In 2016, Forbes Magazine claimed to have discovered the “secret to happiness.” “Spend money on experiences, not things,” they told their readers. CNN took it one step further. “That's in part because the initial joy of acquiring a new object, such as a new car, fades over time as people become accustomed to seeing it every day…,” they reported. “Experiences, on the other hand, continue to provide happiness through memories long after the event occurred.”
Those looking to invest in a meaningful experience can find a solution tucked away in Wallingford, just off the highway, but hidden from view. Southern Connecticut Wine Company, located in an unassuming garage-like building behind the railroad tracks, affords people the unique opportunity to create their own wine over the course of a season. I had the chance to be an honorary co-op member for the day and witness a little bit of what they have to offer.
The entire winemaking process takes a total of ten months, but the period is punctuated by weekends devoted to crushing, pressing, and tasting the wine. Co-op members can come to the winery as often as they wish and stay as long as they like.
“The die-hards come in at the start,” explained Winery Manager Brandy Richards, motioning towards a couple already at work punching down grapes as I arrived. “Some people come in every day, and some people only come for a few weekends.”
“It’s a real mix of people,” third year co-op members Kim and Janet told me. Their words proved true- I noticed people who were fresh out of college and those who were older. There were singles, couples, and families. In total, this year’s group amounts to about 35 people, though they come and go at different times.
“We’re like a large dysfunctional family fueled by wine,” laughed winemaker Amanda Brackett. The comradery was evident throughout the day, with members greeting each other like old friends and working together seamlessly to lift buckets and barrels.
Noon marked the “official” start time for the day’s work. When Amanda deemed that enough people had arrived, she called the group together and went over their progress to date on the “war board.” It was a fun Q&A segment, but also educational. With Amanda’s help, they went over calculations like brix and ABVs. When they decided that the “Bawstin Blend” had fermented entirely, they eagerly started the next task- pressing the wine.
The Bawstin Blend starts in two separate fermenting containers, one for the Syrah and one for the Sangiovese and Merlot, because the different varietals call for different types of yeast. In order to press the grapes, we had to move the grapes from the container to the wine press with smaller buckets. The whole thing was hands-on, with members taking turns scooping bucket fulls of grapes up over their heads and into the press. From there, the free run juice ran into another stainless steel container. Amanda distributed solo cups so that we could sample the “baby wine” as it ran through the press. Though not necessarily tasty (the wine was still in its fledgling state, after all), it was a cool opportunity to experience first-hand how the juice evolves over the course of time.
Crushing is another crucial step in winemaking. If the word conjures up images of I Love Lucy and a purple-stained Lucille Ball dancing about in a vat full of grapes, fear not! Southern Connecticut Wine Company uses machines.
Southern Connecticut Wine Company purchases their grapes from California. Using their distributor, Musto, they are able to choose which farmers they work with. The relationship with their distributor and farmers “feels like a family.”
The fruit arrives in piles of wooden crates sorted by grape varietal. For crushing, co-op members take turns getting a box, carrying it to the crusher, and (carefully!) dumping it in. Amanda helps feed the grapes through as the stems are removed and the grapes themselves are broken up. It’s a bit of a work out! The process requires several cycles and the crates aren’t light, sometimes requiring two people to manage. Still, it is fun and satisfying!
A typical Saturday spans about 6 hours and alternates between pressing and crushing. People are encouraged to bring food and snacks, and glasses of wine are available at the bar for those who want more than free run wine. Members can take breaks as they want- there is plenty of indoor seating as well as a patio- and come and go as they please. Later in the season, the group can come back together to taste the wine for the first time, bottle it with custom labels, and ultimately take home cases of their favorite wines.
With the holiday season just around the corner, a share in the wine co-op would make for an excellent experience-driven gift. Southern Connecticut Wine Company still has space in its Spring 2018 season, which focuses on South American grapes. A minimum share costs $540 and includes 3 cases of wine as well as the chance to participate in the co-op.
There are plenty of other ways to experience Southern Connecticut Wine Company outside of the co-op. For starters, the company functions as a full service tasting room and bar Thursday-Sunday. Anyone can come in for a tasting flight, a glass of wine, or even to purchase a bottle. The indoor space is cute, cozy, and full of seating. Patrons can sip vino under wine barrels and twinkle lights and bring in food from the outside.
In addition, the winery offers wine classes to the public. On the day that I took part in the co-op, I also got to attend a two hour blending class led by Professor Bob, a regular at SoConn. People can sign up through the winery, though I also learned from other participants that there are sometimes deals through Groupon. I have taken a number of wine classes, formally and informally, but a blending class was new and exciting for me.
It began with a ten minute introduction to wine basics: judging a wine’s appearance, assessing its aromas, and tasting it. Next, we turned to the equipment in front of us. Each place setting had three labelled cups of wine, an eye dropper, a 10 mL graduated cylinder, and a wine glass. Under Professor Bob’s instruction, we played around with mixing different percentages of the three wines until we crafted our ideal blend. Pours were unlimited, and Dr. Bob would come around to top off our cups. As a final flourish, we made a bottle of our personal blend and bottled it with a custom label. I enjoyed myself immensely and would certainly recommend the class.
The classes and other events can be found on the website’s calendar. Other offerings have included “Vin & Vinyasa,” craftmaking, and art exhibits.
If the idea of handcrafted wine makes you apprehensive… don’t be! The wine at Southern Connecticut Wine Company is delicious. Though they have made whites through the co-op, the tasting room currently offers red blends. The Bawstin Blend was my favorite, but the Super Tuscan, a blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet, and Merlot, was a close second. Those who enjoy vino on the sweeter side can order the “She Devil Red.” I would suggest ordering a $15 flight, as all of the wines are worth trying.
Southern Connecticut Wine Company is classified as a “microwinery.” Since it does not have its own vineyards, it is not listed on the Connecticut Wine Trail. Currently, the only way to purchase the wine is at the Wallingford location itself. It is certainly worth the trip! From the wine co-op to the classes to the bar area itself, it is definitely a wine lover’s destination.
The next time you go to reach for a bottle of wine to bring to the register, you may want to pause and consider the words from Forbes: “Spend money on experiences, not things.” How much better would that bottle of wine taste if you knew that you had brought it to fruition, working with others to press, crush, taste, and bottle? Perhaps experiences, like the Southern Connecticut Wine Company, are the “secret to happiness” after all.