Wine from Connecticut? Yes indeed. Touring Connecticut's farm wineries is a great weekend excursion, right along with apple-picking and pumpkin patches. Most vineyards harvest their grapes this time of the year and host special events along with regular wine tastings and tours.
Connecticut currently boasts about 30 farm wineries across the state -- from Hopkins Vineyard in Litchfield County to Cassidy Hill in Coventry. The number has almost doubled since 2007.
Haight-Brown in Litchfield opened in 1975 and is one of the state's oldest vineyards. New additions include estate-bottling boutique Northwinds in Watertown, and Saltwater Farm Vineyard -- which has a WWII-vintage airport hangar -- in Stonington.
"In the current economy, I've been hearing that a lot of small businesses say they are hurting. I hear the opposite with wineries," said Jaime Smith, marketing representative for the Connecticut Department of Agriculture. "Business is up and [it is] one of the busiest years.
"In a time where a lot of small businesses are closing, you have farm wineries that are opening and offering jobs, especially during harvest time when they might hire extra help," said Smith.
Winemaking is one of the fastest growing sectors of the local economy. Smith says Connecticut has varying "microclimates" that make it great for grape production.
Connecticut's agriculture department has an entire lab dedicated to grape production. From these experimentation stations, the scientists work with several farms, suggesting what grapes would grow best in their regions.
Several farms have also staved off this year's early frost. Many producers reported an early yet plentiful harvest within their microclimates. Smith said Taylor Brooke Winery in Windham County, located at a high elevation, wasn't affected by the early snow.
New Winery: Cassidy Hill Vineyards
Cassidy Hill Vineyards in Coventry is celebrating its first year. Robert and Carol Chipkin opened it at the end of October 2008. Since planting their first vines in 2002, the Chipkins have been busy ramping up production to keep up with demand.
"We're harvesting the rest of the grapes over the next week," said Robert Chipkin. "And everything looks pretty good and we're going to make the best wine we can with the grapes that we have. It's on par with last year, which was a rainy season and our fruit looks very nice and clean. We're hopeful that it will come through in the wine of the next year."
Connecticut Boasts Fine Wines
Cayuga, Seyval, St. Croix and Chambourcin are some of the 10 varieties of grapes grown in the Chipkins' vineyards. Along with well-known Merlots and Chardonnays, Cassidy Hill has unique blends of red and white wines.
Winemaking was a hobby that grew to a passion for the Chipkins after retirement. They spent a year looking at property that would double as a home and as a suitable spot for a winery.
"Frankly, we didn't pick the location for business reasons, but because we love the property that we live on," Robert Chipkin said. "Toughest part was to find a suitable site to live and grow a winery. We interviewed several towns and Coventry was very enthusiastic to having us. We were lucky."
Both Smith and Chipkin said in recessionary times, people are staying closer to home and taking day trips, especially during autumn, which helps wineries here thrive.
"Since we've been open, our business is primarily the local area but we have visitors from California, Florida, New York and Michigan," Chipkin said. "Usually, they are visiting people in the area and looking for something to do or brought by existing customers."
Weekend Wine Tastings
"Wine for so many people is romantic and enjoyable and you can sit back and relax to enjoy it with friends and family," said Smith. "Connecticut has beautiful settings and you can enjoy a glass and the view. People are staying closer to home, not taking grand vacations but still want to go out and do something on a Saturday."
Connecticut Boasts Fine Wines
Wine enthusiasts David Pollinger and his wife, Sue, both work the wine tasting room in Cassidy Hill. They are locals and have toured several of the state's wineries.
"It's a great getaway. It isn't expensive to get a tasting at $5 a glass," said David Pollinger. "You've spent $25, if that, to get away for a couple of hours from your everyday grind. For the people you meet and the stories behind the wines, you're not really spending a lot of money.
"Traditionally you had to go to Litchfield County to get away to vineyards. A few others [across the state] have shown that they are viable if you produce a good wine. Younger generations and older generations are all coming out. Everybody is supportive and didn't realize what was here."
During the week, the Pollingers both work full-time jobs. They help the Chipkins on the weekend.
"I love meeting people and when I went to Coventry in Cassidy Hill in my backyard ... we love to be there and learn how it's made," said David Pollinger. "My wife and I were invited by him [Chipkin] to help bottle and he asked if we wanted to work there. We thought it was a great opportunity because we really enjoy it."
Pollinger said the winery is a pleasant break from job stress and the economy.
"That's the great thing about Cassidy Hill and Bob and Carole. They have a winery because of passion, they're not doing it for money because they're doing it in their retirement. They are not processing people in and out."
Connecticut Tourism and Family Fall Ventures
In a creative approach to tourism, the Connecticut Farm Wine Development Council and the state's Vineyard and Winery Association have started a joint initiative called the "Passport Program." Participants can enter their passport in a drawing for a trip to Spain when they visit and get stamps from 14 wineries from May to November.
Most wineries are open at least 10 months out of the year. However, autumn is the peak harvest season for most growers. A lot of wineries have harvest parties where locals can also volunteer to pick grapes.
At many of the farm vineyards, kids can pick pumpkins while parents catch a wine tasting. Jonathan Edwards in North Stonington just had their annual harvest festival for families showcasing local musicians, hayrides, and local food growers.
And with the fall foliage drawing people from around New England, wineries are also showcasing their signature holiday wines. Local wine is a great holiday gift. Cassidy Hill has released "Coventry Spice," its signature holiday red wine, described as a mix of St. Croix and natural flavors that "smell like Christmas."
Jones Farms has "Friday Evening Wine Down" events where you can learn how to pair seasonal food dishes with select Jones' wines right before Thanksgiving and Christmas.
With the crisp air turning colder, many patrons can still enjoy tastings, tours throughout the Nutmeg State or what might come to be known as New England's wine state.