by Kristen M. Castrataro
Seven years ago, Jeff Vernon was hired by Chamard Vineyards in Clinton, CT to prune grapevines. The Westfield, NY native grew up on a vineyard, and it soon became evident he could do more than just prune. When owner and genetic engineer Dr. Jonathan Rothberg made Vernon the general manager, he provided one key piece of guidance: “Make it great . . . a place I’ll be proud to bring my family.” Vernon is still committed to doing just that.
Chamard’s visitors sense that pride from the moment they pull into the driveway. You drive through a gorgeous stonewall and see the elegant bistro and tasting room on the right. To the left stands The Barn — an intimate space reserved for cigar tastings, small events and live entertainment.
Inside the Bistro and tasting room are a variety of vineyard-themed works of art. The atmosphere is one of casual elegance.
Without Vernon’s energy and vision, it is doubtful whether Chamard would exist in its present state. When he arrived at the vineyard, Chamard was wholesaling 80 percent of its product. There was no Bistro. “The Barn” was a storage facility. Less than a decade later, all that has changed. Vernon attributes the transformation to one simple fact: “We keep doing things we think are cool.”
One “cool” concept is keeping Chamard wine at Chamard. They now produce three times more volume than previously and retail 100 percent of it. This does not mean they do it with all their own grapes. Vernon is committed to presenting consumers with unique flavors, so he imports grapes from South America that are crushed and processed at Chamard. The percentage of imported grapes is carefully tracked. A minimum of 25 percent of the wine at Chamard has to be made from estate grapes in order to maintain their status as a Connecticut farm winery.
The Bistro was another of Vernon’s visions, one he shares with Chef Matt and the house manager. Modeled after a French Bistro, the menu epitomizes “farm-to-table.” Much of the produce is grown on-site in the 15,000-foot garden. The Farm Burger, The Bistro’s signature dish, is made from local beef; local stripers and shellfish round out the menu.
The Bistro almost was not, however. To gain approval for the restaurant from the town of Clinton, Vernon wrote a special exemption authorizing use of the property for eight ‘public’ events per year. (Four are community events; the others are weddings that end at 8 p.m.)
Afraid that such events would detract from the surroundings, 73 neighbors opposed the exemption. Vernon personally visited 20, answered their questions, and clarified his goals.
Shortly after the restaurant was built, Dr. Rothberg hosted his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. The Bistro is now so popular that reservations are highly recommended to ensure seating.
Another popular spot is The Barn, formerly Chamard’s storage shed, which now serves as a venue for intimate musical performances and periodic cigar tastings.
Vernon’s ability to think outside the box — and encourage his colleagues to do the same — is at the heart of Chamard’s success. Yoga in the Vineyard is one such endeavor. The monthly Winemaker’s Dinner is another, a themed dinner featuring “wine pairings from the winemakers.”
Perhaps the most exciting for budding vintners is the Custom Crush. Participants bring elements they like and the Chamard winemakers select grapes that match the group’s tastes. Together, they make a barrel of wine. This is a long-term commitment as the wine can take anywhere from 9 months to 2 years to complete. For corporate groups, the price includes a discount for four on-site meetings per year.
While Vernon derives pleasure from his activities at Chamard’s, he is always cognizant of the bottom line. He notes: “Sustainable farming ought to be a financially viable operation.” Key to that sustainability is growing a consistent, high-quality grape. In recent years, this has become more challenging with the advent of a new pest: Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD). Control of SWD requires increased insecticide applications due to its seven-day life cycle. To assist in finding more cost-effective treatments, Chamard partnered with researchers at the University of Connecticut and served as a pilot location for their SWD trapping program.
Under Vernon’s guidance, Chamard Vineyards has become more than a destination for those who appreciate quality wines. It is a place to relax with some music, linger over a tasty meal, lose yourself in a piece of art, or simply gaze at the pristine vineyards. Vernon observes, “We want people to think, ‘Chamard is our place.'” He has his wish.
Chamard Vineyards: Making it great
by Kristen M. Castrataro