The Maine Winter Wine Trail: An Adventure
“Route 3? Why are we taking Route 3?”
“Because that’s what Google said to do.”
“Can you check the GPS?”
“I don’t have any service.”
“You don’t have any service?”
“I don’t have any service.”
“I think there’s a gazetteer back there somewhere.”
“In the hatch, behind you.”
“You want me to unbuckle and fish around in the back with that cop right behind us?”
“Do you want me to drive?”
“No, I think I’m fi–“
It wasn’t a white Christmas, but the day after Kris Kringle and his cloven-hoofed sleigh team lapped the earth was unmistakably ivory. With 10+ inches of fresh powder dumped on the roofs and driveways of woodstove-warmed homes, the first nor’easter of the season kept plow trucks on the roads and board games on kitchen tables throughout much of the state of Maine.
When the following day slowly brought salt and sand to snow-covered streets, myself and two brave-ish souls tackled a segment of the Maine wine trail that stays open through at least a few of the dark months.
“You realize I’m holding both ‘Oh, Shit’ handles right now, right?”
God bless All-Wheel Drive.
After the almost immediate loss of GPS, a brief encounter with a “Closed” sign at the vineyard in Linconville, and inhaling lunch at a Camden deli (that, rumor has it, has good brownies), we finally reached a very much “Open” Cellar Door Winery at the Villa at the intersection of Routes 90 and 1 in Rockport.
Still full from a hasty lunch, we pulled up tall, black stools and nursed our choice of 6 awesomely heavy-handed pours from Cellar Door’s long list of largely California-, Washington-, and New York-sourced varietals. Cellar Door grows a number of hardy hybrids from the University of Minnesota and Cornell University, and while the current wine list is made up mostly of grapes from other states, they seem excited about the first batches from the home-grown, currently aging in barrels.
A table covered with an assortment of glassware stood off to the side of the bar, and in a conversational lull became the center of attention. “That’s the aroma bar,” said Rhonda, the neighborly lady working at the tasting counter.
Wine is new to Maine. And, like a lot of new things, it can be intimidating. To take off some of that unfamiliar edge, Cellar Door has taken upon itself part of the task of wine education. At the aroma bar, people new to wine (or just enthusiastic about it) can learn to identify common scents and expand their viticulture vocabulary.
After we finished our flights, we climbed another to wander the art gallery on the second floor. Sunlight splintered through stained-glass as the warm wine hug wrapped its arms around our collective shoulders. Satisfied with our visit (and convinced that Cellar Door could hang with just about any winery of comparable size in Sonoma), we left the warmth of the Villa for visible breath and unforgiving car seats.
“So, do you guys want a piece of this brownie, seeing as neither of you decided to buy one at the deli?”
As crisp, afternoon blues changed to early-evening yellows, we took 90 to 17 and turned off where a black Sharpie-d cardboard sign warned us that GPS was wrong. Almost glad that we had lost service earlier in the day, we slowly bumped down a largely snow-frosted Barrett Hill Road, following the “new version” of a hatch-found Delorme’s atlas and gazetteer, passengers buzzedly debating the difference between the two.
About 1/3 mile down the road, a sign for Savage Oakes sat in front of a small, red shack with purple posted tasting hours: Friday-Sunday, 11:00 PM-5:00 PM, or by chance.
As we sipped inside, Holly told us told us that their farm had been in the same family since 1790. They added a vineyard in 2002 and now grow about half of the grapes that come out of Maine. Each wine on the table seemed to have a different story, and Holly was more than happy to share.
“What the British couldn’t do, my husband’s family did,” joked Savage. Dinner guest to a Savage ancestor, 1st U.S. Secretary of War General Henry Knox swallowed a chicken bone. Three days later, he died from infection. Holly assured us that time heals all wounds, and that enough had almost certainly passed for her family to give their dry, white wine “with some zip” the namesake General Knox.
After drinking the last drop for the fallen general, we waltzed through whites and reds, ending on the award-winning blueberry math port: Blueberry π. A young couple walked in as we wrapped up; we threw bottoms up, and left Savage Oakes a little warmer than we arrived.
“And this is winter in Maine.”
Early sunset shone through thin ice, making farm trees glisten from roots to twigs. The setting, serene; the GPS, useless. Fortunately for us (and this piece), we were not too proud to ask for directions, and Holly Savage was happy to oblige. A short skid down 17 to Union brought us to Sweetgrass Farm Winery and Distillery just before closing time.
Wooden barrels, metal vats, and glass carboys lined the walls and filled the corners of the open-beamed command center of Sweetgrass. Pallets of magnificent gin stacked on the concrete floor aside the U-shaped bar, and a huge copper still sat on bricks behind us. We leaned on the smooth, wooden bar top.
“Tastings are $2, and you can keep the glass.”
A man wearing a solid-colored flannel shirt and a black winter hat pushed tasting menus towards us, a few ports and wines already marked “Sold out for the Season” with big, red Xs. He set out vermouth and a few different kinds of homegrown bitters for us to sniff as we made our selections of 6 from the year-end surviving wines, ports, and spirits.
After a series of solid wines and ports made from Maine apples, peaches, and blueberries, we tried a gin so smooth you’ll want to drink it straight. Voted one of the top 50 spirits by Wine Enthusiast Magazine, once you try it, you’ll probably turn down the offer of a mixer and just nod your head in agreement.
“And those are the last bottles of the year,” said the soft-spoken owner as he pointed to a near-empty box of Cranberry gin. “But next year starts next week, right?” A semi-panicked local did some mental math, paused, and grabbed one more.
After we had all finished our flights and had begun the final movement toward the door, I said I’d like to steal a peppermint from a large glass jar near the counter.
“They’re free. No need to steal,” said the owner. We thanked him, crossed paths with the same ginger couple that had followed us in at Savage Oakes, and left Sweetgrass in the rearview.
Word is there are a lot more stops on the wine trail open in the summer, but in the winter, there are far, far worse ways to spend the day after a snowstorm than drinking local, reasonably-priced, and room-chilled wine and spirits. Just take it slow.
And bring a map.
Photos by Noah Cole.