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The Fizz #57: Kathline Chery of Kalchē Wine Co aligns grapes, fruit, & herbs, showcasing the full picture of Vermont terroir
In this issue, Kathline and I talk about how her time at Hiyu influenced her vision for Kalchē, her creativity in the winemaking process, and how Kalchē approaches sustainability.
Kathline Chery, co-founder of Kalchē Wine Co, is creating blends that showcase the full picture of Vermont terroir. Adding herbs, apples, and plums to grapes allows her to create products that celebrate diverse local ingredients, working off of the free expression she learned in her time making beer and cider, where playing with new ingredients is celebrated. Kalchē, a wine co-operative with co-founders Chery, Justine Belle Lambright, and Grace Meyer, is a Vermont-based winery pushing forward conversations about equity in the wine industry, sustainability, and what it means to use all of a product. The result of their efforts are delicious and unexpected wines that get me excited about the bright future of the Northeastern winemaking scene.
In this issue, Kathline and I talk about her history in the wine industry and what got her to create a wine collective, how she thinks about fermenting and blending ingredients, and where she sees opportunity for more sustainable production.
Margot: How did you get into the wine industry?
Kathline: It was a long journey to get here that wasn't straightforward at all, but now being here, it all makes sense. The signs were there. My senior year, I found this internship at Heritage Radio Network. It really opened my eyes to the idea that you could be more than a chef in the food world.
I ended up working with some of the shows that were more focused on fermentation. I was just getting into craft beer. When I was there, I met a bunch of people who were into social justice in food. I started taking interest in urban farming, but still just from a distance.
Heritage Foods USA, the other side of the company, would wholesale animals from these co-ops in Vermont, and then sell them to restaurants in the city. We did a trip up to Bardwell in Vermont—a goat dairy farm. I woke up early in the morning to this hammock overlooking a pond, a double rainbow appeared, and there's goats jumping on hills—I was just like, what is this place? It's magical. We spent the weekend visiting different farms. They were all co-ops. I just thought wow these people live in a paradise and they're so supported by their community. That really stuck with me.
I finished my internship and found a farm apprenticeship in Pennsylvania at the Rodale Institute. I got to learn about soil microbes and composts, working with animals and vegetables. They also had an orchard. I messed around with making wild cider, and back at Heritage, I was making some home brews. Then I went back to the city and started working at She Wolf Bakery learning how to ferment with sourdough.
In 2019, I made wine in Vermont with Fable Farm. In Texas, I worked with Robert Clay. During the pandemic, Hiyu Wine Farm released a fellowship for folks who are interested in continuing their wine education and who have a farmer or culinary background. I landed that amazing gig and flew over there, literally into the pocket of magicalness.
It was a really good break for me in the sense that I got to play. I would help out in the vineyard every morning, I'd wake up at six and help with animal chores. Nate [Ready, winemaker at Hiyu] gave us the opportunity to make wine. After he harvested the best clusters, there were a lot of seconds there. Me just wanting to play around with some stuff, I just clipped everything that was still hanging on the property. They have a pear orchard on the property too.
Instead of doing nothing, I was doing the most and climbing the trees and picking the pears and learning how the machines worked. I made a perry and co-fermented that with second grapes from all over. I also made a piquette from some of the pressings from one of his wines. He doesn't press it all the way, you know? That was also really lovely. Hiyu was a great experience.
Margot: What's something that you learned from your experience at Hiyu?
Kathline: Intentionality is everything. Living in the world that Nate and China created, it was so intentional—everything from the chores to waking up at six. Each animal was living on a different hill and sometimes I was carrying these bales of hay and buckets of grain. By the time you're done with the chickens and the goats, then you're at the top of the vineyard as the sun is rising, and you’re done with chores and looking at Mt. Hood, and it's just this magical thing. The fog is descending. It's just beautiful. And it's on purpose. I felt good. I felt really good. I had purpose—I was helping these animals survive, giving them fresh water and food. Intentionality of streaming in the human wellbeing into the work—it was special.
Even to the people that were drawn to his project—we'd have these amazing dinners with all these likeminded wine people. I ended up meeting Jirka, Imane, that whole west coast crew. I was like, who are these POC women coming through? They made me feel like I could build a life in wine because there's already this network.
I want Kalchē to be intentionally real so it is a magnet to people who are curious about worlds that you can create using the things that are around you.
Margot: That’s awesome, it sounds like it was a really formative experience for you. Kalchē is a cooperative. Can you give me a sense of what that means and how it's translated into your work?
Kathline: We're a worker owned wine cooperative, as opposed to a lot of the wine cooperatives that exist where they're more like shared spaces. That's not our model so far. The three of us are equal owners and it works in a way where it's not a top down spreading of wealth. We all get to make decisions together. One person, one vote, and wealth gets redistributed between us. As we take on new workers, they will also have shares in the company. That's how we are trying to build this model.
We've all worked in the industry and have been negatively affected by these top down structures that just use the employees that they need to produce their products and really take advantage of them. We're trying to see how can we make it work where we're all valued and trying to make it humane, if you will. We're going to run into issues and grow from them—it's a new business, it's a new model for winemaking.
Margot: Are you planning on bringing on more people soon? Or is that like a we'll get to it when we need it sort of thing?
Kathline: Well we do need it, but we'll get to it when we can actually afford to compensate them. We did want to bring on a helper this season, but the cash flow is not there yet. It's been a really hard thing, because there are lots of people that want to intern, and I've done the intern thing for free and it's not fun at all. We definitely need the help, but we'd be going against our tenants if we just hired them without finding way to compensate.
Margot: Are you taking volunteers?
Kathline: That is what we're gonna have to do. We have a lot of community support—volunteers in the sense of a barn raising is what we’re looking at. We’re hoping that we can just cycle through groups of people and not depend on one person or two people that are volunteering for the season.
There's some local restaurants who we've worked with who have volunteer days for their restaurant employees. They compensate their employees for their time and donate that time to Kalchē.
Margot: That's super cool. That's a great idea for restaurants in general—helping their staff understand better about farming or winemaking or whatever it is that they're interested in while making sure they're still getting paid. That's really cool.
Can you tell me a bit about your production structure? Are you farming vineyards? Do you have orchards you're looking after, or do you work with local growers? And if so, how do you choose them?
Kathline: Right now we are mostly a negociant label. We’re mostly getting fruit from growers in the area. There's this vineyard out in Huntington, it was actually the first vineyard I ever stepped foot on in Vermont back in 2019. The vineyard wasn't being managed last season, but we were able to step in just in time to put on bird nets and get fruit. I've spent this season pruning it, and now trying to get into some biodynamic sprays and things like that. It's four acres, so it's a nice little size. If we do this work now, in a couple years, it’s going to be prolific.
Another thing on labor, we had an opportunity for another vineyard that was a little bit closer to the winery, but with the labor aspect, we just couldn’t do it. We need this fruit—if we had the labor and the resources to replant the stuff that's not taking, then this would be a great opportunity for us long term, but we have to be realistic because it's mostly myself in the vineyard. That's why it's just Huntington for now.
Margot: That makes sense. For the growers that you purchase fruit from, how do you choose them?
Kathline: We just take them all [laughs]. No, I’m just joking. There is a fruit shortage right now, especially for sustainably grown fruit that's not sprayed conventionally. Since working here in the past, I knew some of the key places where fruit was grown. I ended up living with a grower out in Northfield, this older woman and her family—I lived in her basement during the season. Before I left, she said if you ever come back to Vermont, I have a row of grapes for you. She was literally my first call and she said hey the vineyard is yours to work with.
I wish I could be out out there more with her, but she is an hour and a half away from the vineyard. All of the vineyards are above Barnard and all over the map, so traveling is another thing that we have to keep in mind. We have another grower in Waitsfield, Vermont. That's our largest supply. It's 10 acres, and they just got a new vineyard manager who was an arborist. Our growers so far have all not been spraying conventionally except for in one project, where we really needed this fruit to save us. 90% of our fruit that we're taking in is not conventionally sprayed.
Our goal was 500 cases, and we ended up working with Snow Farm, which is one of the older vineyards out here. He does spray, and he has no intention of changing. We ended up getting one ton of grapes from them and that really ended up saving us because a lot of the other growers were making outlandish estimations of the fruit that they thought they would bring in. Then the reality came out to be a third of what they said. It's hard to guesstimate that sort of thing. I think we're going to rely on apples more this year.
Margot: A lot of the wine that you make is mixed with other types of fruit. Why is that important for you?
Kathline: That's what we have out here in Vermont. Apples—that's the number one producer. Almost every lawn has an apple tree. Especially as a younger business, we’re trying to use the resources that we have. Grapes are such a hot commodity, especially well grown grapes. If you take into account my background, too—I started in craft beer and then did cider. When it comes to fermentation, I'm just like, ooh, this sounds fun, this smells really good. I think it would taste really good together.
This type of application is normal in beer. They throw everything into it and it's celebrated, it's a part of the culture. When I'm making wine out here, I'm like, ooh, I think these would be complimentary. When we look back, historically beer was wine and wine was beer and all of it was wine. Reading some texts it's semantics to them. It was just about fermenting a sugar source and creating something so you could drink the water, right?
There's all this nostalgia and pleasure that we get from this thing now, because we don't really need it anymore. The use of it for cleaning water is gone, but it's just so enjoyable that we keep it around. That way I feel like it's just integrated into who we are. We are everything—we're apples and plums and berries and grapes and water and it's all flavored differently.
Margot: That's awesome to hear you talk about that, because in history, people have been fermenting grapes with all sorts of stuff. Flowers, herbs, different fruits that were around them. Somewhere along the line, we got lost into this thought of “it has to be pure”. It has to be pure, just grapes, just Pinot Gris, just vinifera. We’ve moved into this opposite direction, thinking that if there's other stuff in there, there's a conversation now around is that wine? Which, to me, of course it is. It almost feels like trying to erase that part of the culture and history that we have with co-fermenting and adding herbs and spices, etc. It's really encouraging to see that come back lately a little bit more.
You have a statement on your website around wine needing to be more sustainable, where you mention glass and cans not being eco-friendly, and the importance of equity for the people working in the industry. How do you think about all of these issues as they relate to your winery? How are you trying to grow in all of these categories?
Kathline: In every way. We're trying to limit our waste by reusing things multiple times—we released an apple water drinker. After we made cider, I had done a freeze/thaw method, letting the apples hang out and freeze and thaw over winter. Then I pressed them whole in the basket press and made cider. Because they were still pretty juicy, I threw them into a stainless steel tank, added water to rehydrate them, added some grape skins and pressed that all out. I added some herbs, some tulsi and anise hyssop. The cider was high in sugar, so I used that to chaptalize and make it sparkling. All of that would've been composted, you know, but it's also another way to bring life to these ingredients, and really use all of the life they had to give.
When it comes to packaging, we use glass primarily. We're always thinking of different ways to package. I'm really into the idea of a boxed wine, like a Hi-C juice box. We are going to get into cans because it is better than glass bottles, and for a product like piquette, I think that's a perfect vessel for it. We are using a lot of kegs. Ethan over at Iapetus has been a huge supporter of ours, and gave us 10 to start out. We're using them to sell to restaurants.
Margot: Are those the recyclable kegs or the ones that they bring back to you so you can reuse them?
Kathline: We reuse them. They’re called pony kegs. That has been a really great thing that we have incorporated into our production.
Margot: That’s great. What is it like to work and farm in Vermont, both from a soil and terroir perspective and from a community perspective?
Kathline: From a terroir perspective, I'm learning so much. It’s a crash course in hybrids. I’ve mostly worked with vinifera, and mostly drank vinifera too, so coming back to Vermont, my first priority was to try what everybody is making. I didn't want that to influence what I was making, but I wanted to see what expressions they were pulling from these grapes.
We have a shorter season here, so the grapes definitely are not going to get as ripe as in other places. Last season, though, was the longest degree day that we've had in decades—talk about climate change. I have to adjust my palate to the expression of this fruit without intervening on it. Most of the presses I made were single variety. I really just wanted to be able to understand, like, this is what Marquette tastes like. This is what Frontenac Blanc tastes like. Frontenac Blanc definitely needs to be blended—I ended up blending in cider because the cider is like a little sweeter and the Frontenac Blanc was just super high acid. It came to this nice point where it sings.
The terroir part is just learning and appreciating what these grapes can do, because they really can do some nice stuff. The community has been super supportive, especially the natural wine scene.
Margot: Where are you feeling like the wine industry is going?
Kathline: I'm hopeful for where the industry is going. Right now, I feel really supported by the community at large, in the natural wine world especially. Black women who are out here definitely provided a safe space for me, and I hope we can do the same. I hope that Kalchē is another safe space, which is hard to cultivate in this world. Maybe safe space isn't the word, but just a good space.
Margot: I’m so excited for where this journey takes you. Thanks so much for speaking with me!
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