Newport Vineyards, a family-owned winery in Middletown, Rhode Island, celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2015 with a stunning, environmentally-friendly renovation and bountiful fall harvest.
By Heather Tourgee
May 09 2016
A worker picks Niagara grapes by hand.Photo Credit : Heather Tourgee
Aquidneck Island in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island may seem like an unlikely home for one of the fastest-growing vineyards in New England. Don’t let that fool you, however. Though New England grapes may not be featured at harvest festivals alongside quintessential favorites like apples and pumpkins, they have carved out their own niche here, one that is (literally) changing the landscape of the region.
I must admit, as I pulled up to Newport Vineyards’ newly-renovated winery in Middletown, RI, I was unsure. The vineyard and I appeared to have just one thing in common: we both turned 20 this year, which, though a milestone for them, has the unfortunate consequence that I couldn’t even tell you the difference between Merlot and Pinot Noir. What I found on the other side of their heavy front door, however, was a warm invitation to guests of all ages and levels of wine expertise. The foyer was bustling with the lunch rush at Fatulli’s café on one side and guests checking in for a one o’clock tour on the other. The Marketplace was stocked with a wide array of their finest wines, accessories and other wine-themed goods. Everything about it screamed elegance, charm, and accessibility.
The Newport Vineyards label in its current form began in 1995, when John and Paul Nunes bought the land from retired Navy Captain Richard Alexander. The vineyard grew to its current 52 acres when the brothers acquired Perry Farm in 1998. Owner and vintner John Nunes points out the unique location of the vineyard, which is just close enough to the ocean to extend the growing season and provide slight climatic insulation.The vineyard is slated to harvest roughly 250-300 tons of grapes this season. All of the wine Newport Vineyards produces is from on-site grapes, and a visit to the tank room provides a glimpse into the day-to-day operations of a busy harvest season. George Chelf, Newport’s head winemaker for more than 25 years, explains that most grapes are harvested in September and October, the “busy months.” Following fermentation, the wine is aged in the barrels (8-9 months for whites and up to 13 or so for reds), and then bottled for sale the following fall. The pressing machine is busy extracting juice from roughly four tons of grapes destined to become today’s Sauvignon Blanc, while a large blue lug sits waiting in the corner, filled to the brim with grapes picked off the vine earlier that morning. From the pressing machine, the liquid is “racked” (or moved, for us non-vintners out there) into one of the several huge tanks that fill the large, high-ceilinged room, where fermentation will take place. Along one wall stands an array of oak barrels, serving the dual purpose of storing wine and providing the backdrop for events held inside the room. Much of the machinery in the room is movable, making the tank room a great foul-weather alternative for events such as weddings, parties, and corporate events. In a small chamber off to the side there are more barrels, many of which are made of French oak. When it comes time for bottling, the bottles are fed through a single machine by hand. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the tank room is the large window, which provides a spectacular view from inside the winery’s restaurant, Brix (named for the unit of measuring the amount of sugar present in grapes). According to John Nunes, the table overlooking the tank room is the “hottest seat in the house.”This is just one of the many ways Newport Vineyards has integrated the guest experience with their vineyard operation. Though winemaking is and always will be the core of their operation, they are always looking for ways to make their visits more experiential for their guests. The open-concept building does just this. Much of the furniture can be moved to accommodate indoor events or the needs of the winery on a given day, and guests are regularly engaged in activities, from outdoor games like cornhole and giant Jenga to weekly farmers’ markets (indoor or outdoor, depending on the month). Guests are welcome to a daily tour or tasting, and wine by the glass can be enjoyed on the outdoor patio, which overlooks the vines.The Nunes brothers, John and Paul, seem to embody all of this. Both can be seen out in the fields checking on vineyard operations, and Paul even operates the harvesting machine himself. For themselves and all their employees, this is not just a livelihood, but a passion. The business has seen significant change in the past year. Coinciding with the renovation, they have grown from a team of 25 employees to about 100, and the new space has also allowed them to nearly quadruple the number of events they host.As an agricultural business, Newport Vineyards appreciates the value of sustainability in all aspects of their operation. A brand new 53-kilowatt solar array sits atop the roof, generating approximately one-quarter of the energy the Vineyard uses. Additionally, a new pellet stove used to heat the buildings burns approximately 100 tons of vine bales (clippings from the vines which need to be pruned anyway), saving the company money and reducing vineyard waste and grid energy consumption. As they transition towards green technology, the vineyard has seen a reduction in energy costs directly related to the new renovations. Heat from the cooling process is captured and reused, and radiant heat in the floors of the tank room provides a comfortable working atmosphere, while ceiling fans keep it from rising and escaping the building. The floors are remnants from the original building, buffed and polished to continue the blended theme of industrial and rustic that carries through the entire facility.A highlight of the visit was a short trip down the road to the Nunes farm property to watch the harvest in action. Here, workers painstakingly fill rows of bright yellow containers. These are Niagara grapes, the only native variety grown on the vineyard. Because of their vine structure, they can’t be harvested using traditional machines, and must be cut by hand. Once at the field, it is clear how very unique this location is. Just two minutes from the ocean and five from the city, the vineyard and the surrounding area provide a pastoral oasis away from the crowds you might find elsewhere on the island.I rounded out my visit with a trip to Fatulli’s café, where I enjoyed a delicious Thai chicken wrap and a gingersnap which broke my mother’s golden rule: “Don’t eat anything bigger than your head,” proving that Newport Vineyards has so much more to offer than “just” wine. The expansion has created a truly unique experience, both for the wine aficionado and layperson. Even from my brief look into a day in the life of a vineyard, it is clear what a labor of love this business has grown to be, from vine to bottle. After all, “a happy winemaker makes happy wine.”