By Nancy Heiser
Photographs by Nathan Eldridge
Winemaker, organic grape grower, father, oenological explorer
In Warren, Oyster River winemaker Brian Smith has begun the arduous search for grapes that may eventually represent the terroir of Knox County. His two-year-old winery is already producing highly drinkable, intoxicating results.
In Warren, Brian Smith ferments two reds—a Merlot and a Petit Sirah—in barrels parked where milking stanchions once stood. From a small shelf in the cool, pristine cellar of the dairy-barn-turned-wine-lab, he pulls down two crystal glasses. He siphons an ounce or so of the Merlot-in-progress and takes a sip, holding only the stem.
“This one I’m calling my wine-geek wine,” he says. “The dominant characteristic is its stony character. It’s not a juicy, round, rich California Merlot. It’s a much leaner style.
”The wine-geek wine has a strong mineral character imparted from the grapes Smith and a friend picked up at a vineyard on the North Fork of Long Island, New York. They crushed the grapes on-site and trucked the must—the grape’s juice, skins, and seeds—back to Maine. The wine has been through a primary, yeasted fermentation and is midway through a bacterial, or malolactic, secondary fermentation. “A few more weeks in the cask will make the back end a little rounder but still keep that electricity,” he says.
He speaks in a gentle manner, and smiles often. He says that he is “in a period of discovery,” testing different varieties of grapes, and “trying to figure out the soil.” He’s modest about his skills, but concedes that he has a talent for tasting. His spectacles give him a bookish look, but he’s really a chemist, an experimenter looking for that distinct taste of place, the unique character of his sandy, rolling hills, a terroir for his corner of Knox County.
‘I try to taste every barrel every couple of weeks. My most valuable asset as a winemaker is my ability to taste, my palate. The chemistry set can give you the numbers, but it can’t tell you if it tastes good.’
–Brian Smith, winemaker at Oyster River Winegrowers
Smith grew up in Maryland and graduated from the University of Vermont in 2001 with a degree in wildlife and fisheries biology. He knew that he wanted to work outdoors. While future wife Allie Willenbrink finished college, he worked at Snow Farm Vineyard in Vermont. Here he found his calling.
In January of 2005, the two drove cross-country in a Volkswagon Rabbit pickup that they bought on eBay and converted to run on vegetable oil. They drove from Vermont to Fresno State, where Smith spent two years studying viticulture and oenology. After a short stay in upstate New York, they circled back to Maine and bought a 57-acre, 1770s-era farmstead in Warren. In the spring of 2008, they planted three and a half acres of vines.
Smith planted two marginally hardy grape varieties—Vidal Blanc and “Traminette”—on two acres. On the third he planted “La Crescent,” a hybrid hardy to -30 degrees, developed at the University of Minnesota. “I had to find grapes that would work here,” Smith says.
His goal is to cultivate 10 to 12 planted acres and to specialize in white wine grapes, which he believes are the best for the region. Eventually, he’d like to make wine only from grapes grown on the farm. “These new varieties allow us to grow quality wine grapes that we couldn’t ten years ago,” he says.
Last summer his winery, Oyster River Winegrowers, released its debut wine, The Villager White, to statewide acclaim. A large number of upscale restaurants, gourmet shops, and sommeliers embraced the crisp, aromatic blend of Seyval Blanc and Cayuga that he crafted from New York grapes.
“I think his wine is very good,” says Doug Watts, owner of SoPo Wine Co, the sole distributor of Oyster River wines in Maine. “The wine is good as wine, as opposed to being good for Maine wine. It doesn’t matter whether it’s grown in Maine or not.”
In nearby Lincolnville, Cellardoor Winery quickly recognized the talents of their new neighbor, and Smith started making wine for them last fall. His Petit Sirah, co-created with Aaron Peet, was released in June.
“Brian has brought a really thoughtful perspective on how to expand our winery—what will grow here and what will make good wine,” says Bettina Doulton, Cellardoor’s owner. “His knowledge of the vineyard aspect of the winery—his passion for this—is incredible. And he balances the science with the artistic element.”
This attention is all the more surprising when you learn that Oyster River Winegrowers is not even two years old, and Smith, just turned thirty.
At his own winery, he aims to use only organic and biodynamic methods. To that end, a flock of Indian Runner ducks picks Japanese beetles and other insects from the vines. Hand cultivation and tractor cultivation with a special disc cut down on weeds, eliminating the need for herbicides. Manure and grape skins are combined and composted to fertilize the densely planted vines.
Smith’s ecological goals extend to his private life. “Our property is under a conservation easement with Georges River Land Trust, and that really fits with our lifestyle,” he says. “This isn’t just a winery. It’s our home and our homestead. We do our best to live with as few purchases as possible.”
Willenbrink tends their ample vegetable garden and teaches herbalism classes and workshops. She also does the marketing and paperwork for the winery. Their two-year-old daughter, Sadie, often sits astride her hip or toddles about the farmyard, vocalizing words like “yeast” with ease.
‘Oyster River totally fits into to our commitment to supporting local farmers and growers. Most importantly, it’s good wine.’
–Janet Webber, wine buyer for Hugo’s restaurant in Portland
Smith offers a taste of Cayuga, an aromatic and Riesling-like grape that has been fermenting in a giant steel tank. Unfiltered, it looks like grapefruit juice. He explains how he mixes and heats it a little bit, or adds yeast hulls to “move it along.” When the time is right, he’ll blend this with the Sevyal Blanc fermenting in another tank, and craft a new batch of The Villager. “It’s our house white,” he says. “We make a lot of it. We don’t want to sell out.” It doesn’t look like they will anytime soon—cases of it line the back wall of the barn.
And Smith’s plans don’t end with the Villager. Acres of new vines, still low to the ground, grow in nearby fields. If all goes well, he hopes to harvest in 2010 for estate wine in 2011.
“We kind of feel like pioneers,” he says. “There are less than ten acres of producing grape vines in the state of Maine right now. That will at least double in the next few years. Even Vermont has 100 acres. We’re right at the beginning.”
Oyster River Winegrowers | 929 Oyster River Rd. | Warren | 207.273.2998 | oysterriverwinegrowers.com