Diamond Hill Vineyards in Cumberland, RI
Some of what we grow is available year-round.
Cumberland, RI - Bumping down the rutted dirt road that leads to Diamond Hill Vineyards in Cumberland is like driving into another era. In the space of a half mile, you leave behind the sprawling subdivisions that have sprouted in what used to be dairy farms and apple orchards, and enter an earlier Rhode Island. Here, on this small wooded hillside, a farm still supports a three-generation family, the fields are still fertile and the orchard is loaded with fruit. The surprise is the proximity. One minute you’re cruising past suburban backyards, with their swing sets and swimming pools, and the next you’re immersed in Claire and Peter Berntson’s 36-acre spread, the vineyard rolling away on one side, the 220-year-old house with its lush gardens, wine shop and tasting room dominating the other.
When the Berntsons bought this place back in the early 1970s, it was a wooded 18 acres just south of the Diamond Hill Reservoir, surrounded by thick stone walls and old orchards. Houses along Diamond Hill Road were sparse. “From our hillside, you could look right down into the valley and there were no homes at all,” says Claire. In the intervening years, as the Berntsons raised a family, much of the surrounding farmland gave way to development.
These days, an orchard acquired from a retiring farmer has doubled the Berntson’s acreage and their own grown children have doubled their staff. Their daughter Chantel is the marketing director. Son-in-law Stephen Rogers is both the in-house artist, designing a sideline in custom labels, and the vineyard master in charge of pruning and training the vines. Son Allan is the wine maker, with continued help from Claire and Peter. A couple of grandchildren running around the tasting room complete the generational picture.
The vineyard bottles 3,000 to 4,000 cases of wine a year, under eight different labels. Diamond Hill is best known for its handcrafted fruit wines, with waiting lists each year to snap up the seasonal varieties made from summer berries.
And it all appears to have happened by happy accident.
Born and bred in Rhode Island—Clare in Central Falls and Peter in Warwick—the Berntsons had never traveled and knew next to nothing about wine when they met. “Wine just wasn’t part of our culture,” says Peter. “In my house, if my parents drank anything, it might be a highball or something of that nature.” But a two-year stay in France, in the mid-60s, where Peter served in the air force, was a revelation. “They could have sent him to Vietnam, or to France,” says Clare. “We got lucky. Because it was in France—in a wonderful little village called Valdelancourt, in Chaumont—that we discovered how to enjoy food with wine.”
Back in Rhode Island, yet still savoring their European experience, the pair decided to try their hands at winemaking. They began by planting five types of hybrid grapes on a smaller property in Cumberland. When they moved to their current site, equal parts ignorance and optimism led them to switch to Pinot Noir. “We just thought, ‘Gee, we’ve always preferred red,’” says Clare. “We knew Pinot Noir was an early ripener, so it had at least a chance to ripen in this climate. We didn’t realize it was also the hardest grape to grow. It’s like a rose— absolutely everything affects it.”
Yet with time, the Berntsons grew more expert. They developed techniques that allowed their difficult grape to flourish, such as frequent tilling of the soil, which also permitted them to cultivate without the use of herbicides and insecticides (the constant turnover of the soil fertilizes, keeps weeds down and disturbs insect eggs so fewer pests can hatch). As their harvests increased, the pair began to think of broadening their offerings. From harvest to table, each bottle of Pinot Noir requires a minimum of three to four years (with time spent aging and in the cellar). A small operation like Diamond Hill needed something to sell in the meantime.
A look around at traditional New Eng- land crops provided the answer. Local fruit was delicious and plentiful, so the couple decided to try their hand at a dry fruit wine. It was hardly a novel idea—after all, the history of fruit wines reaches as far back as wine making itself. In fact, some of the earliest wines were made with berries, palm or honey (to produce mead).
The process is roughly similar: the fruit is crushed, yeast and sugar occasionally added, the juice separated from the solids and fermented. Yet fruit wines are best drunk young and fresh, particularly when—as with Diamond Hill wines—they contain very few sulfites. The wines would be ready for sale within a year, a perfect way to offset the more time-consuming grape varietals. They began with a cranberry-apple wine, in a nod to the surrounding cranberry bogs and orchards. When that proved popular, they moved on to a spiced apple wine, and their fruit line was launched.
Today, Diamond Hill fruit wines are the vineyard’s most popular sellers, and their rich, tart, complex tones blow any precon- ceptions of syrupy sweet dessert wines right out of the glass. The wines are not fruit-flavored, emphasizes Claire, or given sweet overtones by adding a shot of fruit essence or coloring, like many commercial wines bearing a fruit label.
Instead, Diamond Hill wines are made entirely of local, New England fruit: apples, cranberries, peaches from the Berntson’s own orchard, and in the summer months, blue- berries and raspberries. The juices are undiluted and in fact, the wines are surprisingly layered and robust. The cranberry-apple has a crisp, tart finish that pairs well with holi- day staples such as turkey and stuffing, while the spiced apple is best served warm, like a mulled wine, with cinnamon, nutmeg and clove. The peach has a Sauternes-like quality. The blueberry tastes like a full-bodied Port with an intriguing fruity punch. “These wines really surprise people,” chuckles Claire. “We work at keeping the tang and acidity—you don’t want the sugar to linger, because when the taste is only sweet, it gets boring.”
Like any family operation, the vineyard keeps afloat by diversifying. The Berntsons create custom labels for every occasion, to be put on commemorative bottles. From June to September, they use the extensive grounds to host weddings and garden parties. Their historic home (built in the 1780s) doubles as an office, cellar and tasting room, and they sell directly to the public from the cozy little shop on the first floor, with its fireplace, photographs on the walls and toile curtains at the windows.
“We are completely self-taught,” says Claire. “We just had a lot of curiosity and a willingness to experiment, and 30 years later, here we are.”