Gardening expert and author C.L. Fornari will launch her new book, A Garden Lover’s Martha’s Vineyard, with a wine and cheese signing reception open to all on Thursday, June 12, from 5 to 7 p.m. at Polly Hill Arboretum in West Tisbury. Gazette readers can get a taste of the full-color book — which features Island gardens large and small, from formal layouts in Edgartown to Victorian-inspired gardens in Oak Bluffs to casual up-Island gardens — from the excerpt below, about a Chilmark couple growing a vineyard on the Vineyard. A limited number of copies will be available Thursday; the book will be in stores in early July.
Island Grown Grapes
Traveling on State Road in West Tisbury, you may have seen the sign directing you toward Chicama Vineyards. This winery was founded in 1971 by George and Catherine Mathiesen, and it is still run by three generations of the Mathiesen family. Growing on the 11-acre vineyard are shiraz, viognier and chardonnay grapes, and a few of the wines produced at Chicama have Vineyard-appropriate names such as Oceanus and Hurricane Chardonnay.
But Chicama isn’t the only vineyard on the island. Others are also growing the crop that is, in name at any rate, appropriate to this region: a vineyard on the Vineyard, so to speak. In 2001 Robert and Elise Elliston started thinking about planting one in Chilmark.
“Well, it all started when our daughter graduated from college and came back for the summer,” Robert remembers. “One of the jobs she had was at a wine and spirits store. I was out mowing the wild grapevines down during the day, and she would come saying that people were asking for local wines and she didn’t have much to give them. We’d been making jelly from the wild grapes, and I started noticing that the jars of jelly were disappearing — our daughter was taking jars of jelly to the store and selling them! People wanted something from the Island to take home.”
That winter Robert bought a book about winemaking, and after reading it, he ordered 12 vines from one of the suppliers listed in the resource section. Remembering how well the wild grapes grew on his property, he decided that wine grapes might thrive there as well. “I picked a nice sunny spot and planted them,” Robert recalls.
So began a journey that took the Ellistons to California to see what winemaking was like in Napa. Robert says that they began buying and reading more and more books about growing grapes for making wine, and in 2004 they toured vineyards in France. “At that time we said that we have to make a decision about whether we are doing this or not,” Elise recalls. While in France they saw one area that the Ellistons thought looked a great deal like Menemsha, the coastal town to the north of where the Ellistons live. They visited a vineyard where the vines were planted one meter from each other in all directions and were trimmed to one meter high. Planted in this way, you can get one thousand vines in a quarter acre. Although most American vineyards don’t use this method, the Ellistons were intrigued. “We don’t have a lot of land,” Robert says, “so that was the strategy that we wanted to pursue.”
“Most vineyards space things to get a tractor down the rows — but I’m a hard head,” Robert admits with a grin. To prepare the soil, Elliston used a backhoe to make trenches that were six feet deep for each row. “I removed about 200 tons of stone,” he reports, “but I wanted to really break the soil up.” Loosening the soil down so far makes it easier for the roots to get quickly established and promotes a deep root system. Grapes are capable of forming very deep roots when growing conditions are right.
The land behind the Ellistons’ had been a meadow for at least a hundred years, so Robert wanted to find out what was needed to turn it into a vineyard. After sending soil samples to two labs, they received very specific recommendations for organic soil amendments that would help the grapes grow. Robert was then ready to replace the soil, adding in the soil amendments a layer at a time. “It took months,” he says, “but when it was finished, we were ready to place stakes where the vines would go.”
One thousand vines were planted by hand with the help of family, friends and neighbors. Fences went up to protect the young vines from deer, rabbits and other hungry critters, and the plants began to grow.
“By the third season we had to decide how we were going to trellis the vines,” Elise says. “We wanted to put in something that we could use forever and ever. We had some locust, and that makes the best posts, so we decided to use that.” Locust has a reputation for longevity in the environment because it is very slow to rot. “The old-timers say that locust posts will last one year longer than concrete,” Robert adds.
The Ellistons put up the lower level of the trellising, and once the plants grow they’ll add a second tier to bring the vines to a meter high. The vines will produce Cabernet grapes, which are a difficult grape to ripen in the Northeast because they take longer than others, but the Ellistons hope that the south-facing slope the vines are on will be a suitable microclimate for this variety. “It’s going to be a challenge,” Robert admits, but he says it with a smile and a light in his eye that makes you believe that those grapes will ripen just fine.
Because their property is near the old Brick Factory in Chilmark, they have a dream to build a winery that is made out of brick. “There were three Island barns that were built from the bricks that were the rejects from the brickworks,” Robert says, “and two are still standing.” A brick building for Chilmark winemaking would be appropriate, the Ellistons think.
Just when the winery will be constructed, the Ellistons don’t yet know, but the vines should bear their first fruit in 2008. Maybe it’s Robert’s joy and enthusiasm, or maybe it’s standing on the sun-filled slope and looking at those young vines, but somehow it all makes a person want to see it come to fruition. Robert sums it up this way: “We just have a dream, that’s all.”
Reprinted by permission of the author, A Garden Lover’s Martha’s Vineyard is published by Commonwealth Editions.