Saltwater Farm Vineyard , This Love Story Just Evolved

Saltwater-Farm-Cabernetby RONA MANN/Photos SFrances

Really, it’s all about falling in love. And falling in love is all about evolution.

When they first saw the piece of property advertised both in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, it sounded fascinating.  A 108 acre former farm bordered by coastal marshes situated right on the edge of an historic Connecticut village.  From the very first, it intrigued them both; he, by his own admission, “a recovering attorney”(read: “retired”)…and she, a successful Manhattan real estate broker.  They kept monitoring the ads until their curiosity got the best of them, and that’s when they came to Stonington to see it for themselves. What they found was not what they expected.  They observed the tidal marshes framing property on which stood a World War II-era airplane hangar that dated back to 1937, located on what had then been an active community airport. They watched large, white egrets circling gracefully overhead, felt the gentle breeze coming up from the water, saw the sun rise over the hayfields, and not surprisingly, they fell in love.

“So, we bought it. It was 2001, just a week before 9-11…Evolution #1.  At the time we had absolutely no pre-conceived notions of what we were going to do with this unique piece of property,” laughed Merrily Connery, one half of the ownership team.  “But we didn’t rush into it.  We played with lots of ideas for more than a year; and then one day we wondered, could we could grow grapes here?”

Their next step was simple. Merrily and husband Michael, whose only real experience with wine was limited to what they poured in their glasses, had the soil tested; and happily found it favorable for growing certain varieties of grapes. But at the same time they also realized that they knew absolutely nothing about viniculture.  Other less adventurous twosomes would likely have scrapped the idea then and there and gone in a different direction, but the Connerys decided to pursue their dream by steeping themselves in education.  They committed to learn all they could about growing grapes and producing wine; and the best place they found for that was the North Fork of Long Island, long famous for successful wineries. With more than 35 separate venues on the North Fork, the Connerys asked for help…and got it, in spades.

“We reached out to people at these wineries,” explained Merrily, “and they came back with invaluable advice, suggestions, and ways to get started.” So the commitment was made, and the first vines were planted in 2003…Evolution #2.

By 2006 Saltwater Farm opened its tasting room…Evolution #3.

“We had a friend who desperately tried to talk us out of naming the winery ‘Saltwater Farm Vineyard.’  He said you don’t use salt water in producing wine and people would be turned off,” said Merrily, “but Michael was firm in his resolve to call it that.  After all, that’s what it had been…a simple farm dating back to 1653 that flourished by saltwater marshes and continued to be used as farmland right into the early 20th century. And that’s how the real estate broker in New York originally advertised it…as a ‘saltwater farm.'”

With a brilliant architect and creative contractor who shared the Connery’s vision of keeping the unique and then building from that, they started deconstructing floor to ceiling in 2006.  Using the same principles that creates fine wine, “we took our time.”  That time was used to keep the shell of the hangar intact so that it’s the first thing you notice when you drive in, but the Connerys added a vaulted ceiling, trusses fashioned from massive timber, silver milled aluminum exterior, original beams of wood sheathing, and massive picture windows looking out over the vineyard itself.  And that  plays an important part of the evolution of this love story as well.

From the onset, the newly minted vineyard owners chose to grow varietals instead of hybrids, using vines originally from Napa, arguably one of the best known and most productive grape growing areas in the world. “We chose to produce varietals because it’s a more authentic vine,” Merrily informs, giving a nod to their popular tasting room which boasts an award winning chardonnay and cabernet franc in addition to sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, and merlot. A newer favorite, cabernet franc rose, has been especially created by the Connery’s winemaker, Gilles Martin, a Frenchman who consults directly from the North Fork and often takes the ferry from Orient Point to be at Saltwater Farm when needed.  Additionally Saltwater Farm has a vineyard master and a staff of which Merrily and Michael are fiercely proud.  “They are thoroughly knowledgeable about the grapes, about the growing process, about wine making, about all we do here. But it’s not by accident. We keep them on top of things with continuing education like frequent trips to North Fork wineries to increase and build upon their expertise.”

Speaking with the Connerys one notes how often they use the word “evolve” when speaking about their vineyard.  The evolution from century old hayfields to magnificent vineyard with rows of plump grapes at harvest is obvious, but most surprising to the Connerys is the evolution that turned their vineyard into a favorite wedding venue.

“A few years ago we had friends who asked if they could get married here because they thought Saltwater Farm such a beautiful and unusual spot for a wedding.  We agreed, and by word of mouth it has just exploded to where we are now hosting weddings  twelve months a year and every weekend in the summer!” Evolution #4.

And what a place to host a wedding, special event, or corporate outing.  Even though Merrily says with a certain sense of wonderment, “we set up to do none of this; it all just evolved,” one realizes quickly that the lady is a fast study.  After only three or four years she, Michael, and their invaluable staff have it down to a science.  The hangar opens out onto terraces with seating for more than 200 guests.  The Connerys have built a loft space over the garage especially for brides and their attendants, so there’s a place not only to change, but to relax and prepare hours in advance.  A sophisticated HVAC system keeps guests comfortable year round with air conditioning and heat.  Photographers and videographers find Saltwater Farm a dream venue with its never-ending vistas and spacious airplane hangar for out of the ordinary images; while bands, orchestras, and DJs are delighted with the spaciousness, dance floor, and over the top acoustics.

You don’t have to be a guest at a special event or have a wedding to experience the unconventional beauty and sample the memorable wines of Saltwater Farm Vineyard.  The tasting room is open much of the year (hours on the website), and you can stop by for a quick glass on the main floor of the hangar or to buy a bottle or two to take home.  Tastings take place on the mezzanine level, affording not just sampling, but a relaxed atmosphere and an opportunity to enjoy the magnificent vistas.  If you love a picnic, so do the Connerys, and they invite you to bring your picnic and your special guests to Saltwater Farm.  Buy a bottle of wine downstairs, then feel free to take your picnic out into the vineyard.  Thursday evenings there’s live music from 5-7PM during the summer months and throughout the rest of the year on selected Sundays when there isn’t an event.  Once again, check the website for days, hours, and events.

So come raise a glass to the good life, to a beautiful venue, to falling in love, and to all its evolutions.


Saltwater Farm Vineyard is located at 349 Elm Street, Stonington

Tasting Room: (860) 415-9072

Wedding information/bookings: (860) 818-7258

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