Deep in the Champlain Islands, a pair of mad scientists are crafting great wine from hybrid grapes.
Kendra and Rob Knapik haven’t been in the game long. The scientists — she was Vermont’s first veterinary oncologist and he’s chair of the physics department at Norwich University — were bitten by the proverbial enology bug in 2018. But since then, they’ve built on the work of winemakers like la Garagista, doing their part to shape Vermont’s wine scene by creating delicious wines with hybrid grapes.
This area is home to some of the most gorgeous lakefront properties in Vermont, and the Knapik’s biodynamic vineyard is no exception. Ellison Estate is tended to by fluffy white sheep that sweetly graze between the two-decade-old vines bordered by lush forests on three sides. Their recently constructed tasting room looks out over the lake. But beyond the intoxicating views, Ellison Estate is an incredible example of how hybrid grapes can work in harmony with their terroir to produce terrific wines in a region that faces growing environmental challenges every year.
Climate change is coming for Vitis vinifera. The European varieties that we know and love — Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Grenache — are increasingly tested by the changing climate of the United States. In the west, wildfires and droughts plague vineyards. In the east, higher rainfall coupled with spiking temperatures creates a humid playground for diseases that can decimate vines.
Hybrids were bred from North American vines. Consequentially, they are adapted to our terroir, so they’re more disease-resistant and require less water. The Marquette, Louise Swenson, and la Crescent vines that many Vermont winemakers work with, including Ellison Estate, are an appealing option for winemakers who are worried about the risk of planting European vines maladapted to this climate.
As a community, these winemakers are working against sour perceptions of both the potential of this region and the hybrids that grow so well here. There’s a common belief that hybrid grapes can’t make elegant wines — many are described as “foxy.” Surely, they can’t make European wines. But elegance, deliciousness, and European origins aren’t mutually exclusive. Winemakers in Vermont, like Ellison Estate, are proving that as they focus on creating authentic, sustainable wines that are a joy to drink.
And they’re just getting going.
This interview was conducted on June 20th, 2022 with Kendra Knapik, Sadie Williams, Ashley Bryant, and Brittany Galbraith.
Sadie Williams: What is the reaction that you get from people when you say that you make wines in Vermont, and then versus when they taste your wines?
Kendra: People have been generally polite, but I think when you first tell someone that you make wine in Vermont, they're like, "Oh."
Kendra: "Really? Do you make white wines, do you make sweet wines?" I always have to explain, “We make dry old world style wines, we make wines that are maybe different than what you think of East Coast wines.” But saying that doesn't necessarily help people fully understand it. I think people come in with no expectation because of the reputation of Eastern wine at this point, which I think is improving, but generally, people are kind of like, "Oh, this is really good. Oh, wow. I really like these wines."
Sadie: If you had to sum up what that reputation of our area is, our wines, what would it be? What would you say that people think?
Kendra: I think it's hard because this is such a small region, there just are not that many producers yet. But I think that there's this evolution and change happening in Vermont. I'm grateful for the initial vineyards that were planted and the initial winemakers that tried to make wine from varieties that we really knew nothing about. There's no playbook. And I think that probably some of the early winemakers looked to techniques that are used for Vitis vinifera and tried to make the best wines that they could, and I think definitely the initial winemakers, with the exception of La Garagista, were operating on a more conventional path. But I think this new wave of producers, really is very on brand with Vermont.
You know, a little bit more natural, organic, both in winemaking and farming styles. And I think the successes that we've had come from the fact that we let the fruit do its thing. Our focus is on growing really high-quality fruit. I was told early on, if you have good fruit, the winemaking is easy. Following that path really helped us produce what I think are good wines. Hopefully, other people do too.
Sadie: I think we agree. Did you have any mentors along the way, people who were acquainted with the hybrid varieties that you were working with or with farming in this environment?
Kendra: We first met with Deirdre Heekin and Caleb Barber of la Garagista when we were considering closing on this property. She was the first person that gave me the advice to just take some grapes, stomp on them, let them ferment, and see what happens. And so I think initially we didn't know that we would definitely farm organically. But they urged us to go down that path. And so I've always reached out to her and Caleb with big questions and they've been incredibly helpful.
My other main mentor is a winery up in Quebec, Domaine du Nival. When we first purchased the vineyard, we took a trip as a family up to Quebec. I was really curious, there are so many wineries up there and I just knew so little about them. Their vineyards and wineries are a lot older and I was like, we need to learn from our neighbors up north, we need to figure this out.
And Domaine du Nival is also a young family, very similar to us. Our kids are the same age and he's become a very close friend and mentor. In Quebec, they actually have to run chemistries on all their wines before they're on the shelves, so I'm kind of a mix between my two mentors, as far as how many chemistries I run. But I'm definitely low intervention.
Ashley: I think that's a very Old World approach too. A lot of the most iconic winemakers in France and Italy and Spain definitely are doing that testing. It gives you markers for years to come. It makes so much sense to want to be aware of that, even if it doesn't dictate the process itself. It’s just more insight.
Kendra: Right. This year, we didn't run as many chemistries on some of our wines and it was okay because they taste really good. But it’s an important part of the process. I mean, again, Rob and I are both scientists. I'm a biological scientist and Rob's a physicist, but we like to understand what's happening. I think it helps us understand what the stability of the wines might be, how different vintages are varying. That’s important to us. And we like that part of it, it’s fun for us.
I love natural wine. I prefer to drink natural wine all the time. But there is some instability in some natural wines, obviously, and I hate spending forty or fifty dollars on a bottle of wine and it's totally mousy. I get very grumpy. So it’s important to us from a quality perspective. Obviously, we're still making natural wine. And so there's going to be some bottle-to-bottle variation. That's a part of the risk that we're comfortable with, but we want to do our absolute best to produce a product that's very consistent and clean.
Ashley: Something I've noticed that's unique about your wines is that you play around with blends. Particularly with blending red and white together, like in your red “Table Wine.” That wine is gorgeous. And I remember it being one of those “aha!” moments with Vermont wine for me of seeing that this is how some of these grapes are meant to be enjoyed. You can get a lot of this tartness in Northern hybrid reds particularly, but to balance it out with some white grapes — it was like you understood what that wine needed or what that particular grape needed.
Was that one of those things that you kind of just played around with? Was that from tasting?, Field blends are not terribly common anymore but it is still done in other parts of the world, I think of places like the Rhône, but where did that come from for you?
Kendra: That wine is a funny story. I mean, everything that we've done is by taste and everything we've done was an experiment. So we bought this vineyard and it had six varieties and we're like, “Okay, how are we going to figure out the best way to make the best wines with the fruit that we have?” And so the first year, in 2018, we did a lot of single variety wines, and I got to know the varieties. And then it was kind of by taste that the second year.
And 2019 was a big year for us in just experimenting. We had done every single variety [separately in 2018] and I just had this understanding of the flavor profile and had this idea that if we blended some of the whites [with the reds] and co-fermented they might balance each other out more. So we tried that, that year, we did a co-ferment of our three white varieties and a co-ferment of our three red varieties.
And that's the Chicory, Thistle & Lace, and the Bobby Regan that we've continued to make. But the Table Wine is really interesting. We did all these little experiments, right? So a carbonic Frontenac in one demijohn, and we had I think a co-ferment of St. Croix and Frontenac in one demijohn. And they were like, they tasted good, but I wasn't gonna bottle a demijohn worth of wine.
So at the end of 2019, we did blending trials of everything that we had left in the cellar. And it kind of was the leftovers [Frontenac, St. Croix, and Praire Star] of 2019 that went into the first Table Wine that came out so beautifully. Prairie Star is this really unique grape that I think is kind of the secret sauce for a bunch of our wines. Some of our reds are really meaty and I just think it lightens that wine a little bit.
Sadie: So what's the story with Prairie Star? Where does that come from?
Kendra: I have to look it up, but I believe it's a Minnesota hybrid. No one knows anything about it. When we bought the vineyard, the only thing that people told us was, "Oh, it's a good blending grape. Mix it with your Louise." I think it is a good blending grape because it’s a non-aromatic white, I mean, not totally non-aromatic, but it's the opposite of La Crescent, which is in your face, flowers, perfume. It's more subtle. It definitely has stone fruits in it, lychee, and tropical fruits, especially as it ripens. But it's not as aromatic as many of the Northern whites, which I like, and it's medium to full-bodied. It adds more texture to the wine.
I want to make wine that naturally grows well here, and so we've decided to embrace these hybrids. They can make really beautiful wine.
Ashley: It's all an experiment. I feel like it's interesting hearing you talk about this because it's like hearing stories of producers back in the day, in more Old World regions, where people ask, “Why did this happen” or “How did you end up with this style of wine or style of winemaking?” And it's like, "it was just through experimentation." It's what I feel like young winemakers in Vermont are able to do right now, it's just learning from your own trials. You're in the process of establishing a wine culture.
Sadie: Do you think that the stigma against hybrid grapes is lessening in the US?
Kendra: I think so... I hope so. When people come and taste our wines, they don't really care what variety they're drinking, they just care that they're drinking a good local product and a good wine, so I definitely feel like we have converted people by producing the wines that we're producing. I definitely think, in the popular press, there's definitely been some highlighting of hybrids recently, which is exciting. I definitely think there's a future and people's minds are changing, but it's going to be a process, for sure.
The next generation of winemakers cares a lot less about what variety it is. They're more interested in the story and the type of beverage, and if it's enjoyable.
I remember when we first opened the tasting room at the vineyard last year, there was this guy, he was sitting up on one of our picnic tables up on the bluff and he was with his family, and there were some kids, and I could see him pacing and I was like, "Oh God, is he okay?" And I went up and I was said, "Hi, is everything okay?" He looked at me and he goes, "Surprisingly good."
Sadie: As in, he was upset by how good it was?
Kendra: That is not uncommon.