Visitors to Staehly Farm are often stumped by the East Haddam winery's most unusual wine. Is that a taste of cantaloupe? Is there some grapefruit in there? Where does it get all that acidity?
The wine's name, Pomodoro, drops a clue. Yes, it's a tomato-based wine, an Old World-style family recipe. Tasting notes describe it as rich and robust, with flavors of apricot and smoky bacon, and its distinctive makeup earned it a double gold medal in the 2016 Big E Northeast Gold Wine Competition.
"I think I had 1 in 100 [tasters] who could place it as tomato," said Kevin Staehly, who operates the farm winery with his parents, Christopher and Gail.
"I think it's either love or hate; you won't be in-between," his father says.
The Staehly property got its start as a Christmas tree farm in 1985 (its history is honored in the winery's logo of a tree with an "S" initial in its center) and now boasts 15 acres of choose-and-cut trees. The business expanded with greenhouses in 2001 and its farm stand building in 2005, growing to become Staehly Tree Farm and Gardens. Visitors stop by to buy seasonal fresh produce, jellies and jams, pies, local cheese and eggs.
The idea for the winery, incidentally, came several years ago from Phil Markowski of Two Roads Brewing in Stratford, says Kevin Staehly. Markowski was harvesting Staehly Farm's sour cherries for the brewery's kriek lambic-style beer, and asked Christopher Staehly if he'd ever considered making wine.
"My father said, 'We've explored planting grapes, but we didn't really think it was for us,'" Kevin says. "He said, 'No, I mean with the fruit you've got here.' And that was kind of the catalyst that set things into motion."
In 2014, Staehly Farm opened its winery, with an open-air tasting room, and now showcases an array of wines made with apples, blueberries, cherries, rhubarb, peaches and plums grown on-site.
FEATURED AND NOTEWORTHY WINES: Staehly Farm attempts to make a new wine about every three months, Kevin says. There are several varieties of apple wines, from dry to semi-sweet, including a spiced apple edition with notes of cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. The dry Midnight Blueberry wine is complemented by a sweeter version, Blueberry Breeze.
The winery also produces a sweet and tart Orchard Cherry wine, a "light floral" rhubarb wine, a summery peach wine, a sweet "plum medley" and a popular "harvest blend" that melds Staehly's spiced apple wine with Connecticut-grown black currants.
"We're very casual, because fruit wines are more introductory," Kevin says. "We try to play to that. We make our wines really approachable; we make the atmosphere really approachable ... we try to have something for everyone."
PRICING: A tasting of seven wines, including a signature logo glass, is $8. Wines by the bottle are priced at $11.99 to $16.99.
SPECIAL EVENTS: Staehly Farm hosts a series of summer events, with live music and visiting food trucks selling barbecue, pierogi and Polish fare and gourmet doughnuts. Archie's Wingz & Things is scheduled to visit on Sept. 2 from noon to 6 p.m.; and All Fired Up, a Texas-style barbecue truck, will appear on Sept. 16. A Fall Flavor Festival from Oct. 6 to 9 features wine tastings, food trucks, pumpkin picking and a hay maze.
TASTING ROOM HOURS: The tasting room is open during the Connecticut wine passport season, which runs from the first weekend of May to the first weekend of November. Hours are Friday and Saturday from noon to 6 p.m. and Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. The tasting room also opens for limited winter hours between Thanksgiving and Christmas, as guests visit the farm for Christmas tree sales.
Staehly Farm Winery is at 278 Town Road in East Haddam. 860-873-9774, staehlys.com.
This wine season, we're providing a guide to what you'll find at Connecticut's farm wineries: signature vintages and special releases, live entertainment, gourmet food options, and a few surprises (wine slushies, anyone?) We will feature a different winery every two weeks.