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Shelburne Vineyard: Making wine in the new world

Aug 31, 2020 10:01PM ● By Pam Hunt

On a sultry Thursday early afternoon in July, the tables scattered around the outside of Shelburne Vineyard's tasting room were filled with guests. Not as many as in pre-pandemic times, according to owner Ken Albert, but for a weekday, not bad. “We’re lucky because we have the room outside to spread people out,” adds co-owner Gail Albert, Ken’s wife. “On really busy days, we bring picnic tables down along the vines.” The new rules of life with COVID-19 have certainly had an effect on business, but the Alberts and their team headed by winemaker Ethan Joseph are still moving along, tending the vines and producing award-winning wines.  

All About the Grapes and the Wines

Ken and Gail moved to Vermont in the 1960s for his job at IBM. When he retired, he “started this crazy adventure—I loved growing things, and I loved wine in parallel with that.” In 1998, the Alberts started growing grapes on leased land in Shelburne, not far from the current vineyard, which opened in 2008. Winemaker Ethan joined them soon after. Over the years, they acquired more land—20 acres in total today—on which to grow their vines.

The impetus for increasing their production was learning about the Minnesota hybrid grapes. “The principal red grape we grow is called Marquette. It’s a cross of pinot noir with grapes native to North America. That’s why it has the hardiness,” Ken explains. 

This strain of grapes was initially developed by a Minnesota dairy farmer and by the University of Minnesota. The Marquette grapes, and many of the other varieties they grow, were hybridized with wild North American grapes originating in the Midwest, mostly Minnesota, hence their nickname. “Without the Minnesota hybrids,” Ken says, “there would be no grape industry here.”

On that July day, the red and white grapes were indistinguishable—they’re all small and green. As the summer continues, the red grapes, such as Marquette, begin to turn red, getting darker and darker until the fall harvest. The harvest is a special time at the vineyard, creating a community of volunteers. “We hand-pick the grapes,” Ken says. Over the years, the vineyard has welcomed volunteers to assist. “We have had a lot of the Bhutanese community helping out,” Ken adds. The vineyard’s Facebook page will announce this year’s harvest, during September or October, for anyone wishing to join in. “A lot of customers like to participate,” Gail adds. 

What’s in a Name?

The business has two labels: Shelburne Vineyard, which includes semidry and dry wines, and Iapetus. Named after the sea that once covered this part of Vermont, the Iapetus wines represent a strong sense of place rooted in respect for the land, while honoring minimalism in the winery. Because fermentation relies on the natural yeasts found on the fruit and in the cellar, Ethan and his winemaking team pick a small quantity of grapes to produce a starter batch each year to ensure the fermentation process is heading in the right direction before processing the entire amount. Among the Iapetus wines are the sparkling pét-nats, made according to the pétillant naturel method—a traditional way of making sparkling wines. The winemakers bottle the wine while it is still fermenting, creating the soft carbonation characteristic of pét-nat wines.

The Alberts’ wine work extends beyond Shelburne Vineyard. Ken is currently the president of the Vermont Grape & Wine Council; Gail is a past president. “The Council provides a lot of mutual support,” Gail says. “We feel that raising the level of one raises the level of all.” 

One of the Council’s current priorities is getting an American Viticulture Appellation (AVA) for vineyards in the Champlain Valley. According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which oversees this labeling, an AVA defines “a grape-growing region with specific geographic or climatic features that distinguish it from the surrounding regions and affect how grapes are grown.” Much like seeing the word champagne on a bottle of bubbly indicates it was made in Champagne, France, or prosciutto di Parma signifies ham produced in the province of Parma, Italy, an AVA for Champlain Valley-made wines would allow winemakers to more accurately describe their products and consumers to know what to expect from their purchase. 

Wine in a New World

In previous years, Shelburne Vineyard hosted events—music, fundraisers, storytelling—that drew people from nearby areas as well as from out of state. This year, however, things are a little different. Reservations to visit the tasting room are required, and guests can’t sit at the bar. However, with a little outside-the-box thinking, the vineyard has adapted to the new reality and look forward to being able to bring back beloved traditions. “We’re doing small tasting flights, which we weren’t doing before” Gail says. “We’ve got trays with four glasses, and people get to choose which wines they want to taste. It's nice because once they've tasted, they can choose a favorite to order by the glass or purchase to take home.”

All in all, in a trying and unpredictable year, Shelburne Vineyard has continued along, trying new things while producing the tasty wines they are known for. “It’s working nicely,” Ken says of the outdoor social distancing at the tasting room. “We’ll see if we can make do with this. It’s a challenge—economically. We’re taking it day by day.” 

Shelburne Vineyard Winery and Tasting Room
6308 Shelburne Road
Shelburne, VT
(802) 985-8222
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