hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues November 2018


A slice of Vermont to sip and savor

In a former dairy barn, Poultney vineyard bottles wine, creates memories

The rows of grapevines stretch out beneath a moody sky at Whaleback Vineyard in Poultney. The vineyard’s large barn, renovated last year, now provides space for weddings and other events.Joan K. Lentini photo


Contributing writer


On a quiet autumn day at Whaleback Vineyard, the tasting room is empty of visitors.
Outside, rows of grapevines sit in repose, quiet but for the breeze rustling through the dense forest that borders the vineyard.

But a quiet day in the off-season hardly means things aren’t humming at usual speed. In the nearby barn, owner and winemaker Dennis Brown Jr. is busy with the tasks involved with fermenting, aging and bottling the vineyard’s 11 varieties of wine.

Grapes can’t be stored into the winter the way apples are, so the harvest month of September was one of almost nonstop work for Brown and his wife, Amy Ray.

“We were pretty much going crazy for a month, crushing the grapes immediately,” Brown recalled.

The life of growing grapes and transforming them into wine, he explained, requires an ever-evolving to-do list.

“In reality, I could spend six hours a day just in the winery taking care of things,” he said.
Aside from crushing grapes and overseeing the fermentation process, there’s the business of keeping all 28 of the winemaking tanks clean. This involves transferring wine from one tank to another to remove layers of fruit sediment.

Finally, there’s the bottling process, the majority of which takes place in the winter.
“I started out with a plan where we’d have a couple of months off in the winter, but it hasn’t worked out that way,” Brown said with a chuckle.

Brown and Ray opened the vineyard for business in 2009, when Brown, now 67, realized it was time to expand his sideline of winemaking, fulfilling a lifelong passion that took root in childhood. He made his first batch of wine at age 10 on the very same land where the vineyard sits today.
“Back then, it was an experiment with brown sugar and raisins,” he recalled.


Dennis Brown Jr. and Amy Ray, the owners of Whaleback Vineyard, relax on the porch outside their tasting room with their dog, Pepper, and cat, Marc. >

His repertoire later evolved to include wine made from the wild grapes that grew on his family’s farm as well as dandelion wine.

“Winemaking has been around an awfully long time,” he said. “I did it intuitively for a long time and later on got a little more scientific.”

The hobby continued to expand with the encouragement of family and friends who enjoyed his wine. Brown estimates it was about 23 years ago that he first started hearing about hardy northern grapes being grown in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

“And I realized you can grow good wine grapes in this climate,” he recalled. “I started planting St. Croix grapes from grape developer Elmer Swanson, who spent his whole life developing grapes. Then the University of Minnesota came out with hardy winter grapes, and I began collecting them.”

The 11 varieties of wine he makes fall into the categories of red, white, rose, fruit, dessert and ice wines. Most are grape-based, but some include blends of local apples, peaches, pears – and even Vermont honey.

Ray said it’s hard to choose a favorite from her husband’s wines.
“It depends on what we’re eating,” she said. “I really like our Apple if I want a white wine. At the moment, I’m fond of the Frontenac if I want a red.”


Love and an old barn
Whaleback’s winemaking business has grown steadily over the past decade, but in the past couple of years the family enterprise has taken on a new dimension.

It had become evident to Brown and Ray some years ago that the vineyard’s historic barn, built in the late 1800s, was in need of repair.

“Part of what makes Vermont Vermont is its old barns and covered bridges,” Ray said. “So many are falling down or are in disrepair, and we didn’t want that happening to our beautiful barn.”
The towering red “bank barn,” so called because it’s built into the side of a bank, was purchased in the 1950s by her husband’s parents, the late Lenora and Dennis Brown Sr., who operated a dairy farm on the property for decades.

Ray said the entire family swung into action to help save and renovate the barn. Their eldest daughter, Jacinda, even set up a Go Fund Me page in 2015 to raise funds for supplies for the restoration project, which took nearly two years.

Structural repairs included reinforcing the walls and re-planking the floors. Ray said their intent was to fortify the structure while maintaining the barn’s original appearance and character.
The bottom portion of the barn, which was once a milking parlor, is now where the winemaking takes place.

But the ground-level area, which once stored farm equipment and hay, was bestowed with a new and unexpected purpose in the midst of the renovations. The couple’s youngest daughter, Sadie, was issued a most unforgettable marriage proposal by then-boyfriend Allen-Glen Burnell. With Dennis and Amy’s blessing, he created a massive white “Will U Marry Me?” inscription on the barn’s south-facing exterior.

When Sadie said yes, the two decided the barn would be the perfect location for the wedding. And from this simple twist of fate, the barn was given a new incarnation as an event space.
“Everybody pitched in to help the renovations happen, even Allen-Glen and his family,” Ray recalled. “We finished it during the winter of 2017, and Sadie and Allen-Glen got married in August.”

As it turns out, maintaining the barn’s original architectural integrity proved beneficial to holding weddings there.

“We’ve been told the way the beams are set make great acoustics,” Ray said. “We had a few weddings this summer and already have a few events booked for 2019.”

The “Will U Marry Me?’ inscription went over so well, with both Sadie and subsequent visitors to the vineyard, that it has remained as a permanent fixture. On the front-facing side of the barn is another white inscription: ‘Love,’ befitting of the barn’s new purpose.

Wine with a view
After the winter bottling concludes, Brown will focus on assessing any vine damage in the spring and begin pruning the nine acres of grapevines.

“There’s always a bit of winter kill, and sometimes rodents chew the bark off the bottom,” he said. “But our grapes are pretty tough as far as surviving. Some can even withstand temperatures of 30 degrees below zero.”

The physical labor involved with the spring pruning is daunting, though.
“It doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you have 6,000 plants and pruning takes 10 minutes apiece, you have to come up with at least 800 hours to prune them all,” Brown said. “Fortunately, my wife, daughters and son-in-law all help.”

Whaleback Vineyard -- named for a hill on the property that looks like a whale’s back surging out of the water -- continues to be a family affair.

Ray works full time at an area school but pitches in with duties ranging from pruning and sales to pouring wine for visitors to sample. Sadie and Allen-Glen help out as well, and Jacinda, who now has a teaching job out of state, handles social media, serves as scheduling coordinator for special events, and visits often during peak season to help in the tasting room.

Set in a white clapboard farmhouse with a wraparound porch, the tasting room and retail space offers space for sitting, while another room displays items such as locally made artwork, crafts and maple syrup for sale.

Customers routinely take their wine samples out to sip on the porch, which offers panoramic views of both the vineyards and Green Mountains in the distance.

“Customers love the flavor of our wine,” Ray said. “I think they like coming to small vineyards, because they like getting a feel for how we make the wine and take care of our grapes.”
The bottles retail for $15 plus tax and are also sold at area liquor stores and farmers markets, including year-round on Saturdays at the Rutland farmers market.

“We don’t ship at this point, but we might someday,” Ray said.
During late fall and winter, the tasting room is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday. The hours expand in the spring and summer months.

“Some wineries close after Columbus Day weekend, but we just shorten our hours and stay open year-round,” Ray said. “And if people call or e-mail us ahead of time, we’ll make arrangements to be here for them on an off-day.”

For more information about Whaleback Vineyard, visit www.whalebackvineyard.com or call (802) 287-0730.