Westport Rivers celebrates chardonnay’s 20th year

Linda Murphy

Vineyard manager, alchemist and fortuneteller. Rob Russell has donned all those hats and more as Westport Rivers Vineyard and Winery celebrates the 20th anniversary of its first vintage, the 1989 chardonnay.

“We’ve proved that we can produce world-class wines in New England,” said Russell, general manager of Westport Rivers Vineyard and Winery.

Twenty years later the lauded chardonnay is still its most popular wine, but the vineyard’s sparkling wines may rival it for garnering the most acclaim from chefs, critics and industry experts. Russell said noted chef Madeline Kamman visited the vineyard several years ago and said the sparkling wines were better than many of the champagnes in France.

“They’re always a favorite at sparkling wine competitions,” said Russell.

Westport Rivers’ rose and white sparkling wines are produced in the traditional French champagne method, and the varieties they make take between three to 12 years. One of the greatest lessons Russell said he has learned over the years is the law of supply and demand.

“We’ve overproduced and we’ve underproduced. I need a magic ball to determine what the demand is going to be five years from now,” he said.

Westport Rivers non-sparkling wines include pinot gris, reisling, pinot blanc, pinot meunier, Rkatsiteli, a Georgian varietal that grows well in this area, and the fruity dessert wine pineau de pinot.

Russell’s parents, Bob and Carol Russell, bought the former Smith’s Long Acre Farm in 1982 with the intention of maintaining the 140-acre farm and establishing a family business on the property. Rob, the oldest son, began farming the land in 1985 and his brother Bill began making wines a few years later. Over the years Bill developed an interest in brewing beers, and he started brewing micro brews under the Buzzards Bay label in 1998. The original 140 acres has increased to more than 500 acres through subsequent land purchases. 

In the past 10 years the vineyard has moved toward more environmentally friendly farming. Russell said he became more aware of the issues of sustainability after attending several conferences on organic growing practices in the late 1990s. But he said excessive humidity and rain make it virtually impossible for a vineyard east of the Mississippi River to produce organic wines.

“It’s proven to be a somewhat far-fetched for a vineyard in New England,” he said. “California has it easy; they’re growing wine in the dessert and pumping in water from the Colorado River.”

Russell said he’s implemented some of the concepts, but the two main hindrances are the pests and mildew fungi resulting from New England’s climate. The vineyard uses composted material and practices Integrated Pest Management, which minimizes the amount of chemicals used over the growing season. Hooded sprayers that direct the pesticides and fungicides directly on the plants also cut the drift of chemicals by 95 percent.

Finding that environmental balance is one of Russell’s main initiatives as he embarks on the next 20 years.

“I want to continue what we’re doing but find ways to do it better. We’re always striving to find the balance between economic viability and environmental sustainability.

The rise in eco-tourism has been a boon to the vineyard, drawing customers who attend the vineyard’s tours, wine tastings, and wine and food pairing dinners.

“All of those things help sustain this,” he said sweeping his arm over the trellised vines.

The vineyard entered into a partnership this year with the environmentally friendly catering company Green Gal Catering to prepare the food at its dinners. In turn, the vineyard composts all of the caterer’s leftover food and table scraps from events on and off the property. Westport Rivers is also one of eight southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island vineyards and wineries featured on the Coastal Wine Trail, a tourism initiative to promote local vintners.

Russell also said he hopes people will think of Westport Rivers and Buzzards Bay products as they embrace the trend toward buying local.

“You can’t buy any wine that’s more local than our wine and the same with the beer. They’re made here and there’s very little shipping involved,” he said. “It also supports the local economy; our employees live in the community and they put that money back into this area.”

In the future Russell would like to see the vineyard become a multi-generational venture, but 10 of Bob and Carol’s 11 grandchildren are younger than age 14, so for the moment that possibility remains unanswered.

“If you asked my dad 20 years ago if he would have envisioned all this, he would have said “absolutely not.” Hopefully, the kids will be involved in the next 20 years,” he said. 

Westport Rivers Vineyard and Winery is open 7 days a week year round. Public tours are on Saturday and Sunday at 1 and 3 p.m. and are free. Tastings are available every day. A small fee includes an etched wineglass. For more information, log on to www.westportrivers.com.

COASTAL WINE TRAIL KICK-OFF

This year’s Coastal Wine Trail kick-off event will be held Sunday, June 7, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at Sakonnet Vineyards in Little Compton, R.I. The eight wineries of the Coastal Wine Trail (Newport, Greenvale, Sakonnet, Westport Rivers, Running Brook, Travessia, Truro and Langworthy Farms) will all be promoting the beginning of this year’s season. The event also features products and samples from area farmers, food providers, cheese makers, bakers and more. The 21-and-older event, which will be held under a tent, is rain or shine. Some vendors and participants will have items for sale. Admission is $40 per person. Advance registration is required. Call 401-635-8486, Ext. 116, to purchase tickets. For more information log on to www.coastalwinetrail.com.

CHEESE-THEMED DINNER

The next Westport Rivers wine and food dinner will be held on June 6 with a tour of the vineyard starting at 5:30 p.m. The theme for the dinner is local cheesemakers, and cheese from Shy Brothers, Great Hill Blue, Westfield Farm and Fiore di Nonna will be used in a four-course meal that will also feature a variety of Westport Rivers wines. Barbara Hanley of Shy Brothers and Lourdes Smith of Fiore di Nonna will discuss their experiences as cheesemakers. Tickets cost $75. For more information, log on to www.westportrivers.com.

The Herald News