The Accidental Oenophile
After spending more than three decades at Skadden, partner Michael Connery (NY/Labor and Employment/’75) felt somewhat trepidatious about his 2006 retirement. He hardly considered himself the type to spend his afternoons by the pool or winters in Florida.
Instead, Michael turned his attention to a 108-acre parcel of land in Stonington, Connecticut, he had happened upon in 2001. The property, a mixture of fertile soil and salty tidal lands off the Fisher Island Sound in the southeast corner of the state, featured an airplane hanger and a working runway. When he saw the property, Michael had no idea what he would do with it, but he knew he had to buy it.
“How many people can say they own an airport?” he thought.
Michael initially considered building a small development on the land, which was zoned of 10 lots on its picturesque ridge, but couldn’t imagine himself as a developer. Soon his plan transformed into something more pastoral. From the shore, Michael could see the tip of the North Fork of Long Island, home to the vineyards he often visited with his wife Merrily. If vineyards could grow grapes over there, a mere 10 minuets away by ferry, he should be able to grow them here, he thought. Though never a particularly ardent wine enthusiast, Michael decided to turn his land into a vineyard and open a winery.
The soil was tested, the hanger retrofitted to serve as a tasting room, the permits and zoning secured. The first vines were planted in 2003, and three years later, just as Michael was retiring from Skadden, the Saltwater Farm Vineyard harvested its first grapes.
The new business required many of the skills Michael developed in his 21 years at Skadden - researching problems, tracking down experts, putting out proverbial fires. He hired a French consulting winemaker to oversee the process and a manger to run the tasting room. A season crew of 10 or 12 workings tends to the grapes.
The vineyard now covers about 15 acres and produces approximately 1,500 cases annually of five varietals - merlot, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, cabernet franc and “a little bit” of pinot noir. Michael’s goal is to eventually double production, which would constitute the maximum the land can produce without giving up on his private airport. (Michael doesn’t have a pilots license, though his friends and neighbors occasionally fly into Stonington Airfield, as the locals call it.)
Ten years after he bought the property, the vineyard is a success, Michael says - depending on how one defines success.
“Profitability is a very relative term,” he laughs. “Mainly, I don’t want to lose to much money.”
Instead, Michael measures success in the quality of the wine and by how well it sells at local restaurants, sure as the Waterstreet and Dogwatch Cafes. He also credits the hanger’s unanticipated development into a popular wedding site with keeping the winery afloat.
“If you were to just grow fruit and make wines,” Michael says “that would be very challenging economically.”
The wine sells for $19 to $28 per bottle and is available solely at the winery and nearby restaurants and retailers. Michael has little interest n expanding to say, New York: The pleasure of being able to order Saltwater Farm win while out with friends in Manhattan would be outweighed by the many challenges of working with a New York distributor, he says. His goal for now is for Saltwater Farm to be considered a top regional wine.
“This has worked out beautifully,” he says.