Orono High School alumnus Matt Kling has had a long-time love for good wine. But in 2004, his passion became a business and a decidedly different lifestyle choice when he and his wife Amy Lillard purchased a vineyard, La Gramière, from a retiring farmer in the south of France.
Prior to the vineyard purchase, the couple was already living in Paris; Kling’s company had given him an opportunity to move overseas, and France was an easy choice for Lillard, who is fluent in French and worked in the wine industry for years. After a few years of city living, the pair went out on a limb (or, ahem, a vine) to venture into the world of winemaking in the French countryside.
The vineyard was well established and had been well cared for, but the couple faced an uphill battle as they learned the ropes of farming, harvesting, wine-making and sales. “That first year was completely insane!” says Kling. “Neither of us had ever pruned a vineyard. There was a 100 percent learning curve.” Kling explains that without a staff—and only a few quieter months in the winter—the business is a labor of love.
La Gramière is certified organic—called “bio” in Europe—and keeping the wines as natural as possible has been a focus from the start. “People are paying more attention to how things are grown,” says Kling, and there was simply no other way they wanted to farm. So the pair handpicks grapes, keeps the plants free from pesticides and chemicals, and vinifies using natural yeasts. As a result, Kling says the terroir—French for “the essence of the place”—is obvious in the taste of the wine.
“When you have a year like this, you taste that power of the sun and the hot summer,” says Kling, adding that “we’re not into a lot of manipulation, so the wine will be an expression of what the year was like. This year, it’s hot and dry, like a bottle of sunshine.”
In general, La Gramière follows a growing trend toward organic, locally sourced products. Kling and Lillard note that especially in the United States, people are getting more sophisticated about their groceries—preferring those produced using sustainable practices—and wine is no exception.
“We’re not trying to change the rules, but we want people to realize there’s somebody behind their wine, to think, ‘Wow, it’s got depth and personality. It’s reasonably priced,’ ” says Lillard. “When you imagine the work that goes into a bottle, you’ll never again say it’s expensive … we work our tails off!”
The long process begins in January, when the couple starts pruning the dormant vines. The grapes grow through the long, hot Mediterranean growing season, during which the couple plows frequently to keep weeds down. Because it’s an organic farm, herbicides are avoided, and only natural substances are used to fend off mold and diseases.
In late summer, Kling and Lillard begin sending grape samples to a lab to help determine when to harvest. This year, it was earlier than normal because of a hot summer. Then it’s on to the fermentation process, which is a mix of art and science.
“Amy’s a really good wine taster,” says Kling, and her experience in the industry shines in her input into each year’s wines. Sales and marketing are a constant; Lillard kept a blog, and they keep up relationships with vendors around the world. In the end, La Gramière produces and sells about 12,000 bottles of wine annually.
One U.S. vendor is Balanced Wine Selections, an online wine-seller with a warehouse in California. Chris Walsh, a partner in the business, lives in Shorewood and channels decades of wine-collecting and travel into making great, lesser-known international wines available to the U.S. market. The company sells wine from about 30 producers—“all of whom are not household names, but all of whom are producing wines of exceptional quality and care,” says Walsh. He devotes much of his time to maintaining relationships with artisan producers. Wines are bought directly from producers, shipped, and stored in temperature-controlled warehouses to give buyers higher-quality wines at affordable prices.
Walsh notes that a large part of the philosophy of Balanced Wine Selections is changing the typical U.S. buyer’s approach to wine. “The consumer in the United States is growing into wine,” says Walsh. “We’re looking for wines that are a great value, but that can be on people’s table every day. Like the great sommelier Richard Betts would say, ‘Wine’s a grocery. Not a luxury.’”
In addition to international sales, Kling and Lillard dabble in the food truck scene. They sell from a vintage Citroën van—an ex-horse trailer—they converted into a traveling wine bar through a Kickstarter campaign. When they’re not elbow-deep in grape vines or sticking labels on bottles, they’re selling wine by the glass or hosting tasting events at festivals and markets. In this way, La Gramière caters to both global and hyper-local audiences.
Matt’s sister, Elise Kling Marty of Minnetonka, is a freelance graphic designer and helped with logo and label designs for La Gramière. Though their parents still live in Long Lake, Marty is the only Kling sibling that doesn’t live overseas—besides Matt, they have a sister in London and a brother in Switzerland. Marty has been able to contribute to the startup from her home in the States. “Amy had a really good vision for what she wanted,” says Marty. “I think it takes a lot of courage to do what they’ve done. It’s so inspiring. I know it’s not easy to follow your dream; it takes a lot of you.”
Expecting company? Wine whiz Chris Walsh of Balanced Wine Selections shares his top French wine suggestions for typical holiday fare.
2012 La Gramière Green Label
Southern Rhône region
It’s a grenache with just a touch of syrah that is fruity, earthy and savory, with good acidity and a Provençal herbal quality. For pairings, think Thanksgiving—turkey and stuffing with herbs—but don’t stop there. It has enough body and character to transition well to a holiday meal starring roasted or grilled meats.
2010 La Gramière Gray Label
Southern Rhône region
This pure grenache wine has lots of ripe fruit and a touch less tannin than the Green Label. It evokes the essential character of this sun-drenched region: rocky hillsides with lavender and thyme, with that typical grenache spiciness and a hint of licorice. It works well with all of the same holiday offerings as the Green Label.
Champagne Étienne Calsac L’Echappee Extra Brut Non-Vintage
Côte des Blancs region of Champagne
Ninety-five percent chardonnay and 5 percent pinot noir. It’s crisp and chalky, with a hint of sea salt and aromas of brioche, apple, pear and fresh peach that work their way onto the palate, along with a fine, creamy mousse. It’s a classic holiday drink with versatility for your holiday table.
2013 Domaine Newman Monthelie
Cote de Beaune region of Burgundy
A 100-percent pinot noir with exceptional fruit, balanced acid and fine tannins. The darker red fruits, spice, energy and elegance of this beautiful wine will marry well with turkey, ham or roasts.
2014 Julien Braud Muscadet Sevre et Maine sur lie Les Vignes du Bourg
Sevre et Maine region
Will oysters or other seafood make an appearance on your holiday table? This is your wine. But the tangy, lively, dry personality of this muscadet makes it an exceptional aperitif as well as the perfect foil for holiday fowl or pork.