Connecticut Wine

Just how Connecticut-y is Connecticut wine? (Staff illustration / December 5, 2013)

Connecticut’s increasingly popular wine industry appears to stand alone among U.S. wine-growing states, and not necessarily in a good way.

Our law allows as much as 75 percent of the grapes used in a “Connecticut” wine to come from outside this state — a threshold far beyond limits set by the federal government and some of the nation’s biggest wine-producing states.

There’s also a long-running state probe of allegations that some Connecticut-licensed wineries are ignoring even the low-ball 25-percent local-grape standard of our state law.

A few vineyard owners here believe our state needs to go back to the days when consumers drinking wine with a Connecticut label could be confident it was made mostly from grapes grown in Connecticut soil.

“I would like to see that,” says Hilary Hopkins Criollo, of Hopkins Vineyard in New Preston. She argues the failure to insure that “Connecticut” wine comes from Connecticut is hurting the industry’s attempt to grow here. Other winery owners disagree, calling the current state standard “adequate.”

Jamie Jones, president of the Connecticut Vineyard and Winery Association and an owner of Jones Family Winery in Shelton, is worried that cheating by some state vineyards could hurt the reputation of Connecticut’s other wineries. He says there are even rumors that a few unscrupulous vineyards are bringing in “shiners,” an industry term for wine grown and bottled somewhere else that’s simply been labeled as “Connecticut” wine.

“It’s always a concern,” he says. “You don’t want the industry to get a black eye.”

Officials at Connecticut’s Department of Consumer Protection won’t comment on the status of their winery investigation, which has been dragging on for more than a year. “The investigation is not complete and we can’t comment on it,” is the standard response from agency spokesperson Claudette Carveth.

Connecticut’s current grape-content requirement is at odds with the federal standard for wines being sold across state lines.

Under the federal rule, any Connecticut winemaker who wants to sell his or her wares in other states as “Connecticut” wine would need to certify that at least three-quarters of the grapes used came from local vineyards in Connecticut.

Tom Hogue, a spokesman for the federal agency responsible for proper wine labeling, says the fed’s requirement doesn’t apply if the wine isn’t being sold in interstate commerce, and doesn’t cross any state lines.

“If it’s not going outside of Connecticut, you do not need label approval from us,” says Hogue. He works for the wine unit of the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, commonly known in the wine trade as the TTB.

“States may make stricter standards if they want to,” Hogue adds.

California — the nation’s biggest wine-growing state — demands that any wine with “California” on its label be made only with California grapes.

Jones says other states (including wine-biggies like New York, Oregon and Washington) have similarly stringent standards. A few (like Massachusetts) apparently don’t require their state wine-makers to meet any particular percentage of local grapes.

Connecticut is a rough place to grow wine grapes. In lots of areas, the soil isn’t right, and there isn’t all that much good agricultural land available anyway. Our winters are harsh and our growing seasons shorter than in milder climates like California, Oregon, Washington and even New York.

Wineries on Long Island’s North Shore, for instance, have the benefit of the moderating waters of both the Atlantic and Long Island Sound.

Despite the difficulties, ambitious (or wine-crazy) Connecticut oenophiles have opened up 34 wineries in this state. There are now two federally recognized “viticultural areas” or appellations: the “Western Connecticut Highlands,” which includes Litchfield, Fairfield, New Haven and Hartford Counties; and “Southeastern New England,” which covers portions of eastern and southeastern Connecticut as well as Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

We have a “Connecticut Wine Trail” that’s grown increasingly popular with local residents and tourists alike. Most wineries in this state make their money by selling their products at their own tasting rooms.

That ability to sell directly to consumers is the big draw, says Jones. “When you have to go through a liquor store, you lose part of your margin.”