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