2021 has been a very big year for Justin Pascoe and Mariah Smith. They bought a winery. And a house. They moved back from the Boston area to their hometown of Litchfield, CT. And they got married. No stress there!!
Mariah started a new job providing HR services for tech startups. She is also transforming the winery’s culture in her new role as “chief experience officer.”
Justin transitioned from head winemaker at Noshoba Valley Winery in Massachusetts to owner/ winemaker at Haight-Brown Vineyard. To be further explored, Justin may be the only person in America during this century to be head winemaker for two of America’s first wineries!
The History of Connecticut’s First Winery
Winery founder Sherman Haight, Jr., was a Connecticut trailblazer in the state’s wine industry. In 1975, Connecticut had no wineries. Haight had retired as president of his family’s Georgia-based textile printing business (at age 52). On a passionate lark he established Haight Vineyard, Inc., nestled within a 165-acre parcel he owned and farmed part time on historic Chestnut Hill, a stone’s throw from the bucolic town of Litchfield.
A year later, Haight built a large Tudor-style winery and began petitioning the state aggressively to create legislation recognizing farm wineries as commercial entities. When the Connecticut Farm Winery Act passed in 1978, Haight Vineyard was #1.
Haight’s goal was to grow vinifera grapes starting with Chardonnay and Riesling. Over time, he realized (like many others before him along the eastern seaboard) that northeastern Connecticut was not well suited to growing these varieties. Although he continued to make award-winning wines from international varieties, he added white and red hybrids such as Seyval Blanc and Marquette, and also made fruit wine from apples.
In 1992, Haight convinced then-governor Lowell Weicker to endorse the creation of a Connecticut Wine Trail to promote the state’s growing number of wineries. Today there are more than 40 licensed wineries across the state.
Thirty years later, in 2007 Haight sold the property to Amy Senew and Courtney Brown and moved to Virginia (where he passed away in 2016). Renaming the winery Haight-Brown Vineyard, the new owners pledged to uphold the legacy and pioneering traditions set down by Sherman Haight, including educational events and classes. The winery needed a bit of refreshing at the time, so the new owners invested in renovations to the public spaces as well key winery equipment and the health of the vines in their fields.
Senew assumed sole ownership of the winery in 2010. Several years later, she decided to sell the property because she had re-married, was considering a move to another state, and managing the winery had become quite demanding on top of her full-time job.
The Next Generation
Then along came Justin and Mariah.
In 2019, before the pandemic rendered further negotiations impossible, the couple had started discussions with Senew’s real estate agent about purchasing Haight-Brown Vineyard. Though the idea remained strong, the conversation drifted until July 2021 when the purchase was consummated.
Because a second refresh of the property seemed in order some 14 years later, Justin and Mariah spent their first three months as new owners working on the ambiance of the public facility. They were determined to have the space align from day one with their vision of a relaxed, comfortable, and engaging space to enjoy quality wine and locally sourced food pairings. Opening to the public in October — also the month they got married! — meant missing out on several key months of wine tourism. In their view, it was a small price to pay for pointing their journey in the right direction.
With a degree in both history and winemaking, Justin approaches winegrowing with great respect: one foot in tradition and the other taking a long stride into opportunities for the future. His philosophy is “one and done.” It might sound a bit flip, or perhaps contrary to the wishes of consumers who crave a particular style of wine from one year to the next. But Justin is keen to produce wine each year that uniquely expresses its place and its moment in time.
In the coming year, Justin and Mariah plan to rebrand the winery as Chestnut Hill Vineyards. As the third owners in 45+ years, they are keen to make sure that the winery ages gracefully.