Paradise Hills Vineyard: A Family’s Affair with Wine

By Renee B. Allen, founder of WINE (Wine Institute of New England)

WINE is excited to introduce the newest winery in Connecticut, Paradise Hills Vineyard & Winery, as our July “Connecticut Corker.” The Ruggieros bring 30 years of grape growing and winemaking experience to their new winery, which just opened its doors to the public on May 1, 2011, in Wallingford, CT. This family owned and operated winery is spearheaded by Margaret Ruggiero, with whom I had the pleasure of spending several hours.

At 26 years old, she may be the youngest of the bunch, and at 5 feet 2 inches she is definitely the most petite of the bunch, but Margaret Ruggiero is the biggest thing to hit the Connecticut wine industry in years. And if you don’t believe me, just ask her mom. Without her family, Margaret would not be where she is, or who she is, today. And without Margaret, there would be no Paradise Hills Vineyard.

My first encounter with Margaret came in the form of a photograph on an informational page about Paradise Hills Vineyard, Connecticut’s newest winery located in Wallingford. “How cute.” I thought. “The winery owners have a picture of their daughter tinkering with some winemaking apparatus.” Little did I know. Margaret is the heart and soul of Paradise Hills, as well as co-owner, grape grower, winemaker, architect, human resources specialist, and everything in between. But she does not operate in a vacuum. Paradise Hills is a family operation and I have never before met a family who took these words more to heart.

Margaret was running late for our meeting, so I sat down with her mother, Brenda, to learn a little bit about how Paradise Hills came to be. Brenda met Rich Ruggiero at the pool. He was a speed swimmer and she a synchronized swimmer. They were 10 years old. They would begin dating in college, fall in love and marry. Rich was an auto body repairman with an avid interest in winemaking. More than 30 years ago, he and his brother, Albert, president of Paradise Hills, began growing grapes in their backyard on Hill Street in Hamden from which they made wines, some of them award-winning, under the name “Paradise Hills.” The name was a melding of Hill Street and the nearby Paradise Game Preserve. When Rich and Brenda married, Brenda knew that wine was always going to be a part of her life and, for that matter, part of the lives of their two daughters, Margaret and Natalie. The girls learned about winemaking from their parents in their own backyard. Margaret read books on the subject. They helped plant, tend, prune, and harvest the grapes, and they assisted with the winemaking. All of this was a normal part of their lives. Of course, not everyone fully understood this. Brenda remembers a phone call she received from a nun at the Catholic school the girls attended. Margaret was asked by the nun what she did over the weekend and she had responded, “Oh, Sister. I made wine this weekend.” As Brenda explains, “it’s been a passion.”

29 years of marriage and hard work later, the Ruggieros are realizing their family dream – to run their own winery. Every family member was involved in the inception of Paradise Hills and remains involved on a daily basis, in spite of other commitments. I discovered Brenda is a dental hygienist who continues to work that job full time. I was eager to learn more about the Ruggiero matriarch, but the conversation kept turning to Margaret. Brenda was quick to minimize her own efforts, crediting Margaret with much of the family’s success. I have heard parents brag about their children before, but this was effusive. Then I met Margaret. I wanted to brag about her, too.

Margaret breezed in through the front doors, all smiles, greeting guests as she went, and hopped up on one of the stools at the table where her mother and I were chatting. She had just returned from one of the many meetings she attends in her trade, always open to learning from those who have come before. A certified fitness instructor, she had begun her morning teaching a class at the gym. This talent, I was to find out, was only one of many. After spending her childhood learning about winemaking at the feet of her parents, Margaret had to decide what she wanted to be when she grew up. She loved being outdoors, and her parents had instilled in her a love of botany and horticulture. She attended Lyman Hall High School for four years, studying plant science. It was there she met her “big mentor,” Jane Amenta, and there her love of nature became a serious relationship. She opted to pursue horticulture, and looked into several programs, including one in Pennsylvania. But, for Margaret, nothing is more important than staying close to her family and her community. She enrolled at the University of Connecticut and studied horticulture, floraculture and wildlife conservation. From there, she went on to earn a degree in culinary arts from Gateway Community College, and left with a professional baking license. Next was a two-year internship at Union League Café in New Haven under the strict tutelage of Jean Pierre Vuillermet. While there, she also studied wine and food pairings. Somewhere along the way, Margaret managed to find the time to run a farmers’ market for two years in Hamden off of a state grant.

While we spoke, various family members came and went, sidling up next to Margaret, adding their take on whatever story she was telling. A handsome young man was introduced to me as Margaret’s boyfriend, Marcelo. Where did Margaret and Marcelo meet? At the pool, of course. The young couple visited his family in his home country, Chile, for two months and Margaret returned speaking fluent Spanish. I was told that Marcelo did all of the tiling in the geothermal building that houses the tasting room. After doing extensive research both at home and in Chile, Margaret decided to pay back the environment she loves so much by erecting a geothermal structure. As its name indicates, the geothermal building uses geothermal energy, which is thermal energy generated and stored in the earth. Geothermal energy is cost effective, reliable, sustainable and environmentally friendly. And, after spending several chilly minutes in the fermentation tank area, I can vouch first hand for its effectiveness. Margaret worked closely with Connecticut architect, Daniel Webster, on designing the building. She was involved with every aspect of the planning, and even made some revisions of her own. One day, she asked the builders if the door treatments, which were designed to be straight, could be turned into arches. Upon surveying the building’s progress, the architect noticed the change, looked at Margaret and said, “yeah, that works.” She had the aforethought to build in the ability to have barrels gravity fed from beneath the outdoor patio, another feature she saw while in Chile. This feature will eventually be implemented for temperature control when she introduces barrel aging into her winemaking process.

The Paradise Hills vineyards were planted in Wallingford in 1997, and the Ruggieros grew their grapes for other wineries, caring for them while maintaining their home in Hamden. But it was quickly determined that being offsite was unacceptable. The family wanted to be able to monitor and tend to the grapes around the clock. Now, the 65 acre plot not only houses the Paradise Hills vineyard and winery, but the family compound as well. The Ruggieros eat, breathe and sleep this vineyard. At present, the vineyard is comprised of 6 acres of chardonnay, Cayuga, chambourcin, vignoles, vidal blanc and seyval blanc. The vines are now between 12 and 15 years old. Margaret avoids fungicides and herbicides when she can. Inorganic sprays, though necessary, are kept to a minimum, with organic sprays opted for when the weather is dry. She compensates for the lack of sprays by implementing vine training methods, such as cluster thinning, to keep the vines healthy.

I asked about wildlife on the property. It turns out that raccoons are wild about Cayuga grapes. The masked bandits will begin at one end of the Cayuga crop and completely clearcut it all the way up to the next grape, and then stop. To prevent this, as well as to keep out grape-loving birds, Margaret nets every single inch of every vineyard on the property. Both unusual and labor intensive, netting has the benefit of allowing the grapes to ripen longer before they are harvested. Margaret has plans to plant more grapes in the near future, hoping to bring the total to 11 acres, including adding cabernet franc to the current varieties and increasing the Cayuga crop. Apparently, raccoons are not the only Cayuga lovers in the state; it was the first varietal to sell out.

In quintessential Field of Dreams style, the Ruggiero’s went with a soft opening, sans fanfare, and the people came. The family credits this, in part, to the neighborly efforts of Joe Gouveia, fellow Wallingford winery owner. “He sends all of his customers here,” Margaret reported, “and sometimes he just stops by to see if we need anything.” Brenda has returned to the discussion at this point. She tells me the biggest gift has been all of the people they have encountered along the road to Paradise Hills Vineyard; they could not have been nicer. As she speaks, her eyes fill with tears. “People who come in here have so enriched my life.”

The tasting room hummed with visitors the whole while I was there. A bride to be, newlyweds, a birthday girl with a large entourage in tow – each guest was greeted promptly and genuinely by various members of the family. Upon my arrival, I had spotted three gentlemen at one of the round, raised tables enjoying some wine together. As I approached them to gather some customer reactions to the new winery, one of the men popped off his chair for a hasty retreat. It was Margaret’s father, Rich. He had just met these guests and was spending some time talking wine with them. After a quick group photo, he allowed me to survey the gentlemen, Jason Yekel and Richard Robertson, in private. What seemed to impress them the most was that the owners were on the floor, willing and happy to share their wine knowledge with whomever wanted to hear it. “When the winemaker takes the time to educate his customers,” explained Jason, “I enjoy the experience more and I am more likely to purchase wine here.” Both men left with a bottle of white in hand.

The Paradise Hills wines, like the vineyard itself, were a breath of fresh air. Margaret prefers bladder presses for the crush, and stems and seeds are removed in an effort to achieve lower tannin wines. Family members, alongside their staff, walk patrons through the tastings with stories about George Washington crossing this land in 1775, and show and tell oak staves. Large wine glasses perched atop coasters made from recycled slices of trees cut down on the property are swirled and lifted for crisp sips of chardonnay and Cayuga, among other varietals. It will come as no surprise that the blending is done as a joint effort between Margaret and her uncle, Al, just as the choice of which oaks to use and how much was determined by a family tasting orchestrated by Margaret. And, also not surprisingly, the entire family was in agreement. Always giving back to the community, a sign on the copper bar informs people that all tips placed in the tip jar will be collected for a student scholarship. Margaret is a big proponent of education. Ideally, she would like to send a student to school for winemaking but, in lieu of this, they have sent recipients on to study botany and horticulture. We continue to chat as we take a quick tour of the winemaking area, replete with gleaming Italian stainless steel tanks, Margaret’s ladder for accessing the tanks, and dwindling boxes of wine. We discuss yeasts, sulfites, pest management and sulfur sprays. Margaret points out a large vat of Chilean grapes she has brought in for blending. She is proud of what she and her family have built and plans to incorporate vineyard tours in the near future.

As I sit looking over my notes, I notice certain words were oft echoed beneath the grapevine-reminiscent chandeliers – family, passion, love. Brenda takes a moment to seek me out. She thanks me for taking the time for such a lengthy visit. “I feel like you’ve gotten to know not just our winery, but our family.” From my perspective, I do not believe I could have gotten to know one without the other; they are so integrally intertwined. Before I leave, I want to know which wine is Margaret’s favorite. Margaret will not single out any one in particular. It depends on her mood, the weather, what she’s eating. But of her wines, Margaret says, “it’s like history captured in a bottle.” The history of this winery is rich with sacrifice, passion, family and love. And it’s only the beginning.

Paradise Hills Vineyards, 15 Windswept Hill Road, Wallingford, is open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. Call (203) 284-0123 for more information or visit www.paradisehillsvineyard.com.

Wines to Uncork

Vino Blanco del Paradiso – A blend of Trebbiano from Italy and the vineyard’s own Cayuga grapes, the nose hints of apple that translates to cider on the tongue, ending with green apple. Crisp and dry.

Washington Trail White – A blend of estate Chardonnay and Seyval Blanc, the nose is warm with apple notes and a light toastiness, turning pleasantly chewy on the finish. The toastiness comes from the addition of oak staves in the stainless fermenting containers.

Chardonnay – Butterscotch jumps off the wine in huge waves, giving way to hints of pineapple, green apple and just a hint of apricot. A slight effervescence is discernible at the top which gives way to an acidic bite that finishes softly. This wine has a pleasant texture to it.

Washington Trail Red – A blend of California Cabernet Sauvignon, Washington state Merlot and Paradise Hills Chambourcin, this delightfully jammy wine shows plum on the nose, with dark cherry and spice flavors that meld into a velvety finish.

Cayuga White – Served last purportedly due to its sweeter quality, this 100% estate grown Cayuga wine gives off faint powder aromas and notes of vanilla. The vanilla comes through on the tongue and is joined with tropical fruit flavors and a touch of honey. I would consider this wine off-dry.

Reprinted with permission from www.wineinstituteofnewengland.com

Renee B. Allen, Founder and Director of the Wine Institute of New England (WINE) and a Certified Specialist of Wine, is a regular monthly contributor on the topic of local and sustainable wines. “Connecticut Corkers” will feature wineries, winemakers, and wine events throughout the state, with an emphasis on wine education and appreciation.

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