Kip Kumler Founds Turtle Creek Winery
by Jane Whitehead

Many fine wines come from small towns with long histories. Hospices de Beaune, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, Brunello di Montalcino. This year, local winemaker Kip Kumler plans to add some newcomers to the venerable list: Lincoln Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Casablanca.

“Most people are incredulous,” says Kumler, when he tells them he is growing vines in Lincoln. The approach to his rambling farmhouse off Beaver Pond Road is marked by an orderly tracery of trellised vines against the snow. These are young vines, only two years old, explains Kumler, as he leads the way down to the basement where the Turtle Creek Winery is housed. He expects the first, small crop from them this year, and in the meantime is experimenting and fine-tuning the winemaking process using grapes bought from growers in Long Island, California, and the Finger Lakes Region.

Turtle Creek may be a small-scale operation, but its equipment is state-of-the-art. Kumler’s original training as an electrical engineer shows in his enthusiasm for the precise machinery of his craft. The main room of the winery is dominated by three gleaming, steel, 500-liter, temperature-controlled tanks in which the “must”, the crushed grapes, is fermented under closely regulated conditions.

In the case of red grapes, says Kumler, the fermentation takes five or six days, after which he leaves them a further two weeks for “cold maceration,” a process which extracts more color and soft tannins from the grapes, and adds more complexity to the flavor of the finished wine.

The next stage takes place in an adjoining cellar with field-stone walls, where eight 30-gallon barrels rest on wooden pallets. The embryo wine from the steel tanks is transferred to new French oak barrels and left to mature for 14 months to two years. At $300 each, French barrels cost twice as much as the American-grown and made product. Kumler pays the premium because American oak gives a harsher flavor, and although things are changing, at present he says American craftsmanship is “not anywhere near as good as the French.”

Every barrel is labeled with the year of production, type and source of grape, and the strain of yeast used. From 1998 there are three barrels, one each of Syrah, Cabernet Franc, and Zinfandel, which will be ready for bottling in four to six months. “Where I’m really going in the future is Pinot Noir,” says Kumler, who hopes to produce a Burgundy style wine from the grape that is considered “the king of wines.”

Lincoln Pinot Noir, he says will be very different in style from the “alcoholic fruit drink” made from the same grape in California, where the intensity of the sun and heat produces wines with, in winespeak, the fruit “very forward and very apparent.” This illustrates the importance in wine production of what Kumler calls “issues of climate and terroir,” the French term for the precise patch of ground on which vines are grown.

One of the paradoxes of cool-climate viticulture, he explains, is that “the more northern the climate the better the wine for certain cultivars.” The economics are daunting, though, as there is always a danger that the crop will be destroyed by frost, a risk which Kumler plans to minimize by using classic French vines grafted to hardy American rootstocks, and careful matching of vine-type to the harsh New England climate. Kumler likes to point out to skeptics that Lincoln has exactly the same number of “degree days” as Bordeaux; that is, days when the temperature reaches the 50 degree F. mark at which vines will grow.

“These are some experiments, really” says Kumler, stepping into a second cellar where barrels of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Casablanca are in the stage of secondary, or malo-lactic fermentation, by which the harsh malic (apple) acid is transformed to lactic (milk) acid. “Casblanca” is the Turtle Creek name for Cayuga, a hybrid developed at Kumler’s alma mater, Cornell University, in the 1970’s. It produces a wine “similar to Pinot Grigio but with more body,” says Kumler, who adds that its high yields (up to six bottles per vine) make it ideal for the home winemaker who wants to experiment with growing his or her own vines.

Kumler monitors the progress of the wine in the barrels by siphoning off small quantities with a glass pipe called a wine thief. He broaches a barrel of Chardonnay and releases an egg-cupful of cloudy golden liquid from the wine thief into a glass. “CO2,” he says, swirling it around and sipping. He dips into a second barrel, and pronounces it “smoother than the other. Too much oak. Not as much acid as the first. I think it’s got a lot of potential.”

Before the Chardonnay is ready for bottling in May, it will be siphoned off the lees, the dead yeast cells and other solids at the bottom of the barrel, at least twice. The alternative to this is filtering, says Kumler, but “the big trend is non-filtered wines,” as the super-clarity of filtered wines comes at the price of some loss of flavor.

Kumler has found learning the discipline and craft of winemaking a welcome change of pace from his former professional life as a strategic planning consultant to corporations. The material rewards were high, he concedes, but so were the costs in terms of travel and time away from his four children and his wife, Kally, who tutors at the Carroll School in Lincoln.

The winery may not be a money-making proposition any time in the near future, but Kumler gets a new satisfaction from the routine seasonal tasks of the vineyard: pruning, weeding and trimming. “You feel a little more like you’re part of things,” he says. The demands of wine-making can also draw the family together. Laughing, Kumler says, “the only time I successfully got the whole family involved in anything was when we bottled last fall!”

For more information about Turtle Creek Winery, or to put your name on the mailing list, call 781-259-9976.

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