In Reserve

In Reserve

The Connecticut Wine Trail covers Connecticut from end to end but meanders short of denser urban areas like New Haven. The vineyards and wineries on the Trail are pastoral getaways by nature. “Most of them are… farms,” says John Lavorgna, a Hamden winemaker hoping to join their ranks someday. “You have a tasting room. You have some place you can go with friends or as a couple. Just relax for a little bit. Forget about your day-to-day stuff. That’s what I want to do.”

Still, if you were to stumble upon the Facebook page for Lavorgna’s Gio Valley Vineyards (named for his birth name, Giovanni), you could easily conclude he’d already succeeded. A quick survey of glowing reviews users have left there—along with Lavorgna’s sun-drenched photos of grapes harvested, bottles labeled and awards won—might then compel you to make the drive to the quiet West Rock-adjacent street denoted by the map. And you wouldn’t be the first to do so.

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But instead of the jammy flavor of a tasting room and patio surrounded by vine-strewn hills, you’d find the earthiness of a normal residential street. As noted in the Facebook page’s About section, Gio Valley isn’t open to the public, leaving Lavorgna as surprised as his attempted visitors, some of whom may have been led astray by an official brochure that lists his private operation among a number of public attractions. “I had people coming in and calling up. Especially when I was at work. They would be checking in . Where are they checking in from? Are they in the backyard?”

If they had been in his backyard, they would have found the vineyard—50 vines he planted in 2012 and began harvesting in 2014. The vines are now broad-leafed and tall, with the grapes just emerging as green necklace beads in this early phase of the 2020 growing season. Lavorgna conducts a brief tour. “These are the cayugas. I got a couple lemberger, which is an Austrian grape. I love it though. Very spicey. And two cab franc.” To grow to harvestable maturity, the vines required little cultivation, having rooted themselves deep in the soil beneath the reach of any attempt at irrigation. In fact, the less cultivation, the better. “The best grapes are the vines that suffer the most,” Lavorgna says, “They’re suffering so they’re using all their energy to produce the grapes. They’re going without water. They’re going through a drought. Those, you’re going to get more sugar from.”

But the vines also pass their suffering onto their grower. First, there is the wait. “To get the vines really established, it’s got to be over five years. And obviously you have to have good weather.” That’s true in climates where grape vines thrive, but grapes are arguably not even meant to be grown in Connecticut, with its short season and high humidity. Lavorgna enumerates the hazards. “Mildew, black rot, insects. You have to spray every other week at times just to control it. Some of them, you’ll see the leaves turn brown and then just crimple up. Other ones, the grapes look fantastic and then all of a sudden, they get black rot and it will just mummify those grapes and shrink them down to nothing.”

Then there are the visitors, the non-human ones. Insects, but also birds and deer. Lavorgna has set up a motion-sensing security camera, so he can chase the deer back into the woods as needed. But the birds come in flocks around harvest time. “Birds, they love grapes and they know before you do when they’re ready.” Growers determine readiness by measuring the Brix—the sugar content—of their grapes, using refractometers and hydrometers to pinpoint their sweetness with numerical exactitude. Lavorgna says, “You want to pick them when the Brix level is 24, 27, 28. In Connecticut, you can’t get that high level of sugar because of the growing season.”

But you can give it another day, maybe two more days, staking the possibility of another precious Brix unit against the ripening interests of robins and bluejays. Putting nets over the vines adds another element of anxious timing to the harvest, helping keep the birds at bay but also diminishing the sunlight on the grapes. Meanwhile, Lavorgna’s watching the sky for clouds. “If it rains, all that sugar gets diluted. So if you see a storm coming, do you pick it before the storm or do you wait until after the storm?”

“A couple years ago, I was in Long Island and they were just starting to net theirs. Long Island picks first compared to Connecticut. So I said, ‘Okay, when I come back, I think I’m going to net.’ When I came back, it was a Sunday. Monday, I went in there, saw everything was perfect. By Wednesday, wiped out.”

Lavorgna estimates a perfect bird-free yield of 50 vines to be about 40 gallons, which means about 200 bottles of wine. “But that hasn’t happened yet. If you get three or four gallons, you’re good right now. It’s a lot of work. My father says, ‘Why do you keep torturing yourself?’

Lavorgna is a third-generation Hamden winemaker. He started when he was a child, helping his grandfather. “Septembers, I used to unload the grapes from the trucks. Maybe two or three hundred cases. When I was this tall”—he holds out his arm at roughly 10-year-old height—“my job was to open up the boxes. Then I was promoted. I was able to crank the crank.” A wine press—whether hand-cranked or hydraulic—is the only thing winemakers in Connecticut need to support a hobby or a family tradition. They can have their grapes shipped to them, from California, Chile or elsewhere. Even vineyards on the Wine Trail can call themselves estate growers when their own grapes constitute as little as 25% of the bottle. “Most of the wineries do that, the blending. If you have a knack for that, you’re golden.”

But you really cross the Rubicon as a winemaker when you decide to grow your own grapes. Lavorgna is most proud of having produced bottles of what he can unconditionally call Connecticut wine; the grapes are visible from his dining room window. And he has a knack for winemaking, as evidenced by many first-place and other awards earned at the annual Day of Wine & Roses festival in North Haven. “But you don’t want to be lucky all the time. There is a chemistry side to it.” Turning your winemaking shed into a laboratory, in which you precisely measure the sugar, yeast, acids, sulphur and pectin in your fermenting grapes to vouchsafe the result, is another way you cross the Rubicon.

But the length of the fermenting process is uncheatable. And the waiting time consumes your opportunity to start over if, after all the waiting, you have produced a bottle of vinegar. Even if you’re importing your grapes, Lavorgna says, “you have one shot in a year. If you’re making it with grapes from California—September, October. You get the grapes from Chile, you have an opportunity to do it in May. But those are the only times that you can.”

Between harvests, Lavorgna volunteers at vineyards around the state, including Lockwood Farm, where the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station keeps it own grapes. He has begun looking for acreage in Hamden. But even after attracting investors and acquiring all the federal and state permits, the trial of growing vines in Connecticut starts all over again. The vines pass their suffering onto Lavorgna’s future customers; New Haveners who have been jonesing for a hyperlocal pour will simply have to wait a while.

Gio Valley Vineyards

Written and photographed by David Zukowski. Image 1 features John Lavorgna.

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