Deirdre Heekin is the brains and palate behind La Garagista Farm + Winery in Vermont.
Deirdre Heekin pioneered the quiet evolution of the Vermont wine world. La Garagista, her acclaimed winery and home farm, situated on Mount Hunger Road in Bethel, has mentored a handful of vignerons rising into the upper echelons of the national wine community. Since releasing her first vintage over a decade ago, Heekin’s bottles have spearheaded the transformation of Vermont’s wine reputation from a niche community of hybrid-relying vineyards to a nationally recognized community of hybrid-relying vineyards. Devotees include New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov and the James Beard Foundation, which nominated Heekin for Outstanding Wine, Spirits or Beer Producer in 2019. This year’s vintage is her 10th.
From a trio of biodynamic vineyards — one wedged into volcanic earth beside a rural chunk of the Green Mountains, while the others are tucked along a Lake Champlain coastline flush with limestone and clay — Heekin farms, ferments and bottles natural wines with zero chemical intervention from vine to vat. Twelve years after planting her first home-farm vineyard and making five-gallon buckets of wine in her bathtub, Heekin’s influence echoes far beyond state borders and into the shifting paradigm of how we talk about wine today and, of course, how we drink it.
A pillar of Heekin’s philosophy is ironclad: Wine is made in the vineyard. “The term ‘winegrower’ is important to me,” she says. “Wine happens during the season, in the field, as a result of my farming. Fermentation is simply the sister to photosynthesis. My job is a shepherd, guiding and interpreting along the way, not imposing myself or a preconceived idea.”
Heekin’s approach to biodynamic wine growing and wine making oscillates on the principle that the vineyard is an ecological entity regarded from the soil up. Soil fertility, without the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, is paramount. Nothing is added to the final product — like the blushing red or pétillant-naturel in your wineglass — to clarify, preserve or synthetically manipulate the taste. “The wine is ultimately guided by how I adapt the farming to the season and to my palate,” says Heekin. “Wine is a story of place, and of my place within the landscape.”
Heekin began making wine at home as a sommelier. It was an educational experiment of sorts — a way to better understand, firsthand, the process of fermentation to bolster her work tableside. It soon became clear that the home farm wasn’t temporary; it was something she could — and wanted to — live wholly. Yet, the question “Why Vermont?” is a fair one for a rugged climate that locals joke comes in five seasons: almost winter, winter, still winter, mud season and construction. “This is where I live,” she says. “I’m lucky that Vermont happens to be an exciting place to grow wine. As a wine region, it has some of the oldest bedrock on the planet. The varieties we grow here are also fascinating to me. I love that we are at the frontier of a region. We have this moment of freedom to respond to what wine wants to be in Vermont, and the possibilities seem infinite.”
“When I started La Garagista, no one talked about hybrids because of the disrespect they have endured for the past 100 years,” she says. “Now that it’s becoming recognized that serious, thoughtful wines can be made from hybrid varieties in a region like Vermont, we’re seeing the conversation shift to the varieties and to all they represent in terms of how the wine community will respond to the hard facts of climate change.”
The modern-day sommelier, she points out, is voracious and curious. Consumers and buyers are constantly seeking new frontiers, with an openness to taste something novel and approach wine with less baggage. An expansion of what the wine world views as “excellent” bottles, coupled with an increasing desire to know where and how wine is farmed, offers a global innovation in the current wine dialogue. It’s one that hasn’t happened on a mainstream scale since the so-called “Judgment of Paris” in 1976, when Californian wines bested France in two blind-tasted categories. Multiple wine writers have hailed 2019 as the “year of the hybrid.” Heekin’s response? “You have a dynamic movement beginning to ferment.”
Pun intended — and appreciated.