FRANKLIN, Vt. — Spring 2008: Carrying a fresh liberal arts degree from the University of Vermont, where he met his wife, Jessica, Erich Marn leaves graduation, wondering, “What now?”
He took a job picking grapes for his current full-time employer, Lincoln Peak Vineyard, outside Middlebury. Now he owns Due North Vineyard & Winery with his parents, Don and Kathy Marn, in his hometown of Franklin, near the Vermont-Canada border.
The Marns own and operate Franklin County’s only vineyard on a 21-acre tract of prime agricultural land. Due North is an estate vineyard and winery, meaning the Marns make their wine from the fruit they grow.
This is the Marns’ first full season of marketing their wine. The business will sell 2011 and 2012 bottles this year, and is about 4,500 bottles into a short-term production goal of 10,000 bottles.
“We’ve grown and figured it out one step at a time,” said Erich Marn, the vintner, from inside the 30-foot-by-70-foot building he constructed for the business. It contains a processing room and a tasting area with a cherry bar built with wood from the Marns’ property. “We’re definitely getting there,” Erich Marn said.
The Marns aren’t farmers, but very few grape-growers in Vermont were prior to planting vines, according to Christine Makris, president of the Vermont Grape and Wine Council .
Chris and Sara Granstrom, Lincoln Peak Vineyard owners, farmed strawberries prior to planting grapes, but on average, most grape growers have little if no farming backgrounds, Makris said.
In any event, Vermont-made wine is quickly becoming the toast of the state, both for the quality and brand of the product, and because it produces a use for farmland — and property near it — whose future is questionable, as Vermonters watch their state’s number of dairy farms drop to less than 1,000.
“Why is the wine industry good for Vermont agriculture? Obviously, it’s a good way to keep using prime agricultural land and to create a new economic engine from it,” said Sara Granstrom. “Yes, we are farmers! If you’re not farming, you’re not growing good grapes. Growing high-quality grapes is a lot harder than growing potatoes but not much more glamorous, after you’ve spent a week in the vineyard.”
In 2012, wine sales in the U.S. — from all domestic and foreign producers — increased 2 percent from 2011, to a new record of 360 million 9-liter cases with an estimated retail value of $34.6 billion, according to The Wine Institute, an advocacy group for the California wine industry.
That amounts to 2.73 gallons of wine per American in 2012, compared to 2.68 gallons in 2011.
By the mid-1990s, Vermont had three licensed, active wineries. Boyden Valley Winery in Cambridge, Snow Farm Vineyards of South Hero and Grand View Winery all opened in 1996.
Today, the state has nearly 50 vineyards — although not all of them operate for commercial production — and 34 licensed wineries; 21 of them are active participants in the Vermont Grape and Wine Council’s 2013 Passport Program.
Now in its third year, the passport program allows visitors to participating wineries a chance to win a two-night getaway at a Vermont inn.
“The passport has been a great success for the VGWC so far,” said Sara Granstrom. “It doubles as the guide to our members and visitors enjoy having a reason to drive around the state and see far-flung corners of the countryside.”
The council started informally in 2007, when some of the state’s first growers met to share information and, with encouragement from state officials, developed a four-pronged mission to: promote Vermont wines, develop the industry through education, develop a wine region with high-quality products and promote a regulatory climate that supports the wine industry.
The wine council also operates under a four-officer board with committees and bylaws that were revised and adopted just last year.
The USDA’s Specialty Crop Block Grant Program provides most of the council’s funding. The council also collects member dues and generates income through an annual conference.
Vermont’s wine industry earned attention from nearly 10 local and regional media outlets in 2012, including the Boston Globe and Wall Street Journal.
“Both the Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets and the Senate Agriculture Committee have been hugely supportive of the VGWC,” Makris said, noting that 90 percent of Vermont wineries also participate in local farmers markets, hold events in their tasting rooms — some with yoga and music — and have become actively involved in their communities.
Vermont’s vintners also support each other. Erich Marn said the Granstroms backed him when he told them about Due North, and they’ve remained mentors, even as he’s started his business on the side.
Marn said his work at Lincoln Peak has felt more like an apprenticeship. “I’ve worked closely with Chris over the last five years,” he said, “and he has given me much needed knowledge of farming and winemaking.”
Marn said three possible factors could slow the flow of wine in Vermont: the quality of emerging products and making sure “everyone hits the mark in a startup industry,” the weather and “not knowing what the new normal is,” and the ever-changing weather’s role in the state’s seasonal economies.
“Our industry relies on two things,” Marn said. “Weather and tourism.”