by RONA MANN / Photos by Stephanie Sittnick
It all started with six Christmas trees. It was propelled by a leap of faith. And now it’s a thriving success.
Chris and Gail Staehly got married in 1984. He was an aerospace engineer; when they had their son, Kevin the next year, Gail became a stay-at-home mom. And that was that…or so they thought. But then serendipity intervened a few times, and their lives took some interesting and unexpected turns.
“We had a long expanse of land out front,” Chris begins, “so my father-in-law suggested we grow Christmas trees. We didn’t really know anything about it, so we started with just 250 trees. I figured if I had all those trees, I wouldn’t have to cut that much grass.” He laughs, “I soon found out they’re a lot more work than mowing!”
At first the trees brought disappointment along with the extra work when the first year Staehly only sold six of them. “I was so angry I decided to cut them all down and be done with it.” But Chris’ father-in-law convinced him to be patient and hang in. The advice paid off. Staehly Farm now boasts 18,000 Christmas trees on their property, is a very popular stop for those in the surrounding river towns, and the trees have won top honors at the Durham Fair for the last half dozen years or more.
The early 90’s proved to be a rough time for the aerospace industry. Chris survived layoff after layoff until one day his luck ran out, and he found himself wondering what he would do next. “We started dabbling in produce. Gail already had a little self serve stand with an honor box at the road, so we added one greenhouse, and Gail did most of it.”
Whether it was flowers, plants, or the apples and cherries from their trees, it all proved to be the right thing. People were stopping, people were buying, and the farm was flourishing. “So in 2005 we finally decided to go for it,” Chris says. “We put up a farm stand building, added more greenhouses, and suddenly we were full time farmers.”
With the added advantage of having heritage variety trees that go back decades, the Staehlys began to grow apples, sour cherries, peaches, and more delicious fruit. “But suddenly we were seeing a decrease in our volume of sales,” said Kevin. “People aren’t canning today as much as they used to.”
Chris wondered, “What are we going to do with all this extra fruit? We don’t want to waste it.”
The answer, strangely enough, came from the owner of Two Roads Brewery in Stratford. He suggested the Staehlys make wine. “But it’s very costly to build a vineyard,” Chris protested. “What did we know about making wine?” The answer came swiftly. “I didn’t mean grape wine; I meant fruit wine.”
The Staehlys, now intrigued by the idea, found a consultant who specialized in the growing and production of fruit wine. He subsequently came to the farm, studied what was there, and determined they could indeed make excellent wine from their fruit. As a professional winemaker, he was also able to teach Kevin and Chris the basics; and with yet another leap of faith, the Staehlys were now winemakers, opening Stahley Farm Winery in October of 2014, complete with tasting room.
“We are the only winery in Middlesex County to produce fruit wines from what we grow,” Kevin says proudly, offering a taste from their selection of nine wines. The Staehlys currently produce Dry Apple, Semi-Sweet Apple, Sweet Apple, Spiced Apple, Blueberry, Pomodoro, Cherry, and a Peach dessert wine. By the holidays, Rhubarb wine will also be available.
While the focus right now is definitely on the wine (with Kevin and Chris making a new flavor every three months), customers can still stop by for fresh eggs, butter, cheese, giant pies, and more. “We do a lot of local sourcing,” Gail says. “With farming you have to work together with other farmers, so not everything here is ours; but we get it locally from farms we partner with, therefore it’s always fresh. Our corn is unbelievable…we go every day for that.”
But for right now, the focus is on the wine. Ask any of the Stahleys, and they’ll tell you they’re winemakers, albeit vineyard-less ones. All wines are 12% alcohol, fully corked, and aged to perfection. But they’re not the only ones who think so. Their Pomodoro Wine recently won a double gold award at The Big E, the highest designation – one of only three wineries in all New England to do so. Kevin is especially proud of the Semi-Sweet Apple variety which took gold at the very prestigious Finger Lakes International Wine Competition in New York. “There were over 3000 different wines there representing all 50 states, all the Canadian provinces, and 27 countries. And we took gold.”
It’s fall, the Stahleys’ favorite time of year. They’re busy getting ready for their Fall Flavor Festival, harvesting and decorating, putting the pumpkins out front, setting up the hay maze, and welcoming everyone Noon to 6PM on October 1st and 2nd for wine tasting, cheese tasting, food trucks, and a whole lot of fun.
The Staehlys are the quintessential American success story: a good, honest, hardworking family who love doing what they do and sharing it with their friends, neighbors, and customers. They love “discovering” new wines and experimenting until they’re just right. They love providing fresh produce on a daily basis and watching you tag your Christmas tree during the holidays. They delight in the fall…the season of the harvest and Halloween, and they are positively childlike in decorating and providing treats and surprises to fit the season. These are the Staehlys…the accidental farmers and vineyard-less winemakers, loving what they do every day, because they’ve learned through a leap of faith or two what’s really important in life.
And to think it all began with six Christmas trees, a layoff, and all that delicious fruit.
Visit Stahley’s Farm Vineyard, conveniently located at 278 Town Street (Rt. 82), right near everything in East Haddam
www.staehlys.com (860) 873-9774
Open all year, because there’s always something good!