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StarVintner - Sakonnet Vineyards
By Jim Clarke

Beautiful countryside, gracefully divided by row after row of grapevines. Vineyard walks, an elegant tasting room, a Bed and Breakfast, - even a short film - to welcome visitors. A summer gala barbecue, complete with celebrity chefs. Where, some big Napa Valley winery? Nope. Sakonnet Vineyards, Little Compton, Rhode Island.

In 1975, Sakonnet Vineyards was the first winery in the Rhode Island to start up since before Prohibition. The founders had done their research, and realized that the climate of Southeastern New England was quite similar to many of the cooler winegrowing regions around the world, most notably France’s Loire Valley. While the growing season inland is too short for most winegrapes, the ocean moderates temperatures along the coast, lengthening the growing season and limiting the extreme temperatures and frost that can be harmful to the vines.

After initial experimentation with small plots of different grapes, today almost half of their 112 acre property is planted with eight different varieties. Most of these have names that consumers will recognize: Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, etc. Two, however, are hybrid grapes, specially bred to survive in cooler environments. Vidal Blanc has gained some measure of fame in Canada’s Icewines; Sakonnet makes both an icewine version and a dry wine from the grape – the latter may be their most distinctive product. Similarly, they use Chancellor, another hybrid grape, for both dry red table wines and a fortified red.

Your Hosts

Sakonnet’s current owners Susan and Earl Samson didn’t plan to become winegrowers when they first visited Little Compton in 1975. At the time they lived and worked in New York City – he ran an investment company, and she produced and directed plays. Their first visit grew into annual retreats to the area, and they bought a vacation home there in 1980. They became friends with the winery’s founders, and Susan started helping out by organizing a cooking school at the winery, which featured chefs from around New England – work that ties in well with her current position as Marketing Director.

Meanwhile Earl had gotten a taste of the finance of winemaking when his company invested in a winery on the other side of the country, in Sonoma. While he was only involved in money matters there, the experience planted a seed of interest. So when the Sakonnet Winery’s founders were ready to sell in 1987, Earl was keen to take up the challenge. Susan took some convincing, but after their first year they had both settled into a commitment to make the winery a success.

When they took over they were lucky to keep on Joetta Kirk as Vineyard Manager. She had started there in 1983, and since then has kept the vineyards up-to-date with the latest in winegrowing practices. In the late 80’s she led the way in Rhode Island by replanting many of the older vines with newer clones that suited the microclimate more exactly. Not all Chardonnay, for example, is the same; a clone which prospers in Napa Valley’s heat might produce anemic wine somewhere cooler. Additionally, producers in Rhode Island and many other cooler regions in the U.S. are exploiting the availability of new clones to grow varieties that might not have been feasible previously, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

The newest member of Sakonnet’s team is in the winery itself: in 2002 Dr. Christian Butzke took over as Director of Winemaking. Before Sakonnet, Dr. Butzke had been a tenured faculty member at the U.C. Davis’ prestigious Department of Viticulture and Enology. At the University he organized and taught a variety of professional enology programs and classes, served as chair or director for a handful of national and international winemaking organizations, and published a number of scientific and popular articles on many aspects of winemaking. Despite – or perhap because of - such an extensive store of knowledge, his approach at Sakonnet is to keep his hands off the wine and let it express itself. This gentle handling allows the wine to bring out the richness, complexity, and finesse that are inherent to the growing conditions and environment of the grapes.

The Wines

Four wines emerge from Sakonnet’s signature grape, Vidal Blanc. Even the most straightforward Vidal Blanc bottling is exciting; its floral, pink grapefruit, apricot, and lime aromas are reminiscent of a Sauvignon Blanc, but without grassiness, and the wine is rounder in the mouth, with a Pinot Grigio’s soft but cleansing acidity - a classic seafood wine. The Fumé Vidal is bigger and more complex; it receives some oak treatment to add structure to its riper fruit flavors. Sakonnet makes two dessert wines from Vidal Blanc; the Winterwine is an icewine, but the less extreme climate means they need to freeze the grapes artificially instead of letting Mother Nature do the work on the vine. This technique is forbidden in Germany and Canada, but some Long Island icewine producers are using freezers, as is Randall Grahm in California. A second pressing of the same grapes is blended with dry Vidal wine to make their Sirius Sweet Harvest Wine, which approximates a late harvest wine in style.

Just as Sakonnet makes two styles of dry Vidal Blanc, they also make two, parallel renditions of Chardonnay. The Estate Chardonnay receives a lighter oak treatment – a careful blend of new French Oak and older French and American Oak. Light notes of vanilla and fresh bread play second fiddle to an array of crisp fruits like green apple and white peach, countered by a distinctive flinty character. This may be the wine that speaks of its Rhode Island origins most clearly. The Reserve, like the Fumé Vidal, is a more muscular version of its brother, with ripe and baked fruit aromas, as well as brioche and honeyed notes contributed by aging in 100% new French Oak.

Sakonnet also produces a vibrant Gewurztraminer; as is usual for this grape, the nose is overwhelmingly aromatic, packed with passion fruit, floral, and honeyed aromas. The palate develops into an array of tropical fruits, with a surprising and long nutty finish.

Cabernet Franc leads the way among the red wines, showing a mix of red fruits along with spices and a touch of leather. Their Pinot Noir receives two treatments, vinified and bottled as a red and a rosé. The former offers up the cherry and earthy aromas one expects in a Pinot Noir, tinged with an exotic spiciness. The Rosé leans toward brighter fruits like redcurrants and cranberries, with some toast and earth; it deserves a place alongside the once-again fashionable rosés of Spain and southern France.

Avoiding the marketing problems of an unfamiliar grape, Sakonnet bottles its Chancellor in a blend with Cabernet Franc and Lemberger as their Rhode Island Red. Overtly fruity – primarily red berries and cherry – it develops more earthy components after aging for a few years. They also use Chancellor to make a Port, expanding the variety of their dessert wine offerings.

Sakonnet rounds out their portfolio with a sparkling wine (the Sakonnet Brut) and several wines made from blends of Rhode Island grapes with grapes brought over from the West Coast. These wines, sold as their “Newport” series, are aimed at a lower price point and bear names evocative of Rhode Island’s nautical lifestyle. The Newport wines allow them to increase their production and balance cash flow without calling for compromises or undue stress on their vineyards and estate wines.

“…And further alsoe, wee are gratiously pleased, and doe hereby declare, that if any of the inhabitants of oure sayd Collony doe sett upon the plantings of vineyards (the soyle and clymate both seemeing naturally to coneurr to the production of wynes), or bee industrious in the discovery of ffishing banks, in or about the sayd Collony, wee will, ffrom tyme to tyme, give and allow all due and fitting encouragement therein…”

So reads, in part, the Charter which King Charles the Second granted the then colony of Rhode Island in 1663. Although the state’s residents have been distracted for a few centuries by the rum trade and other nautical occupations, today Sakonnet Vineyards is leading the way in proving that the King was on to something.

For more information on Sakonnet Vineyards, including information on visits and events at the winery, check out their website at

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 Published: August 2004