The big wooden doors of the Chicama Vineyards shop closed for the last time Sunday evening at two minutes past five. The shelves of the shop, once stocked with wines made from the grapes grown outside and vinegars infused with that wine, were empty, or nearly so. Hundreds of people stopped in over the weekend to celebrate the end of an adventure in farming and business begun 37 years ago by the late George and Catherine Mathiesen.
On Sunday, with the turn of a lock, that adventure came to a close. It was a bittersweet ending.
“On Saturday, there were people lined up for an hour to buy things. The line extended down the ramp and on out to the gravel. It was people who have come to the winery for the last 20 years, people who had come once just to take a tour, friends of our family’s from when we lived in New York, strangers. It was very festive,” said Tim Mathiesen, one of six Mathiesen children, all of whom spent at least part of their lives working on the property, which spans roughly 50 acres across Oak Bluffs, Tisbury and West Tisbury.
Whether it was out in the fields among the grape vines, around the dinner table sampling and critiquing various wines or behind the cash register at the wine shop, every Mathiesen left a mark on Chicama Vineyards. In this tradition, the closing weekend was also a family affair. Mr. Mathiesen unpacked a box of wine goblets as his sister, Lynne Hoeft, stood behind the cash register tallying sales. His wife, Robin, poured wine for tastings and another sister, Kris McDermet, took stock of inventory.
“We’re really very happy,” Mrs. McDermet said. She came to the Vineyard from her Vermont home to help her siblings close the shop down. “Mom and Dad had a long career, working into their 80s.” Her brother echoed the sentiment: “You know, yesterday people were coming up to us and saying, Isn’t this sad? But we don’t feel that way. It’s not something we’re going to miss. It’s all really positive stuff. It was a great gift we got from Mom and Dad. It’s a great thing that we’ve been able to provide to the Vineyard community for all these years and a great jumping off point for us for something new. It isn’t about leaving something behind.”
In the 1960s, the Mathiesen family — all eight of them — boarded a boat and sailed up the New England coastline. One stop was the Vineyard. It was love at first sight for Mr. Mathiesen, an assistant manager with the San Francisco company Westinghouse Broadcasting. Armed with a love of wine and a bit of moxie, he and his wife packed up their brood and moved to West Tisbury in 1971, to a piece of land with sandy soil and an unpredictable climate.
The couple obtained 20 years worth of weather records from Vineyard Gazette editor Henry Beetle Hough, planted six acres with grapes and three years later harvested their first crop. The next year, they began bottling wine and Chicama Vineyards became the first licensed winery in the commonwealth.
The Mathiesens were creative and dogged in their efforts. They grafted European grapevines with hardier American ones and sold items from bread to candy to make ends meet. In 1985, they petitioned the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to establish Martha’s Vineyard as a distinct viticultural area (a vineyard) and succeeded. “It’s really hard work,” Tim Mathiesen said Sunday as he sat outside in the shade and watched as customers and visitors came and went. “Farming is really hard work. If you’re growing corn, or soybeans, or green beans, it’s hard work. And with a winery, you’re running another business. To run a farm and make wine, it’s double the complications.”
Nevertheless, it was work the couple found rewarding. “It was their passion,” Mr. Mathiesen said. The passion was contagious and soon spread to their children and customers alike. “We all worked here off and on, sometimes in short stints, like Kris who would work here one week, two weeks, one weekend if something was going on. Mike, before he passed, was here 15 years. I did one stint for ten years, then left, then came back for another 12 year stint, then left, then did another one for a year. Sean came and went a few times. We all participated at different levels,” he said. Lynne Hoeft put in the most time. “For the first six years, I was here on and off and then in 1978, I went full time,” she said.
In a 2002 article in Martha’s Vineyard Magazine, Mr. Mathiesen said of his customers: “We were talking about this the other day, about why people come to this place. Some days we see 300 or 400 people. We think that the reason they come is that they never get a chance to connect what they eat or drink with anything other than a bottle or a package. Over there you can see little grape plants six months old, and down there, 20-year-old plants. I think that’s another kind of connectedness between this place and the people. We are so far removed from the producers of our food and fiber that we’re fascinated to see it made.”
To ensure protection of their property, the Mathiesens sold four acres to the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank in 2001. The land, in Oak Bluffs, borders Duarte’s Pond and now has trails through it. Two years later, the land bank bought an agricultural preservation restriction and trail easement on 21 acres located in Vineyard Haven. The restriction forever protects the land against subdivision and development and ensures it will be used for agricultural purposes.
After Mr. Mathiesen died in 2005, his children became partners with their mother in the business. After she died in 2007, the next generation gathered to discuss the winery’s future. “No one in the family wanted to continue the business on their own,” Mr. Mathiesen said.
When negotiations with a local buyer who wanted to continue the operation fell through, Mrs. Hoeft began contacting wineries throughout New England. “We began selling off pieces of equipment — pieces of the bottling line, the harvest equipment, bulk wine — to different places. It’s funny because this all gets a second life in a way. It’s very exciting,” Mr. Mathiesen said.
In May, the family signed a purchase and sale agreement with Vineyard Meadow LLC. The names of the new owners have not been disclosed, but it is understood that they intend to keep horses on the farm.
“They talked about keeping the vines going that are still here and turning the rest into pastured land because they’re horse people,” Mr. Mathiesen said. “The land is fully protected and they want to leave it open.”
When the deal closes, Mrs. Hoeft and Mr. Mathiesen, both of whom still live on the Island, will move to Vermont to be near their sister, Mrs. McDermet. “This is a nice piece of land, one of the few open spots of 50 acres that hasn’t been developed. It’s kind of sad that it won’t be a farm, or won’t be the same farm. It won’t be a farm in the same way. It’s been part of so many people’s lives,” said Mr. Mathiesen. “It’ll be fun to come back here in a few years and see what they’ve done with the farm, see if they really kept the vines and the houses.”
For now, the family is tying up loose ends. “It’s a lot of work to close down a business,” Mrs. Hoeft said on Monday, after the weekend rush. “That’s basically it. Closing down the physical part of the winery, that’s really the major job that takes time from day to day to day.” They hope to have everything wrapped up by Columbus Day.
“We are working hard to sell things or give things away to people who will use it or will give them good memories,” Mrs. Hoeft said. “To people in the neighborhood, people who came out to the sale. We’re trying to give things away with our name on it — a sticker, a bottle opener — so people, at least for a while can see that sticker or that opener and think, these people are nice and they had a great business. If we can get people to think that way, oh these people are nice and they had a great business, we’ll feel successful.”
This column is meant to reflect all aspects of agricultural activity and farm life on the Vineyard. To reach Julia Rappaport, please call 508-627-4311, extension 120, or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.