It’s one thing to stand in the tasting room of a winery, gazing out upon rows of vines, pretty and pregnant with their heavy, round fruit, and get drunk on the notion of ditching city life to tend acres of Vitis vinifera or labrusca. It’s quite another to actually do it.
Carlo DeVito hadn’t planned on living out “Green Acres.” He was moving and shaking in Manhattan’s publishing world at Running Press, an enthusiast whose interest in wine led him to become the in-office expert on the topic and, eventually, to oversight of RP’s wine books. He even shepherded a series of Wine Spectator tomes from notion to shelf. But he started spending weekends and vacations hitting local wineries and wine-growing regions with his wife, Dominique. Then he wrote his own book on East Coast wineries. Then, well then he found the 14-acre parcel, once part of the old Brisklea Farm up in Chatham, which, until about 30 years ago, was home to some of the finest Ayrshire dairy cows in all the land. And that, pretty much, was that.
“You see all these advertisements for wine and it looks like a great big party and you think, ‘Oh, we’re going to have a ball!’— no!” says DeVito. “It’s the hardest thing, but there’s a sense of accomplishment, a sense of doing something good for and with the earth that I can’t explain, but I’ve found nothing else to replace the experience.”
The whole family—DeVito, Dominique, and their two sons—moved up into the circa 1780 farmhouse and started the hard work of turning fallow, shale-rich soil into vineland; abandoned, dusty rooms into a home; and a Manhattanite’s kooky dream into a life’s work.
“In our first year, we did about 200 cases. Last year, about 1,200. This year, we’ll do 2,000 to 2,500 cases.” While at first De-Vito was trying his hand at different varietals and buying grapes from other spots until his own vines were ready, a night spent tasting older vintages of the French hybrid baco noir with the man who would become his winemaker brought his direction into focus. He’d been buying some old-vine baco from Steve Casscles, formerly of Ben Marl, who grows the grape on the four or five acres surrounding his home and, at that point, was only making some for personal consumption. “They are wonderful old vines that he takes care of like a mother hen, walking around talking to his plants and fussing over them,” laughs DeVito. “He’s a gifted and talented winemaker.”
An invitation to dinner at Casscles’s home led to a late night of tasting that showed DeVito the grape’s potential. “He pulled out these 15- and 20-year-old bacos that were standing up beautifully, and I thought, ‘This is where I want my wine program to go.'” A year after buying the farm, DeVito and Casscles made the first 100 cases of Hudson-Chatham’s 2007 Baco Noir Reserve. “When I opened this bottle, my husband’s cousin, Alessandro, was visiting from Lombardy, Italy; he grew up helping his dad press, ferment and fill bottle after bottle of rustic reds, so I was curious to see what he’d think. We sat at the dining room table, popped the cork and sipped. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘it really reminds me of a Barbera,’ and I immediately understood what he meant.” With its zippy acidity and medium-light body, DeVito’s 2007 baco noir carries aromas of blackberry and black cherry, and has a wild, brambly quality that added a rustic edge, making me hanker for a long-simmered, tomato-y veal stew.
This year DeVito planted a few acres of his own baco and invested in another vineyard a little farther south, with an eye toward growing cabernet franc, and the source of what will be his vineyard selection baco noirs. “It’s really about terroir. That’s why we want to do a vineyard-designate program. It’s all about local, as far as I’m concerned,” he says, pointing out the little area’s artisanal cornucopia: two neighboring organic beef farms, a cheese maker a mile down the road, a microbrewery and more wineries slotted to open.
DeVito gets gallons of excitement from being part of this community. He waxes rhapsodic about their tomatoes, which they simmer into marinara (using their wine as a secret ingredient, of course), the maple syrup they make each winter, the balsamic vinegar, the port. “This is really part and parcel to what we want to do: to make true, quality wines,” he says. “We want to turn the clock back.”
Photograph courtesy of Hudson-Chatham Winery.