Though the West Coast is largely considered the focal point of America’s wine industry, fortunes throughout the rest of the country have improved exponentially in recent years. Winemakers nationwide have taken up the challenge of identifying underappreciated locales and crafting innovative, quality wines. In unlikely places like New Mexico, Michigan, Texas and Vermont, renegade winemakers produce world-class bottlings and prove that there’s still much to discover about American wine.
Winegrower/Co-founder, William Chris Vineyards, Hye, TX
Chris Brundrett took a traditional path to winemaking. At Texas A&M University, he majored in horticulture with a minor in entomology, and he managed the school’s vineyard. One day, he had the opportunity to visit a new local winery.
“We built William Chris Vineyards off the idea that wine is not made, it is grown.”—Chris Brundrett
“The owner/winemaker took me through and tasted out of barrels and told me where the fruit was from, and from that moment, I was hooked,” says Brundrett. “I thought, if I can do this for a living, it’s time for a life change, and I need to finish school and chase this career.”
After working at a number of Texas wineries, Brundrett teamed up with grower Bill Blackman in 2008 to release the first vintage of William Chris wine.
“We bonded over our shared philosophies, like producing wines that are soulful and show terroir, while using 100% Texas-grown grapes in winemaking, which was rather unheard of in Texas at the time,” he says. “We built William Chris Vineyards off the idea that wine is not made, it is grown.”
Today, William Chris sources grapes from the state’s two main American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), the Texas High Plains and Texas Hill Country. Each presents distinct challenges.
“We’ll have snow, wind and hail in the High Plains in Northern Texas, and humidity and heat in the Hill Country,” says Brundrett.
In addition to an assortment of still and sparkling wines, William Chris plans to release its first Texas-grown brandy this year. Brundrett has also experimented with vermouth production.
His obsession with quality and accessibility may be best expressed, however, in his recent partnership with Andrew Sides, from neighboring Texas winery Lost Draw Cellars. They created the Yes We Can Wine brand, and its first wine, Sway Rosé, is Texas’ first canned rosé.
“Every vintage, [the state’s winemakers] push each other to get better and more focused,” says Brundrett. “The competition is much better than it was five years ago. I cannot wait to taste what the next five years bring us. And all you Texas wine haters out there: Get ready, we’re coming for you.”
Proprietor/Winemaker, Bel Lago Vineyards & Winery, Cedar, MI
Charles, or Charlie, Edson was first introduced to wine in his early 20s. It was German Riesling that captured his attention.
“I quickly became enamored with them, particularly Mosel Rieslings,” says Edson. “Over time, I explored other wines and my casual interest eventually turned into a real passion.”
He learned to make wine at Michigan State, where he earned a Ph.D. in horticulture/viticulture. He started Bel Lago with his wife, Amy Iezzoni, and her parents, Ruth and Domenic Iezzoni. They planted their first acre on the family farm on Leelanau Peninsula in 1987, and the winery was built in 1998.
“We planted several different varieties and clones in an effort to learn what might fare well,” says Edson. The winery now has 32 acres under vine over seven vineyard sites throughout the Leelanau Peninsula AVA.
“After decades of experience, we now have several really skilled grape growers and winemakers in Michigan.”—Charlie Edson
“Bel Lago’s vineyards are located on high hills that overlook either South Lake Leelanau or Lake Michigan,” he says. “One day, Dom was sitting on the hillside, enjoying the afternoon, thinking in his native Italian, and the name Bel Lago [which means ‘beautiful lake’] just came to him naturally.”
Edson takes advantage of Lake Michigan’s influence on the Leelanau Peninsula. It moderates temperatures to allow grapes to better ripen in the chilly climate. Snow from the lake also proves a blessing. “[It] helps blanket and protect the vines during the winter,” he says.
But its experimentation that’s at the heart of Bel Lago. The winery released its first Blaufränkisch last year, and is growing approximately 80 different wine grapes. That includes traditional varieties that the state has become known for, like Riesling, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer and Auxerrois.
Michigan wines have blossomed in recent years, but Edson, a 30-year veteran of the craft, has been there from the beginning.
“There is always a steep learning curve in any new, developing region,” he says. “After decades of experience, we now have several really skilled grape growers and winemakers in Michigan, particularly in the Traverse Coast region that encompasses Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas. As a group, I believe we are making great progress.”
President/Winemaker, Noisy Water Winery, Ruidoso, NM
Jasper Riddle grew up with wine, thanks to his father’s job as a sommelier.
“I learned to make wine at an early age, and of course, had a great appreciation for it,” he says. “It was a great party trick in college that I could make alcohol, but really never considered it would be a career.”
In 2010, at age 22, Riddle had what he described as a “midlife crisis” and decided to go all in on a brave new adventure. With help from his mother, who is also a partner in the winery, he bought a controlling stake of Noisy Water, a stagnant winery in his hometown of Ruidoso.
“Upfront, it was lots of custom-crush [orders],” he says.
Riddle gained most of his knowledge through trial and error, but also relied on the experiences of his neighbors. “People saw me as this young, dumb, excited kid and were willing to help and share,” he says.
Noisy Water has come a long way since Riddle’s investment: Production has expanded from 1,500 cases in 2011 to more than 30,000 this year.
But winemaking in New Mexico has its challenges. Much of the state is an unforgiving, high-elevation desert that delivers harsh winds, cold winters and late spring freezes. And though it has a rich farming history, the weather is often wildly unpredictable.
“I make wine on a mountain island, if you will,” says Riddle. If something breaks, he says, there are not many helping hands nearby, as the next comparable winery is three hours away.
That isolation hasn’t slowed him down, though. Noisy Water makes more than 40 wines, which he admits is, “absolute madness.” Where he once made booze as a college party trick, he’s now a professional winemaker who’s ready to share his products and local pride with the world.
Winegrower/Co-proprietor, La Garagista Farm + Winery, Barnard, VT
Deirdre Heekin got her start in wine when she and her husband, Caleb Barber, opened a Woodstock, Vermont-based restaurant called Osteria Pane e Salute in 1999. In their first year, they both worked the kitchen and the floor.
It soon became clear, however, that one would have to take care of the back of house while the other focused on the front.
Barber was definitely the talent in the kitchen, so Heekin focused on the dining room.
“From the moment we planted those first vines, I knew in my bones that the work of farming and making wine was my vocation.”—Deirdre Heekin
She had already begun to study wine, so she dove head first into development of the restaurant’s beverage program. Captivated by the regionally expressive wines of Italy, she began to research agricultural practices and soon turned attention to her own backyard.
“La Garagista started out as an educational project for myself,” says Heekin. She purchased grapes from the New England Produce Center in Chelsea, Massachusetts, and “was simply making wine in my bathtub,” she says. The idea was to better understand the science behind winemaking and fermentation.
Heekin also knew she needed to get more involved in farming, so she and Barber began to explore Vermont wines. They arranged a visit to Lincoln Peak Vineyard, a trip that left them both inspired and in possession of 100 vines.
“From the moment we planted those first vines, I knew in my bones that the work of farming and making wine was my vocation,” says Heekin. “From there, I went down the rabbit hole, and I am still completely enchanted.”
The winery opened in 2010 with the first vintage of La Garagista wines. Heekin employs organic and biodynamic practices to grow Alpine hybrid-grape varieties that are best suited to contend with Vermont’s climate and its inevitable frost, hail and diseases caused by humidity.
“We typically don’t blend between parcels, because I am really trying to understand the character of each parcel,” she says.
Heekin is a pioneer of the culture of grower-made wines that has developed in Vermont. She believes that the state needs to remain focused on the Alpine hybrids proven to succeed there, and that they are a true expression of American wine.
“They are a melting pot of our place,” she says. “Just like we as Americans are a product of a similar kind of combining of people and places.”