By CAITLIN ANDREWS
The road to Mermaid Hill Vineyard winds off Currier Road in Concord like a vine up a trellis.
Your first payoff for making the trek is visual. The driveway rolls past thousands of vines marching up the hill veiled in protective netting like it’s their wedding night. Goats eyeball you for snacks and scratches. A vista of sprawling forests around you makes it seem like the farmhouse atop the knoll is the last bastion of civilization.
The second payoff is the 14% alcohol-by-volume wine, created with the vineyard’s own Marquette grapes. A careful sip brings you notes of oak and spice. A hint of black pepper.
It’s taken Mermaid Hill owners Ray Conner and Hugh Herr more than two years to bring their wine to table. Half the journey was reviving the vines that had been growing on the property for at least six years before they bought the land in April 2018.
The other half? The paperwork. It takes a lot to nurture a vineyard from first plantings to selling your first bottle, especially when you’re a small, local grower like Mermaid Hill.
“It’s a complex process. … What I’d love to see at some point is just a how-to guide – and maybe I just haven’t found it yet – to setting up a winery in New Hampshire,” Conner said. “I mean, you don’t even know what you don’t know.”
Lewis Eaton of Sweet Baby Vineyard in Hampstead said it can be “unbelievably expensive” to create and sell your own wine.
As the president of the New Hampshire Winery Association, he said the capital needed to start a vineyard – both time and money-wise – can be daunting to small businesses.
“I think it’s a challenging process,” he said. “It’s rewarding if you find a niche and know what you’re good at. Some people come into it with a romantic vision and find out there’s a lot of work associated with it.
“It deters some people,” Eaton continued. “You have to find your comfort zone and what you’re willing to put up with in order to sell your product and get people into your tasting room.”
First, there’s the land cost. Eaton said farmland in southern New Hampshire costs about $150,000 an acre. You can put about 150 vines on that much space, meaning you’ll have to sell a lot of wine to get your money back.
If you want a storefront, there’s rent to consider.
And then there is the paperwork: Eaton recommends going to your municipality to make sure you have the right zoning in place to run an agricultural business.
Next is the Alcohol, Tobacco, Tax and Trade Bureau. Eaton said it takes about six months to go through the vetting process, a system he said is “more of a paper shuffle” through the internet.
“One of the biggest reasons it takes so long is that they’re (TTB) in Ohio and you’re out here,” he said.
Once you get your federal approvals, you have to go to the state. The cost of a license depends on how much wine you want to sell. Fewer than a thousand cases costs about $100. Over a thousand will run you about $1,140.
Both licenses need to be renewed annually, Eaton said. Plus, you owe the federal government a surety bond. When he started Sweet Baby 11 years ago, he said that cost him about $1,000.
So you’ve got your land, your vines, your processing equipment, and the federal and state governments have given you the green light. You’re ready to start making wine.
But then there are the taxes. Eaton said there are about six taxes on every dollar you make: a business tax, an income tax, a federal excise tax, a business profit tax, a business enterprise tax and a state excise tax.
All the hurdles it costs to put your product out there “almost makes making wine look easy,” Eaton said.
Back to the vineyard
Conner and Herr inherited the grapes and the wine-making infrastructure at Mermaid Hill from the previous owners, who grew grapes for six years at the site before selling the land.
But it still took a while to get off the ground: Mermaid Hill just started tastings this summer.
Conner said there are barriers to getting her product off the ground, too.
“There are barriers for local growers and small producers to getting into the state stores and stuff, just because of capacity,” she said. “You have to have a certain number of cases available before you can get in.”
Still, the work has been worth it, Conner said. She’s billing Mermaid Hill as a boutique, organic vineyard.
Tastings are available the first Sunday of every month, but you can also pick up a bottle of Mermaid Hill Marquette at the Concord Food Co-op and Marketplace New England in Concord, and the Warner Public Market in Warner, Conner said. It’s also being served at Revival Kitchen & Bar and Whiskey & Wine in Concord.