A Visit to Black Birch Vineyards

The morning I drive to Black Birch Vineyard the leaves shine bright yellow against a gray sky.  It's been raining all day, but by the time I pull into the parking lot the clouds have cleared, revealing the winery against one of the town's many fantastic vistas.

Today there's a small crew of four (plus a toddler in tow, eating grapes) harvesting some of the vineyard's Corot Noir, Noiret, Marquette, and Cabernet Franc. They're part-timers, the owner's family, and the owners themselves. Throughout the early afternoon, bunches are handpicked and tossed into white bins. The morning's harvest has been delayed by the rain, but by two o'clock the farm is bustling.

“There's a lot going on right- ah, not a lot, but for me there's a lot going on right now. There's a lot of wine going on right now.”

Ian Modestow is Black Birch's vintner, although he probably wouldn't call himself that. Ian is tall and slender, dressed in a striped jumpsuit, and frantic. He moves quickly between the fermentation tanks housed in a very small shed right in the middle of the vineyard. He's smelling them, testing them, tasting them as often as he can. Ian is a practicing dentist, but has clearly found his passion as a wine maker. He reels off facts about the wines, catching himself when he oversimplifies the process. He's working with three wines right now; a dry Massachusetts pinot noir, a Rose that needs another week of fermentation, and the Corot Noir that's done. “Well” he catches himself, “almost done.”

“I can't do it all,” he says, alluding to the fact he has helpers when they reach their highest volume. The tiny vineyard is on the eve of its peak harvesting time, and Ian warns me that by next week he won't have any time to talk. The winery has doubled its production since last year.

Co-owner Ed Hamel is older than Ian, and more relaxed. He has just returned from a trip to the fingerlakes to retrieve grapes when I meet him. Black Birch makes their wines with a mixture of their own grapes and picks from other vineyards in Massachusetts, and the Finger Lakes. Sourcing from nearby vineyards is a common practice that helps new wineries stay cash positive while they're young and still working out the kinks. They choose the grapes based on their similarity to what you would find in the region, which for Black Birch means a mixture of 17 traditional European grapes and American hybrids bred to withstand harsher winters and shorter growing seasons. Just as Ian is monitoring the wines, Ed is busy tending to the vines. He's testing their sweetness, making sure they're properly protected, taking account of their growth.

Ed is very attuned to the weather, and he is conscious of climate change in the Northeast. “There's no doubt that the world is warming. The immediate instinct is to think that will help us [as winemakers].”

The caveat is that we've also begun seeing more extreme weather events: tornadoes and unseasonably early snow storms. Last year, Black Birch's European varieties (Cabernet franc, Zweigelt, Lemberger, Cabernet Sauvignon, and a few others) were damaged by the winter's 17-below temperatures, and they weren't able to pull a harvest from most of those vines. “We've lived here for 24 years and minimum is about 6 below. Seventeen below in 24 years was the coldest we've ever seen here.”

The number of small wineries is growing rapidly in the state, but Ed thinks it's going to be a while before Massachusetts its recognized as a great place to cultivate and make wine. Because of the climate and the terroir and the unpredictable weather, Massachusetts wineries are up against some tough challenges. But we've been given some gifts as well. Although our regions may never have the ability to produce deep, full bodied red wines, Ed notes that medium-bodied reds are easier to pair with a meal. Likewise, you don't need a long growing season to produce whites with beautiful acidity. Just as the Finger Lakes have gained prominence for their Riesling, Ed is confident the Northeast will find their niche.

wine-bottlesweb.jpg

The makers of Black Birch are fueled by their passion for the product and the region, and they're completely self taught. Ian says he's experimenting all the time, which is both exciting and stressful.

Ian admits he's always worried it won't work. “You've got to think about what I've got here. I've got 3000 liter tanks, producing towards 4000 bottles, and I don't want to, you know, screw it up. You're constantly thinking about that.”

He also says the harvest is his favorite time of the year. “For now I need to trust what the growers have. See the grapes as they come in. That's what's most exciting.”

By three o'clock the harvesters have pulled the large bins of grapes onto the lawn, and customers visiting for the day have gathered around. They're trying out a new idea:  letting volunteers crush some grapes the old fashioned way

Although Black Birch uses machines to press their grapes, they knew they would only be harvesting a small amount of grapes for their first blended estate red. Michelle Kersbergen, co-owner, explained that today's pickings would be too small for their state-of-the-art crushing machine. “It allows people to participate in what's fun and traditional; but it's a dual purpose for us because we're getting our grapes processed.”

Patrons in crisp white sweaters layered over collared polo shirts cautiously step into the bins. People are laughing, stomping. Children are jumping in, too. A boy runs past Ed. “Your feet are purple!” he says. “Yes!” the kid replies, confident that this fact is true, and also awesome. His mom follows, “Just so everyone knows,” she remarks, “my son is now cut off from soda for the rest of the day.”

Ed just wants people to know this is a great place to visit, to drink wine, to bring a picnic. He points to two hawks circling over head. “We see this stuff all the time,” he remarks, reveling in the beauty of their farm. “Look what we have here- this is a fantastic spot.”

When I visit Black Birch, they are on the precipice of their busiest time, the peak of the harvest. Ed predicts it will coincide with the height of fall foliage. This is time when they've absolutely got to get the grapes off the vines and make the majority of this year's vintage. They only have a few barrels aging in the cellar today- but they're about to have many more.

Ed says they're going to be harvesting a lot more this week. Some nights they might be up until 4am. “When the crush comes, you just do it. And you love it.

Black Birch Vineyard is located at 155 Glendale Rd, Southampton, MA 01073. It is open to the public Friday 1:00-6:00, Saturday and Sunday 12:00-5:00

Gwen Connors is a freelance writer and baker based in Northampton, MA.