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Local vintner bottles a dream

Lincoln vintner sees fine 'estate wine' within reach

LINCOLN -- Winemaker Kipton Kumler stands in the hot sun among his Vitis vinifera on Conservation Hill, literally surveying the fruits of his labor.

The 4,000 lovingly tended pinot noir , cabernet franc, chardonnay, and riesling grapevines will produce fruit for Turtle Creek Winery's first serious foray into the marketplace with an "estate wine," made primarily from grapes that were grown in his vineyard.

Kumler and vineyard manager Tracy Ebbert have been hand-grafting new buds to existing rootstock with plant tape in an Old World method that Ebbert jokes can be summed up as a "Frankenstein" procedure.

It's a scene that really belongs in the French or Italian countryside -- the small-batch winemaker tending to his few acres of vines, barreling and bottling several hundred cases of handcrafted wine.

But Kumler, a former engineer and Lexington business consultant who hates the word "retired," has forged ahead even though the region is snowy and intemperate.

In the nearly eight years since he founded Turtle Creek in this bucolic suburb a few miles off Route 2, he has lost one-third of his crop in the fierce winter of 2003, invented ingenious insulation sleeves to protect his vines from ice and snow, and run head-on into the regulatory and legal labyrinth that governs the state's wine wholesale and distribution business.

He also figured out the hard way that his pinot noir needs eight months "in barrel," rather than 14, which gives it too much oak flavor. And that tons of fruit, and later thousands of gallons of wine, have to be moved a dozen times by hand or front loader during its journey from vine to a customer's glass.

Making and drinking wine remains a mystical experience to him, Kumler said, despite annoying wine snobs who "try to turn it into an analytical pursuit, like baseball cards."

If Kumler knew then what he knows now, would he still have become Lincoln's only vintner?

"Probably," he said. "I always knew it would be a serious challenge. God deals you a hand once a year and you can decide to play it."

In the coming weeks, he'll bottle his white wines from last fall's harvest, so they'll be ready to appear on shelves around the holidays.

Turtle Creek is also planning the release of its first syrah, a 2006 vintage with an "inky, spicy" character scheduled to be bottled in the fall, said Ebbert.

"It's like merlot with a lot of character and class," she said.

"Unlike a monster cabernet, it's not too hard to approach if you are a beer or occasional wine drinker," she added.

Turtle Creek will never be able to grow all the fruit it needs in Lincoln, and, like most wineries in the region, must rely on purchased fruit from California and upstate New York's Finger Lakes region to supplement the Conservation Hill harvest.

Kumler said he hopes to produce about 1,000 cases annually for the next few years.

This is a big leap from his initial production of 200 cases, which came from his startup operation run out of his spacious home, where he and his wife, Kally , raised their four children.

Kumler built a temperature-controlled barrel room in his basement, imported an Italian wine press, 500-liter oak barrels and stainless-steel tanks, created software to monitor all the operations, and even constructed his own laboratory for testing acidity and alcohol content.

At first, his wines sold at only one retail outlet: the Cheese Shop in Concord.

In 2003, Kumler began leasing 2 acres of Flint's Field, town-owned Colonial-era land that includes Conservation Hill. He hired Ebbert via a posting on Craigslist , and today shares the picturesque, southeast-facing fields off Lexington Road with another local farmer growing corn and alfalfa.

Not everyone loves his wine, Kumler admitted. But he said customers who want something local and distinctive will find it in a Turtle Creek bottle, a quirkiness that a massive West Coast factory winemaker like Robert Mondavi or Columbia Crest can't provide.

Several more liquor stores have taken on Turtle Creek wines in the past year or two, including Berman's in Lexington, Colonial Spirits in Acton, the Lower Falls Wine Co. in Newton, and Post Road Liquors in Wayland. Bottles usually sell for $16 to $18.

But don't ask the winemaker about his favorite variety.

"They're my children, so I can't answer that," said Kumler. Still, he admits pride in his wine made from cabernet franc, a lesser-known grape. The variety is increasing in popularity in New England, and Turtle Creek has enjoyed success with its version, Kumler said.

"I think people who experience it for the first time are surprised at what an interesting and pleasant wine it is," Kumler said.

He declined to specify exactly how much Turtle Creek has cost him but acknowledged the figure easily exceeds $100,000.

Kumler says he still considers himself a student of the soil, learning more about his craft through the trial and error of every harvest.

"There something about making wine that touches people," he said. "And it's the source of a lot of pleasure for me."

Erica Noonan can be reached at