Obadiah McIntyre Farm Winery
There's been a lot of talk in recent years about buying locally and living in an ecologically sound manner. Wine lovers often argue that drinking local wines is a sacrifice they are just not willing to make. If you find you feel that way, I highly urge you to spend a day out at the Obadiah McIntyre Farm Winery, nestled into the rolling hills of Charlton, Massachusetts. Here you will both learn the history of a centuries old sustainable farm as well as taste local wines which will truly excite your taste buds.
The Obadiah McIntyre Farm Winery is part of the Charlton Orchards Farm - land which has been farmed since the mid 1700s. The delicious fruits, berries and grapes grown here are the epitome of fresh and natural. In 2002 the Benjamins decided to open a winery to take advantage of this plethora of high quality ingredients. I spoke with winemaker Nathan Benjamin about what his winery has achieved over the past six years as well as his goals for the future.
A key hurdle that local wineries face is that often they grow delicious fruit for winemaking, but wine drinkers do not want to try fruit wines. Most wine drinkers have been trained by the marketplace to have very low expectations for fruit wines.
A reason for these poor expectations is that fruit wines are very poorly regulated, meaning that often "anything goes" in terms of what is being presented to a wine drinker. A wine could be labeled "raspberry wine" and really be 90% poorly grown merlot grapes with a hint of raspberry flavoring. In essence a winery could be using their fruit wine line as an easy way to "dump" their bad merlot that they do not want to actually sell as merlot. A wine drinker might try this winery's "raspberry wine", decide rightly that she disliked it greatly and make the assumption that she hates all fruit wines as a result.
In comparison, if a wine is sold as Napa Valley Chardonnay laws state that it must be 75% chardonnay grapes grown in the Napa Valley. Consumers have much more protection - and therefore build much better reference standards - in the arena of grape wine.
Nathan stated, "I find as a fruit winemaker that I'm up against inferior wines - grape or otherwise - who then stand toe to toe with me" in the consumer's mind based on what the label says. He faces an uphill challenge getting people to even try his fruit wines, because they have such poor expectations firmly entrenched in their minds.
For ecologically minded wine drinkers, this is a real shame. Grape growing generally involves a lot of water and chemicals to achieve a quality output. Estimated fuel burned to run the equipment is 34 gallons per ton of grapes. In comparison, Obadiah's berries are all hand picked. Talk about the ultimate in ecological soundness!
Another challenge for the Obadiah McIntyre Farm Winery is based on cost. A winery that focuses on dumping cheap wine with fruit flavors can sell bottles at $9.99/bottle and make a tidy profit. In comparison, the Charlton Orchards Farm is carefully growing and hand picking berries - so it can be $7/pound for raspberries and $10/pound for blackberries. To then turn these beautiful fruit into a 100% fruit wine can push the price of the bottle of wine up to $20/bottle or more. It can be a difficult decision to turn these ingredients into a wine - knowing the challenge you face to have people try the delicious end result and balance the price - compared with simply selling the berries easily at the farm stand.
Nathan is grateful for other nearby wineries who are taking the same difficult path. "I applaud winemakers who use real fruit" - it helps raise the public consciousness of how delicious these wines can taste. In the meantime, "people are coming into my winery and saying 'fruit wines are not my cup of tea - we're fruited out'." Nathan was quick to point out that "fruit wines are as different as any grape wine is." Unfortunately, many wine consumers have not yet realized this. They feel every plum wine is like every other one. "The visitors will try my grape wines but not my fruit wines. It's like going into a restaurant and saying 'I won't try your sirloin steak - I've tried them before.'"
As a case in point, the Obadiah McIntyre Farm Winery makes two plum wines - a Shiro and a Damson. Both are locally grown at the winery, both are 12% alcohol. However, looking at them and tasting them, they could not be more different. The Shiro is glowing gold in color, with a light, crisp, balanced flavor with nice acidity. It features a long, lingering, almost citrus taste. In comparison, the Damson is a rich garnet color, and the flavor is sweeter, thicker, with more chocolaty hints. While I would have the Shiro with a grilled pork with apples dish, I would save the Damson for dessert, either with a plate of cheese or perhaps a slice of chocolate cake. It's the same type of fruit in both wines - but the wines are very different from each other, and both are delicious in their own style.
Nathan's winery focuses on quality over quantity, and on maintaining the tradition and reputation that they have built up over several centuries. Nathan does each product right, or not at all."If the wine's not drinkable, it's manure. We dump it," he explains in all seriousness. He wishes other wineries would follow the same practice. "If we all threw out bad wine, we'd only have great wine." The reputation of his winery and the admiration of his customers is worth far more to him than a short term profit. "We're farmers - we want you to go out the door as happy as you can be when buying our products." This attitude is what has kept them in business for so many years.
Nathan is definitely in this for the long term, and his focus is on rewarding the loyalty of his visitors. "My father's been growing fruit now for sixty years," he offered. "We have wine shop customers whose parents were buying fruit from us twenty years ago." So to him, maintaining the highest quality and treasuring that trust is key. "I don't add blueberry to my blackberry, or blackberry to my raspberry. I do one hundred percent of the ingredient." Nathan focuses on making each wine the very best its varietal can offer, and the results shine in every glass.
That is not to say the Obadiah McIntyre Farm Winery stands still or rests on its laurels. They are always trying new products to see what their customers might enjoy next. For example, a few years ago they tried the Shiro plum wine as a novelty item, to find out if people liked it. The customers responded by adoring it, and now this is a strong seller for the winery. A new wine they're working on this year is a tomato wine. Pale in color, similar to the strawberry rhubarb wine, it might begin as another novelty wine - but it could easily become the perfect summer sipping wine to go with a salad and a sunny day.
A venue which is really helping consumers recognize the value of fruit wines is the Big E. Held in Springfield each summer and fall, the Big E features a wine competition which pits the best wines of the region - both fruit and grape - against each other. Nathan's Cherry Wine won a double gold in 2007, and his Crimson Gold raspberry wine not only won a double gold in 2006 and 2007 but also won Best Massachusetts Wine overall (for both fruit and grape) in 2006 and 2007. That's quite an achievement!
It is even more impressive when you realize the judges were professional "grape wine judges" - not just locals who perhaps might be more forgiving of fruit wines. Nathan explained, "I was afraid because they were high end judges that they would be biased against fruit." Instead, the judges had their eyes opened by how delicious a well made fruit wine can taste. The Big E does have categories for best fruit and best grape wine - but they also have overall categories of Best of State and Best of Show. To have a fruit wine reach those overall heights is rather impressive!
In general, respect is about fruit wines being judged on their individual merits, rather than being forced to taste like a grape wine. "Someone finally recognized that blackberry can taste like blackberry - it doesn't have to taste like something else," commented Nathan. "Our style is that the wine tastes like the fruit." If you adore raspberries, and you're having a cheesecake with dessert, that Crimson Gold raspberry wine is probably the perfect thing to have with it.
When you're buying local, you literally save over 2kg in carbon for every bottle you drink in shipping savings alone compared with bottles that are trucked in from California. You are not wasting all that fuel and energy shipping the heavy bottle across the entire US. That savings doesn't even take into account the differences in farming techniques between a large, mechanized winery and a family-owned, hand picked product. The joy here is that by buying local wines at the Obadiah McIntyre Farm Winery, you not only are helping to keep the planet healthy - but you are also enjoying some truly delicious wines which will add pleasure to your meal. How many environmentally sound change scan that be said for? It's well worth a toast!
All content on the WineIntro website is personally written by author and wine enthusiast Lisa Shea. WineIntro explores the delicious variety and beautiful history which makes up our world of wine! Lisa loves supporting local wineries and encouraging people to drink whatever they like. We all have different taste buds, and that makes our world wonderful. Always drink responsibly.