Standing in the sunny vineyard of Mill River Winery in Rowley, Donna Martin tells a group of visitors about her first shipment of vines in 2012. “I had been telling everyone, ‘The vines are coming! The vines are coming!’” she says, recalling how she gathered family and friends in anticipation of the plants’ auspicious arrival. What was unloaded from the delivery truck was not what she envisioned. The 200 nursery-grown specimens filled just two modest boxes. “I was totally underwhelmed,” Martin quips. Each year-old vine was no bigger than a stick. Guests, nevertheless, were put to work. They spent the day untangling the vines’ long, filamentous roots, readying them for planting.
Martin and her partner Rick Rousseau know that surprises are inevitable when you own your own winery. How they came to make wine together on the North Shore has a backstory. The two met when Rousseau was working as a contractor; he was a hobbyist winemaker on the side. Martin, a corporate chemist, found that winemaking provided a whole new arena in which to exercise her scientific acumen. “It’s a very challenging, multi-faceted role,” Martin says of making wine and running a business. “There’s a lot of satisfaction doing it.”
Since opening the winery in 2011, the couple has expanded their line of pours to more than a dozen styles, using both international varietals and grown-in-Massachusetts grapes. It’s a boutique-sized operation. The couple makes about 3,500 cases annually. Located an hour’s drive from Boston, a visit to the little more than three-acre property is one of the most enjoyable staycations around. It’s also a great place to learn how wine is made, as they say, from “dirt to bottle.”
During a Saturday afternoon tour, Martin shares that the winery is housed in a renovated 1890s-era cider mill. In the 1970s, its “hippy phase,” the property was better known for its bohemian owners than its agricultural products. Today, the winemakers want to revive the cider-making tradition on site, so they're cultivating a mini-orchard of apple trees out back. Leafy grape vines, thriving in neat rows, are the most visible of the fruit-bearing vegetation on their land.
“Here, we say, ‘local wines, global vines,’” explains Martin. While the duo grows some of their own grapes and also sources from Massachusetts vineyards, the bulk of their fruit comes from California, Chile and Italy – places that offer consistently hospitable growing conditions for Vitus vinifera, the species from which most of the world’s wine is made. They call their wines “local” because subsequent steps — sorting, crushing, destemming, fermenting, aging and bottling — all happen on site. The integrity and freshness of the grapes — whether hailing from nearby or afar — is essential. “You can make bad wine from good grapes,” says Martin, “but you can’t make good wine from bad grapes.”
This past spring, the winery released its first estate-grown red, made from frontenac grapes. The cold-hardy hybrid, originally bred by the University of Minnesota, does well in the rugged New England climate. All 54 cases of half bottles sold out shortly after release. Fortunately, 100 cases of the 2015 vintage will be available at the end of the summer or early fall. (Get ready! The dry, cherry-scented pour will likely be snatched up as quickly as the prior release.) In the meantime, there’s plenty of wine to taste at the tasting counter — from a limited edition cabernet franc-montepulciano blend to a fruity, easy-drinking Plum Island white crafted from pinot grigio and malvasia bianca.
Finishing up a tour of the manufacturing room — packed tightly with stainless steel tanks, barrels, and other state-of-the art winemaking equipment — we're getting ready to pop by the spacious tasting room. It’s quickly filling with day-trippers after an afternoon at the beach. Before we exit, Martin draws teensy pours from a tank of malbec, recently crushed and inoculated with yeast. Still early in the process of becoming wine, it sports a vivid lavender rim, a hue characteristic of young, highly pigmented reds. It offers green pepper aromas, a grippy texture, and plenty of cherry-berry fruit on the palate. Bright and lively even in its raw form, it’s clear that these winemakers know what they’re doing — a realization that comes as no surprise at all.
Mill River Winery is located at 498 Newburyport Turnpike (US Route 1) in Rowley, 978-432-1280, millriverwines.com. Take a tour Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm, weather permitting. In the meantime, purchase a Plum Island White Wine (around $15) at Dion’s, Lexington Street, Waltham, 781-894-1999; and Colonial Spirits, Acton, 978-263-7775.