Saltwater Farm

A vintage hangar acts as a coastal sanctuary for wine tasting and birdwatching

photograph by jody dole

One of the most stunning natural sites I’ve come across in my wine travels is in my own backyard. Saltwater Farm Vineyard in Stonington is set on a 108-acre nature preserve, surrounded by tidal marshes along Long Island Sound. Around its 15 acres of grape vines, you’ll find holly hedges, birch trees and tall reeds. The land along Wequetequock Cove is teeming with birdlife, including ospreys, egrets and herons. Plans for the vineyard and nature preserve are intertwined, with observation stations on the way, where you’ll be able to combine wine tasting and birdwatching.

When Michael Connery (a former lawyer with Skadden, Arps) bought the land in 2001, it was just an old airfield with a landing strip. He wasn’t quite sure what to do with the property and its World War II-era hangar designed by late architect John W. Lincoln (a colleague of Walter Gropius). But after spending time among Long Island’s wineries—and conferring with experts there—he decided to try his hand at planting vines.

“Given that this was an old airport, we had some concerns about toxins and did an extensive soil analysis to determine viability of planting,” says Connery. “At the time, the land was basically given over to hay fields.”

The next decision was where to plant the vineyard. “We wanted to maintain the integrity of the airport, so we put vines on either side of the taxiway,” he says, “and kept the original grass airstrip perpendicular to that.”

Chester-based architect Stephen Lloyd transformed the hangar into a showcase winery, and Stephen Mudd, the grandfather of the Long Island wine region, set him up with the right grape varieties for cool-climate growing. Connery and his wife, Merrily, aspired from the get-go to make winemaking much more than a hobby. To accomplish this, they hired French-born winemaker Gilles Martin who has made wine in France, Austria, California and Long Island.

Saltwater Farm is now on its sixth harvest, and the vines are starting to produce some impressive wines. It remains, though, a small artisanal operation making only 1,500 cases a year—selling mostly on-premise and at local inns and restaurants.

I tasted the four single varieties currently available and was surprised by the results from these still-young vines. The Estate Cabernet Franc 2008 had enticing blackberry flavors, more savory than fruity, and a desirably low 12.5 percent alcohol level. The Estate Merlot 2008, dark red with ruby highlights, had aromas of berry fruit and spice. It displayed a good tannin structure and came in at only 12.5 percent. The unoaked 2009 Estate Chardonnay (made in stainless steel tanks) was fresh, with a slight minerality and citrusy notes. The light-bodied Sauvignon Blanc 2010 had marvelous perfume on the nose and a pink grapefruit finish.

Beyond expanding to new bottlings—a blend of cabernet franc and merlot is on the way, as well as a 100-case lot of pinot noir, which will be ready for sale by late spring—Connery wants to entice visitors to spend time on the property. On St. Patrick’s Day, he’ll have live Celtic music, plus other concerts throughout the summer. On Thursday evenings, weather permitting, the property is open for picnics and tastings. And any day of the week the beach is open for sunbathing.

A visit can be the centerpiece of a full weekend away—at Rhode Island’s Ocean House in Watch Hill, the Inn at Stonington, or one of the many B&Bs in Mystic, only five miles away. Throughout the spring and summer, big bridal parties come in from as far away as the UK (apparently the word is out on global bridal websites) in response to what Connery calls “an unintended consequence of having a lovely sanctuary on the water.”