Carving a niche in new England’s North country

Carving a niche in new England’s North country

James Buchanan

Frank Reinhold is an energetic retired military man who has done something that most would consider highly improbable–he founded a successful vineyard and winery on his father’s former dairy farm in New Hampshire.

What had once been pasture for cows has become more than 20 acres of vines that sweep down a slight hillside from the 200-year-old post-and-beam barn that houses the winery. It is a splendidly bucolic agrarian scene, if an unlikely one, due to its location in Northern New England, where long winters and temperamental weather are the norm.

It has not always been an easy transition, as the weather can play havoc with even the best-laid plans. However, Flag Hill Winery, in the town of Lee, has managed to carve out a niche for itself via a business model built on hard work, creativity and diversity. In fact, “diversity” should be writ large, as it is the key not only to overcoming the natural challenges of New England, but also to drawing customers to a winery that most would not think could even exist, much less thrive.

Reinhold’s guiding philosophy has not changed since he planted his first vines in 1991. It is built on his love for his home, which has housed four generations of “Frank Reinholds” (Frank, his father, his son and grandson). “We will continue to grow New Hampshire products, and use those products to their best ability to produce wines and distilled spirits in New Hampshire,” he says. “We will remain tied to the ground, in that we will remain local and regional and not let success or expansion drive us away from that.”

This simple philosophy has served him well. He reports sales of more than $260,000 last year, and expects to improve on that this year. In fact, Reinhold has the enviable problem of selling out his stock of wines each year. Of 4,000 cases produced last year, he sold virtually all of them through state liquor stores, retail shops and the winery.

To achieve this kind of success, Reinhold has had to adapt to the cold climate of New England, adopting hardier varieties of grapes such as French-American hybrids Seyval (white) and Leon Millot. He also uses native grapes such as Niagara and Cayuga. “The natives and hybrids have a higher tolerance to cold winters than vitis vinifera such as Cabernet, Pinot or Chardonnay,” Reinhold says. “For example, vitis vinifera can handle temperatures down to about minus 6[degrees]F, while the natives and hybrids can go down to minus 15[degrees].”

Reinhold adds that, while these grapes may not be of the same quality as the better-known vitis vinifera varietals, they make an excellent next choice, though with a few challenges. “The vitis vinifera tend to be low in their pH and high in body,” he says, “which is about where most Americans are taste-wise. By contrast, the hybrids tend to be higher in pH and low in body. Plus, New England soils tend to be relatively acidic as well. Therefore, we really have to control acidity, otherwise the wines would be so sharp they wouldn’t be very palatable.”

Employing the age-old winemaker’s adage that “winemaking is best done in the vineyard,” Reinhold describes a couple of his strategies. “The first is thinning the fruit on each vine,” he says. “This forces the vine to focus its energy into a smaller amount of fruit, so that the grapes that are left ripen faster, have higher sugar content and lower acidity. We also pluck leaves around where the fruit is carried on the vine, to allow the maximum amount of sunlight to reach the grapes. This also helps with ripening, sugar production and lowering the acidity.

“These strategies also help us buy more time in a region where the growing season is relatively short. For us, it’s an issue of harvesting before the first frost hits. Thinning buys time.”

Reinhold believes that it would have been far more difficult to grow grapes even 50 years ago, as the winters then began earlier and lasted longer. “You could say that I am a beneficiary of global warming,” he says.

As for antifungal and mold efforts, Flag Hill sticks to practices and techniques that are standard throughout the winemaking industry. He does have a bit of a problem with Japanese beetles, “I could drop off a bucket full for you,” he jokes. But again, this is nothing unique to the industry.

Unlike many other wineries, especially those in warmer climates, Reinhold is able to cool his wines for free. “We don’t have much of an issue with regard to cooling,” he says. “We move our tanks outdoors for the primary fermentation. The temperature averages about 40[degrees] at night, which slows the fermentation, and a slow fermentation is best. If it goes real fast it heats up and the tank gets hot, which can burn off the flavor of the fruit. We try to keep the temperatures around the 60s, as opposed to letting them climb up to the 90s.”

Reinhold also uses winter temperatures to aid in stabilizing the wine. “Calcium tartrate forms as a byproduct of fermentation,” he says.

“In order to remove it from the wine you are supposed to chill the wine to about 30[degrees] for a couple of weeks. The calcium tartrate crystallizes and sinks to the bottom of the tank. We like to take advantage of the cold by taking the tanks outside for a couple of weeks. We have free cold here, so why not use it? The wine doesn’t freeze, but it does get a bit slushy.”

Due to the shortened growing season, Reinhold does add cane sugar to his wines, in a process known as chaptalization. “In New England, it is not uncommon to add some sugar in order to get the alcohol content of the wine up. I’ve never seen grapes reach 20[degrees] Brix here.”

Once fermented, the wine goes through a fining process using bentonite. The wine also goes through several rackings and filterings. Reinhold also does a final check on the pH. If it is still high, he might add another wine to balance it out or use a chemical process, but the latter of these two could destabilize the wine. His target range for pH is 3.2 to 3.6.

Just before bottling, Reinhold does a sterile filtration. He adds sulfites to eliminate existing bacteria and prevent the possibility of re-fermentation. As for oak aging, Reinhold uses American oak rather than the far more expensive French oak. He says the cost of French does not justify the difference in quality.

As mentioned above, Reinhold has done a good job of selling his estate-grown wines, and has overcome a common prejudice that New Hampshire could not produce enjoyable and nuanced wines. The grapes he uses are Seyval, Niagara and Cayuga for the whites and DeChaunac, Leon Millot and Marechal Foch for the reds. These are also the building blocks for a number of blends produced by Flag Hill, such as a red wine labeled Les Pieds Sucre (The Sweet Feet) and Maiden’s Blush.

Flag Hill also produces a number of dessert and fruit wines made from cranberries, apples, blue-berries, peaches, raspberries and strawberries. The peach wine, in particular, has a singularly vibrant color that hints at the source of its contents.

Flag Hill’s next and perhaps most anticipated innovation was the instillation of a German Christian Carl copper still, which according to Heather Houle, marketing and event coordinator at Flag Hill, represents a $300,000 investment.

This gives Flag Hill the cachet of being the state’s first micro-distillery. Reinhold has already produced brandy from the still, which he used to create New Hampshire’s first Portstyle wine, labeled North River Port.

He also distills vodka under the label of General John Stark, using locally grown fermented apple juice, as well as a Calvados-style, barrel-aged apple brandy, and is planning on distilling and bottling his own gin this year.

“What I have learned as I have been doing the distilling is that the most significant difference between vodka and gin is juniper berries,” he says. “We can also bring these distillates to market fairly quickly, because there is no need for barrel aging.”

Reinhold goes on to describe his vodka, “The vodka is made in a top-shelf-style, and is unique because we use apples, but it is not apple vodka. Using apples tends to give the vodka a unique softness that you don’t find in most other vodkas. The apples also lend to it a butterscotch finish.

“Technically, I suppose, you could say vodka is defined as not really having any flavor or taste. It’s supposed to pick up the flavor of whatever is mixed with it and blend with it, but there are subtleties or nuances that differentiate Belvedere from Grey Goose or any of the other high-end vodkas. Ours is distinguished by its unique softness and finish.”

By producing distillates on-site, Reinhold is also laying claim to the leading edge of an emerging industry. “We are going to see a renaissance of this business,” he says. “We are going to see the emergency of a number of micro-distilleries popping up. Grey Goose advertises that they produce their vodka in small batches–basically, that they are a small distillery–but we do a much smaller micro-distillation that is comparable to their quality. So on a business level, Grey Goose finally caught up to us with this trend toward micro-distilleries, making them a competitor of ours. We are on the same shelf in the liquor store and targeting the same slice of the market.”

Being first to grow into this market has also meant an initial investment beyond the purchase of the still–lobbying the state legislature to give up the state’s monopoly on liquor sales. According to Reinhold, he spent nearly $20,000 convincing the New Hampshire legislature to alter the state’s liquor laws to allow him to produce, offer tastings and sell distilled spirits. “This change in the law will apply to all others who want to come along and produce distilled products, but they will have a debt they own me for that,” he says.

Reinhold has also employed an innovative means to harvest his grapes, inviting the public to the winery each fall for a harvest festival. “The public comes in, pays a minimal fee of less than $10, gets an Italian-style harvest luncheon, and that is how we are able to bring our grapes in,” Houle says. “We bring in about 200 people for four hours each day, so the cost savings is considerable. They are so successful that we even have to turn people away each year.”

In the end, Reinhold and his staff of five have managed to do something unique: manage a successful winery selling estate-grown vintages in New Hampshire. It has not been an easy road, but they have shown the way for others.

(James Buchanan is a freelance writer and nonfiction book author living on the seacoast of New Hampshire. Contact him through edit@winesandvines.com.)

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