Things were coming together for Michael Connery’s plan to transition from the practice of law in the late 1990s.
The New York firm he had worked at since graduating from the University of Connecticut School of Law in 1975 was offering a program where attorneys could start scaling back their practice in anticipation of retirement from the law.
Then in 2001, he found a 108-acre property in Stonington surrounded by tidal marshes that featured a World War II-era airplane hangar and an old airfield. He knew something could be made of the land and the hangar, but he wasn’t sure what.
“I bought the property without a clear idea of what to do with it,” said Connery, who was the lead attorney in Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom’s labor and employment practice when he left the firm about a decade ago.
It didn’t take long for Connery to realize that some of that acreage could be put to good use by starting a vineyard. So the man who had had “a passing interest” in wine and considered himself “a recovering lawyer” set out his business plan for Saltwater Farm Vineyard. The airplane hangar later became the winery’s tasting room and event hall.
Owning a vineyard and producing wine struck him as an opportunity to get involved in manual labor blended with intellectual challenges, something he wasn’t getting from the practice of law.
“It was the opportunity to do something more tangible than practicing law, something more tactile,” he said.
And it was a significant departure from anything he had experienced in his life, considering he had grown up in a Rhode Island mill town far from any farms.
Connery was familiar with the vineyards on the North Fork of Long Island, and he believed he could produce good wines with similar growing conditions across the Long Island Sound.
So in 2003, he and a contracted vineyard manager prepped the land and planted the first grape vines. These days, Saltwater Farm Vineyard is a 15-acre operation that produces five different types of wines-cabernet franc, merlot, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and a rosÉ.
There wasn’t much of a learning curve when it came to starting the winery, just an ability to locate a talented vineyard operator and winemaker.
His vineyard manager and a French-born winemaking consultant are his only two full-time employees. Others help out with the tastings that are held in the airplane hangar Wednesdays through Sundays. “It mostly had to do with researching the right people to bring on board,” he said. “I have never pretended to be a winemaker.”
But he does take a hands-on approach with the planting and harvesting.
At this time of year, he focuses on thinning out the grape leaves so the grapes are exposed to as much sunlight as possible. Connery also is monitoring the vines for mold and mildew, which will sabotage the taste of the grapes.
The fruit used for the white wines will be harvested in mid-October, while the grapes for the red wines will stay on the vine as long as possible to develop the maximum amount of sugar, usually near the end of October if the weather cooperates.
Though this growing season has been very good, previous years haven’t. Two years ago, harsh winter conditions damaged merlot vines, and last summer was too wet for the grapes to fully develop their sugars.
“You realize how susceptible you are to the vagaries of the weather,” Connery said. “I’ve stopped watching the business channels and just watch The Weather Channel.”
He’s been helped by a steady wedding business that has developed now that brides are discovering the funky airport hangar with the vaulting roof and aluminum exterior.
In April, Saltwater Farm opened its tasting room and started selling its wines to the public. And the vineyard is now part of the Connecticut Wine Trail, which the Connecticut Vineyard and Winery Association created to bring exposure to local vineyards and wines.
The vineyard has produced more than 31,000 bottles of wine the past two years, which Connery said qualifies his vineyard as a boutique operation. There’s a chance the vineyard could grow to cover a total of 20 acres, but Connery is not rushing anything.
He’d rather grow the vineyard slowly so it doesn’t lose its intimate charm.
“It’s really been a gratifying and liberating experience,” he said.