News & Views
Photo of Sandwich Village by Joe Janis
What is your name and the name of your business?
Gunnar Berg of Hill People Winery (Hill People LLC). Started in 2013 with Catherine Graham and 100 vines.
How did you get to Sandwich, NH?
In 1950 by train when I was 10 months old, then by automobile after that. I learned to walk and talk in Sandwich. I was born and grew up in Black River Falls, WI. My father’s side of the family was of Norwegian descent, and my mother’s Scotch/Irish. Her maiden name was Jane McCrillis. Her parents were Neil McCrillis and Marion Bullard McCrillis. The McCrillis family built on the Whiteface Intervale in 1789, so there is a very long history in Sandwich, which I discovered in 1972 when I moved here full-time because everyone seemed to know my business before I knew it myself.
I was a student at the University of Wisconsin, Wausau and Madison, when the Vietnam war caused mass protest and disruption. I was an apolitical engineering major and switched to psychology for my last two years. After getting clubbed and teargassed for no reason I could see, I headed for the hills. Peace and quiet, clear water, clean air. I could not resist.
What have you done since you came to Sandwich?
I think my very first job was picking rocks from what was to become a clay tennis court. Come to think of it, that is an apt description of my 49 years in Sandwich- picking rocks. It is said—and I can verify this—that you can dig a big hole, separate the rocks from the soil, put the rocks back in the hole, and when it’s full you will have all the soil and a pile of rocks left over.
After rock picking, I got a job at the original Sandwich Cabinet Shop. When the owner abruptly vacated to Colorado, I was left holding the bag with many unfilled orders. With a pathetically small SBA loan, I bought the equipment and set up shop. Over the next 35 years I specialized in custom woodworking from guitars to kitchens to resurrecting Tappan Chairs.
Microwaves and the lure of high speed internet intruded on my woodworking and I built a solar powered wireless internet network in 2003 to try and bring Sandwich up to speed so to speak. The next 16 years I devoted to keeping people online through everything the Northeast could throw at me. That was exhausting and I tried to think of yet another career that I knew nothing about that would allow me more time, in what should be my laid back retirement, to spend on the Hill, which was why I moved here in the first place.
Tell us about Hill People. What do you make, do, or offer as a service?
Hill People LLC is a mom and pop vineyard and winery located on a high southern slope of Flat Mountain in the Sandwich Range. We specialize in wines from northern cold-hardy grapes developed at the University of Minnesota by Elmer Swenson of Osceola WI. We also produce wines from local fruits and berries. The winery—and our home—is off-grid and solar powered, probably the only winery in the state that is. Sitting at 1300', it is also the only vineyard at that elevation. We sell through Farmer's Markets and directly from the winery. Our tasting room will be open by appointment once the novel corona virus becomes a minimal threat to public health.
How did this business get started?
In 2012, at the Vermont Pub and Brewery in Burlington, Cathy and I started talking about possibly starting a micro-brewery. Since it seemed that’s what too many people were doing, we nixed that and I floated the idea of hard cider and planting an apple orchard. Cathy simply said, “You do know how old you are- right?” And so the search for Northern cold-hardy grapes- which you could harvest at 50% in year 3- was on. In 2013 we planted 100 Marquette, Prairie Star and LaCrescent grapes- in 2014 another 100, and in 2015 another hundred. Growing grapes this far north is a real challenge, to say nothing of Japanese beetles, bears, turkeys and cedar waxwings competing with you.
Given the limited amount of juice available from 300 vines, which is about the maximum that Cathy and I can manage, we branched out into other fermentable fruits and berries that were available locally. Our first departure from wine made from grapes was dandelion wine, which I made from my grandmother’s recipe. That was followed by blueberry, apple, honeyberry, pear, peach, tomato, and aronia berry. These non-grape varieties are now our staples.
What is the most fun/satisfying aspect of your project?
The most satisfying part is after the very lengthy process of growing or gathering the fruit, crushing, fermenting, racking, and bottling, ending up with a product you like and are happy to share.
What is the hardest?
The hardest parts are all the random variables that get flung at you out of the blue. Could be bears, could be black rot fungus.
What has happened to your business in this last Covid year?
Business was down 60% in 2020.
What are your goals and hopes for the future?
We would like to be known for very local and very homemade unusual wines that can be best in class. We need to spend more time marketing and getting our wines on many more palates. It wouldn’t hurt if we could turn a profit.
News & Views
News of what's happening in Sandwich and other items of interest. An archive of blog entries from May, 2015 to May, 2018, is available here.
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