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Verde Vineyards, Johnston, RI

The Science of Winemaking: A successful experiment in Johnston
Emily Dietsch
Providence Monthly
December 26, 2012

"De gustibus no est disputandum." At Verde Vineyards, vintner and owner Jim Verde begins each tour with this maxim. "Concerning taste, there can be no argument," he translates in his quiet, teacherly voice, before explaining that modern-day science has done much to unravel the myth of taste as subjective whim. He delves into a near-elegiac riff on sensory mechanisms, grape chemistry and a vineyard's ecology, and loops these many strands back to his original point. "But I have to be careful about the Latin," he notes with a touch of sheepishness. "People could think I'm being pompous."

Only the most blinkered observers would make that mistake. As a retired biology professor and lifelong curiosity-hound, Verde has hand-built a small vineyard on his Johnston property with the steady, measured zeal of a scientist in love with the way things work — and an urge to share that wonder with everyone he encounters. His vineyard is, in a sense, yet another classroom.

Oftentimes a retirement foray into winemaking is the outcome of a longtime passion for wine, indulged when the money and spare time are finally available. Verde's passion, however, was a new and recent discovery, sparked by a visit just over a decade ago to a Connecticut vineyard. It wasn't the wine that captured him so much as a novel grape varietal, bred especially for New England conditions that prove too hostile for most vines imported from elsewhere. Called the St. Croix, the Rhone-style grape was developed in Wisconsin out of a series of crosses among wild, native species and cultivated European ones. "I thought that was just amazing," Verde says.

Verde took a clipping home and a vineyard was born. The St. Croix thrived since that initial planting, with a first harvest in 2004, and Verde gradually added a few European grapes to his crop for variety. "You can see how they struggle to fight off disease," he notes, "whereas the St. Croix has a wonderful, rambunctious growth. I just love it."

In building a vineyard from the ground up, Verde chose to use green technology and practices wherever possible, but not as a bid for fashionability. Instead, he cites a simple, long-held belief in the integration of people within vastly larger yet delicate systems. Thinking for a moment, Verde relates a story of his first bee sting and a lesson from his grandmother, Raffaella, who assuaged his boyish anger with a story about the bee's importance in the natural world. And besides, she told him, it was he who had startled the creature in the first place.

Even now Verde tempers his anger towards the yellow jackets that desiccate his grapes from the inside out. The pests, it turns out, also happen to prey on other pests that could wipe out a vine, and function as a bonus addition to the integrated pest management that Verde employs, which avoids chemicals and other environmentally disruptive tactics as stridently as possible. Solar power produces the vineyard's electricity, and temperature regulation comes from geothermal sources.

Oenophiles in search of good local wine will thank that sun, too. Just a few months ago, Verde Vineyards attained a license as a "farmer winery" through the state's Agricultural Act of 2008, thereby moving officially from amateur to pro status. There is nothing amateurish about Verde's wines, however, now or before. His first wine, a medium-bodied, barrel-aged red made from (and named for) those inaugural St. Croix grapes, has netted multiple awards from marquee organizations like the American Wine Society. Verde promises a forthcoming expansion with two whites, likewise made from cold-climate grapes, and likely a blended red.

Tours and tastings are available daily on weekend afternoons at Verde Vineyards, and free of charge for the time being since only the St. Croix is ready to pour. Once more wines are available Verde may implement a modest fee (probably very modest, given his nature.) Lessons on birds, bees and infectious wonder will, of course, remain priceless.

At the end of our conversation, Verde announced that his glucose levels were dropping precipitously. "That's a scientist's way of saying, 'I'm hungry and it's dinnertime,'" he chuckled, and was off.

Wines are available for purchase at Verde Vineyards, Gasbarro's Wines, Scituate Liquors, and Tri-Town Wine & Spirits. Visit Verde Vineyards at 50 Hopkins Ave, Johnston.

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50 Hopkins Avenue, Johnston, RI (401) 934-2317