By Christine Conroy
If you’re looking for a vineyard with a family feel, look no further than Paradise Hills Vineyard in Wallingford. This Tuscan-themed winery is one of the most accessible wineries on the Trail, open every single day, even some holidays 11 AM – 8 PM (Sundays until 6 PM), making it a great daytime or evening destination.
I had the pleasure of meeting with Margaret Ruggerio Mena, winemaker and owner at Paradise Hills, on a late summer evening. We grabbed a table near the vines outside, sipped on Cayuga White and chatted about the vineyard before heading inside for a behind-the-scenes look at their winemaking.
All in the Family
The Ruggerio’s have been making wine for over 35 years, growing grapes and selling to other vineyards long before they opened the doors of Paradise Hills. Their story dates back to the eighties on the corner of Paradise Avenue & Hill Street in Hamden, hence their name, when brothers Richard and Al began home winemaking. In high school, Rich’s older daughter Margaret took a botany class and became interested in pursuing a career with agriculture. She graduated from UCONN with her degree in Horticulture and shortly after, the family pursued their dream of opening a vineyard for the public.
Margaret (Winemaker), her sister Katherine, Uncle Al (President), and mother Brenda each have equal ownership in the winery. Rich remains involved as Founder and Margaret’s husband Marcello is the General Manager. Various cousins and relatives help out in the tasting room and fields adding to the intertwined family tree, or shall we say vine?
Now think of your own family tree. Have you ever gotten multiple family members to agree on something? Well Paradise certainly has. Before a new wine is released it needs to have 100% enthusiastic buy-in from SEVEN core family members. Wow! How do they not rip each other’s hair out? “It’s the wine!” jokes Margaret.
Many guests may not know just how eco-conscious Paradise Hills is. Even having been there a few times myself, I didn’t either! Their green thumbs for growing superior vines are complemented with green hearts too! The winery building is heated entirely through geothermal heat during the colder months, utilizing heat from the ground below. The building doesn’t even have propane or electric heat back-up the system is so efficient.
They strategically designed their building so that their fermenting room is upstairs from their bottling and labeling room allowing gravity to work in their favor. When it’s time to bottle they run a tube from their casks down a level and let gravity take it from there. This method not only saves energy, but also contributes to a better tasting wine as it’s less disruptive than traditional pumping methods.
The Bottling and Storage room was purposefully placed below ground and encased in concrete keeping it cooler – better for wine storage and avoiding the need for much air conditioning for temperature control.
Even the fence posts you’ll see in front of the winery are created from trees harvested on the property.
The most important thing to the Ruggerio’s is a good quality wine. Margaret’s motto is, “You can’t make good wine from bad grapes!” Their great-tasting wines start in the fields and her extensive botany coursework in college has helped the vineyard tremendously. Her knowledge of soils, nutrients, and hydration are all important for initial planting, sustainable fertilization techniques, and year over year quality and continuity in their winemaking.
When it comes time to harvest, the family doesn’t just pick a date and go. They continuously are testing the brix level of their grapes and will not begin their hand picking until a certain level is reached – calculations Margaret completes for each type of grape they have growing on the property.
Once they pick their grapes they are transported to their crush pad where the bundles are weighed and run through their crusher/de-stemmer. Reds start fermentation first while whites go directly in to their custom-made Italian casks, temperature controlled closely through their geothermal system. Bottling and labeling is all completed by hand, which is gentler on the wine. From initial seed to bottle 4-5 years later, any wine you taste at Paradise has been grown and made with the utmost care. It is hard work, but what the Ruggerio’s call a ‘labor of love.’
Why Should You Visit?
- Hig-end Tasting Experience – This is unmatched in Connecticut. The Ruggerio’s wanted to create a tasting experience for each guest, educating you not only about their vineyard but about wine in general. Every tasting will be completed using crystal stemware complete with separate glasses for whites, reds, and dessert wines. Yes, you can buy the logo glass for your collection but you won’t be tasting out of it (unless you really want to pass up the exquisite glasses they have!).
- Happy Hour at a Vineyard? – Grab a pizza and head to Paradise with co-workers on a weeknight to unwind – exactly what I saw on my Wednesday visit there! What a fabulous idea and way to enjoy the outdoors while the weather is nice.
- Meet the Paradise Hills Pup – If you’re a dog lover, you’ve got to meet the new unofficial mascot of Paradise Hills. If you visit on an evening or weekend you might catch Otis the Rhodesian Ridgeback posing for an Instagram photo! Follow him @paradisehillspup.
- You need to try their Cayuga White – It’s one of their most popular wines and the bottle is simply beautiful! Meet up with family on a Sunday afternoon or grab your girlfriends for a Friday night out. Paradise is always welcoming and a great place to gather!
Featured and pouring image by Winter Caplanson. Other photos contributed by author.