Cranberries uncorked

Hardwick winery owners, grower combine for the right tart touch
By Pamela H. Sacks

TELEGRAM & GAZETTE
2005

John Samek has the winery, and Steve Prouty has the cranberry bog.

Both men are farmers. With Mr. Samek in the lead, they have joined forces to produce a genuine “Made in Hardwick” wine.

Mr. Samek, who, with his wife, Audrey, owns and operates Hardwick Vineyard & Winery, has made Massetts. Cranberry wine for the past seven years. They used to use concentrate to give the beverage its appealing, fruity tartness.

The wine was good, but townspeople would ask Mr. Samek, “Are these Steve’s cranberries?” Then last year, Mr. Samek decided it was time to answer that question with a “Yes.” He bought six barrels of cranberries from Mr. Prouty. The Sameks make six wines, and Massetts. Cranberry is their best seller by two to one.

The two farmers, both of who once operated dairy farms, could not be more pleased that they can support each other’s efforts. In the past decade, each in his own way has diversified in order to continue to farm and keep agriculture alive in Central Massachusetts.

“When you look at Worcester County and see so many farms going, to diversify and be able to make a living in 2005 on a farm is pretty exciting,” Mr. Samek said. “We’re close to being there in hopes that our children will stay on the farm and continue to farm.”

“It brings attention to agriculture in our area,” Mr. Prouty said. “This area now has a winery, a bog and an equestrian farm.”

Both men gave up dairy farming in 1995 and moved on to other agricultural pursuits. Mr. Prouty, who owns Clover Hill Farm on Barre Road, focused on produce and opened the Clover Hill Country Store.

The Sameks bought the 150-acre Giles E. Warner Farm on Greenwich Road in 1997. It came with a dilapidated Federal style mansion built in 1795. They restored the mansion to its original splendor and added living quarters and a timber-frame barn with oak cut from the farm. The Sameks, in addition to being open daily, host weddings, holidays parties and all sorts of special events.

That same year, the Sameks, who both grew up on dairy farms – she in West Brookfield and he in Brimfield – started working with Joe Compagnone, who owned Mella Winery in Dudley, to develop expertise in producing wine. They did that for two years, and then Mr. Compagnone retired and sold the business to them.

“We moved the equipment and took ownership of the formulas and the inventory,” Mr. Samek said, adding that Mr. Compagnone had made a cranberry wine.

In 1999, the Sameks got down to serious business growing grapes. They settled on the hardy hybrids, Marechal Foch for red wine and Cayuga for white. There were periods of trial and error. They now grow six varieties of grapes on 10 acres of land. The Sameks hire a professional winemaker and have used the expertise of wine consultants.

“The vineyard is more work than I ever thought,” Mr. Samek remarked. “It took four years to become commercial.”

Besides Massetts. Cranberry, the Sameks make Giles E. Warner dry white, Yankee Boy semi-dry white, Yankee Girl Blush, Hardwick Red and Quabbin Native. Massetts., by the way, was the abbreviation for Massachusetts during the Federal period of the late 18th century.

The wine is sold at the vineyard barn, and the Sameks hold wine tastings from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week. It is also available at Molly’s Farm Stand in Barre, the Petersham General Store and the Hardwick General Store.

While the Sameks were developing their vineyard and winery, across town Mr. Prouty was cultivating a 3-acre cranberry bog on the edge of the Ware River. Cranberries on the Cape, for sure, but in Hardwick?

“We were in Wellfleet on the Cape, and the Cape Cod Times had an article about cranberries,” Mr. Prouty recalled. “They were in short supply, and there was a high demand.”

Mr. Prouty researched and discovered cranberries, unlike the volatile dairy business, had a relatively stable price. Around the same time, he got the opportunity to join the Massachusetts Farm Viability Plan, in which the state offers grant money to continue agricultural pursuits. In turn, the farmer signs a covenant agreeing not to sell land for 10 years. “Which was fine,” Mr. Prouty said.

State agricultural experts visited Clover Hill and raised the possibility of a horse farm or compost operation. Mr. Prouty suggested cranberries. “I told them, `I don’t need a compost operation. I’ve shoveled enough in my life,’” he recounted with a laugh.

Clover Hill Farm had the ideal site for a cranberry bog – acidic soil and a river edge.

“You need a lot of water,” Mr. Prouty explained. “By a natural process, the vines grow on the edge of brooks and swamps. Cranberries grew wild here forever.”

With the grant, he bought an irrigation system and 6 tons of vines from a Cape farmer.

“We were going down the road, and this stuff is blowing out the back,” he said. “It was the scariest day of my life.”

Mr. Prouty planted the bog in 1999. He consulted with experienced cranberry farmers to learn the tricks that lead to success. He also takes a yearly class in Plymouth given by the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association.

A bog takes five years to mature. Mr. Prouty got a few cranberries the second year and a larger crop each year after that. In the last two years, he and his 14-year-old son, Dana, who works alongside him and does much of the labor, harvested 120 barrels.

“You have to have tons of patience to be successful at this,” Mr. Prouty noted.

And plenty of stamina, as well. Cranberry vines have to be kept wet in the cold weather or they will freeze. “Memorial Day three years ago, I had to get up in the middle of the night and turn on the irrigation to save the crop,” Mr. Prouty said.

This year, the Sameks doubled their purchase of Clover Hill cranberries, from six barrels to 12. As to the balance, a portion goes to local stores, and the bulk is purchased by a small family business, Willows Cranberries in Wareham, which packages them in 1-pound bags and ships them to a middleman in the mid-Atlantic states. They end up on the shelves of grocery stores.

“The cool part about this is if we maintain good agricultural practices, the bog could be there for generations,” Mr. Prouty said.

The berries delivered to the Hardwick Vineyard & Winery are pressed. The juice is frozen and then added to the wine during the bottling process. Mr. Samek acknowledges that it would be easier to continue to use the concentrate, but he and his wife view Massetts. Cranberry in a special way.

“Steve’s family has been in town for five generations,” Mr. Samek said. “They’re history – a part of Hardwick. It being our best seller, there’s a marriage there.”