Local Hero Profile: Mount Warner Vineyards

By Jenny Miller Sechler
Published in CISA’s October 2014 e-newsletter — sign up here!
Mount Warner Vineyard grapes
Fifteen years ago, when Gary and Bobbie Kamen bought the Hadley property that was to become Mount Warner Vineyards, they were drawn to the gorgeous view of the valley, including a sweep of the University of Massachusetts campus, the school where Gary and Bobbie met as undergraduates and where Gary had been hired as a professor of kinesiology. They had no idea just how serendipitous the purchase was until they began exploring an avocation that eventually became a passion: growing grapes and crafting fine wine. “The soil on this property is not Hadley loam,” explains Bobbie. “We have a sand pit.” The excellent drainage provided by the sandy soil makes it perfect for growing grapes. The fortuitous fit of soil and crop is exemplary of the many ways winemaking is a perfect fit for Gary and Bobbie’s varied interests. It provides Gary’s scientific side a chance to play in a lab, and it appeals to Bobbie’s love of nature, as well as her love for a good challenge. “Making wine is part science, part art,” explains Gary. This is a couple that loves both, and who share this love with Mount Warner’s customers through their delicious, hand crafted wines.

Gary and Bobbie’s adventure into winemaking started with a series of trial and error. The two had enjoyed good wine for years. Their close friends, Peter and Brenda Oldak, owned and operated Jewell Towne Vineyards in South Hampton, NH, and Gary and Bobbie occasionally spent time at the vineyard helping with the harvest. Peter eventually gave 36 cuttings to Gary to start his own vines. “First came the cuttings, and then came the definition of the cuttings!” Gary laughs, as he describes his initial naïveté to even the basics of agricultural practices. But through hard work and research, the latter of which was very familiar and dear to Gary’s academic heart, the two managed to plant the cuttings and help them flourish. “My first try at winemaking was Baco Noir,” explains Gary, laughing again at his innocent younger self. Apparently, Baco Noir is not a good starter wine. “This wine is very, very acidic. It became grape jelly!” But undaunted, Gary pressed on, with Bobbie offering enthusiastic support, making wines in his basement and garage. By 2008, Bobbie and Gary had planted 700 vines in their sand pit, and made the move from amateur winemakers to purveyors of a professional micro-winery. Now, a visitor to Gary and Bobbie’s winery will be treated to Bobbie spontaneously offering ripe fruit off the vine and commenting on the unique qualities of each grape. Gary may get out his refractometer, squeeze a little juice from a grape on to the instrument’s panel, and invite his guest to look through the viewer and note the percentage of sugar to water. The couple continues to experiment with different trellis systems, and like a true professor, Gary explains the benefits of vertical shoot versus high wire trellis, making the subject clear and interesting through his contagious enthusiasm. The Kamens bottle about 800 gallons of wine a year, using grapes specifically developed to thrive in a New England climate. “A fun and challenging thing about the grapes we grow is that they’re unlike grapes you’d taste anywhere else. It’s fun to introduce people to them,” says Bobbie. “Northern grapes come with a nice acid structure,” Gary continues. “They can correspond with some cuisines that are traditionally hard to match with wine, especially spicy foods. They fill a niche that many people aren’t familiar with.” Mount Warner Vineyard offers whites, reds, and some desert wines, and most of their wine is on the dry side. “We make them dry because the fruit is so good,” explains Bobbie. “Our wine is very fruit forward.”

While Bobbie has been a crucial part of developing the winery over the years, she has also developed a love of beekeeping and now offers both honey and a line of beeswax products, “Bobbie’s Bee Balms,” that includes hand creams, lip balms, and other items. “I started getting interested in beekeeping as a response to the need for more honeybees,” Bobbie explains, referring to the precipitous decrease in bee population due to colony collapse. The Kamens also had fruit trees on their property that weren’t producing fruit, and would benefit from providing pollinators. Bobbie took a course held by the Hampden County Beekeepers’ Association and set up a hive. “It did tremendously,” said Bobbie. “That first year, we had 50 pounds of honey.” Bobbie’s approach to bees and the art of beekeeping may go a long way towards explaining the productivity of her hives. “Beekeeping is very mesmerizing,” she notes.  “When you get into the hive, it’s very calming.” And like Gary, Bobbie is interested in the science behind the art, too. The refractometer performs double duty at the Kamens’ farm, measuring sugar content both in wine and honey, as part of producing the finest product for their customers.

Bobbie and Gary sell their wine and honey at local farmers’ markets, including Greenfield, Amherst, and Forest Park, as well through several local stores. They also host tours and wine tastings at the vineyard for small groups throughout the year. “When people taste our wine at the farmers’ markets, I always hear two comments,” notes Gary. “The first is, ‘I didn’t know there were any wineries in Massachusetts,’ and the second is ‘Wow, this is really good!’” Customers are especially encouraged to try, “Secret” a wine crafted from the hybrid grape Petite Pearl, which boasts Pinot Noir in its parental lineage. Gary tells the story behind the wine’s mysterious name, explaining, “When we submitted the Petite Pearl label to the federal agency that regulates alcohol, it was rejected. “Because the grape is new, it’s not officially recognized. So we resubmitted it with the same label, but identifying it as a ‘fanciful name.’ Well, that was sent back too,” he laughs. “They said, ‘You can’t fool us.’ So we submitted it again, with the name ‘Secret.’” This spirit of fun and inventiveness captures the essence of Mount Warner Vineyards. To get in on the action, visit their website for more information on the vineyard, including where you can find their Mount Warner’s wines and how you can book a tour and tasting!

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