Deirdre HeekinPhoto Credit : Greta Rybus
Deirdre Heekin first gained renown when she and her husband, Caleb Barber, opened Pane e Salute, an Italian bakery-café that later became a more formal restaurant in Woodstock, Vermont. There, Barber cooked uncannily authentic food inspired by the couple’s travels in Italy. Heekin ran the wine program, which sparked her curiosity about learning to make wine herself, and a few batches made with California grapes got her hooked. But it all came together when she discovered hybrid varieties that thrived in the cold Vermont climate. Today their winery, La Garagista, is earning praise from the likes of the James Beard Foundation and wine critic Eric Asimov of The New York Times. Look for Heekin on season four of Weekends with Yankee, where she takes us through the vineyards, and Barber treats us to a winemaker’s feast. —Amy Traverso
Q. How did you figure out that you could make wine in Vermont, of all places?
Like most sommeliers, I became really interested in being able to fully experience what I was talking about. But since our busiest season for the restaurant was in the fall, I couldn’t go to a winemaking region and help with the harvest. So I bought fruit at the market in Boston and made wine at home in my bathtub for the first few years. I learned a tremendous amount, but I really believe winemaking starts in the vineyard. So I was stymied. I live in Vermont. How was that going to work? That same week, I found out about a winery in New Haven, Vermont, called Lincoln Peak. We did a tasting there and saw that there is so much possibility. We left that day with a hundred plants in the back of the car. The first moment I put that first vine in the ground, I thought, This is home, this is what I want to be doing.
Q. How did you know it could work?
My approach has always been that the wine’s gonna lead and I’m gonna follow. Especially because there wasn’t a huge track record of what wines from Vermont could be. We’re still trying to answer that question. But people started writing about us and I thought, That’s interesting. And wine producers who I looked up to as mentors were responding to the wine. In 2015, we had a huge year of Eric Asimov coming to visit and Wine Spectator doing a piece, and we thought, OK, there is something really going here.
Q. You work with hybrid grapes that are bred to thrive in this climate. The wine world has traditionally been very skeptical of hybrids—what are their advantages?
One of our strengths is that we’re working with these cross-pollinated varieties, or hybrids, that are naturally resistant to disease because they combine native varieties with more traditional European wine varieties, the so-called vinifera grapes. As a consequence, the plants we work with are highly diverse. The traditional varieties we think of, like Chardonnay and Cabernet, are clones. You take a cutting from the mother plant and re-create the mother plant, so there’s no room for new information and adaptation to a changing climate. But hybridization has been happening since the Roman times. Our hybrids are produced the exact same way, by hand in the nursery.
Q. So why the snobbery toward hybrid wines?
Hybrid grapes go back centuries, but they became popularized in the mid-1800s, when a Phylloxera [a kind of aphid] epidemic destroyed most of the vineyards in Europe. Hybrids withstood the rigors of Phylloxera, and a lot of vineyards were pulled up and replanted with them. But once breeders figured out you solve for Phylloxera by grafting classic vinifera grapes onto American rootstock, all the government organizations that protect terroir came in and said, “Hybrids are threatening the patrimony of vinifera, and we need to protect it.” So they outlawed hybrids. It was a smear campaign, and that held over into most of the 20th century. Granted, there was some good reason for that. There was a lot of really bad tourist wine made with hybrid varieties for a long time. But I think now people are understanding that it doesn’t have to be that way.
Q. What’s your vision for a New England wine culture? Would it look something like Napa Valley?
I would like to see it look like a European model, where the local wine is part of the local food culture. Of course we want to have visitors come, but we really also wanted to be sure we were connecting with our local people. Right now, visitors have more appreciation for Vermont wines than some of the local folks, but that’s changing. I think it takes a while for the community to trust that what they have in their own backyard is wonderful. So I want our wine to be more integrated than that, and more part of the food culture. And I want to grow the best wine possible. That’s the goal.