When you think of the American wine country your thoughts probably turn to the west coast. Napa and Sonoma likely come to mind. How about Maine? It may come as a surprise, but Maine has a vibrant, growing wine region, producing some fine bottles. I had the opportunity to interview one of the owners of a new vineyard and winery, Maine Coast Vineyards. Steve Melchiskey discusses how and why he came to make wine in Maine, his support for local businesses, Maine’s business climate, and more.
I read in the Forecaster that Nanci Kahn and yourself came from California. What inspired you to move from one of the largest wine regions in America to start a vineyard and winery in one of the harshest growing environments in the country?
It was completely ridiculous to leave the best grape growing region of the world for a place that barely allows grapes to ripen. Silly,quixotic, an exercise in hubris, whatever you want to call it. But we’ve had some fun doing it.
I was originally from central New York, outside the Finger Lakes. I was an exchange student with AFS in Germany on a scholarship program in 1976. The family I lived with drank wine every day (a new experience for me)and boys of my age (17) drank along with them at meals. They asked if I wanted to work a wine harvest in the Rhine region at a friend’s vineyard, and I did. I was captivated by the beauty of the vineyards, the spirit and work that went on there. I set it as a dream/goal to have my own vineyard and winery someday. I went to college at Cornell in the Finger Lakes and was involved during school in the wine business (retail) and up graduation went to France where I worked in Bordeaux for the harvest and pruning. When I returned to the US a year later, I worked at Hargrave Vineyard on Long Island, NY, the first winery in that region. I could have stayed there, but went to continue my schooling and then into another profession which we did here in Portland, Maine from 1982 to almost 1990. My wife decided to go back to school, and was accepted into the MFA program at the San Francisco Art Institute. I decided to try to go back to the wine business so I took a bottle dusting job at a wine store, then moved to a job as the operations manager of a wine import/wholesale company, then I became a salesman. All along I worked at wineries at harvest, bottling and so forth. During my wife’s pregnancy we decided we wanted to be nearer to family, but I didn’t want to give up my dream of owning a vineyard and winery. After the birth of our son, we decided we wanted to go back and be in Maine, near family, but first we wanted to make sure we could grow some kind of grapes here. In 1997, 3 months pregnant, my wife came back to plant an experimental vineyard on friend’s property in the Hurricane Valley area of Falmouth. My parents tended the grapes, and we decided we could, in fact make a go of it here. So in 1999 we bought an old chicken farm and moved in and planted the first vines in the spring of 2000.
You have been working for a decade to find the right blend for your current wine. Could you explain to a wine layperson this process and why it can take so long?
First you have to learn how to grow the grapes, ripen them properly and get them ready to produce wine. Then, you start experimenting with different winemaking techniques and applying it to different batches of the wines. For example, making a barrel of wine from one variety, or one, better section of the vineyard, or with specialized yeasts from one batch, and so forth. Then you start blending the various batches in a lab where you work with percentages of each style. 5% of one style of wine can make the other 95% blend completely different. It takes time, particularly here, where one variety doesn’t give the wine the complexity and depth necessary to be interesting as it does in places like Napa, where “Cabernet is, on its own, a very interesting grape and wine. We can’t grow these kinds of grapes and have to rely on many varieties to achieve great wine.
Where do you see Maine’s wine industry going?
My dream is that in 25 years we have 150 acres of grapes in southern Maine in cultivation and 8 to 10 wineries. It could be done.
Your wine is “a local wine made from local grapes”, your labels will feature local artists, and will be featured in local stores. Why is it important for you to be so committed to supporting local businesses?
Maine need business to create jobs, period. In order to encourage that, businesses need to make “local” a value that is important to them. Could we have labels designed in New York with an artist from California? Yes. But our values tell us that we need to support our state as much as we can. By selling our wine in stores that support local agriculture we give them something extra to promote “local”. Buying local, supporting local translates into business which translates into jobs. And the down and dirty real truth is that wine is sexy: it has the ability to bring attention to local foods, and agriculture and art, in a way that other products don’t. Why shouldn’t we use it to do so? Viva la Maine!
As a small business, how would you judge Maine’s business climate?
Burdensome in nonsensical and irrational ways. Don’t get me started.
What would you like to see Maine’s next governor do to help Maine’s growing wine industry and small businesses as a whole?
Every time we start changing things and making laws to “make things better” we add layers of regulatory complexity that just starts to wear down the people who are trying to create value, hire workers, and add to the tax base of the state. For the wine business, I think there should be a comprehensive review of the laws and regulations with an eye towards achieving the purposes of the regulations, but doing away with or changing the rules that really don’t serve that purpose today and only create administrative and paperwork burdens. There are many states with great systems who have changed their old rules dramatically, cutting costs, encouraging healthy business, within with context of good regulation of the industry. We need to think about regulation in the 21st century. We are regulating the wine business with laws and regulations that grew out of an era of our history 80 years ago. Does that make sense?
Lastly, and most importantly, where can we purchase your wines and what styles can we expect to see in the future?
The wines are available at all the Rosemont Markets (Deering, Munjoy Hill, and Yarmouth), Leavitt and Sons in Falmouth, Good Life Market in Raymond, and Lighthouse Wine and Seafood in Manchester. Soon coming to more stores and restaurants.