010, some wineries began to use cold-climate grapes to broaden their offerings (think La Crescent for white, and Marquette for reds). But apples — a Vermont emblem — were everywhere. In fact, the Dodges started out by offering five types of sparkling cider wine (a sparkling beverage with slightly higher alcohol than hard cider), which were made from several varieties of heirloom cider apples.
Gradually, the dynamic duo created a portfolio of fruit wines and flavored spirits using at least 10 local varieties of fruit and vegetables for the wines, along with Vermont maple syrup and local wildflower honey for the liqueurs. (The best-selling wines include the Rhubarb Blush and Simply Cranberry; and the best-selling liqueurs are the Vermont Cassis and Simply Ginger.)
And they haven’t soured on producing the popular sparkling cider wine all these years. “Our Northern Spy (named for the apple variety used) has a distinguished record,” says Dodge. “This year it was named best fruit wine at the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association’s annual competition in Virginia; and in 2018 it was chosen to christen the USS Vermont submarine at an elaborate ceremony in Groton, Conn. The generous splash of bubbles was impressive.”
Below, the couple shares insight into why wine harmonizes so well with local Vermont ingredients, why not all fruit is easy to work with when creating wine (limoncello was a “fail,” says Dodge), and why terroir matters.
1. Charles, as a former composer, now winemaker, you went from musical notes to taste notes. What skills/passions from your musician life do you use in your wine life?
As a young composer, I found myself exploring how to express my musical ideas through computer techniques not previously used in music. I enjoyed the challenge of creating this kind of music that required meticulous attention to detail.
So, when I started making wine, I explored making wines with fruits other than grapes and making them with the same attitude toward excellence and attention to detail. Over the years I’ve had fun using the plethora of fruits growing in this area to create wines and liqueurs characterized by a tremendous variety of flavors, colors, aromas, textures. Clearly, we are doing something right, because our Vermont Cassis was judged “Best in Show” at the New York World Wine and Spirits Competition in 2019.
2. Kate, as a former New York attorney, I’m sure you can make the case for why using locally sourced fruits and ingredients are best. Can you please share?
Our mission is social and culinary — and both are premised on sourcing our ingredients locally. We believe that fruits (whether grapes or other produce) reflect the character of the region where they are grown. For example, shipping grapes from Oregon to make a Pinot Noir in Vermont is pointless from the point of view of “terroir.” It would embody none of what makes Vermont unique. But the produce grown in this corner of New England has a history and agricultural continuity that relate to the land. So, what makes our wines special is “the taste of the place.”
The social benefits of buying locally are equally important to us: preserving small farms, supporting local families, keeping profits in the community, reducing our carbon footprint and even that of our growers through their reduced need to ship.
Naturally, buying our raw ingredients from local farmers and even sourcing our cacao beans, organic honey, and maple syrup through local businesses like ours, contribute not only to the local economy but also further the social networks that form a community. We connect with farmers and their families, other producers who buy from the farmers as well as their customers and ours at farmers’ markets, festivals, and other events. We refer people to the farms, and they refer people to us.
3. What types of fruit do you use in your wines and liquors — and are there any on your wishlist?
We focus our choice of fruit on its consistent availability from local growers. Doing so sets up a rhythm in the evolution of our yearly production cycle. Our cycle is unlike that of a typical winery where grapes are harvested and processed in the same time frame at the end of the growing season. Our ingredients are harvested in a sequence that extends from late May to Thanksgiving. We process the fresh ingredients beginning with rhubarb in May and strawberries in June. Blueberries ripen in July, black currants in August, with raspberries in September. Then, apples are harvested in October followed by cranberries in November.
We use pretty much every type of appropriate ingredients available in this area, so I think our wish list is more about new ways to use what we have. And we are working on that.
4. Did you experiment with any fruit that just didn’t work out?
When people remark that you can make wine from practically anything, Charles sometimes jokes that we never had any luck making wine from old tractor tires. But customers are often amazed when they first realize that premium wine can be made from a wide range of produce, even including a vegetable such as rhubarb.
We had a brief fling with limoncello made from lemons grown, oddly enough, in nearby New Hampshire, but that just didn’t work out. We were unprepared for the amount of time and effort it would take to prepare a large batch. That’s because one uses the zest of the lemon peel only, being careful to avoid using any of the white layer under it. We had neither the staff nor the right equipment for peeling the lemons. And then, we needed to find a good use for the rest of the lemon, which would mean creating another new beverage or finding a customer to purchase a large batch of skinless lemons. In short, the test batch was great, but the whole project exceeded our scope at the time.
And we made a delicious peach dessert wine a few years back. We would like to make it every year, but our climate zone is on the cusp for growing peaches — in some years they flourish and in others the yield is poor and the flavor and texture lacking.
5. Please share the names of some of the local and regional farms you partner with.
We have been fortunate to partner with so many dedicated, skilled farmers in sourcing our ingredients. These include in Windham County: Dutton Berry Farm, Dwight Miller Orchards, Lost Barn Farm, Scott Farm, Green Mountain Orchards, Harlow Farm, Cherry Hill Farm, Richardson Farm Maple, and The Bunker Farm. In the neighboring states we partner with Alyson’s Orchard in Walpole, N.H., and in Massachusetts, Old Friends Farm in Amherst and the Rhodes Family Cape Cod Select in Carver.
6. You don’t just use uber-local/regional fruit, but also locally sourced ingredients, like Vermont maple syrup in the Apple Maple Wine and Cape Cod cranberries in the Simply Cranberry Wine. Any new ingredients on your wish list?
Occasionally we have thought of making a CBD-infused wine or liqueur, but so far haven’t tried that. Also, local mint is abundantly available, so that’s another possibility for our liqueurs. We may revisit limoncello, too.
7. As a New England-based business that relies exclusively on the local and regional weather-dependent farm industry, is the weather the biggest challenge?
As I mentioned earlier, peaches grow here only in certain years. But every year is a challenge for the growers — the yearly success of all crops is weather-dependent. Temperature extremes, heavy rains or drought, a late spring frost, an early frost in the fall — all these directly affect the availability of our ingredients, as well as their quality.
8. You’ve been in business for 20-plus years. What do you think has been the most important thing in keeping your business ripe?
Two big factors in keeping us “fresh and ripe” have been to grow slowly and steadily, so as not to overreach, and having direct customer feedback through our tasting rooms. In-person tasting constitutes a very valuable resource for charting the business — it has become our own marketing focus group. We learn from our customers just which of our products attract which types of tasters, and sometimes we adjust our direction according to our findings.
9. It’s impressive to see how tight-knit and creative the Brattleboro community is. How did you all support each other during the Covid lockdown?
We have been fortunate to have regular consultations with Debra Boudrieau, a very savvy adviser at the Vermont SBA. We meet with her every month to touch base about our business and to profit from her wisdom, insights, and information. In addition to meeting with us one-on-one, she helped form a “Master Minds” group of successful local business owners with whom we have been meeting monthly for several years now. The group provides us with enormously valuable feedback on how our business is going and how we can improve it. We do the same for the other members of the group. It means we all are in touch with, not only our own businesses, but also a larger segment of the local business community’s general business climate and trends.
10. You have an online presence for selling your wines and liqueurs, Putneywine.com. You also visit farmers’ markets (the Brattleboro Farmers’ Market is golden) and your product is served in some local restaurants. Any new sites or selling opportunities on the horizon?
We are always on the lookout for more opportunities to taste and retail our wines in Vermont. The New Hampshire Liquor and Wine Outlets have been a good source of sales for certain of our liqueurs, and we intend to increase the number of our products they carry. We also welcome the current regulatory considerations designed to make shipping our liqueurs as well as our wines.
11. You started out making wine in your Vermont home, and just last year opened a brand-new facility with a tasting room and kitchen that’s completely solar-powered. Please tell a bit about the journey in finding and securing the perfect space for Putney Mountain Winery.
We began making wine to sell from our farmhouse in 1998, in the days before GPS. It didn’t take us long to realize — given the few customers who could find our remote location — that we needed a more centralized retail location. Luckily, a local tourist attraction, the Basketville factory outlet store [now closed], welcomed us to rent a small space in the store for tasting and sales. As the winery grew and added more features, we rented more and more space within the building until, in 2020, we established our 5,000-square-foot winery/distillery/office/tasting room there. Solar power is another way that serves our mission of social responsibility. We have been recognized by the state of Vermont as a Vermont Green Business.