She's published three books, runs a critically acclaimed restaurant and is quietly crafting some of the most compelling biodynamic wine in the U.S. But even some of the nerdiest wine nerds have never heard of Deirdre Heekin.
Among many other things (erstwhile dancer, interior designer, organic farmer) Heekin is the vigneronne behind La Garagista, a small, homespun winemaking operation she runs, quite literally, out of her garage in the great grape-growing state of ... Vermont. After a decade as a self-taught sommelier at Osteria Pane e Salute, the Tuscan restaurant she runs with her husband, Caleb Barber, Heekin finally decided it was time to learn about wine "kinesthetically," by getting into the dirt with her own two hands.
In 2008, she planted her own vines using cuttings from a nearby vineyard, and three years later she bottled her first vintage. She farms biodynamically (an esoteric but proven practice that treats the vineyard as a living organism), hand-harvests and crushes grapes the old-fashioned way (by foot), adding very little sulfur and eschewing oak.
As the title of her recently published book, An Unlikely Vineyard (Chelsea Green Publishing, $35), implies, the Green Mountain State is not the first place you think of when talking about fine domestic wine. Many of the bizarro-sounding, cold-hardy hybrid grapes grown at this latitude—La Crescent, Marquette, Frontenac Gris—yield wines that, while serviceable, don't exactly get the pulse racing. But in Heekin's hands, the grapes are transformed into world-class wines that exemplify her own quirky palate and her admiration for natural winemakers working in similar climates in Italy, France and Slovenia. "They're not the noble grapes, but they can go beautifully with the food we grow here," she says. "You have to take them at face value."
This sentiment is echoed by one of her early champions, Master Sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier, Beverage Director of Rouge Tomate in New York City, who's been pouring Heekin's wines since day one. "We're talking about grape varieties that people don't know," Lepeltier says. "But the wines are stunning. They're fresh, they're bright and they're not too high in alcohol."
In other words, they're intensely food friendly. The Vinu Jancu, an Italian-inspired orange wine made from the highly aromatic La Crescent, "is absolutely perfect with fall foods, like mushrooms, pumpkin and game meat," Lepeltier says. She likens the Marquette in the Damejeanne blend to a Beaujolais or a Barbera—light-bodied, dry and berry-fruited, it's an ideal partner for roast chicken. And as for the pleasantly yeasty CdF pet-nat (or petillant naturel, a bottle-fermented sparkler), "At the restaurant, I was pairing it with rhubarb dishes," Lepeltier says. "Because of its high acidity, I think it would pair really nicely with cranberry, too."
In New York, sample Heekin's wines by the glass at all of the Blue Ribbon restaurants and, once it's re-opened in its downtown location, the newly revamped Rouge Tomate. If grab-and-go is more your style, the wines are available for purchase at Frankly Wines and 67 Wines. Outside of New York, check Heekin's stockist list for purveyors along the East Coast.
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