Vintage Johnston: Verde Vineyards creates local wine
Tucked off Hartford Avenue, down a winding Hopkins Avenue driveway, is an unexpected landscape. Dense woods tower over the dirt road until it breaks into a clearing.
Lined up in neat rows are dozens of grape vines, cared for over 10 years and now ready to be shared with the public at Verde Vineyards.
"It's very gratifying because I feel like I'm growing with them. I was seduced by them," owner Jim Verde says, as he looks at a grapevine ripe for the picking. "It's a
labor of love."
Verde was a longtime biology professor at the Community College of Rhode Island, who purchased his home in Johnston in 1965. The home and barn are set on roughly two
acres, and about 10 years ago, when he retired from CCRI, Verde decided to capitalize on his open space.
"I planted my first grapes 10 years ago. They made such beautiful wine," Verde said, walking through the netted rows on Monday. "There's an old saying that the wine is
made in the vineyard. There's nothing like picking the grapes and crushing them right away."
Growing up, his family made their own wine, and he wanted to carry on the tradition. He recalls his father pouring a few drops of wine into his water when he was as
young as 4 years old.
"We saw wine as a food, primarily. It was part of the meal," he said.
That is still true for Verde, who is now 74 years old, and was inspired to open the vineyard when he saw how much friends and family enjoyed spending time there and
watching wine be made.
"It's the magic of it – the transformation is magical," he said.
Verde Vineyards has six varieties of grapes but is currently only making St. Croix rhone-style wine, made from a primarily French grape with some American genes that
make it resistant to the New England cold. The red wine has subdued fruit aromas, is well rounded and has a long finish. It is a food wine that goes well with Italian sauces and Irish stews, and sells for only $17
including tax. Every time a vineyard gets a new label, they must apply for federal approval.
Verde was licensed roughly six months ago, and opened to the public three months ago. Currently, tours and tastings are available but are "quite spontaneous," Friday
through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Verde says he will likely create a schedule down the line when the vineyard becomes more well known.
"It started as a hobby with a few grapes and then I planted more and planted more and planted more," Verde said, laughing.
The process through which Verde crafts his wine starts with the careful selection of grapes – fruit that can survive the varied New England climate. Verde now has
850 plants that, once planted, must be carefully monitored for growth and for disease. He uses mostly organic treatments, integrated pest management, to fight disease. For the first few years, he said hawks took
care of the vines, keeping birds and small animals away. In recent years, he had to take the time to net the vines.
"They have to be monitored closely all summer long," Verde said, noting that he has learned quite a bit in this second career as vintner. "That's a long learning
process. You learn how to make wine by mistakes."
It ends with the harvest, at which Verde has as many as 70 volunteers, made up of friends and family, as he has no full-time help. In many larger vineyards, this process
is machinized, so Verde takes pride in his handpicked grapes.
After approximately four hours of picking grapes at the harvest, the volunteers are treated to a luncheon and Verde is set to crush his grapes.
"Relatives and friends all help. It's almost like being in Europe," Verde said.
Once the grapes are picked, they are crushed and de-stemmed at the same time. They ferment for about 10 days and are then put in oak barrels for two years. The
temperature must be maintained at 58 degrees, with the property's energy needs generated on-site with a geothermal system, fitting for a man whose last name translates to "green."
During that aging process, the wine matures and acquires the taste that Verde loves.
The vines behind him as he walks to the tree line, Verde takes a seat at a small table where visitors can enjoy the views and a glass of wine. He says that, so far, the
Rhode Islanders who have discovered the vineyard have been shocked to find such a "hidden gem" in the town of Johnston.
"They just can't believe that it exists," he said, surveying his land that has blossomed over the past decade. "It's nice to know there's a vineyard in Johnston where
things are growing."