Written By: Monica Christofili, Guest Contributor
Squamscott Vineyard & Winery is nestled on 12-acres at the eastern edge of Newfields, NH, south of the Great Bay. A small sign marks its entrance at the end of a short dirt road. On either side, tall reeds frame a panorama of vines overlooking the Squamscott River. The central field, like an open oyster, undulates beneath natural treasure.
In 2011, there was no X-marking-the-spot, only new owners and an old hayfield. Beginning with 28 vines, Bill Meserve and Bob Elliott have now hand-planted 2,400 – each taking 5 years to mature.
“We put a little sweat into each one,” says Bob, “We know these vines. We love these vines.”
Traditionally, ‘vigneron’ refers to a wine grape-grower, ‘vintner’ to a wine-maker or merchant. More recently, ‘vigneron’ popularly references farmer-artisans who do it all – like Bill and Bob.
They cultivate and craft Blue Heron Wines, silky-smooth vintages that surprise many Granite Staters with dry, rather than sweet profiles. “When we started selling at farmers’ markets,” Bob recounts, “people were interested but didn’t believe it.”
Today, they host seasonal events at the vineyard and, a half mile away, weekend hours at their year-round tasting house. They opened it in 2019 after purchasing and restoring Newfield’s 1792-Dudley Watson homestead, now a collection of cozy rooms, patio, and lawn space.
“Our favorite part is the people,” says Bill, “wine lovers who ask hard questions, new people who apologetically admit they’ve never done a tasting. We welcome everyone’s reactions because your olfactory glands and taste buds are unique to you.”
Regulars Ann Czaja and Elaine Moran of Newmarket visit both for the owners and their wines. “They’re just really nice guys,” Elaine smiles. Ann nods approvingly, “And they don’t bring in grapes; they’re growing everything here.”
The two friends participate in a supportive community whose help Bill and Bob employ during harvesting. Elaine recalls last season, “We were picking Petite Pearl grapes, these tiny little grapes. They handed me a bunch to bite into, like an apple. It was. . .” She closes her eyes, “Now every time I have that wine, I smell what I tasted.”
Bob suggests tasting first with your eyes, then nose, then mouth.
“And if you’re a wine-lover, you taste with your heart too; you know what nature did.”
His love for dry wine stems from his childhood. “My mother’s parents were from Italy and didn’t speak English. Holidays we’d start eating at 1pm and get off the table at 10pm. I think it’s in my blood.”
Bill grew up loving gardening, watching his father raise vegetables and his grandmother tend flowers. At 16, he built a greenhouse; in his mid-20s, he planted Christmas trees on his first property; and after traveling to France with his wife, he began enjoying sweet wines.
In 1995, Bill, an environmental engineer, and Bob, a business consultant, met in a business class and decided to invest in property. Over the years, Bob introduced Bill to dry wines. When the chance arose to acquire what is now their vineyard, deciding what to do with its river-side field was easy.
Because wine-grapes prefer dry, chalky soil, Bill and Bob’s challenge was New England’s rich, wet earth, which results in copious canopy, little yield, and mold-susceptibility. They addressed this by sourcing from Cornell University, where, since the mid-1900s, researchers study how vines resist disease and cool weather while producing worthwhile grapes.
They now grow 10 hybrids that match their land with a sense of belonging: “What grows there goes there,” Bob reflects on small European vineyards, which inspire him and Bill. Their whites are Aromella, Cayuga, L’Acadie Blanc, Traminette, and Vidal Blanc; their reds Chambourcin, Chancellor, Noiret, and Petite Pearl. These carefully chosen hybrids can endure Seacoast temperatures in wine hardiness zone 6, some of them not losing buds until -5°F.
Bill and Bob optimize sustainability by working with their land’s unique microclimate. Using UNH Cooperative Extension guidance, they made a frost-opening in trees by the river, allowing colder air to release from the vineyard’s shallow valley. Low-impact interventions like these leave room for nature’s choreography: “There’s Bill, the grower; me, the wine-maker; and then there’s Mother Nature,” Bob lists, “We’re sort of just sidekicks here. Every season she picks a different dance.”
Nature takes a less leading role in “manipulated winemaking”, where commercial producers use up to 70 adjustment chemicals, including dye, to assure predictability and uniformity. While Bill and Bob appreciate the audience for this wine, they take a more minimalist approach.
Bill protects the soil by letting weeds grow, hand-pruning damage, and eschewing restricted-use pesticides, even organic-approved copper sulfite. His harvested grapes, fermenting with natural yeast-coatings, move directly to Bob, who de-stems, crushes, and presses white grapes, or cold-soaks and presses red grapes. (Rosés are made from un-soaked red grapes, avoiding color-saturation.)
Bob ferments wines to about 12%, measuring by watching grape sugars convert to alcohol and C02, which pushes up the must, or crushed fruit. He then covers wines, aging whites a minimum of 1 and up to 2 years and reds a minimum of 3. The reds have yet to age longer because they sell so fast.
Local processing and careful ageing, Bob explains, softens tannins and avoids the need for added sulfites. “The job of the sulfite is to kill the wine so it can’t breathe, preserving it by not allowing it to take in oxygen. Our wines are still breathing and more alive, so a lot of people taste something they never have before.”
While Bob shuns sugar-adding and oak-barreling often used to mask added sulfites, he sometimes steeps aging wines with ground oak, but for weeks compared to barreling-years. He shares equal credit with Bill for the satiny-smooth results: “Our winemaking starts in the vineyard. I always say, I’m just the midwife.”
True vignerons, Bill and Bob are also people-lovers. They look forward to meeting you, whatever your taste for wine. This February 11th, from 3-5pm, join them for a special event of wine and chocolate pairings. Visit www.blueheronwines.com for tickets.
To find more local food and drink near you, including more Seacoast wineries and breweries, visit seacoastharvest.org
Monica is a former community college instructor, community organizer, and sometimes-freelancer. A few of her interests include local sustainability, autonomous learning options, and individualized, empowering care for birthing people. She lives in a rural Seacoast town with her partner and their 3 children. Contact: [email protected]