The gnarled grapevines that snake along two dozen rolling acres on Stoney Hill Road stand as survivors, straight rows that have withstood the cold, the creatures who would rob their fruit, and, perhaps most of all, the critics.
Cathy Mathiesen helped to plant them all, sometimes dragging herself between plants, too tired - or too sensible, she says - to get off her knees. Her hands, aged and worn from the work of making wine, still prune the vines. Thirty-five years after Chicama Vineyard's initial planting, and nearly a year after her husband died, she stands upright behind the wine sales counter, wrapping bottles in pink tissue, arranging gift boxes, preparing for another season, this time presiding over three generations of women who carry on the enterprise many considered crazy back when Cathy Mathiesen and her husband George began it.
Their daughter Lynn Hoeft crawled across the vineyard with her mother, inserting the six-inch beginnings of chardonnay, cabernet, merlot and zinfandel into the sandy soil, every eight feet. She was a teenager when her father left his career as a television executive. He moved the Mathiesens, six children in all, and had them clearing the trees from their new West Tisbury property. Ms. Hoeft would later leave the Island, working vineyards in California and wine shops in New York city, but these days she moves with earthy sense and purpose around the winery she again calls home. "It just feels right," she shrugs.
She and her mother have a to-do list. "As long as your arm," Ms. Hoeft says as she inspects vines that have yet to bud this spring. Since Mr. Mathiesen died, Chicama's deliveries off Island have slowed. They had to hire a tradesman when the tractor broke down. "That's something George would have done," Mrs. Mathiesen says. So an extra pair of hands, apart from new viticulture knowledge, will be welcome when, on Memorial Day weekend, Ms. Hoeft's daughter, Rosemary, returns from Napa Valley College to become the third generation to put down roots at Chicama Vineyard.
"I talked to her yesterday - she can't wait to come home," Ms. Hoeft says. "She is an ‘up' person, a happy person, and now she knows a lot about wine from a different perspective than either of us do, after going to school in a different state, a winemaking state. So we're looking forward to the different perspective."
Mrs. Mathiesen's luminous blue eyes twinkle with pride. "It just tickles me," she says girlishly.
Tasks this year include bottling what they believe is Chicama Vineyard's best crop yet. Last summer was particularly dry, with virtually no rain from the middle of June to the middle of September, and that is good for wine. From this, all grapes of their own, they will make a blend in honor of George. They have not decided what to call it, or tried and decided on exactly which grapes, but they want to make a fine wine as a sort of gift for the man who began it all.
"We just had an idea, it would be something..." Mrs. Mathiesen says and her words tangle. Though composed, she is deeply moved at what he meant, not just to her and the winery, but to the Island. "A lot of people knew George - he was on the Martha's Vineyard Commission, head of the hospital board, he was very community-minded, and people on the Island would know. We're not going to make a huge amount."
Whatever the volume, the wine will evidence their decades of cultivating, learning more about wine, refining the ways to get what they wanted. It is something they could not achieve at the beginning, when they grafted their first Euopean vines with hardier American rootstock.
"There were low points," Mrs. Mathiesen recalls, telling the story of when a crew from a Boston television station came down with a truck and rode ahead of them, filming as they unloaded their first batch at the package store.
"I wasn't really proud of that wine. It wasn't the wine I'd hoped we'd make one day. So that was kind of hard. But we had to sell it because that's what we had to sell. It wasn't as good as we knew it would be one day, but we did what we had to."
What George and Cathy Mathiesen and their family had to do was enormous. The couple had lived in San Francisco for years, when Reunite and Blue Nun were popular wines, spending their weekends at then-sleepy vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties. They had friends who owned a winery. "And you know they were never working," laughs Mrs. Mathiesen. "It was this wonderful old stone building, and they'd bring the wine out and we'd have just the greatest hour or two."
The couple had moved east when they discovered Martha's Vineyard during their holidays. They obtained 20 years worth of weather records from the editor of the Vineyard Gazette, Henry Beetle Hough, and worked out that the Island had equivalent heat summation, which ripens the fruit, as Burgundy, France.
"Well, lots of our friends thought we were crazy, of course," Mrs. Mathiesen recalls. There were few wineries in the northeast then, and theirs would become the first bonded winery in Massachusetts. "But we had had such marvelous times [vacationing] here for two or three years in a row. We fell in love like I think you really fall in love with a place, and we said, ‘Why should we go back to California?' "
The Mathiesens had saved enough to live for five years while they developed the wine-making operation, but America hit a financial speed bump in the early 1970s and the budget diminished to three years. At the end of that third year, Cathy Mathiesen was making 200 loaves of bread a week to sell at the farmers' market here.
"And not in a commercial kitchen, either," adds her daughter.
"No, in my home kitchen. And I'd get up at three in the morning, or four, and start to take them out of the freezer to heat them so they were crisp and fresh-smelling and good. And I loved the farmers market, too, and I loved bread baking.
"The farmers' market had been running on the Island I think before World War II maybe, but when we came people were just starting to talk about it again, so we were instrumental in getting it started that time. It was a great group of people who were out there, you know, selling plants and jellies and I don't know, all kinds of good things."
Meanwhile the vines were plagued by birds and deer. To fend off the deer, they tried peanut butter on foil, garlic on the vines, electric fences. Finally, they fenced in the perimeter, all 50 acres. When raccoons ate the fruit, Gus Ben David was there every day trapping before the harvest. To frighten the birds, which one year ate more than half the grapes, the Mathiesen sons jumped on their motorcycles, riding between the rows blazing their engines. When that failed, they tried electronic bird alarms.
The Vineyard's climate has warmed during the winery's lifetime, changing the kinds of grapes they can grow. This year, they will plant malbec and muscat blanc. But Ms. Hoeft vividly recalls an early harvest when they had to battle the bitter cold.
"I remember driving the yellow Blazer, on which I burnt out the clutch," she laughs, "down the rows one of the early frost nights. We had some blocks, [filled with] some kind of petroleum byproduct, that you lit on fire to make heat on the vineyard when it was cold in the spring [when the grape vines can be vulnerable]. It was the dark of night, and all these blocks were burning to make heat in the vineyard and I was driving up, headlights on, lighting the blocks. It was a scary, fun adventure."
Her mother explains they had been in bed when George came home on a late boat. "He rushed in and said, ‘Get up, get up, I've stopped at the farm and the temperature is dropping.' We'd purchased the blocks, and we had to light them individually, every six feet, and there was smoke. We were trying to protect the buds."
But by the time they got to end of the field, nearly at dawn, the temperature had dropped so quickly the buds were starting to freeze back where they'd started.
"We were sticky and covered with soot...sweaty, covered with all sorts of unspeakable things, and it didn't work," Ms. Hoeft says.
Mrs. Mathiesen adds: "I remember my son coming up to me. He put his arms around me and said, ‘Mom, it'll be okay next year, you'll see. It'll be different.' And it was," she says.
And it was.
"It was hard work. Sometimes they were bumps in the road that were really depressions," she says. "But if I look at it overall I think nothing but good."
Her daughter calls it love. A loving family doing work they love in a continuing adventure they still adore.
Mrs. Mathiesen says she never thought of selling after her husband died. She wanted Lynn and Rosemary to have Chicama Vineyards if they wanted it. And she knows that had he lived, George would be out there today.
"I think of that a lot - what does he think of this now?" she sighs. "I think he thinks we've done well by him. And us."