The Pursuit of Perfection

A New Hampshire wine story

Amy LaBelle lights up when she talks about grapes. The owner of LaBelle Winery in Amherst joined the New Hampshire winemaking community in 2010, when she and her husband, Cesar Arboleda, took a chance on opening a winery in the Granite State.

The cellar at LaBelle’s Winery is steeped in the smell of oak and grapes. LaBelle and her team harvest more than 7,000 pounds of grapes each year, but wine production in New Hampshire is not without its perils. A hard-freeze last year in the spring wiped out a seasonal crop in as little as five hours.

“I sat right in the vineyard and I cried,” LaBelle says. “But you can only do that for five minutes. Then you need a plan.”Kendaljbush5358hr

Like other grape growers in New Hampshire, LaBelle’s plan includes hard work and partnering with other growers. She collaborates with trucker teams who drive virtually nonstop to bring West Coast grapes — less immune to frigid temperatures — as a substitute when New Hampshire grapes succumb to the cold.

Just this year, LaBelle pruned all of her 2002 grape vines alone. Augmenting her crop with California grapes is painful, but it has allowed LaBelle to maintain her primary reliance on New Hampshire grape production.

The freeze that brought tears to Amy LaBelle took its toll on growers throughout New Hampshire. Flag Hill Winery in Lee lost about 90% of its grapes. Flag Hill grows 100% of its own grapes, and it leans on long-standing friendships to fill in when the crop suffers.


Flag Hill owner Brian Ferguson makes an adjustment on the wine bottling machine.

With a small plot of 30 or 40 vines, Rue and Sallie Nijhof are in a better position to survive a freeze. Rue Nijof’s solution to the cold? “I planted (vines) in a microclimate contained by other vegetation.” What doesn’t make it into the wine bottle, the Nijhofs donate to home winemakers.

With endless stories of frozen grapes and entire crops obliterated by harsh weather, it’s hard to imagine how a wine industry could possibly take hold and prosper in New Hampshire, especially given more favorable growing conditions in California, France and Italy.

How’d it happen, then? Steadfast determination and a path that goes all the way back to the intrepid Viking explorer Leif Ericson, who cataloged a grape species vitis labrusca in the 11th century in what would become North America.

Related to the species vitis vinifera from Eurasia, the former species is a totally different plant with different characteristics: It is freeze-resistant and has heartier root-stock with a “slip-skin” that causes the fruit to pop out of its skin if given a gentle squeeze.

Rue In Vineyard

Rue examining grapes arriving from California.

The wild varietals recorded by Ericson were unpredictable in both yield and quality, and they were thought to have no use in winemaking. That is, until the mid-1800s when an enterprising man, named Ephraim Wales Bull, entered the scene.

A farmer from Concord, Massachusetts, Bull would claim his fame and fortune by turning unruly wild grapes into what is now found in jelly jars: the irrepressible Concord grape — a delicious royal purple variety with a benchmark flavor reminiscent of PB&Js and Big League Chew bubblegum.

Bull is credited with planting over 22,000 seedlings in a painstaking process of crossbreeding. In 1843, he discovered the Concord varietal, a hardy fruit that can stand up to brutal winter weather.

But even with the development of a grape that can withstand New England’s bitter cold and frost, the evolution of grape-growing in New Hampshire has rested on trial and error and constant innovation to produce a grape that is not only hardy but also rich and flavorful.


Flag Hill has won many awards for their white cayuga wine.

“The chemistry of red hybrid grapes was not so well understood,” says Brian Ferguson of Flag Hill Distillery & Winery. “The fruit would mature to 23 brix (roughly 23% sugar), complex at the beginning, but on day 100, there was no body.”

According to a study by Cornell University, hybrid grapes don’t hold the mouth-savoring body of a good wine, the essence known in the industry as tannins or the way the liquid actually feels when you drink it, often called “mouth feel.”

Body also has a component of balance, of how the sweetness plays with the acidity and the overall impression of the wine. Wine producers couldn’t make the bold red wines people were expecting, and to a great degree the New Hampshire wine movement suffered for it.

The choice to produce a wine in New Hampshire with distinctive flavor traces back to the 1980s when vinicultural explorations first began to unfold. Most Americans at this time (outside of some wine connoisseurs) were largely unaware of the international wine scene and grape production outside U.S. borders.

In 1982, Peter Oldak unceremoniously entered New Hampshire winemaking in South Hampton. Beginning with six plants, Oldak embarked on what might be the maiden voyage of New Hampshire winemaking at Jewell Towne Vineyards, a winery that’s expanding to almost 13 acres and serves a flavorful varietal with New Hampshire fruit. In 1985, three years after Oldak’s entry into the burgeoning wine market, Frank Reinhold Jr. took over his father’s property in Lee and launched Flag Hill Winery (now known as Flag Hill Distillery & Winery, a nod to the spirits it produces).

Looking back on early New Hampshire winemakers, Jason Phelps, wine writer and founder of Ancient Fire Mead & Cider, which operated in Manchester, says, “The first generation of owners were still there trying to get people to put the right grapes in the ground.”

But by the mid-’90s, winemakers were still perplexed about how to draw a complex and satisfying flavor from the grapes. The New Hampshire hybrid grapes, crossbred between native varietals and European transplants, produced a suite of flavors that were new, and not altogether pleasant, to wine drinkers who were familiar with the taste of classic varietals like chardonnay, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon. Kendaljbush7587hr

In 2010, Flag Hill began to turn the corner when its winemakers shifted attention from how to grow grapes to how to process the grapes in a way that produced flavor-filled wine.

“We started treating our estate-grown cayuga in the style of Germanic winemakers,” Brian Ferguson says. “Most folks don’t think much at all about fermentation, but process and yeast can make a huge impact on the end product.” Flag Hill winemakers experimented with fermentation techniques to maximize the flavors that hearty New Hampshire grapes could produce.

By fermenting the grapes at cold temperatures and stopping fermentation while some sugars are still left in the grapes (by lowering the temperature even more), the Flag Hill winemakers captured subtle aromatics that had been lost with other methods.

This approach leaves a little natural carbon dioxide, which produces a bit of bubbles like in soda and beer, but now was contained in New Hampshire wine. Like German wines, the bubbles add a hint of acidity and turn into a fine mist that goes straight to the nose, which processes the thousands of subtle and distinct smells.

Having finally discovered a way to bring the rich and nuanced flavor palate out of the grapes, Ferguson has stuck by his process: “By 2015, all of our white wines were being made with this methodology, to preserve the really delicate notes. From the time we break the berry after harvest, our grapes never get above 60 degrees Fahrenheit until after they reach the bottle, if ever.”

Even with the leap forward from getting the flavor out of New Hampshire grapes, Jason Phelps says, “The New Hampshire wine story will never be exclusive to grapes. It never has been. I think you have to drag in fruit, honey and maple sap. You can’t tell a Granite State wine story without that stuff.”


Fairbrother picks fresh blueberries and raspberries at Moonlight Meadery.

And that is precisely what Michael Fairbrother brought to the mix with the opening, in 2010, of Moonlight Meadery, the first meadery in the state, which was well ahead of the national curve for mead production. Mead is honey wine, often with fruits added, with the advantage that the drink can be produced year-round because the key ingredients are always available.

The Fairbrothers’ meadery rests on the obvious: Winemaking is tough in this state. The biggest challenge to grape growers is the infrequency of opportunity — winemakers can only harvest and make wine once a year, perhaps twice a year if grapes are sourced from warmer climates.

If winemakers rely solely on the state’s grapes, the growers only have one season to produce a crop, which is a nail-biter given the unpredictability of the local climate. With year-round production, Moonlight can offer a wide variety, including simple hard apple cider in six-packs to complex fruit- and spice-blended meads made with coffee, apples, raspberries and too many local ingredients to list.

And thanks to Fairbrother, mead in New Hampshire has taken a path to an elegant extreme. Moonlight Mead is the only New Hampshire wine sold in the “fine wine” section of our state liquor stores. The mead was aged in barrels that once were home to the now-defunct Sam Adams Utopia, a unique brew powered by a high-alcohol yeast strain that resembles cognac rather than the more familiar Boston lager. The yeast was still in the barrels where the mead was placed and where it stayed for 10 years, until it was carefully bottled and took its rightful place among distinguished wines.

While New Hampshire winemakers of today differ on individual philosophies and the best approach to winemaking, they all share a deep loyalty and allegiance to producing top-quality wines with top-quality ingredients. Along with nurturing and harvesting the grapes comes the necessity for maintaining stewardship of the land, the community and the reputation of New Hampshire wines.


Fairbrother and his wife, co-owner Bernice, enjoy mead with a charcuterie board.

Like all Granite State growers who frequently offer events and gatherings, Rue and Sallie Nijhof at Birch Wood Winery understand the intricate connection between winemaking and community. Each year, the Nijhofs host a wine event to raise funds for CIBOR Cares, a nonprofit that assists organizations and individuals in need during emergencies.

Unlike other wine producers in New Hampshire that started solely for the purpose of growing grapes, the Nijhofs’ winery grew from a well-known fixture in the Derry community, having morphed from a the respected restaurant “Promises to Keep,” where locals gathered to celebrate or take a date in the mid-’80s.

Rue worked at the restaurant as a waiter part-time after graduating college in Europe, and he took his wife, Sallie, there on a first date. According to the couple, the meal was delayed, conversation went on for hours, and, like something out of a modern day romcom, the two ended up happily married.

When the restaurant went up for sale, the couple bought it and Birch Wood Winery was born. Beginning as a wedding facility, the Nijhofs started out by trying their hand at winemaking at friends’ facilities.


A family enjoys an afternoon meal at Over the Moon Farmstead in Pittsfield.

Last year, Birch Wood Winery added an on-premise winery and barrel storage. Their focus is on bold California-style reds, made with grapes from Suisun Valley in California, with some white varietals sprinkled in.

The building sparkles and is surrounded by gorgeous grounds in a nod to the traditional California tasting room model, where curb appeal is essential to developing brand identity and placement.

LaBelle Winery and Flag Hill also host hundreds of events during the year and have become mainstays of their local communities, while building their respective brands and augmenting their bottom lines.

And Michael Fairbrother has positioned Moonlight Meadery as not only a well-known fixture in the community but  also as a formidable distributor. Starting with a dream in a garage, Fairbrother and his wife, Bernice, have built an empire with world-wide distribution, global recognition and over 1,000 cases shipping out every month.

The tasting room at the Moonlight Meadery attracts busloads, which led to the recent purchase of “Over The Moon” farmhouse in Pittsfield.

The Fairbrothers envision a multiple-use facility with on-site meadmaking, a brewery and a restaurant, all with capacity for community events.

Today, with over 30 producers in the state, the wine industry has secured its roots in the Granite State.

Still, it’s hard to wrap your arms around exactly what is meant by “New Hampshire wine.”

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anybody succinctly identify what the New Hampshire wine identity actually is,” Jason Phelps says.

“Because our wine identity is so varied, it is a question that I think should remain unanswered.”

Women in Wine

Maryann Graf 1920x1280

MaryAnn Graf was a pioneer, widely considered to be California’s first female winemaker after Prohibition. Graf embraced science and an analytical approach to wine, a perspective that set her apart and served her well throughout her career.

Historically, women have not been wine- makers, with Hannah Weinberger being the first female winemaker in Napa Valley in the 1880s. UC Davis has a world-famous wine degree program, and yet it wasn’t until 1965 when MaryAnn Graf was the first woman to receive an enology degree there. She was truly the first female winemaker of the modern era, and she went on to a glorious career, ending up at Simi Winery in Healdsburg, California. A 2020 study by Santa Clara University found that trends are slowly changing — 14% of California’s more than 4,200 wineries have a female winemaker. Based on their research, female ownership or co-ownership represents at least 38% of California wineries.

Another study found that there were no female CEOs at wineries producing between 100,000 and 500,000 cases annually. Interestingly, at wineries producing 500,000 to 1 million cases per year, 25% of CEOs were women. The same study found that women were overrepresented in wineries in the areas of HR and marketing, but there was a disparity when you examine the number of women in operations, sales, viticulture and winemaking.

Considering that women purchase 85% of the wine sold in the U.S., these numbers are troubling. What can we as wine drinkers do about this? A few things, actually. Be vocal and have chats about this over a glass of wine with a friend. Grassroots efforts are often the best first step to change. When you visit wineries, ask about their makeup of their production and management staff. Have the difficult conversations. There are advocacy groups supporting women in wine (too many to list), but a great place to start is They are assembling a database of women-owned wineries, and have some cool garb to help spread the word.

Categories: Food & Drink, People, Wine & Spirits