Table set for lunch at La Garagista Farm and Winery
Caleb Barber greets me at my car window as I pull up to La Garagista's
home vineyard in Barnard for lunch. It’s still early. By noon, the table will be decked in checkered tablecloth and strewn with vine leaves, Queen Anne’s lace and herbs from the garden. Long-necked bottles of field blend rosé and La Crescent whites will be tucked in an old washbasin with ice for chilling. Barber will slice thick tiles of homemade pancetta, and the guys from Shacksbury Cider
and Fable Farm
will arrive with bottles of cider in tow for tasting.
But for now, in the sleepy morning hour, Barber leads me to his porch overlooking the mountains for a glass of water and a piece of grape cake in the kitchen.
, the lauded wine writer, emerges from Barber's guest room with a notepad and camera. To call Feiring a “lauded wine writer” is an understatement, and I’m momentarily tongue-tied (which I attribute to careful chewing of the grape cake). An open advocate of natural wine, Feiring is a significant voice in the wine world as a writer for publications such as Time
magazine, the New York Times
, New York Magazine
, Forbes Traveler
, the LA Times
and the San Francisco Chronicle
. She has three of her own books and just finished a fourth, which she calls “a most unusual wine guide” that she’s “very glad to be rid of — it was grueling to write.”
There’s a James Beard Foundation Award in her history as well, but the laurel I like best comes from the San Francisco Bay Guardian
, which has dubbed Feiring “the high priestess of natural wines.”
Deirdre Heekin joins the priestess, Barber and me in the kitchen. She's a notable figure in and beyond Vermont as the front woman behind the state’s biodynamic farm and winery, La Garagista. Courtney Walsh, the former wine manager at Miro
in Los Angeles, is here as well. We had already met at a mutual friend’s barbecue two evenings earlier — small state syndrome.
“Follow me and I’ll give you the brief story,” Heekin tells us. Barber is off to fix lunch while we take a vineyard tour and cellar tasting. As Heekin’s husband, co-proprietor of La Garagista wines and the chef-owner of Osteria Pane e Salute
in Woodstock, he knows the tale already.
You can read a few of these anecdotes and gain a deeper glimpse into the biodynamic vineyard this week in a Seven Days feature
that demystifies the practice of biodynamic growing. For now, though: a farm tour, a tasting and a long table lunch weighted in wine and craft cider.
Deirdre Heekin and Alice Feiring in the vineyards at La Garagista Farm and Winery
Heekin leads us first to a section of raised beds beyond her front porch. For the first time in weeks, the morning is damp and cool, though humidity clings to my forehead and back, and a couple of mosquitoes hovers nearby. Under the lofted front porch, a shaded patio covers a table shrouded with dried flowers and empty wine bottles, and a nearby wicker chair faces mountain peaks in the valley below.
This valley nearly vibrates with life, a marker of the natural wine vineyard that sets it apart from its commercial counterpart. The crux of biodynamic wine is viewing the vineyard as an ecological entity regarded from the soil up. The point is to increase soil fertility by omitting the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Nothing is added to the final product to clarify, preserve or alter the taste. As Heekin puts it, “Wine is made in the vineyard.”
She leads us between modest plots of trellised grapes. Nearby, a tented glasshouse is filled with beds of zucchini, tomatoes and delicate arugula so hot, its flavor hits the nose like a shot of ginger root. Chickens peck under apple trees nearby. One bird, Mr. Darcy, raises his head to inspect the newcomers, but soon returns to his job of plucking worms and pests from the vineyard’s grass bed.
Heekin and Barber invite the farm animals to quell pest invasions, a natural symbiosis. They use the systematic integration of organic pest deterrents such as goldenrod, chrysanthemum and nettle to do the same. And although a painstaking amount of labor goes into producing biodynamic wine, there is little intervention when developing grapes into alcohol.
Deirdre Heekin and Alice Feiring sampling arugula
Minimal manipulation of the wine creates bottles unlike another in the country. A sip of La Garagista’s wine is a story of the weather, the year and the dirt itself, sealed with all the singularities and unplanned events of a growing cycle.
“In the Barnard vineyard, we have very volcanic soil,” Heekin explains. “Lots of amphibolite, granite, clay and schist.” Meanwhile, the vineyards in Vergennes and West Addison are flush with limestone and clay. With a relatively untouched fermentation process, says Heekin, “the grapes are very special voices of our land here.”
By 11 a.m., we’re in a covered porch attached to the vineyard’s cellar room, and Heekin is setting long-stemmed glasses and a plate of white bread on the table.
“If you’d like to spit, you can spit in the trough or over the side of the banister,” Heekin suggests. But my first sip is a La Crescent white from the Vergennes vineyard, and I want to hold it in my mouth forever. The nose is apple-sweet, like an ice cider, with a bracing backbone of mint and tartness that fills the mouth with lip-smacking acidity.
La Crescent from the West Addison vineyard, on the other hand, is off-sweet and floral, with notes of peony and rose. Then there’s the La Crescent from La Garagista’s home vineyard in Barnard; it's spicy and velvety, with undertones of cumin and white pepper. Feiring calls it botanical, “vermouth-like.” I savor every sip, trying to keep the flavor on my tongue and in my nose as long as I can.
Vines of La Crescent grapes at La Garagista Farm and Winery
It’s nearing lunchtime. Barber sets pancetta and slices of sourdough on a cutting board. He arranges lunch on family-style platters on the wide table beyond our tasting area. Colin Davis and David Dolginow of Shacksbury Cider arrive with bottles that are placed on the checkered tablecloth like centerpieces between the twisted grapevines and flat white flowers.
Brothers Chris and Jon Piana from Fable Farm, down the road from La Garagista’s Barnard home, next join the lunch group, bearing bottles of their own ciders ready to be uncapped.
A bottle of Ci Confonde and Caleb Barber's homemade pancetta
We make hefty plates of Barber’s spread to take to the porch table as the sun edges over the smear of rainclouds still hanging in the mountains. French breakfast radishes are piled next to saucers of salt for dipping and a deep bowl of cauliflower puréed with walnuts and flecks of summer herbs. Walnut spread sits next to spiced, roasted potatoes.
A soup pot of local cranberry beans is in one corner, stewed with a glaze of sweet and starchy onions, maple syrup and coriander. Zucchini roasted with mint, lemon and garlic rests beside a salad of shaved cabbage, red beets, carrots and cilantro; it's brisk and bright, with subtle heat from a swipe of hot sauce. There are more coins of homemade pancetta, coarsely cut. The pearl-colored fat is silky-soft and properly funky from its life on the vineyard.
Ciders are opened and passed around the table for tasting. The Lost and Found from Shacksbury Cider is robust and juicy, with earthy-sweet threads of honey and hibiscus. A 2011 cider from Fable Farm is another showstopper: nuanced and caramelized, but with a mineral twang that keeps it brisk and bone-dry. It has a strange and fantastic nutty aftertaste, maybe due to its age.
Heekin pops a bottle of Ci Confonde next, a sparkling white aptly named for its character. Had I been blindfolded, I wouldn’t be able to tell if my glass was filled with a sour beer or a funky, effervescent Pét-Nat.
Bottles of Shacksbury and Fable Farm cider set for tasting
Lunch is finished with a bitter pot of French press. It’s 3:30 in the afternoon, and Heekin, Hugh, Feiring and Barber are almost late — their evening will continue at Sparkling Wine Bar
in Middlebury, then extend to a tour of La Garagista’s West Addison and Vergennes vineyards and end with a wine-sluiced feast at Hen of the Wood
in Burlington. We’re packing up the dirty lunch plates and empty wineglasses and giving our goodbyes to the cider guys when Heekin turns to me with a smile.
“Want to come with us?” she asks. Yup.
So I do. The night continues with plates of runny, Camembert-style cheese from Blue Ledge Farm
and a bottle of champagne at Sparkling Wine Bar. Then a walk through the Champlain Valley vineyards as the sun slinks below the horizon. And finally a meal around a butcher-block table in the middle of Hen of the Wood's kitchen, where each course is met with wine poured into uniquely paired glasses.
But that’s a different story.