Fruit of the vine: Mill River Winery serves up fine wines | News

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It’s a late, late fall afternoon when the sunlight takes on that certain amber glow. The parking lot at Mill River Winery on Route 1 in Rowley is full and the overflow lot’s filling up fast.

Outside, patrons gather on a patio with firepits ablaze and strings of decorative lights overhead. Laughter and music rise up, drowning out the sound of geese honking as they head south.

Mill River is one of a few Essex County wineries and it hints at the growth of Massachusetts wineries in the world of wine, agritourism and local commerce.

“We’re a small boutique winery, but we do put out a great deal…Everything is handcrafted, each tank is tended to…tasted, tested, you name it, so it makes good wine,” Laura Schonemann, MRW’s wine club director, said.

Mill River Winery, which opened in 2010, has grown like the two types of grapes in the vineyard out back of the rustic winery.

The two varieties — Cayuga and Frontenac — are blended with imported and locally grown grapes to produce a wide array of red, rose and white wines. Mill River sources premium world-class grapes that give its vintners the ability to produce wine that wouldn’t be possible with local cultivars alone.

On any given weekend, regardless of the season, Mill River is a buzz of activity with small get-togethers, wine-release celebrations, occasional live and local music. MRW offers options as a venue, either for private parties, corporate events or just walk-in visitors.

“In the summer, we have vineyard seating, which is nice. We have tables between the vines, which people love,” she said.

There is no “off-season” at this boutique winery, as it’s open Wednesdays through Sundays, May to December, and Fridays through Sundays January through May. Year-round outside seating is available on the patio, in addition to the 30 comfortable seats available inside.

“We have a patio that is open year round because we have fire pit seating and nice little patio lights — It’s really a nice vibe out there and right now, it’s decorated for the holidays, the greenery,” Schonemann said.

Mill River is founded, owned and operated by a team of women — founder/owner/lead winemaker Donna Martin, Schonemann, wine club & events manager, Lauren Flaherty, tasting room manager and Jennifer Ames, wine educator.

The pandemic forced MRW to explore changes that helped it survive and grow and have since been adopted as part of the business — a customer-friendly reservation system offering seating in the wine tasting room, outdoor patio seating and season seating among the vines. As the pandemic eased, the winery saw growth in visits and overall awareness of what it offers.

“We’re getting better known, people are just looking for different experiences and visiting a winery for a wine tasting fits the bill,” she said.

Of course, the winery has its loyal customer base, regulars, but also has a “wine club” with more than 800 members.

Club members get all kinds of perks beside the quarterly selections of wines, there’s wine release celebrations, pick-up parties, pairings matching different wine regions with foods, and even a Blending Bash, where members get to blend from three different barrels to make their own, customized bottle of red wine.

A small percent of club members have their goodies shipped to far-flung places such as California, Kentucky, Florida, Minnesota and Maine.

“A lot of the wine club members live over an hour away but visit weekly,” Schonemann said.

Visitors to the rustic winery can partake in its small bites menu, which changes with the season, and on occasion enjoy some local musicians. Everything about MRW is hyper-local — the wine names, the use of the redwing blackbird logo, the collector’s series watercolor by Newburyport artist David Ten Byck and even Nancy’s Cannon, a limited wine produced a few years ago in homage to the local feud between Rowley and Georgetown over who exactly has “Old Nancy,” a Revolutionary War-era cannon liberated from a British war ship after a sea skirmish.

“We like to celebrate everything local, we’re really strong on supporting locally owned business, women-owned business, and celebrating the area we call home.”

IF YOU GO

MILL RIVER WINERY

498 Newburyport Turnpike, Rowley 978-432-1280 www.millriverwines.com/ Open: Wednesdays-Sundays through December Friday — Sundays January through May

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