Making Wine is a Family Affair

Made in America, Odd Jobs, People, Traditions
on December 17, 2000
Pinot Noir Grapes

In late September on Rhode Island’s Aquidnick Island, clusters of fat grapes hang beneath the vines at Newport Vineyards. For several weeks, scores of pickers traversed the rows, reaping the bounty that will be transformed, over winter, into 13 different kinds of wine.

A similar scene plays out in vineyards across the region—but with a difference—at Newport Vineyards in Middletown (pop. 3,800), those bringing in the crop are family. They are led by two brothers, John and Paul Nunes, who left other careers to revive a three-generation family business.

Working alongside are their parents who troubleshoot and keep the gift shop stocked; two retired uncles and an aunt who lend their engineering, financial, and bookkeeping expertise; and at harvest time, more than 50 cousins tapped to pick grapes in exchange for wine.

“The Nunes family has been farming on Aquidnick Island since the 19th century,” says John, 34. “My father’s grandfather came over from the Azores in the late 1800s, and all of his sons settled here. I’m the fourth generation.”

Aware that few opportunities exist on the island to keep the young from seeking careers elsewhere, John Nunes Sr., who also operates a real estate business adjacent to the winery, says he never expected to be working alongside his sons.

“There was an opportunity, and the boys took it,” he says. “And we’re really happy to have them here.”

That agricultural legacy might have ended had John Jr. not opted to leave a corporate career in 1995 to invest his energy in the then 10-acre seaside vineyard that his father and a partner had run. Paul, a landscaper mulling the idea of law school, opted to join his brother at the vineyard.

“At first, I figured I’d give him a hand to get started, but now, there hasn’t been a day gone by that I haven’t been happy with what I’m doing,” says Paul, 31, who prepares the fields and buys and grows the grapes.

The brothers admit the work that faced them—in upgrading operations and improving marketing—initially was daunting.

“It was scary at first,” John Jr. recalls. “People were unreceptive to the idea of Rhode Island wine, and we wanted to change that. Aquidnick Island has some of the best farm land on the East Coast.”

Surrounded by the warm waters of Rhode Island Sound, the island is insulated from late spring frosts that can nip emerging buds. But while the climate is favorable, the crop isn’t labor-free. From early spring, vines are trained to a trellis of vertical wires, and the leaf canopy is pruned by hand to keep the grapes exposed to the sun. Although grapes like well-drained soil, a drought means water trucks must travel the rows to keep the vines from shriveling. The soil is monitored for nutrients and acidity, and sharp eyes watch for blights and pests that can devastate a crop.

At harvest, the handpicked grapes either are put into a large press to separate juice from skin and stems (for white wine) or placed in bins for four to seven days to ferment (for reds). Yeast is added to turn the natural sugar into alcohol. For drier wines, fermentation continues until all sugar is converted, but for semi-dry wines, fermentation is halted with chilling.

Work doesn’t slow after the harvest. Vintners face four months of vine pruning, several months of bottling, and all the “catching up” work that must be done.

Initially, the vineyard produced a modest 1,000 cases of wine annually. Since then, production has reached 10,000 cases—an increase made possible by creative land acquisition that expanded the growing area and protected the island’s dwindling open space. When an 80-house subdivision was proposed for a 25-acre parcel adjacent to the winery, the Nunes, with help from the Aquidnick Island Land Trust and the state of Rhode Island, purchased the land for growing grapes. An agricultural restriction on the land ensures it will never be developed. A similar arrangement is being considered for another large parcel adjacent to the vineyard.

“Aquidnick Island is losing its character as a farming area with all the development over the past 10 years,” John Jr. says. “We all grew up here. Our roots are here. Preserving this way of life is important.”