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A vineyard grows in Stonington

Nine years ago, about 100 acres of land near Stonington's Wequetequock Cove was overgrown, with a fairly decrepit airport hangar and a runway and taxiway.

It had been passed over for preservation and targeted as a site for new homes before Michael Connery, then a New York attorney with local connections, stepped in. He saw a unique, beautiful setting, and paid a reasonable $1.5 million, even though he wasn't sure what he'd do with it.

Now, a reed-lined gravel road off Elm Street opens up to a modernized hangar that, instead of housing airplanes, hosts wine tastings and weddings. Knotty vines sprout up from regimented rows on either side of a grassy landing strip stretching to the water.

Though they have been making wine and holding events over the past couple years, Saltwater Farm Vineyard just opened to the public, quietly, this spring.

Connery, who was looking to leave the world of law, had no experience making wine. But considering the land's farming roots can be traced back to the 1600s, a vineyard became the logical choice and a testing of the soil proved his idea could work.

He researched the vineyards of Long Island and consulted with Steve Mudd, who Connery says is the grandfather of vineyards on the other side of the Sound. He found David Verhasselt of Preston, who has experience on a smaller scale, to run the vineyard.

The vines were planted in 2003 - to make cabernet franc, merlot, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and a little pinot noir. Connery tasted the first harvest in 2006.

"I was too ignorant to be nervous," Connery says. "Ignorance has been on my side since the beginning."

But Connery was "pleasantly surprised" and has since aimed to maintain fairly straightforward wines. The whites are light and fresh and the reds austere and dry. The cabernet franc has become the vineyard's signature wine simply because it turned out the best.

"It surprises people," Connery says. "Many people in New England don't grow reds at all."

Along the way, they learned some of the slight differences between the climate here and Long Island. The growing season in Connecticut starts about two weeks later, and it's a little colder, which hurt the merlot last year. But, making the best of the situation, they'll turn the grapes into a rose, which will be ready in July.

The wine is already being sold at the Dogwatch Cafe, Water Street Cafe and Skippers Dock.

• • •

More than the vineyard itself, Saltwater Farms' centerpiece is the airport hangar, designed by architect Stephen Lloyd of Chester.

The small, private airport dates back to the 1930s. The original hangar was designed by John W. Lincoln, an architect and engineer living in Stonington who is credited with sharing in the creation of the modern Quonset hut. It was an airport for several years before the U.S. entry into World War II, when the government closed such airports for public use, Connery says.

The property was used for aviation until 1946. Through the decades after that it lived as a warehouse, restaurant, light manufacturing facility and home to squatters.

In its new incarnation, workers took the old corrugated metal off the building, insulated it from the outside and clad it in aluminum, giving it a contemporary look.

The wood on the inside the cavernous ceiling is all original, the planks on the walls running in slanted lines. They built a mezzanine inside overlooking the main level and added some stonework.

"I wanted to maintain as much of the original structure as I could," Connery says. "It's dramatic, but simple."

The entryway for planes was turned into huge glass windows looking out onto a stone terrace and the vineyard. Wine barrels serve as tables and huge metal tanks full of wine line one wall. A second arched building was added to the hangar, which now serves as a room for brides.

It's those brides, and grooms, who have raised the profile of the vineyard in the world of weddings, through bridal blogs and weddings, even though many locals don't even know it's there.

"It's something that just evolved, knowing we had this fabulous space," says Connery's wife, Merrily, who is a real estate broker in New York City and serves as a wedding coordinator for the vineyard. "There's a little edginess to it that no other place in the area has."

Connery says the vineyard has brought in millions of dollars to the area for wedding-related businesses, from caterers and photographers to hotels and florists. He also sees other area wineries, not as competition, but as working together.

"We can create a destination," Connery says. 'The more the better as far as I'm concerned."


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