Thursday July 7, 2011

HALIFAX -- Vermont’s growing wine industry is banking on a new consumer-focused program to bring more visitors to the vineyards and tasting rooms across the state.

The Vermont Grape and Wine Council announced last month the creation of a passport program that will include more than 20 locations. The move is part of a greater effort to increase the awareness of Green Mountain wines.

Visiting a winery or tasting rooms will result in a stamp for the consumer. Completing a form with 10 or more stamps and the customer is eligible for a variety of prizes, including a vacation getaway or basket stuffed with Vermont products.

"Guests come to the winery, they pick up a map of the state of Vermont. And on that map, it lists all the different wineries all over the state," said Lorraine Muha of the Honora Winery & Vineyard Tasting Room in Jacksonville. "When you go to each winery, they each have a stamp that shows that you have been to that particular winery."

Bob Foley of Neshobe River Winery in Brandon, a board member with the council, said the program is designed to promote the industry itself first, and hopefully an increase in sales will follow.

"A lot of folks do not know we have a grape industry in Vermont," he said.

Many of the state’s wineries started small by selling at farmers’ markets, local grocery stores and Vermont liquor outlets. The industry has made valiant attempts to expand its customer-base through festivals and an open house weekend last August.


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And as the winery business has modestly prospered in the last five years, Foley said the state of the industry is "moderate and growing," with roughly 24 dealers.

That’s on par with other New England states such as Connecticut, which offers a similar program where visitors pick up a blue passport along its wine trail and visit at least 14 of the 26 wineries to enter into a raffle drawing.

"One of the things we want this program to do is recognize that Vermont has a wine industry and people will come and visit us like they do in Connecticut or New Jersey or even the Hudson Valley and the Finger Lakes regions [both in New York]," Foley added. "We won’t be able to compete with the Finger Lakes because they have 140 wineries, but certainly we want people to at least know we have something to offer when they come here."

Kate Dodge of Putney Mountain Winery said the industry gives visitors something else to taste other than Vermont’s well-known specialties of cheese, milk and maple syrup.

"People say to us all the time, ‘Who knew there was wine in Vermont?’" she said. "The program is another way of getting the word out essentially, and serves as a way to increase the opportunity for tourism for all of us."

Putney Mountain annually produces more than 1,200 cases of a dozen varieties of award-winning sparkling and still wines.

Vermont’s program is comparable to the Connecticut model -- on a yearly basis with participants able to fill out their passports before Dec. 31. The wine council will draw the winners during its annual conference the following February.

Much of the program was molded after similar wine industry promotions in other states like Connecticut. Vermont’s was crafted and presented before the council by an intern from Rutland’s College of St. Joseph.

"It’s a pretty popular program in a lot of states, many of us have traveled around to different regions and we kind of stole the idea from other states," said Foley, a business professor at the College of St. Joseph who oversaw the internship.

Passports are available at all participating wineries or at the council’s website (vermontgrapeandwinecouncil.com).

Putney Winery and Honora, one of the few wineries in the state that grows their own grapes and also imports other varieties that are not conducive to growing in Vermont soils, both said visitors to their respected locations have taken advantage of the passports since the program was established in June.

"A lot of people are excited because they didn’t realize that there are as many wineries as there are. So hopefully, it’s doing what it should be doing, which is letting people know that we are here and we are a growing industry," Muha said.

Even winery owners admit their product has not reached the same level as Vermont’s other specialty items, but they have organized multiple festivals and food pairings to increase the consumer’s consciousness.

"It’s not there yet, but I think its becoming a premier product in the state," Foley said. He pointed to well attended events such as the Vermont Life Wine & Harvest Festival at Mount Snow in Dover.

Eleven wineries and five cheesemakers were among the 70 vendors attending the festival, now entering its fourth year this autumn.

"We’re trying to grow awareness of the grape-growing industry in Vermont because not many people know there are as wineries as there are in the state. So when the Grape and Wine Council got together, we were trying to develop a plan that we thought would help people realize there was more of us and possibly take the map and visit more of us," said Muha, who predicted the grape industry will become one of the larger production items in the state.

The wine council was founded three years ago to promote the state’s vineyards and tasting rooms, support related legislation and educate new and existing growers in Vermont.

Chris Garofolo can be reached at cgarofolo@reformer.com or 802-254-2311 ext. 275.