G ennaro Savino, owner of Savino Vineyards in Woodbridge, strolls down a grassy path, stopping to pick a grape from a lush green vine. Before sampling the crimson jewel, he remarks that most grapes on this particular vine had a good distance to go before they could be harvested, but that the warm, dry, sunny weather that day was ideal for their development.
Savino learned the winemaking craft as a child growing up in Teggiano, Italy, a small town located at the ankle of the peninsular boot. His family operated a small vineyard and would sell wine in an old-fashioned way, with customers bringing their own jugs to fill up. As an adult, he got into the restaurant business, helming New Haven establishment Gennaro’s Pizza for a while.
Upon retiring, he finally found the time to plant a small home vineyard. The lengthy process of preparing the soil—most significantly, bringing its pH to a balance conducive for grape-growing—took about a year. In 2000, Savino planted three rows of vines, intending to produce wine for his own family. But there was a lot of time to think between first planting and first result. “It took five years from planting to harvest and on the sixth year we had a little bit of production,” he says. By that time the vision had expanded. In 2006 the vineyard got its own tasting room, welcoming the public to drink in its output.
Today, Savino Vineyards grows three types of white grapes—Seyval Blanc, Vidal Blanc and recently planted Cayuga—and four red varieties: St. Croix, Frontenac, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. The most productive are those first three reds, seeing as they’re American hybrids better suited to New England’s chillier temperatures.
Aside from weathering the region’s sometimes less-than-hospitable climate, protecting the grapes from hungry animals presents a challenge. “Do you hear that?” Savino asks as he walks the property with his eleven-year-old grandson, also named Gennaro. The sound of loud birdcalls fills the afternoon air, and it turns out the source of them is a speaker, perched on a tall post amidst the vines. It’s like a high-tech scarecrow, protecting the grapes from feathered visitors by broadcasting calls that the birds read as distressful or predatory and therefore want to stay away from. Wire mesh fencing lines each row of vines which also safeguards the crops from creatures out rummaging for food.
As summer wanes and autumn waxes, the grapes are nearing the end of their time on the vine. To know just when that is, Savino uses a tool called a refractometer, which reads the sugar content, or “Brix,” of the fruity orbs. He’ll test them prior to harvest by squeezing samples onto the refractometer plate, looking for the sugar content to be at least 19 Brix, i.e. 19% sucrose by weight. In California, he notes, the reading can be up to 30. “Here we’re lucky if we get up to 22. Then we’re doing good!”
By the first week of October, it’ll be time to hand-pick the grapes and remove them to a barn on the other side of the vineyard, next to the Savino family home. There, they’re weighed, crushed and fermented. After a week or two, when there’s no residual sugar detected, the mash is transferred to a press, after which the juice is poured into tanks for further fermentation, lasting about a year. During that time, Savino constantly checks the wine-in-progress, sweeping away any unwanted residues and keeping tabs on the pH.
Back in the comfort of the tasting room and adjacent outdoor patio, open from noon to 6 p.m. on weekends through November 23, visitors can enjoy the final results of that careful process while looking out over some of the vineyard’s eight acres. The patio is new, added this past spring to accommodate more visitors and larger private parties. The walls are painted in warm hues of terra cotta and yellow, and inviting seating gives daytrippers good reason to relax and linger awhile, making the most of their visit. The Savino family prepares hearty antipasto options, though you’re also welcome to BYOF.
In another homey touch, a mural of Savino’s hometown of Teggiano hangs beside the bar area, an ode from one small corner of the winemaking world to another.
128 Ford Rd, Woodbridge (map)
Sat-Sun noon-6pm through Nov. 23
Written and photographed by Liz Rubin.