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VT Vineyards Helps Hobbyists Grow Grapes at Home


Published July 20, 2021 at 2:41 p.m.
Updated July 21, 2021 at 10:07 a.m.

Stephen Wilson inspecting grapes in a Hinesburg vineyard - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Stephen Wilson inspecting grapes in a Hinesburg vineyard

When Lucy Nersesian and her partner traveled through Europe in 2019, they stayed at a vineyard in Spain during harvest season, helping farmers pick grapes by hand. She was excited to bring back firm plans for the vineyard she wanted to build someday in Vermont.

The trip "really got our juices flowing," Nersesian said. "I guess you get all caught up in the moment when you're away. You want to mimic that feeling and experience when you're home."

In 2012, Nersesian, 48, and her partner bought their home on 10 acres of woods, fields and landscaped property in Waterbury Center. They knew then that they wanted to do what she called "mini-agricultural projects," such as raising honeybees and growing fruit trees.

Nersesian had a little experience with backyard grape farming and harvesting while growing up in New York City. Her parents had two grape varietals — one white and one red — both used for little more than making stuffed grape leaves.

But Nersesian didn't know how to grow wine grapes in Vermont's colder climate. She had looked at grapes for sale in garden centers many times, she said, "but it just seemed overwhelming to actually do it — and do it right."

Enter VT Vineyards, a year-old landscaping company that builds customized backyard vineyards for budding grape farmers. Married team Stephen Wilson, 31, and Maci Heal, 27, own the Underhill-based business. Heal has a full-time job as a research analyst with the biotech company MBF Bioscience in Williston, so Wilson primarily runs VT Vineyards. He came up with the idea when the pandemic arrived in March 2020, forcing Vermonters to stay close to home.

"I found myself with a lot of time on my hands," Wilson said in a phone interview from a client's yard. "I spent a lot of time in my vineyards, doing a lot of gardening, kind of like ecotherapy. I found a lot of comfort in it, and I wanted to share that with other people."

Wilson grew up in Waterbury. His experiences traveling around southern Italy in 2010 introduced him to his Italian heritage — his maternal grandparents are from Italy — and taught him the ways of vineyard life.

At the time, Wilson said, "I was 20 years old. I was just looking to broaden my experiences, to go on a trip." While in the coastal town of Sorrento, he gained a basic understanding of the vineyard building process. "I didn't know it would lead to such a rewarding life in wine," he said.

Wilson has been involved in the industry ever since, though there were several twists and turns before he became a farmer. While attending the University of Vermont, he managed the bar at the former restaurant Church & Main, now the site of Honey Road. At the Kitchen Table Bistro in Richmond, Wilson spent nearly three years bartending and learning about the history of Vermont food and restaurants. Former general manager Neal Johnston was Wilson's mentor and guide to the hospitality and wine industries.

Wilson then left for a stint as a sportswriter in Oregon. While there, he also worked with Holloran Vineyard Wines in the Willamette Valley, picking up more tips on how to build and maintain grape vines. In 2018, he returned to Vermont and to KTB, this time as dining room manager. That's when he began to notice Vermont wines rising in stature.

"I saw distributors bringing in wines from France and Italy and California. Then, eventually, slowly, they started bringing in some Vermont wines," Wilson said. They included Barnard winemaker Deirdre Heekin's La Garagista.

"KTB has a huge emphasis on local, so it was kind of a natural progression, and wine and beer have followed suit," Wilson continued. "Eventually, it was just like, 'Why isn't everything local, including the wine?' It was a shift in mindset for me."

Stephen Wilson inspecting grapes in a Hinesburg vineyard - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Stephen Wilson inspecting grapes in a Hinesburg vineyard

Wilson left KTB in 2019 and worked briefly at a desk job in Burlington before the pandemic. As he had already been tending vineyards for himself and friends, his decision to ground that work in a new full-time business came naturally.

Wilson placed a simple, friendly message on the neighborhood email list Front Porch Forum: "We build backyard vineyards. Do you want one?"

That's when Nersesian got in touch.

"He came over, and we asked tons of questions and got lots of answers, and this actually seemed doable," she said of her homegrown vineyard. Nersesian now has 15 vines — a combination of marquette, frontenac gris and Somerset seedless — planted on her property.

She's growing "only 15 vines, for both a space reason and also we didn't want to get too far in over our heads," Nersesian said. "So far, our grapes are doing awesome. They were only planted six weeks ago and are growing rapidly."

The phrase "wine country" might bring to mind the West Coast, where vineyard farming is a range of residential and commercial enterprises, many of them large-scale. But Wilson's Vermont clients — all of them residential — bring a DIY spirit to the task, he observed.

"A lot of us make our own food and drink. My clients want to dig postholes and tie wires," Wilson said. "They consider the design of the irrigation system with me; they're thinking about cover crops. They want to be involved every step of the way."

VT Vineyards currently works with 15 to 20 clients. (Full disclosure: As of this month, I'm one of them. While reporting this story, I hired the company to install three vines of Itasca — a cold-hardy white grape developed at the University of Minnesota.)

Often, Wilson said, he ends up feeling like his clients are educating him, rather than the other way around. 

"Folks in Vermont have a really good sense of their own land and community," he said. "It's cool to get a sense of all these different microclimates and notice similarities and differences between soils. I'm doing a lot of learning."

Nersesian noted that Wilson is "around to help however we need, via email or coming by to take a look at progress," she said. "Next steps are, of course, learning how to make wine, but thankfully we have a few years to get to that point."

Wilson is figuring out his next steps, too. He's a bit surprised by his company's popularity.

"It's developed more quickly than I expected," he said with a laugh. "It turns out people are enthusiastic about home vineyards. A lot of times folks find it a little intimidating, but the procedure is really straightforward for planting grapevines.

"It's very accessible," Wilson added. "That's not to say it's easy. But the time has flown by — probably because I enjoy it so much."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Fruitful Pursuit | VT Vineyards helps hobbyists grow grapes at home"