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At Ellison Estate Vineyard, It’s All About Experimentation

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Pouring red Vin de Table at Ellison Estate Vineyard in Stowe - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Pouring red Vin de Table at Ellison Estate Vineyard in Stowe

Last year, Kendra and Rob Knapik introduced a small flock of sheep to their vineyard in the Lake Champlain Islands. Established in 2018, Ellison Estate Vineyard is located on land in Grand Isle that was formerly occupied by East Shore Vineyard and is home to some of the oldest vines in the state.

The couple hoped the sheep would help them regenerate the land by increasing soil fertility, in keeping with the principles of biodynamic winemaking. When they sought advice on managing the ovines, Kendra said, people told her to "get 'em in the early spring and slaughter them in the fall ... because then you don't have to deal with overwintering them.

"I was like, 'OK, that will work for us,'" the winemaker said. "And then, of course, we got four sheep and my children named them."

The Knapiks came to winemaking from careers in the sciences: Kendra is Vermont's first veterinary oncologist, and Rob chairs the physics department at Norwich University. When they launched the sheep experiment, they were living with three children under 5 in an Airstream on the vineyard. They weren't sure where their kids would be wintering, much less the sheep.

A lot has changed since then — for the Knapiks, their vineyard and the sheep. The couple bought and moved into a ranch house in the middle of the vineyard. They purchased another home in Stowe and retrofitted its basement into a tidy, efficient winery, complete with a brand-new crush pad for turning the grapes into wine.

The vines that were "in rough shape" when they bought the land are now producing. "We did 10 and a half tons this year," Kendra said, referring to production by weight of grapes. "That's the most that we've ever done."

As for the six sheep, four of which were originally headed for slaughter, they are now pets that overwinter each year in Stowe.

Kendra and Rob Knapik outside Ellison Estate Vineyard in Stowe - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Kendra and Rob Knapik outside Ellison Estate Vineyard in Stowe

Images of sheep have crept onto the winery's whimsical and sophisticated labels, which can be seen on the shelves of retailers such as Dedalus Wine Shop, Market and Wine Bar; and at restaurants such as Honey Road. Ellison Estate's new wine club, which gives members access to exclusive wine releases and events, is called Flock.

And the Flock seems likely to grow. To visit the Grand Isle vineyard or the Stowe winery is to feel like you've entered a secret wine lab run by friends who are constantly thinking of new ways to enjoy life in Vermont with a glass of wine in hand.

Kendra and Rob met, fell in love and married in graduate school in Philadelphia, which is also where they became "wine geeks," Kendra said. They moved to Vermont, had two children, Zora and Ellison, and set themselves up on 10 acres in Waterbury.

By 2017, Kendra had started to think about a new career in wine. She and Rob casually scouted land in the islands, where Kendra's family is from. Then she experienced pregnancy complications with Bobby, her third child, who was delivered prematurely.

Once the couple knew Bobby was safe, while Kendra was still laid up from the experience, Rob showed her photos he'd taken of the East Shore Vineyard.

"Rob was like, 'What about that vineyard?'" she recalled. "And I was like, 'I can't believe you're bringing that up. I'm in a hospital bed.'

"But I knew I needed something a little more," Kendra continued. She'd had enough of life as a full-time vet and part-time mother who missed soccer games and other important moments with her children because of her demanding career, she explained. "There was part of me that wanted to incorporate something more creative into my life."

Though Kendra and Rob have advanced science degrees, they were relatively new to farming. They had to get up to speed quickly, since the vineyard needed immediate care.

"It was in pretty rough shape. Some of the trellises were just lying on the ground," Kendra said. "But then we thought about, If we were to start from scratch with new vines, the investment of time, money and infrastructure would be huge. And it would take four years until those new vines were fully producing. So we jumped in."

Kendra Knapik checking on wines - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Kendra Knapik checking on wines

Ellison Estate has been producing a steadily growing stable of hand-curated wines ever since.

Now, Rob is happy to work as a farmer on evenings and weekends and during the summers when he's off from teaching, while Kendra has embraced an approach to making and bottling wine that's both experimental and intuitive. One of her wines is even named Little Experiment #1.

"I think our scientific backgrounds have led us to really try to explore and get creative," Kendra said. "When I'm in the winery, it's less straightforward. It's more like, 'We have this, so let's try this and this, and we'll make a little bit of this and a little bit of that.'"

At a recent tasting on the crush pad in Stowe, Rob and Kendra poured eight wines out of the 16 they currently have for sale.

Ellison Estate wines showcase cold-hardy, Vermont-tested grapes — white prairie star, Louise Swenson and la crescent grapes in seemingly endless combinations with red St. Croix, marquette and frontenac noir.

The Vin de Table ($33), a still red wine that contains red and white grapes, has a balanced acidity that goes beautifully with cheese and charcuterie. The Regeneration 2 pét-nat ($37), which combines white Louise Swenson grapes with a little red marquette for body and structure, tasted to me of cherries and dirt, yet it was also somehow clean. It went hand in hand with the Cellars at Jasper Hill cheese that the Knapiks served at the tasting.

"This one is a favorite of mine, too," Kendra said of the Regeneration 2 as she poured it.

As she talked about the different varietals on display that day, it became clear that, in the four years since becoming a winemaker, she's learned each varietal by heart and how to develop their flavors in creative ways.

My personal favorite of that day, the Renewal C ($35) is 100 percent St. Croix pét-nat. It tasted like raspberries, light and fun, and gave me a whole new appreciation for this versatile, cold-hardy varietal.

Wine containers - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Wine containers

As she poured it, Kendra recalled learning the correct pronunciation of "St. Croix" from Deirdre Heekin and Caleb Barber of La Garagista Farm + Winery in Barnard. Heekin and Barber helped the Knapiks get up to speed on growing grapes and making wine, as they've done for many fledgling Vermont winemakers.

"The U.S. is in its infancy in winemaking, right?" Kendra said. "And Vermont is really in its infancy." Heekin and Barber's wines "were the first Vermont wines we tasted that we really loved," she said. "And now they are mentors to tons of us. They got us started on the right foot."

Heekin returned the compliment via email, calling the Knapiks "amazing additions to the Vermont wine community." In her view, the couple's relationship to their island vineyard "is infused with so much heart. Their respect for this land and the vines planted there is so clear in their thoughtful and precise approach to their farming and in the making of their vibrant wines."

During this year's summer and harvest season, Kendra and Rob hosted several wine tastings and dinners open to the public, relying on Instagram and word-of-mouth advertising to generate sold-out events. In addition, more people joined Flock, which provides wine-related events and education to its members on a quarterly basis. Next summer, the Knapiks will welcome guests back to their Grand Isle vineyard, where they've since added a second Airstream. Both will be available to rent.

"People come, they get to see the grapes growing," Kendra said, looking forward to summer, when the sheep will resume their job of grazing and fertilizing the vineyards. "Maybe they can join the Flock and really get into natural wine with us." 

Ellison Estate Vineyard, 69 East Shore North, Grand Isle; and 1338 Moscow Rd., Stowe, ellisonestatevineyard.com. Learn more on Instagram: @ellisonestatesvineyard.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Wines and Ovine"