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Vt. wineries hope panel will uncork opportunity

Marketing help from state cited

EAST CALAIS, Vt. -- At GrandView Winery, you can buy hard cider or rhubarb wine, elderberry wine, or dandelion wine.

For 11 years, Phil Tonks has been producing fruit wines from his 30-acre spread on a picturesque hillside. But he wants to sell more to people outside Vermont, and he's hoping the creation of a new state panel dedicated to wine makers and grape growers can help pave the way.

He isn't alone. Others in Vermont's fledgling wine industry want the Vermont Grape and Wine Council to help raise awareness, eliminate red tape, and lead the state to provide money for marketing for what they see as one of its little-known agricultural products.

"We've established a whole new facet of agriculture in Vermont, and we have to gain credibility and awareness," said Kenneth Albert, owner of Shelburne Vineyard. "The state helping us -- like they've done for maple syrup, and dairy -- we need that support," Albert said.

Since 1985, when the state's first winery opened, the industry has slowly blossomed. Now, there are 14 wineries in Vermont, several of which are planting hybrid grapes that can withstand bitter winter cold.

"Now that there are wine grapes hardy to minus 36 degrees Fahrenheit, that puts us in the game from the grape perspective," said Steve Justis, senior agricultural development specialist for the state Agency of Agriculture. "We've already got some nice grape and other fruit wines available, and our wine makers have gotten awards at different events."

The council, which was established by legislation passed earlier this year, had its first meeting July 11, drawing about 30 people representing both grape growers and wine makers.

Among the issues discussed: laws restricting where Vermont wine makers can ship their products. While Vermont law allows such shipping, a patchwork of regulations in other states makes it challenging to send wine to some.

"We're an agricultural product, but we're also an alcohol product," said Albert. "With that, there's federal and state regulations. We certainly could use state's help on being able to ship."

Tonks dabbled in wine making for years before he went into it commercially, establishing his operation about 12 miles northeast of Montpelier. It now produces 18 varieties of wine, ranging in price from $8.25 to $16.50. While the locale may not seem ideal -- winter temperatures at his farm have reached 34 degrees below zero -- he has no trouble growing fruits and berries, and he buys grapes and strawberries from farmers.

The winery makes about 30,000 bottles a year. "I'm doing value-added to commodities, buying from in the state. I'm enhancing the farm community instead of competing with it," Tonks said.

GrandView's wines are sold seasonally in a retail shop on the farm, and throughout the year at Cold Hollow Cider Mill in Waterbury.

Some expect that the number of wineries in Vermont will continue to grow.

"It's a wide-open opportunity, and it pairs well with our artisan cheesemakers," said Justis. "Our learning curve is going to be fairly short. We're in a good position because of the population around Vermont."

Albert, who got into the business after working at IBM for years and growing grapes in his backyard, opened his winery in 1998. Shelburne Vineyard sold about 12,000 bottles of wine last year, and is about to open a new tasting room.

He hopes the formation of the new state council will lead to state aid for promoting Vermont wines and help from extension services.