The Grape is the Winemaker – Sunset Hill Vineyard

Photos and profile by Caryn B. Davis

033_SUNSETHILLWhen they first started dating, Donna Moore took Matt Caruso to a wine tasting at   a California vineyard just north of Los Angeles, where they were living at the time. Moore was already a wine enthusiast with investments in several wine bars. Caruso, on the other hand, was skeptical. He wasn’t interested in spending an afternoon with what he thought would-be pretentious wine drinkers. Additionally, his beverage of choice was beer. But after meeting Bruce Hansen at Hansen Vineyard, all that changed.

“I’ll never forget when we went to Hansen. This guy comes out of the barn with his one-eyed dog. He says, ‘Yeah we can do some tastings. Let me look for glasses.’ We thought he was the helper, but it turned out he was winemaker,” recalls Moore.

While Hansen may have appeared discombobulated, scouring for glasses and pouring from a label less bottle, the wine was outstanding; and the experience left an indelible mark.

“That’s when we realized winemakers were actually farmers. We walked away thinking, we can do this,” says Moore.

Over the next four years, when they weren’t busy with their careers as a sports event producer and actor respectively, the couple visited 150 vineyards. They amassed a wealth of information by speaking with winemakers, participating in tastings, pouring at festivals, and reading.

“We’d pull into a big estate winery or a small place with one guy pouring out some Cabernet. You never knew what you were going to get. It opened my eyes. I saw it could be this funky, hip, artsy thing,” says Caruso.

Caruso grew up on a farm in Lyme, Connecticut which had originally been owned by Will Sawyer. Sawyer was the only farmer in the state who never replaced his oxen with the tractor. In 1974, Matt’s father, Salvatore purchased Will’s land and called it Sunset Hill Farm. When Salvatore wasn’t piloting planes for Delta Airlines, he was working the land. The family kept an array of livestock and grew fruits and vegetables.

While on hiatus, Caruso ventured home to visit his family. Looking out over the land, he realized it was perfectly sited for a vineyard because of the sloping, sunny hill. Salvatore offered his son 2.5 of his twelve acres. In 2007, they planted Chardonnay, Cab Franc, and a hybrid grape called St. Croix, known for surviving New England’s harsh winters.

“Matt once asked me where did I see myself in a few years; and I said, ‘I want to own my own vineyard one day.’ So when this happened, I did not think twice. I closed my company, and we moved east,” says Moore, who now works as Advertising Director for TTPM in New York City during the week and at Sunset Hill Vineyard on the weekends.

Figuring out what grapes would grow best; what equipment was needed; how to plant, prune, and maintain the vines along with the harvesting, crushing, pressing, and racking required to make the actual wine, required a huge learning curve.

“But thank God we had help, and thank God for computers,” says Caruso.

001_SUNSETHILLBruce Elfstrom, who owns an organic vineyard in East Haddam, advised the couple on their grape selection. Caruso also spent time working on Elfstrom’s vineyard to understand what it entailed. Other help came from Larry McCulloch, a wine-making consultant and Wayne Stitzer who assessed the site and aided in establishing the vineyard.

“People always said it would be a lot of work, but I never understood how much,” says Caruso who dug 1700 holes so he could plant his 1700 vines, and that was just the tip of the iceberg. Once those 1700 vines were planted, they needed water.

“I used to walk every single vine with a hose singing “True Colors” by Cyndi Lauper. I had it timed so when I reached a certain part in the song, I knew that was enough water. Then I’d go to the next vine and sing the song again,” laughs Moore.

It took three years before the couple realized the fruits of their labor. In 2009 they did a small harvest and a larger one in 2010. By the fourth year, they attained full harvest capacity, and now produce and bottle about 250 to 350 cases annually inside a small, wooden barn on the property. This is a family run business. Matt’s father and his mother Mary Ellen, who is also a children’s book author, pitch in  along with his brother, David and his sister-in-law, Laurie.

“We try to do it as simple as possible. We often say, ‘The grape is the winemaker.’ We are just the stewards in between,” says Caruso.

But it’s been a long haul. Eighteen months before they were due to open, some residents expressed concern that the vineyard would become too large for the neighborhood in terms of traffic, noise, delivery trucks, etc. They feared the vineyard would expand by opening a café, hosting weddings, and welcoming bus tours. However that was never the intention. Their goal has always been to stay true to their California roots by replicating what they loved most, which was meeting and talking with the winemakers, walking the vineyard, and tasting wine in a convivial setting. They want to remain small to give the visitor an intimate, enjoyable experience.

After going back and forth with local zoning and the state, Sunset Hill Vineyard is now officially open for sales and tastings by appointment Thursday – Sunday.

“This was our dream. It was almost taken from us. We worked on those vines for seven years watching them grow, and we were almost unable to open because of this controversy,” says Moore.

In honor of the Lyme Art Colony that brought impressionist painting to the area in the late 1800s, and to give back to their community, Sunset Hill established their Artist Series labels, designed by local artists. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the wine benefits a charity selected by the artist. Chester artist, Leif Nilsson was first to participate. He chose to donate to the Lyme Art Association. Next year’s artist, Michael DesRosiers plans on giving to the art department at Lyme Consolidated School.

“The happiest thing is to know we are finally doing this. We had to sacrifice a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, but we are very excited. There are times when we are having dinner with friends, drinking our own wine, and there is just no substitute,” says Moore.

Sunset Hill Vineyard is located at 5 Elys Ferry Road, Lyme.
To schedule an appointment to purchase wine or enjoy a tasting, contact (860) 598-9427


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