Feature: The Coastal Wine Trail Puts Southeastern New England on the Viticulture Map

Rhode Island vintners weather storms and frosts to produce top-quality varietals that sparkle


From the shores of Connecticut, wending its way along the Rhode Island coast, and all the way to the tip of Cape Cod, the unique appellation making up the Coastal Wine Trail of Southeastern New England encompasses over a dozen member vineyards that benefit from the warm gulf stream waters that arrive in the summer and fall. Tammy Foshay, Coastal Wine Trail association and event manager says those waters and the breeze that blows over them, along with the land’s sandy soils, are what make the region distinct. “We have the perfect environment to grow sparkling wine,” she says.

Billy Wilson, third-generation winemaker at Greenvale Vineyards in Portsmouth, agrees. “We can’t do the things they do in Napa, but they can’t nail a sparkling wine every single year like we do,” he says. In fact, when the trail started in 2005, prospective members were required to grow a Chardonnay grape, which is the most common grape found in sparkling wines.

“Chardonnay thrives here, and at the time, it was the predominant grape on the trail,” says Foshay. Coastal Wine Trail members also must grow a vinifera grape, which requires a unique set of skills because viniferas are not as easy to grow as hybrids. Foshay explains, “Not having all hybrids sets you apart because it shows you have a vineyard staff that knows how to properly care for a grape.”

Wilson, who discusses time in vintages rather than years, says wines are made in the vineyard. “You ferment grape juice to make wine, but all that juice comes from a vineyard. The wines are sculpted by the vintage and depend on how much heat and rain you get in a season and what sugar and acid levels you have in the juice,” he explains. “The region wants to make a certain style of wine, and as a winemaker, you facilitate what the earth and the climate want to do.” And as the climate shifts, so does the desire of the earth, to both the pleasure and frustration of area winemakers. 

The duo who founded the Anchor & Hope winery in Rumford, winemaker James Davids and director of operations Marissa Stashenko, took over management of Sakonnet Vineyard in Little Compton in February. Davids says that climate change has extended the growing season by three weeks to a month. “If we can leave the grapes on the vine for longer, we get better ripeness,” he says. Better ripeness allows vintners to develop different types of wine. While young grapes make a delicious sparkling wine, riper grapes lend themselves to full-bodied reds. The problem is that vines come out of dormancy earlier in the spring, which can leave them vulnerable to unpredictably late spring frosts.

Wilson refers to this unpredictability not as global warming, but as “global weirding.” “Rain events are just as dangerous as frosts,” he says. “We’re expecting more hurricanes and rain events that can drop six inches of rain in a night.” And grape vines don’t thrive when their roots are too wet. 

Paul Nunes, who oversees vineyard operations at Newport Vineyards in Middletown, says that as changes like this take place, each year brings new challenges, and that’s one of the things he enjoys about his work. “My favorite part of farming is the ever-evolving relationship with nature,” he says, also recognizing that there are some things he can always count on. “Being surrounded by the ocean is a major benefit because it insulates the land. This gives us more moderate winters than inland areas in the region and extends our warm days well into November.”

Davids recognizes the difficulties associated with climate change, but argues that the region’s bigger challenge lies in both educating consumers and understanding and shifting their preferences. “We’re making wines for people who are used to wines from hotter climates, and although it’s helpful to experience warmer temperatures so that we can make wines for those consumers, it’s also important to establish that we have our own styles and flavors,” he says. 

That’s where the Coastal Wine Trail of Southeastern New England comes into play. The organization’s mission is to promote the region and educate consumers on the unique wines that grow from its soil. Recognizing that there is power in numbers, there is very little competition among the members of the wine trail. Wilson appreciates getting to know all the players in a region with multiple vineyards and says that the local culture is very supportive. “We’re building up a wine region,” he says. “That requires a lot of good producers sharing information with each other. There’s a lot of camaraderie here.”

Davids says that as a newcomer, he’s experienced the same thing. “It’s a challenging agricultural business, and we’re stronger together. It takes trial and error and a lot of communication about the best way to handle birds or deer or hurricanes or frost.”

Most local vintners talk about how important collaboration is in the wine industry. Sakonnet used to be a meeting place for local winemakers. In its infancy, Greenvale sold its grapes to Sakonnet and produced its own wines both at Sakonnet and Newport vineyards. And although they work together and collaborate to improve the strength of the region as a whole, each vineyard has its own culture and wine offerings. Sakonnet is the oldest vineyard in the region, exemplified by its rolling farmland punctuated by historical stone walls. Greenvale prides itself on its family-friendly jazz Saturdays and music-filled Sundays accompanied by food trucks. Newport Vineyards grows 15 grape varietals and makes apple cider and beer with locally sourced ingredients. It also offers farm-to-table dining with menus developed based on what’s growing in the greenhouse and the garden.

To encourage both wine-lovers and the wine-curious to discover all the region’s unique offerings, the Coastal Wine Trail has a passport program for wine wayfarers. People who visit all tasting rooms are entered into an annual drawing, and first prize is a four-day stay in Long Island, NY wine country.

Foshay shares that each vineyard in the region has its own event programs, activities, and vintages worth discovering. “We are stepping up our industry standard,” she says. “It used to be that people didn’t think New England could produce top-quality wines. And now we are.”   


Sip and Savor

On June 15, the Coastal Wine Trail of Southeastern New England hosts its annual Wine, Cheese, and Chocolate festival at the Westport Fairgrounds in Massachusetts. All members will be on site pouring more than 45 wines, which will be paired with cheese and chocolate from regional vendors. In addition to these three Rhode Island vineyards, find a full list of the participating vintners online at CoastalWineTrail.org.

Greenvale Vineyards
This property is a six-generation farm and a three-generation winery that produces small quantities of estate-grown wines. Portsmouth, Greenvale.com

Newport Vineyards
This popular vineyard offers beer, cider, and farm-to-table dining in addition to its wine list. Middletown, NewportVineyards.com

Sakonnet Vineyard
The oldest vineyard in Rhode Island makes its home on acres of rolling farmland. Little Compton, SakonnetWine.com


Beyond the Coast

Chart your own tour of Rhode Island wines by sipping whites, reds, and blends produced by statewide vineyards.

Diamond Hill Vineyard

DiFazio Farm & Vineyard
North Scituate

Langworthy Farm and Winery

Leyden Farm Vineyard & Winery
West Greenwich

Mulberry Vineyards

Nickle Creek Vineyard

Verde Vineyards

Winterhawk Vineyards
West Kingston



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