Wine Trippin' in Rockland, Maine

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I am always on the lookout for unique up-and-coming wine regions that present an interesting story and a 2-7 day destination of food, wine, and fun. For heaven sakes, there must be a wine-life beyond Napa and Sonoma, and the Champagne region of France. Been there done that. So begins my search for fun, funky, deserving-of-press wine regions through the Wine Trippin’ series. First stop – the mid-coast wineries near Rockland, Maine.

Rockland can be a challenge to get to, but that makes it even more intriguing for me to put all the travel pieces together. It’s a tucked away seaport about 90 minutes from Portland, Maine. It’s an undiscovered treasure of food, wine, and destination activities. Who would have known?

To get there from So-Cal, my husband and I took a red-eye out of San Diego. A little over 11 hours and a connecting flight later we ended up at the Portland, Maine Jetport. We decided to take a day to recover from the plane ride before we headed out to Rockland, so we took a taxi the Danforth Inn to relax, refresh and visit the charming town of Portland and the many attractions of its Old Port area.

For nearly two centuries travelers have enjoyed the comfort and tranquility of The Danforth. It’s been renovated and renewed and showcases a discerning collection of art both in the bedrooms and public areas. I’d describe it as a small, luxury inn exuding old-world charm. The gardens are gorgeous, the neighborhood – historic and inspiring. Our bedroom was spacious, peaceful and beautifully appointed. I love their afternoon tradition of tea, coffee and homemade cookies, and the next morning’s breakfast was another tribute to their eye to detail and customer comfort. I highly recommend this Inn.

The Corner Room restaurant was recommended for dinner. It’s an 8 minute taxi ride from the Inn, but is definitely walkable with the right shoes and cooperative weather. The place was packed with locals and tourists. The rustic Italian-inspired menu features fresh housemade pastas, pizzas, antipasti and artisanal breads. The all-Italian wine list rounds out the experience, and both food and menu have approachable prices. All I can say is …Wow! Great service, great food, great atmosphere. If I lived here, it would be my favorite place to dine.

Once seated, a beautiful tray of fresh housemade focacia bread, olive oil, and small bowls of sea salt and freshly ground pepper appeared in front of us. We were puzzled by the bowls of salt and pepper, so asked what to do with it. We were told to add “a bit of both” to the olive oil before we dipped our bread. Holy cow, what a great taste experience! Who would have thought something so simple could be so good?

On to the main course, we ordered a pepperoni pizza, mac & cheese with truffle oil, and linguini with crab and a beautiful Chianti wine.

The restaurant is just steps away from from the Old Port area, which is one of the most successful revitalized warehouse districts in the country. The Old Port area is both a working waterfront and a chic shopping, dining, and entertainment district. All in all, the Inn, the restaurant and shopping in the Old Port area was a beautiful start to our wine trippin’ vacation.

After an amazing breakfast at the Inn, our “ride” arrived to take us to Rockland. Owner Jim Gamage of All Aboard picked us up in a very fancy limo for the 90-minute trip to Rockland. I had no idea Jim and his assistant Chad would become our new-best friend over the coming week. My tip to you – contact Jim before you come to Rockland. He’ll professionally and gracefully assist you with any transportation or sightseeing needs.

Before we took the turn into Rockland, we stopped at Cold River Vodka distillery. Founded in 2005, Cold River Vodka, located in Freeport, Maine, has earned a sterling reputation for an unmatched potato based product. I was blown away by its distinct nose and smooth finish. This was distinctly different than any thing I have ever tasted.

From our tour I learned the gluten-free vodka is hand-crafted and triple-distilled in a copper potstill, using water from Maine’s Cold River and farm-fresh Maine potatoes. Maine Distilleries, which produces solely Cold River Vodka, is the only “ground-to-glass” distillery in the nation, where the company controls every aspect of production – from the planting of the potatoes to final bottling. Let me just say, WOW and YUM. I now only want to drink copper distilled vodkas.

Rated the Number 1 Vodka in the world by Wine Enthusiast, named “a coming superstar” by spirits expert F. Paul Pacult, and winner of a Double Gold from San Francisco’s World Spirits Competition, Cold River Classic and Blueberry Vodkas easily earn regional and national attention. We were also treated to a sneak preview of their new gin. Amazing, incredible, untouchable. Available only on the east coast now, I had several bottles shipped home. So sad that we can’t order on line, by fax, email or phone for a West Coast delivery. So unless you live on the East Coast, you MUST visit and ship a bunch home like we did.

Arriving in Rockland, we checked in to the Berry Manor Inn. OMG. This is a beautiful historic B & B within walking distance of most everything. Can I just say fabulous rooms, gourmet breakfasts, and special care is just the beginning of your journey when you stay here. Gracious and grandeur all wrapped up in nicely balanced décor that speaks to both men and women. Our room was filled with fabulous things like a big fluffy bed, a flat-screen TV, and yea! free Internet. Did I mention the unbelievable breakfasts? Owners Mike and Cheryl were the perfect hosts. They are fun and fabulous, knowledgeable and caring, helpful and hospitable … to a level I’ve not experienced before.

The next morning we hopped on the trolley and headed out to the mid-coast wine country about 40 minutes away. Maine boasts 14 wineries, five of them in mid-coast Maine. We were treated to three of them: Sweetgrass Winery and Distillery, Savage Oakes Winery, and Cellardoor Winery. For $25.00 you can have the same experience. Just hop on the trolley (managed by All Aboard) in downtown Rockland or at your B & B and enjoy the 3-4 hour tour.

I think the single most interesting thing that stands out for me as a result of this tour is how different and unique Maine wineries are. In Maine, the wineries are often working farms and they make sprits (gin, vodka, rum) along side their wines. It’s a unique treat to have a guided wine/spirit tasting in the same place at the same time. Some of the wines are made from local grapes, but due to a short growing season, some of the wineries import grapes and/or juice come from warmer weather states like California and Washington. The wine is still made in Maine, just with “away” grapes and juice. I loved tasting the fruit wines (which are REALLY good) and spirits (excellent) in the same tasting room. This was a delightful part of the trip for my husband and I.

Here’s a round up of the wineries we visited on the All Aboard Trolley for a mere $25.00.

Savage Oakes Vineyard and Winery, Union, ME

This 200-year-old working farm only about 20 miles from the Inn. We strolled through the blueberry fields to see the vineyards with owners Elmer and Holly Savage. Nine varieties are grown for their handcrafted wine. We learned about wine making in Maine from ground to class. This is the only winery to in the state to use 100% of their own grapes in their wines. In the tasting room we enjoyed selections featuring their wines of Maine grown grapes and blueberries. My recommendations begin with the Seyval Blanc, a dry white aged in French Oak. Expect a crisp dry white with a hint of a fruit on the finish. At $12.99 – it’s a steal. I also enjoyed the Barn Red. Grown from 100% Leon Millot Maine grapes this dry red was was light bodied and delightful at $14.99. Finally the Blueberry Pi (100% Maine grown wild blueberries) is an amazing dessert wine made from their own wild blueberries. Like a fresh blueberry pie this wine is loaded with sweet bursts of blueberry flavor. With a residual sugar of 8% and a price of $15.99 we left with a smile on our face and 2 bottles in our bag.

Sweetgrass Farm Winery & Distillery, Union, ME

This is an award-winning winery & distillery. Set in a rich traditional farm setting with panoramic views of the Medomak River Valley, this was another eye-opener for us. We learned more about Maine wines and became schooled on spirit production from owner/winemaker Keith Bodine. We loved his Maine grown fruit wines, ports, brandies and spirits. Of note is Keith’s Back River Gin, named as one of the top 50 spirits in 2008 Wine Enthusiast. It’s a smooth American style dry gin with a hint of spice and blueberries. Great on the rocks but also makes a fine gin and tonic. I know this for a fact, as I ordered it that night at The Pearl Restaurant in Rockland – twice!

We also loved the “Smash” wines: Cranberry Smash (a cranberry taste explosion), the Peach Smash (a delicious peachy port) and the Blueberry Smash (a port with a robust attitude of blueberries, blackberries, and roasted currants). About $15 each, we had all three shipped home.

Cellardoor Vineyard in Lincolnville, ME

Just up a road, we stopped for lunch and tastings at a leading pioneer of grape growing and wine making in Maine. Owner Bettina Doulton greeted us and soon mesmerized us with her passion and knowledge of the wines and property. This 68 beautiful acre property boasts a restored 18th century barn housing an Old World style tasting room. Free wine tasting, cellar tours and even a hiking tour are available to visitors. Special events and festivals are scheduled throughout the year.

Only 6-acres of vineyards are planted at this time. This gives them about 25% of grapes they need, so they import much of their juice. Still, they have an impressive wine list to choose from … 19 or so. From Viognier to Price Valliant to Clay Hill Blue, these wines are VERY good. If you like dry, sweet or dessert style it’s all here to taste in a gorgeous Napa-style environment. I love their tag line: Live your life. Be who you are. Drink good wine along the way.

This certainly was a great place to end our multi-hour wine tour. We hopped back on the trolley and headed back to Rockland, with a new found appreciation for Maine wines. My suggestion? When you’ve been there, done that, check the wine and spirit scene out in Rockland Maine. I am pretty sure you’ll be thanking me.

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