Greenvale Vineyards in Portsmouth, RI
Some of what we grow is available year-round.
Located along the Sakonnet River, Greenvale produces 3500 cases of estate grown wines. Listed on the National and State Registers of Historic Places, Greenvale is open daily for wine tasting and tours.
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Portsmouth, RI - What a combination—a cloudless sky, a beautiful view of Sakonnet River, a bit of history, and some surprisingly fine wine. Thus it was as I spent a memorable afternoon at Greenvale Vineyards in Portsmouth on Aquidneck Island. Admittedly I have made many visits to Greenvale over the years, each of which has been a joy. So it was no surprise; it was simply a reassurance that it remains a ‘must’ stop on any area wine tour.
Here in Rhode Island, we are awash with history. What makes Greenvale Vineyard’s history unusual is that, throughout its 150-year span, it has been owned and operated by the same family, now in its fourth generation. With the recent death of Cortlandt Parker, the family unit now includes his wife, Nancy Parker, and her four children. Only one of the four offspring, Nancy Parker Wilson, remains with the farm and she serves as its manager. Nancy, a Wesleyan graduate, living in Boston, also leads a busy non-farm life, having raised three teenagers and two stepchildren.
The farm was built during the 1860s by John Barstow of Boston, great, great, great uncle of the present generation, who was greatly influenced by the writings of landscape theorist, Richard Morris Copeland. Barstow envisioned not just a “rural agricultural retreat, but one that would provide occupation as well as recreation.” His vision was realized through the planning and design of noted Boston architect, John Hubbard Sturgis. The farm today is on the National and Rhode Island Registers of Historical Places.
In 1982, the Parkers began to consider strategies to carry the farm forward though the remainder of the century and into the 2000s which might permit regaining the degree of recognition it earned in early years as a producer of prize winning livestock. They were encouraged by close friends Lolly and Jim Mitchell, then owners of nearby Sakonnet Vineyards in Little Compton, to establish grape cultivation as the farm’s new direction. With Sakonnet’s willingness to purchase Greenvale’s output, the farm planted vines of Vidal and Cayuga, two popular varietals in the region.
The success with that relationship ultimately led the Parkers to develop their own wines through a rental arrangement to utilize a portion of the winery at Newport Vineyards in Middletown. Greenvale’s 1993 Chardonnay made a considerable splash upon its introduction and later vintages have justified the early enthusiasm. Regrettably, like many outstanding wines from small vineyards (Greenvale’s top production is about 5,000 cases), broad distribution is almost impossible to achieve since wholesalers are doubtful about the demand for a relatively unknown brand as well as the supply, if in fact the brand should become popular. Accordingly the major sources of sales are from purchases by visitors at the vineyard and from area restaurants that feature local wines on their lists. In fact I first encountered Greenvale Chardonnay at Le Bistro in Newport and have enjoyed it there several times since.
As I spoke with Nancy Parker Wilson, she shared with me her reactions to the vineyard’s accomplishments on the occasion of the 25th anniversary year of its entry into the wine business. She said simply, “We have done the right thing.” She cited her delight that the family had maintained an agricultural presence with special attention to issues of environment and land use. When she referred to the family’s pride over its award of the Goff Medal for Ingenuity and Enterprise from the R.I. Historical Society, she explained, “It recognized that we had reached financial viability.” She added with a smile, “That means we had operated profitably!” It was no easy achievement to have produced quality wines in a geographical area where at the outset such activities had no significant track record.
Throughout its wine making history, Greenvale’s most popular label has been its Skipping Stone White, an interesting blend of Greenvale’s first two grape varieties, Cayuga and Vidal. Its touch of sweetness is pleasantly matched with its mild acidity. It is a superb summer luncheon wine, guaranteed to draw rave reviews when served in a warm, seaside setting. The delightful 2002 Skipping Stone White at $12 will soon be supplanted by non-vintage bottlings, presumably giving the winemaker a bit more flexibility. Although there is no current plan to make any significant change to the basic blend. Such blends, incidentally, are common in these parts and are choice indeed.
In addition, the Greenvale Vineyards line now includes two Chardonnays. The more modestly priced 2002 Greenvale Chardonnay at $16 is 75% oak barrel fermented, with 25% from stainless steel. The 2003 Chardonnay Select at $20 is 100% oak barrel fermented, mainly using grapes from the vineyard’s oldest vines. Both of these wines are excellent.
I have been a longtime fan of Vidal Blanc, finding it a perfect companion to shellfish. This grape is rarely produced anywhere but on the East Coast, and accordingly is greatly underappreciated. The three produced locally (Greenvale, Sakonnet and Newport) are among Rhode Island’s real treasures and, in most years, Greenvale’s is among the best on the Atlantic Coast. Priced at $12, the 2005 Greenvale Vidal Blanc is a spectacular bargain. Exposure to its bouquet leads me to roll my eyes and salivate!
I am particularly excited about Greenvale’s release of Rosecliff Pinot Gris at $17. Having long observed the continuous upward quality curve from surprisingly good to extraordinary of any wine variety which Greenvale produces, I found their first Pinot Gris to be right on track. The real fun is going to be watching and enjoying its inevitable rise to the top.
By far the most promising variety for East Coast red is Cabernet Franc. Greenvale was among the first to produce this well known French grape. Cabernet Franc’s distinguished credentials come largely from its broad use for blending with Cabernet Sauvignon, alongside Merlot and, to a lesser extent, Malbec, in the great reds of Bordeaux. Such combinations from other parts of the world are generally referred to as Meritage. Greenvale has decided to introduce its own Meritage, using a blend featuring Cab Franc as the major component. Greenvale has just released a small quantity of Elms Meritage at $25. It’s an eye-popper not to be missed. Parenthetically, the names “Rosecliff” Pinot Gris and “Elms” Meritage appear because both wines were produced for the Preservation Society of Newport County in honor of the two mansions.
Greenvale’s proud place on the wine scene is a tribute to its capable and creative winemaker, Richard Carmichael. A 1986 graduate of California State University, Fresno with a B.S. in Enology, he came here from the very successful Williamsburg Vineyard in Virginia. Obviously the success of a vineyard is also a tribute to the vision, compe- tence, and hard work by its ownership.
In discussing the past and her vision of the future, Nancy added another smile and “We have come a long way; we’ve got a long way to go.” She spoke of how much she loved working at the farm but that there was “immense pressure and no coasting.” She mentioned particularly the ever-present fear of natural catastrophes which within minutes could turn a potentially promising harvest into a disaster.
The future of the operation has always been high on the family’s priority list. A few years back, the charm of the setting was much enhanced by the decision to convert the surviving Civil War barn, a part of Barstow’s original plan,into a tasting and entertainment center. It has become a real asset to Portsmouth in its service as an educational and social facility for the community.
In approaching the “long way to go,” she mentioned a likely 15 acre addition to the upper part of the property, which could accommodate construction of an on-site winery, as well as some increase in grape varieties and in total capacity. It would also provide drive-by visibility, which the current location lacks.
Greenvale Vineyards is at 542 Wapping Road. It is open for vineyard tours and wine tastings from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 12:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Sunday.
A visit to Greenvale will be a treat and an education; do it soon. You’ll be proud to serve the wines you tasteand buy.
Photo credits: Angel Tucker (family portrait, winter landscape and wine bottle) and Farm Fresh RI (entrance sign and late summer grapes)