by Phil Dodd
John McCann was so busy establishing grape plants in the rocky soil at his new five-acre vineyard in Middlesex this spring that he fell behind bottling last year’s wine. However, it’s a sign of his success at North Branch Vineyards, the Montpelier business he runs with his wife Kate, an award-winning math teacher at U-32 high school.
But the hard work of planting this year should lead to a big expansion for the small winery in the near future. North Branch Vineyards has been making and selling about 12,000 bottles a year in recent years. When the Middlesex vineyard comes online in three years and joins two smaller vineyards North Branch has in St. Johnsbury and Plainfield, McCann figures he will be producing 36,000 to 40,000 bottles a year and might need to hire some help.
McCann seems confident there will be demand for the additional bottles. Since he and Kate started the business in 2007, starting out with grapes purchased from the Finger Lakes Region of New York, the business has grown steadily, even as more wineries pop up in Vermont. “It is different than 10 years ago,” he said. “We no longer have to explain that we can grow grapes in Vermont. Now people come in asking for wine from specific grapes, like Frontenac or Marquette.”
Today, North Branch uses only cold-hardy grapes grown in Vermont, either from its own vineyards or purchased from other growers in the state. The wine is fermented and bottled in the basement of the McCann’s home on Trillium Hill Road off Elm Street, a home which they share with their two children, Kasi, age 12, and Nora, age 8.
The growing interest in Vermont-produced wine brings many visitors to their business for free tastings, often from out-of-state, McCann said. “They find us on Google. We are not the biggest or fanciest winery, but they see the good reviews we have and come for a tasting. Ninety percent of them buy wine when they visit.”
“Saturday and Sunday are our busy days here, especially holidays,” McCann noted. “On Mother’s Day weekend a car stopped here every 10 minutes.” Many of the visitors are younger people. They are adventurous and willing to experiment,” he said. “They want to experience a mom-and-pop winery.”
Vermont’s beer boom works to his advantage, McCann added. “All the beer marketing helps. Sometimes a couple will spend a day beer tasting but also want to check out a winery. There is some cross benefit between breweries and wineries.”
Frontenac grapes are a prime focus at North Branch Vineyards. McCann said his most popular wine is a Frontenac semi-dry red wine. “It has grown like wildfire for us,” he said. “We have people pre-ordering it.” But he called Frontenac gris—a white wine—his signature wine.
The winery features several other wines as well, with bottle prices ranging from $14.95 to $18.95, said McCann. The wines are sold at several local stores (see sidebar) and also shipped to customers all over the country, including the 50 or so people in the winery’s wine club. North Branch wines can also be found at local restaurants, including Sarducci’s and Royal Orchid in Montpelier
McCann believes his wine-making skills have improved. “I have one customer in Pownal I met several years ago,” he said. “He says there has been an amazing evolution of our wines in the past three years.”
McCann, who graduated from UVM with a degree in engineering and once worked as an aerospace engineer in California, said that when he first started making wine, “I was very precise. The engineer in me hasn’t gone away, but I have developed creativity, using my smell and taste to create nice blends.”
His skills have been rewarded with a variety of awards at regional and international wine competitions. Most recently, his “Proprietor’s Blend” wine won a gold medal and “Best Vermont Wine” at the Eastern States Wine Competition.
Clearly, a lot of effort goes into making and selling North Branch Vineyards wine. The family attends 14 festivals a year in Vermont, from Danville to Bennington, accounting for about 70 percent of sales, McCann said. They also sell wine at the Montpelier Farmers’ Market when they are not away at festivals.
By December, they will have sold out of most of their wine. The business then essentially shuts down until spring. But right now, McCann is very busy. At the Middlesex vineyard he just finished planting, he has been irrigating four hours a day in the midst of what he says is the driest spring he has seen. Meanwhile, he is cranking up his bottling operation to satisfy the thirst of North Branch Vineyards’ customers for his unique Vermont wines.
Visiting North Branch Vineyards
This summer North Branch Vineyards will he holding wine tastings on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 2 to 5 pm. Be sure to call ahead, however, as the proprietors are often away selling their wine at festivals (229-6169).
North Branch Vineyard wines are sold by the bottle at the following local locations, among others:
•Montpelier Farmers’ Market – Montpelier
•Hunger Mountain Coop – Montpelier
•Yankee Spirits – Montpelier
•Buffalo Mountain Food Co-op – Hardwick
•Cabot Annex – Waterbury Center
•Cheese Traders – South Burlington
•Mountain Cheese and Wine – Stowe
•Red Hen Bakery & Café – Middlesex
•The Warren Store – Warren