Maine isn’t the first place that comes to mind when I think of wine. Lobster, brews, blackberries—sure. But on a recent trip to Portland, after reading about Oyster River Winegrowers, I decided it was worth a detour. So my hubby and I drove about two hours through gorgeous scenery to the teeny town of Warren—and arrived at a winery that I can only describe as one-of-a-kind.
Gone were the soaring vineyard panoramas of Napa or Provence. Instead, we pulled up to a humble, shabby but charming barn. It looked loved and well used—as expected in a place like Maine. Inside was a hodgepodge of vintage wares, antique furnishings, and cozy seating areas—worn arm chairs, a record player, and a picnic table against the window, where we sat. (We couldn’t resist the view of a trio of cows munching on the grass.) A wooden tasting bar flanked the middle area, and stainless-steel tanks and old oak barrels were on the floor below. It all gave off the impression of laid-back comfort—even if you weren’t quite sure what you’d happened upon yet.
Oyster River has been in operation since 2007, with winemaker and Fresno State alum Brian Smith leading the vino operations. In the beginning, the vineyards were maintained by draft horsepower and by hand. The team later shifted to accommodate growing interest in its product. But through it all, the mantra here has been the same: Produce wine and cider in a low-intervention style (wines are unfiltered, with minimal sulfites for still and none for sparkling) with estate fruit that’s farmed organically as well as fruit from the other vineyards Oyster manages in the Northeast.
You can’t see the vineyards through the forest of trees because they’re set back from the barn. (We were told we could walk to them if we’d like, but my terror of bugs in a strange land got the better of me.)
Instead, we sampled our way through a number of creations: the 2020 Carbonic Nation (made with 100 percent Maine fruit), the 2021 Morphos Pet Nat (made from a blend of cayuga and seval grapes from the Finger Lakes) and the 2020 Oyster River Red (a merlot from the North Fork of Long Island).
But what I liked the most, and what I ultimately brought home, was the 2020 Justice Cabernet Franc from Long Island, wild fermented in concrete. It was funky in a good way, like most (well-made) unfiltered wine is. There’s a raw, wild taste to it, like the fruit hasn’t yet been tamed and tempered. And, yet, it’s clean and pure, with bright notes of strawberry, a hint of grassiness and a tangy, lingering mouthfeel. In the tasting room, I tried it at room temp. But at home—on the recommendation of the Oyster River folks—I sampled it chilled. I found it more appealing at room temp, but I did appreciate how the cooler notes brightened the berry flavors and tamped down the earthiness.
It’s an interesting iteration of Cab Franc, and I found it intriguing—as did many other people, because the wine is currently sold out. The Justice wine changes each year; the next iteration will be a riesling. (A portion of the proceeds are donated to a different organization each year as well.) In the meantime, the 2018 Chaos, an 100 percent estate-grown sparkling made in the traditional method using organic La Crescent and Vidal Blanc grapes, sounds enticing.