South County boasts five wineries, and no two are alike. Far from the epic estates of the Tuscan hills, our wineries are small and scrappy. Some grow grapes on the premises, others import their grapes, and one doesn’t use grapes at all. For each, the experience is unique – a backwoods escape, a main street storefront, a classic New England farm – and you’ll find plenty of surprises. You might call South County the un-Napa.
Our growing season may be short, but our terroir, or combination of conditions, is just as dynamic as New Brunswick or the Finger Lakes, famous regions with similar seasons. Each autumn, local wine-makers overcome the challenges of a northeastern harvest and ferment their juice to perfection. For wine enthusiasts, fall is the perfect time to take a drive in the country, stop at local tasting rooms, and sample the fruits of their labor. Here is a glimpse at our local establishments – and the vintners who make them so special.
For decades, Leyden Farm was known for its Christmas trees. Four generations of Leydens have loved the holiday season, and they still grow ranks of trees on their West Greenwich property. There’s only one problem with this niche industry: You make all your sales in a few breakneck weeks. The rest of the year is spent managing the land and biting fingernails, hoping this coming December will be profitable.
“We decided we had to do something else with the farm,” says co-owner Maureen Leyden, who married into the Christmas tree dynasty. She and her husband Jack considered several ideas. They had made wine before and enjoyed the process – but could they really establish a full-on winery?
“When you meet winemakers,” says Maureen, “you find that they’ve either dabbled with wine in the kitchen, or they like the science.” The Leydens appear to be both.
In 2010, they dove in. They started to grow grape vines. They installed a processing facility in an old barn. They set up a tasting room. Outside, there’s a sprawling patio with Adirondack chairs and room for a party tent. The parking lot is sizable, but on weekends, visitors may struggle to find a free spot. The town doesn’t allow weddings at Leyden Farm, but they host every other kind of party, and it’s hopping.
The place has become so popular that they’ve built two massive new additions – an expanded production facility and a voluminous new tasting room, which will hold at least 50 guests. Along both structures, an extended porch will overlook the bucolic landscape. Instead of building a kitchen, visitors are welcome to bring their own food. The venue will be open year-round.
Leyden is now a busy place, long before and after Christmas. Not bad for a business that has only ever advertised on Groupon. Maureen credits her daughter, Caitlin, with helping shape the propel the business. “We couldn’t do it without her,” she says.
Gooseneck has rewritten a lot of rules: First, they harvest their grapes from vineyards all over the world. Second, the company is still considered local, because Paul Fede and Liana Buonnano are based in Wickford. Gooseneck is known for its Brut Rosé and Sauvignon Blanc, wines as sunny as the Rhode Island coast in summer. For the first few years, Gooseneck was available only in stores and restaurants; there was no physical vineyard to visit.
But in July, Paul and Liana rewrote that rule, too: Their Wickford headquarters have transformed into a refined little tasting room on Brown Street. Based in a handsome colonial storefront, Gooseneck now entertains guests with samples and events – and special wines are even made on the premises.
“Here, we make very exclusive, small-batch wines,” says Liana. “It’s like an experimental laboratory.”
By complete coincidence, their landlord is Frank Dizoglio, who owns Jamestown Vineyards. This fact eluded them until the day they signed the lease. While Frank isn’t permitted to make wine on the island, he provides grapes to a range of vintners, including his tenants. From this raw material, Liana and Paul have been making riesling, much of it in large-format “Jeroboam” bottles.
The tasting room can accommodate 16 people, and visitors have traveled from as far as Alabama. Local educator June Cerrito hosts events, and guests try wines, cheeses, and truffles. “People always said, ‘Can we visit? Can we visit?’” says Liana. “It’s nice that they finally can.”
You really couldn’t find a more pastoral place to stay: a farmhouse built in 1875, standing on picture-perfect Route 1A, just up the road from Westerly. The bed and breakfast has a range of renovated, antique-style suites, and each one has its own distinguished name – the Seaview King Bedroom, or the Governor Ward Suite, named after the property’s most famous proprietor. Just outside, you’ll find one of the largest Norway Maple trees in the country. Drive a half-mile, and you reach the ocean.
Joe and Gail Sharry opened Langworthy as a romantic getaway for travelers in 2000. The winery license took two years, and the Sharrys spent that time perfecting their wines and offering samples to guests. Langworthy became an official farm winery in 2004.
Over the next 15 years, the Sharrys have developed an astonishing portfolio, from their Avondale Cabernet Merlot to their Shelter Harbor Chardonnay and Rhody Riesling. As a boutique operation, Langworthy specializes in tastings and gift bottles, and drop-ins are encouraged, whether visitors are staying the night or not. In the warmer months, guests can lounge on the porch and savor their glasses within view of the vineyard.
Rick Dyer loves a good project. He’s refurbishing a boat. He operates a greenhouse. He’s worked on experimental aircraft. Professionally, he’s a “network architect” for GTECH, a job too abstract to describe here.
But his latest project is personal: Rick is building a winery from the ground up. By next summer, WinterHawk Vineyards will be an attractive two-story structure set in the evergreen woods of West Kingston, not far from the Yawgoo ski slopes. Near the construction site, rows of vines have been maturing. While this location may seem remote, Rick grew up on precisely these sylvan acres.
“It’s small, intimate,” says Rick. “I thought, this will make a nice, small wedding venue.” He laughs. “As a friend of mine pointed out, this is the perfect second wedding venue. It’s not the 300-people-going-crazy kind of thing.”
On the first floor, Rick will ferment and age his wines. Visitors can walk through three enormous garage doors and see his process firsthand. Up above, a tasting room and entertainment venue will open onto the lawn and forest. He’s already hosted events, and as the structure approaches completion, he expects his calendar to gradually fill up with weddings and parties.
Rick’s own grapes aren’t quite ready to cultivate, but his wine-making is already an industrious operation, thanks to imported ingredients.
“Currently I’m bringing in grapes from California and Chile,” says Rick. “Just till my vines start producing.”
Recently, a married couple came into Tapped Apple for the first time. They found a handsome tasting room, recently doubled in size. They saw the sparkling silver fermentation tanks. The husband tried a glass, but the wife hesitated. “I’m not going to like it,” she said. But co-owner John Wiedenheft IV insisted. He offered her a glass of Watch Hill White, and the wife was startled. “That’s amazing!” she exclaimed. “I thought apples had sugar!”
“Well,” rejoined John, “so do grapes.”
The patrons at Tapped Apple sometimes require this extra step – to understand that wine can also be made from apples. “The presumption is that apples equal a sweet, sugary product,” John says.
Making wine started with John’s father, John Wiedenheft III, in 2003. Friends started to catch on to the elaborate hobby, insisting that the Wiedenhefts start their own winery. His son, John IV, had been working as a casino croupier, but he also became skilled in the winemaking craft. The expense of shipping West Coast grapes didn’t appeal to them, so they found a local solution: apples. The process is in many ways identical, and the results – as that couple discovered – are shockingly similar.
Today, four generations of Wiedenhefts all take part in Tapped Apple, including John IV’s son, John V. The tasting room is located in the middle of downtown Westerly, a deep space that could easily be misidentified as a bar. Until recently, the Wiedenhefts were processing 6,000 gallons of wine in full view of the patrons; after renovations, the aging and bottling equipment has been mostly moved off-site, replaced by comfortable seating and a modest art gallery.
“The response has been great,” says John IV, who is constantly booking business meetings and baby showers. “People love this space.”