As the sun softened over Bass Harbor, the guests at Ann’s Point Inn leaned forward to listen to the innkeeper introduce the two Bartlett wines, a semi-dry peach and a semi-dry pear, he was pouring that afternoon. We took another nibble of Seal Cove goat cheese, then tasted. Wine made from peaches and pears, not grapes? It was delicious.
“I like featuring Bartlett because my guests appreciate trying wine only available in Maine,” says Alan Feuer, a computer sciences professor turned innkeeper. “And I like supporting local businesses making high-quality products.”
These wines are the fruits of the labor of award-winning winemaker Bob Bartlett, who founded Bartlett Maine Estate Winery in 1982. It was Maine’s first winery. Bob, in fact, had to write the legislation himself to get the license for the tasting room. Today he and his wife Kathe produce 6,000 to 7,000 cases a year, depending on the availability of fruit.
After first tasting Bartlett wines at Ann’s Point, I spied the bottles with the labels that look like botanical art at wine stores and markets around Mount Desert Island. I was curious about the winery in nearby Gouldsboro and wanted to taste more. This cloudy October afternoon seemed just right to take a break from hiking in Acadia and go on a field trip. What we learned was not only about wine, but also about a couple who three decades ago foreshadowed today’s local and artisanal food movements.
The drive east from our house in Somesville on Mount Desert Island would have taken about 45 minutes along Route 1, but we decided to explore the Schoodic Peninsula, stopping in Winter Harbor for some clam chowder and a lobster roll. This part of Maine – with its white-steeple churches, harbors full of lobster boats, and quiet villages – make a town like Bar Harbor look positively bustling. It was easy to find the winery at 175 Chicken Mill Pond Road, also known as Old Route 1 Bypass.
It’s not surprising that the driveway into the quiet wooded setting of the winery is marked by an oversized granite sculpture. Bob Bartlett came to Maine in 1975 as a trained architect and glass artist.
Although Kathe has two employees managing tastings in the summer, we were fortunate to have her as our host today. Friendly and articulate, she selected for our testing, which was free, seven of the 18 wines and two honey-meads they produce. Ranging from dry to sweet, the wines are made from apples, pears, peaches, raspberries, blackberries, loganberries, and of course blueberries – and combinations thereof. The fruit is brought to the Bartletts as fresh whole fruit – ninety percent of which is from Maine and “always from someone we know.”
The fruit is the key here. “That’s what I get most excited about…when the fruit comes in,” says Kathe. “It is so luscious.”
Bartlett wines are made totally with fruit, with no concentrates or flavorings. High-quality honey and great fruit that is clean (to minimize the risk of bacteria) are necessary for their wine and mead, and limit how much can be produced. Sourcing honey, for example, can be a real challenge, Kathe says, adding that honey from New Zealand might really be from China.
Fruit also played a major role in the history of the winery. Seminal to Bob’s idea of producing wine in Maine was using Maine fruit and thus promoting Maine agriculture. He even wrote it into the legislation.
At this point in the tasting we had moved to the wines made from blueberries, and I was trying to decide whether I preferred the medium-dry Coastal Red, a blend of local Maine apples and wild blueberries, or the oakier, barrel-aged Dry American, which Kathe says pairs with lamb, venison, and turkey and goes particularly well with rosemary, thyme, and sage seasonings – “perfect for Thanksgiving.”
At that moment a man arrayed in rain gear and totally drenched passed by the door leading from the tasting room into the winery. It was Bob. He looked like a very wet lobsterman, not the “dean” or “godfather” of the Maine wine industry, as he’s frequently called. “What I do to make wine for you people,” he said happily, and then moved on. He’d been cleaning the inside of vats. The cleanliness of the equipment is obviously as important to him as the purity of the fruit.
It’s a big job for two people to run a venture of this size and caliber. Says Kathe, “The longest we’ve ever been away is three weeks.” The tasting room at the winery is open June until Columbus Day, Tuesday through Saturday, from 11am to 5pm.
Kathe and Bob seem anything but tired or complacent, however. One of their newest ventures is the Spirits of Maine Distillery, which is also gaining recognition in international awards competitions. American Apple Brandy and Pear Eau de Vie are two of the stand-outs.
Suddenly, we noticed it was after 4:30, and we found ourselves in a rush as Kathe packed a case of wine for us that included the Coastal White, Peach Semi-Dry, and both of the blueberry wines between which I had been trying to decide. Before it closed at 5pm, we wanted to get to the Sullivan Harbor Farm Smokehouse – “the hottest little smokehouse in Maine” that gets raves of “delectable” from The Boston Globe and “highly recommended” from The New York Times. Kathe picked up the phone and asked if they would wait for us for five minutes. They did, and we left very happy with smoked salmon bacon brushed with maple syrup and the best smoked salmon pâté I have ever had. (Sorry, Zabar’s.)
Maine has always been the land of farmers and fishermen. But, as the Bartlett Winery and Sullivan Harbor Farm prove, it is increasingly the home of culinary artisans who are adding true craftsmen’s value to what’s offered by the great state of Maine.
Next time I won’t wait for a cloudy day to visit. I’ll bike the Schoodic Peninsula, then head over to Bartlett’s.