Amazing Grace: How Sweet the Wine
Many worthwhile stops in life are easily missed. Amazing Grace Winery shouldn't be one of them.
Story and photos by Kevin Fellows
A variety of wines are on display at Amazing Grace.
Located just north of Plattsburgh, N.Y., in the town of Chazy, Amazing Grace Winery opened in October 2009. Mary and Gilles Fortin, both teachers by trade, created the business after producing a few batches of wine for personal enjoyment. “We had a concord vine in the yard, and I figured I didn’t want to make jam with it,” Mary says with a laugh. After experimenting with extract kits, the couple found it easier to work directly with fruit rather than a potentially-confining kit. Additional vines were later planted in their backyard, bringing the first thoughts of pursuing a winery license.
The winery, operated out of the family’s home, is a beautiful wooden building with a rustic atmosphere (in true Adirondack fashion.) Between the hospitality and cozy wood, visitors feel more than welcome. In the basement are the fermentation vats and aging racks. For the first few years, guests sat in a tasting room the Fortin’s built themselves, but unfortunately, the room was modest in size and unable to house many people. “We turned a lot of business away because we didn’t have room; instead, we relied on guests spending time outside,” Mary says.
The deck faces the grape field, which fades into a forest.
After two years of work, the living room was converted into the new tasting room. Now 20 or 30 people can come and stay inside comfortably when the weather is bad, Mary says. A door leads to a large deck that makes up for any lost space in the tasting room. Here, visitors can spread out and enjoy not only the wine, but also the scenery. The deck faces the grape field, which fades into a forest.
Amazing Grace Winery offers red, white, and fruit wines, and the majority of materials are grown on-site. Twelve varieties of grapes are grown at the vineyard, which yielded over 100 gallons of wine in 2011. Fruits wines, such as Winter Blues, use blueberries grown in Peru, N.Y., to ensure freshness and promote home-grown produce. Other wines include peaches from Saranac Lake and apples from Fly Creek in Cooperstown. “We visited Fly Creek Cider Mill and I tried their cider, which is fabulous,” Mary says. “I found they use five varieties of their apples in the cider, so I thought I could make a nice wine with those apples.”
Wineries in the northern regions of the United States are confronted by challenges not met by the typical winery. Special cold-weather grapes are needed to endure conditions as cold as 35 degrees below zero. “The types of varieties are limited due to the severe cold,” Gilles says. “Thankfully, the University of Minnesota and Cornell have hybridized European grape varieties with native species that grow well here.” Recent climate changes have actually improved growing conditions in the North Country. The same changes have also devastated other wine locations, such as California.
"Being new to the business, we are still trying to figure out some issues, like when to start producing and how much to bottle."
These climate precautions and uncertainties are the reason the wine industry is a recent addition to the area, with six licensed wineries springing up over the last decade. These vineyards, including Elf Farm, Vesco Ridge, and Stonehouse, frequently help one other, ensuring that wine making continues in the region. Whether it’s tips on grapes or organizing open houses, the wineries in the area work closely together. "Being new to the business, we are still trying to figure out some issues, like when to start producing and how much to bottle," says Tom Frey, owner of Elf Farm Winery.
After two years, the winery is seeing progress. “I think people in the area are catching on,” Mary says.
The local winery owners recently met up and discussed extending their sales beyond the realm of Clinton and Essex Counties. Currently, Amazing Grace is available in three liquor stores, but it hopes to expand down to Albany in the near future. “I see branching out in terms of sales as a necessity,” Mary says. “The local market will not be able to support us if the wine business continues to grow; we are going to have to rely on online sales and retail stores to sustain.”
The Fortins are mindful to not get ahead of themselves, but exciting times may be ahead. Mary thinks people are interested in coming up in place of the Finger Lakes wine trail, which is increasingly becoming a tourist attraction. For now, the Fortins are juggling their teaching jobs with the vineyard. Both have more than five years until retirement talk can begin, but they are looking forward to the future. “We're just wine-lovers who had a goal of combining our passion with a retirement business,” Mary says.