Each summer, thousands of visitors flock to the Connecticut Wine Trail, spending their afternoons tasting samples from the state's sprawling vineyards. But in many cases the wine they sip was produced from grapes grown far from the nearby vines.
State law requires wineries to use at least 25 percent home-grown grapes in their wines. The standard is tied to a vineyard's license to operate a tasting room and to sell wine directly to consumers — critical elements to its bottom line. But the state's harsh climate makes growing grapes difficult and many vineyards struggle to meet the requirement.
Now the group that promotes Connecticut wineries has decided it will focus on vineyards that produce wines with an even higher level of Connecticut grapes — 51 percent, the state's previous legal standard.
The move is bound to boost the profile of some Wine Trail destinations, possibly at the expense of others. but several long-time vineyard owners and state agricultural officials say it's about what "Connecticut wine" really means.
They say some vineyards use grapes from other states and nations like Chile to produce "Connecticut wine" that's made with little or no local fruit at all.
They also are pushing to create a new system of self-regulation among vineyards, aimed at reassuring consumers that the Connecticut wine they're drinking is really made from grapes grown here.
"It's not just about making wine, it's not just about selling wine," state Agricultural Commissioner Steven Reviczky said in a recent interview. "This is about growing the fruit that's in the wine."
But the state's unpredictable weather doesn't help. In addition, much of Connecticut's best agricultural land is occupied by cities and suburban housing, and some of the states 32 vineyards grow grapes on only a few acres.
A series of state inspections since 2012 raised questions about whether several Connecticut vineyards were meeting that 25 percent local grapes threshold.
Land of Nod Winery in Canaan is still under review, state officials said late last week. The owners blamed bookkeeping errors for an apparent failure to meet the 25 percent standard, a state spokesperson said in an email. Repeated attempts to contact the owners of Land of Nod for this story were unsuccessful.
Seven Years To Comply
Haight-Brown Vineyard in Litchfield, Connecticut's oldest winery, sold more than 20,000 gallons of wine in 2010, but a state inspector later found that barely 2 percent of the vineyard's wine that year was made with Connecticut grapes, according to state reports.
In 2011, Haight-Brown did not harvest a single grape from its 11 acres but still produced and sold 5,833 gallons of wine, prompting a state inspection report that said Haight-Brown was "not operating as a bona fide farm winery."
The Litchfield vineyard, first opened in 1975, was bought by Amy Senew and her former husband, Courtney Brown, in 2007. The purchase date is important because it explains why Haight-Brown was operating legally, even without reaching the 25 percent Connecticut grape standard.
The state's winery law gives a new vineyard owner seven years to comply with the standard. That seven-year clock was restarted when Senew and Brown bought the winery in 2007, giving Haight-Brown until this year to reach Connecticut's local-grape threshold.
Other long-time Connecticut vineyard owners argued that a change of ownership shouldn't give an established winery an additional seven years to comply with what many see as a very lenient standard for making Connecticut wine with local grapes. In 2013, state lawmakers agreed and eliminated the provision for resetting the clock after a change of ownership.
Senew, now the sole owner, said the vineyard was in bad shape when the original owner sold the property. Senew said additional acres of vines have been planted and a series of improvements have been made to the winery in recent years.
"Our aim is to be compliant," Senew said. "We have some of the best winemakers in Connecticut right now."
Even so, Senew, who has remarried, put the vineyard up for sale in March, listed at $1.475 million.
Voluntary Audits Proposed
While consumers who enjoy sipping wine at Connecticut's vineyards may shrug off questions about where grapes are grown, the issue matters a lot to many of Connecticut's winemakers and vineyard owners who have struggled for years to expand their plantings and improve their wines. It also matters to state lawmakers and officials trying to save farmland and open space, and to people interested in eating — and drinking — locally grown products.
The legislature lowered the standard to 25 percent after an investigation in 2004 discovered several state-licensed wineries were falling far short of the original requirement.
Big wine-producing states, like California, Oregon and Washington, require 95 to 100 percent of a vineyard's wines to contain grapes grown in that particular state.
Creating a voluntary system of audits and self-regulation to insure that participating vineyards use local grapes to create their wines is "something we're looking hard at," said Jamie Jones, president of the Connecticut Vineyard and Winery Association and an owner of Jones Family Winery in Shelton.
Jones said similar self-regulating programs are used by vineyards on Long Island and in several other states. These systems call for participating wineries to agree on various standards, and then have annual inspections by outside experts to make sure everyone is complying.
"You would certify that the individual wine in that bottle meets those criteria," said Jones. Consumers would then be able to feel confident they were drinking and buying "a Connecticut wine, grown in a sustainable manner. It would be something they could feel good about."
Hilary Hopkins Criollo, a member of the family that owns Connecticut's second-oldest winery, Hopkins Vineyard in Preston, said her family supports creating a system to insure the quality of Connecticut wines. She said she's been worried for a long time about vineyards that aren't using their own grapes to make the wine they sell, and about consumer confidence.
"It makes us all look bad," Hopkins Criollo said. "That is certainly not what we want for our industry."
'Farm Winery' Designation
Reviczky said the state is moving to heavily promote wineries that use more than 51 percent Connecticut-grown grapes. "These are 'farm wineries,'" Reviczky said, "and the focus should be on farm production."
The Connecticut Farm Winery Development Council, a state panel responsible for promoting the Connecticut wine industry, voted in February to create a new program to recognize state wineries using a majority of Connecticut-grown grapes in its products.
Wineries able to prove that percentage will received the title "A Designated CT Grown Farm Winery" in the state's "Wine Passport" booklet. The passport is one way the state promotes Connecticut farm wineries, encouraging consumers to visit multiple wineries in a single season to be eligible for special wine vacation prize drawings.
The volunteer development council also plans to recommend that the state feature vineyards that use the most local grapes in its promotional materials and marketing efforts, Reviczky said.
He said he's convinced that most Connecticut winemakers are working hard to comply with state laws, and he wants to encourage them to plant more acres of Connecticut wine grapes.
But, Reviczky doesn't believe legislation to go back to the old 51 percent standard would be feasible.
"What I'm afraid of is that we can give this industry a black eye if there are individuals who aren't adhering to the requirements of the law," Reviczky said.
Winemakers and state officials need to take a hard look at where Connecticut wants to go with its wine industry, he added. "I think there needs to be some serious soul searching."