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No Dribbling This Time!

an hour from Boston and a stone’s throw from Newport, Rhode
Island, is the Westport Rivers Winery, which is owned and
operated by the Russell Family. A recent conversation with
winemaker Bill Russell reveals the rewarding side of the
business while also delving into its darker corners. Carol
and Bob Russell bought the land in 1982 and eighty acres of
vines were planted four years later. Their son, Rob, was and
continues to be the vineyard manager. In 1989 their other
son, Bill, came on board and began making wine. By 1991 they
were open to the public and continue to keep Massachusetts
on the map as a state quite capable of producing excellent

As the
craft wine industry grows, there is a looming issue of
whether small wineries will go the way of some craft
breweries and be bought up by larger companies. Russell
points to the history of American beer, noting that the top
ten breweries control something upward of 8O% of the
business. “Big business will tend to consolidate and then
from that consolidated state things like craft beers will
erupt in a reaction to a monopolistic state.” He explains
that what happened in the beer world is that all the beer
that was available to people in the states pretty much
tasted the same. Russell goes on to describe how the whole
craft beer revolution has resulted in more shelf space for
these brands, though they still only represent a tiny bit of
the marketplace as in maybe 2 to 2.5 percent. With regard to
wine, he sees the same thing happening. “Right now the big
wineries, the big concerns like Constellation Brand or
Beringer Blass, they’re all getting bigger. The simple fact
that Robert Mondavi sold out to Constellation just over a
year ago is a significant sign of the times that the big
winery concerns are getting bigger and that there’s a
consolidation going on.” And, although these major
corporations are buying up brands left and right while
simultaneously stating that the wines are going to remain
the same quality, Bill doesn’t believe that to be true.
“That’s all nice and flowery prose but it’s simply not
correct. The big winery concerns have one thing on their
mind: the bottom dollar.” This he fears could result in not
only a consolidation in the wine market but also one in
flavor profile. “Chardonnays are suddenly going to – even
though a lot of them taste the same now – taste even more
like each other.” How could this impact a winery like
Westport Rivers? “I think initially it’s going to hurt
because they’re going to throw an awful lot of money into
convincing the consumer that this is the way wine’s supposed
to taste,” speculates Russell. He also says that the fact
remains that propaganda is one of the most powerful tools
that can be used to convince people of just about anything.
“That’s just starting in the wine world, and I really hope
that I’m just being negative and all of this doesn’t really
happen. It’s good to be aware of it, of the possibility of
it, then we can end up short-circuiting it and not allowing
it to happen.” Russell contends that all it takes is for
customers to say: “I’m not buying these brands that are part
of these big international concerns anymore. I want to
support the small producer.” When asked how Westport Rivers
and other small wineries can combat this potentially
damaging blow, Russell stands by his wine. “Because we’re a
small producer in an interesting climate, our flavor profile
and structure of our wines are going to be different than
the ones the big international wine concerns are going to be
constructing. It’s just a matter of whether or not the
people will still find those wines from any region that are
produced by the small grower that actually cares about how
the wine tastes and creating a product that is delicious and
goes great with food.” Russell also fears that the large
wine corporations, by way of massive ad campaigns, could
significantly impact the smaller wine producers. And while
he doesn’t think that a level playing in the industry is a
reality, he takes pride in how Massachusetts wineries deal
with this. “In most cases, the wineries have built their
market with their own money, their own ‘rubber hits the road
mentality’, their own cars, sweat, ideas, and efforts,” he


The legislature recently overroad Governor Mitt Romney’s
veto, now allowing for direct shipping, though with very
specific limitations. It is likely that this final version
of the bill will sill face challenges. Because Westport
Rivers, as well as all other Massachusetts wineries, are
under the 3O,OOO gallon-a-year mark, the law doesn’t really
change anything significantly for them. At present, Westport
Rivers can ship wine to all states, except those that
prohibit it. Russell does however continue to keep a close
eye on the final outcome of this law. “The ideal for the
wine growers in this state, for these farmers, is to have
the market stay the same way it is.” Russell also thinks
that ultimately this is a consumer issue and they are the
ones who should have the say via, perhaps, a referendum. One
concern for Russell is that whatever form this law
ultimately takes it should be enforceable to allow everyone
the same footing.

in a BIG ONE
small wineries sell through their own on-premise stores and
sometimes through a distributor, as is the case with
Westport Rivers. To have your wine in not one, but two
renowned Boston restaurants is quite an accomplishment, and
Westport Rivers did just that. Sel de la Terre and
L’Espalier (both in Boston) feature Westport Rivers wine.
“Both restaurants have a special cuvee that we make just for
them,” says Russell. As it turns out, Frank McClelland, the
owner of both establishments, was the first to buy Westport
Rivers’ sparkling wine for a restaurant. L’Espalier’s house
sparkling wine is the “Cuvee L’Espalier”. L’Espalier boasts
about this on their website: “Nothing embodies the heart of
a Provencal bistro more than a carafe of rose wine on the
table, and Westport Rivers had produced a magnificent rose
for us. Based on the Pinot Noir grape, it exudes a bouquet
of fresh strawberries and raspberries that give way to a
slight spiciness with hints of rhubarb and floral accents,
making it a perfect match to any of our menu items.” A plug
like this is the stuff that dreams are made of. But how did
Westport land this account in the first place? Russell
credits his mother Carol. “We approached McClelland; we
actually got out and my mom who was doing sales at the time
sat down with him and his wine buyer at the time and tasted
some of the wine.”


Carol Russell’s father and grandfather owned a winery many
years ago in upstate New York – it’s actually still open,
just under different ownership. By the time Carol was born
the family had sold it off and she grew up only hearing the
stories. Russell speaks of his parents disdain years later
for the rampant development and the corresponding
disappearance of farmland when they were living in New
Jersey. “For most of their lives they’ve been involved in
preservation, especially farmland preservation effort.” When
Bob Russell and his business partners sold a company they
owned he found himself with a sudden windfall of money and
the chance to get into the wine business. After searches in
Oregon, California and Washington, the Russells met Dr.
Konstantin Frank while they were looking in the upstate New
York area. Dr. Frank is the founder of Vinefera Wine Cellars
and is considered one of the foremost patriarchs of vinefera
grape growing in the US. “He pretty much told my dad it
wouldn’t be a bad place down there on the south coast (of
Massachusetts) to start growing vinefera grapes so they
started looking around here,” says Russell. When they came
upon an old dairy farm on the market in Westport, their fate
was sealed.

Russell got his education in winemaking two ways. First, he
learned a great deal from Dr. Frank and, as it turned out,
his family also bought many of their vines from Vinefera
Cellars. Secondly, Bill met their winemaker, Eric Fry, who
Westport Rivers then hired as a winemaking consultant. In
1989, Fry left Vinefera Cellars and moved to the Long Island
area. This was also the first year Westport Rivers made
wine. “He was my open book. He was not quite my mentor but
rather a bottomless resource of how to do this stuff,” says
Russell of Fry’s contributions. To Russell, history also
plays a role in winemaking. “We’ve been doing it for 12,OOO
years so it’s not something new.” He also underscores how
different wine making is from other businesses. “Everybody
talks to everybody about everything. You can call up the
most well known, famous winemaker in the world and chat
about winemaking.” As far as Russell is concerned,
information in the winemaking world is extraordinarily
accessible through the ancient channels of human connection
and conversation. “There are a tremendous amount of people
in this industry that came into it sideways and they rise up
from within or come from another business and have entered
into winemaking and successfully made the


Sustainability is always a huge question mark with any
business, especially a small one. However, Westport Rivers
continues to prosper in an often very tight market. Bill
Russell himself is personally involved with wine tasting
events and knows that if he can get it into people’s mouths,
the wine will sell itself. “Last year we grew about 4O% over
the year before and this year we’re probably going to break
into the low 2Os,” says Russell. “I think it has a lot to do
with years of hard work establishing Westport Rivers as
representing real quality,” he adds. With regard to
advertising in the mass media, Westport doesn’t do any of
this. They do however have a relationship with the Handel
and Haydn Society in Boston and the Zeiterion Theater in New
Bedford, which are both co-branding partnerships. “We used
to do a ton of advertising but we couldn’t track that it was
having any effect,” says Russell. In 2OO4 Westport Rivers
produced approximately 19,OOO gallons of wine. In 2OO5 that
number dropped to about 6OOO gallons as a result of 12
consecutive days of rain this past fall, though Russell
wasn’t particularly concerned about this.


Westport Rivers has sourced grapes on two occasions for
different reasons, and Russell is open to it happening again
if the need arises. “We did buy grapes from Long Island for
red wine production from 1994 to 98, as well as a batch of
grapes from California in about 1999,” says Russell.
Westport Rivers was attempting to establish a market for an
inexpensive, crisp white table wine. They bought some grapes
from California and marketed it as Riversong. Unfortunately
it never really took off and the idea was tabled. Russell
also says that if something like a hurricane came and wiped
out their vineyards that they would be buying grapes from
somewhere else for sure.

with any business, the wine world has its unfavorable
elements and we take a look at some of these through the
eyes of Bill Russell. “There’s an awful lot of business
that’s done cash-in-hand; buying your way into restaurants,
buying your way onto menus, buying your way into getting
case displays in stores.” Russell claims that sometimes this
is done literally with cash in hand and other times via
things like sending someone on a trip or buying a restaurant
its advertising. “There’s an awful lot of money that goes
around from the big business to keep their position
expanding,” says Russell. Another tricky element, according
to Russell, is how much power the distributors have. “They
have a tremendous amount of sway in the marketplace, and if
you work with them it can work out very well for your
brand.” Westport Rivers works with United Liquors and
Russell speaks highly of this relationship saying, “They’ve
been very good to us.” Ultimately, Russell subscribes to the
school of thought that says that business is built by
relationships more than anything else. There are a few other
things that Russell likes to classify as pet peeves, for
example flavor profiles, which he thinks can be dictated by
the media. “We tend to give the media too much sway over our
lives.” He also takes issue with the 1OO point wine rating
scale. “The press and the media should point out the bad
bottles of wine that are out there. The rest of the ones
that are acceptable and drinkable, great, let’s write about
them from a qualitative perspective rather than a
quantitative one.” He further lashes out what he considers
to be a level of corruption with some wine magazines saying,
“If there’s any place where there’s actual collusion it’s
between the big business wineries and the big business wine
magazines. They are really hand-in-hand and even though it’s
been documented, people are slow on the uptake about it, or
they think it doesn’t really matter.”

just want to keep doing it better; not necessarily go bigger
or wider in distribution,” says Russell. “We continue to
look in-house at the quality, and focus on growing the best
grapes we can and making the best wine we can.” He points to
the pride many New England businesses take in having their
products be the best in the world, even if it’s still a
secret. “It’s that idea of ‘we’re an undiscovered country
and we’re not going to tell you how to find your way
there’.” At present, Russell says that the elastic band is
barely being stretched, and he believes his wines biggest
fans are the ones here in Massachusetts, which suits him
just fine. “We would be so flabbergasted or honored if all
of our wine got consumed in Massachusetts and we just
couldn’t make enough to satisfy the people from


Despite unpredictable weather patterns and a constantly
changing market, Westport Rivers looks as if they are here
to stay. From a business standpoint, however, Bill Russell
knows all too well and feels strongly that the further you
get away from the dirt, the more money is exchanged for
greater and greater economic gain. “The most eye opening
perspective is to realize that those people who are closest
to the ground, those people who are working the dirt, make
the least amount of money in this industry.” On a positive
note, he captures the success story of Westport Rivers with
a storybook summation. “When we put up 😯 acres of
grapevines in Westport, people thought we were crazy, and
when we said we were going to do sparkling wine, people
thought we were really crazy.” As it turns out, the Russell
family read the tea leaves right and poured their heart and
souls into establishing their winery as a well-respected
destination for wine aficionados from New England and


Rivers WINERY is known for its sparkling wine. They
also produce a popular Chardonnay, among others.
Bill Russell believes in doing a small amount of
one thing well; very well.” We decided we’d limit
ourselves and pursue excellence within the
limitations,” he says.


1999 Brut Cuvée RJR
1999 Blanc de Noirs
1997 Blanc de Blanc
2OOO Imperial Sec
1991 Cuvée Maximilian

Whites and Roses

2OO2 Chardonnay
2OO2 Rosé of Pinot Noir
2OO2 Johannesburg Riesling
2OO2 Pinot Blanc
2OO3 Pinot Gris
2OO4 Pineau de Pinot
2OO1 Russell Family Chardonnay

the near horizon for Westport Rivers releases is
the 2OO1 Brut and the 2OO2 Blanc de Noir, and then
the 1998 Blanc du Blanc followed by the 2OO3