Sixth generation Jones expands Shelton family farm into winemaking

Photo of Brian Gioiele

SHELTON — Jamie Jones beams as he walks through his vineyard at his family’s farm — realizing the grapes to be harvested will one day become the wine known and loved throughout the region.

Jones Family Farms, renowned for its Christmas trees, pumpkins, strawberries, and blueberries, now stands as a hub for fine wines in Fairfield County — all thanks to Jones, the sixth generation of a family that has tilled the soil in the White Hills section of Shelton for 150 years.

“I have goose bumps,” Jones said last Friday as he walked along the rows in the vineyard, inspecting the grapes only hours before they were to be harvested, one day to become the popular cabaret franc.

“So much goes into what we do here, so many hurdles we must overcome ever year,” Jones said. “It all starts here with the growing, tending to the crop by hand, then the winemaking. So much happens right here, on the farm, before that wine is poured into a glass.”

The grapes are all processed on-site, from growing to harvest, and then moved to the wine-making facility warehouse. Winemaker Joseph Patrick oversees all aspects of the process, from planting to bottling.

The wines range from pinot gris to woodlands white, the first wine bottled at Jones Winery; Muscat ottonel 2020, the popular rosé and cabernet franc; Ripton Red and Harvest Time, a blend of apple and pear wine made with 100 percent Connecticut fruit.

“The winery has added a nice touch to the farm,” said Tom Harbinson, Jones Family Farms facilities and hospitalities manager. “We really maintain a great crop. It’s done with effort, done with knowledge and hard work and growing it here in Shelton is important to us. It keeps the land in agricultural use.”

And many now enjoy the wine at the 19th Century dairy barn, which has been transformed into a tasting room and outdoor seating area.

“This has blossomed into its own stand-alone business, the wine itself is its own successful entity,” Jones said. “We’re making world class wines that we grow here, and I only see expansion and growth in the future.”

But for Jones, this began as a side project.

After graduating from Cornell University with a degree in plant science, Jones returned to his family farm with thoughts of creating his own wine. He planted the original vineyard in 1999 on Pumpkinseed Hill. Five years later, he sold his first bottles of wine.

“Jones is not a very Italian name,” Jones said. “But I really became enchanted with the idea of growing a crop and turning it into a wine product that was shelf stable. I really wanted to diversify the offerings at the farm. In my own way, I felt I was putting my own stamp on the business while still doing farming.”

Since he planted those first grapes in the late 1990s, the family’s vineyards have doubled in size to some 11 acres, growing organically, according to Jones.

He said he started with three or four different wines and was selling less than 1,000 cases. Now, there are more than a dozen different varieties, with 6,000 cases selling each year. And Jones sees this as just the beginning.

“You don’t make this all work without a talented team,” Jones said, harkening back to lessons from his parents, Terry and Jean Crum Jones, about the importance of working together to maintain a thriving farm.

After his initial startup, Jones turned the winemaking over to the experts.

Larry McCulloch first joined Jones Winery in 2008. A graduate of the Ohio State University horticulture program, McCullough brought with him 30 years of experience, including stints at Benmarl Vineyards in New York and Chamard Vineyards in Connecticut.

Most recently, Patrick — a Shelton native who spent his summers as a Shelton High student pruning trees and dabbling in the wine side of the operation — has become Jones’ winemaker.

Patrick said the winery’s success comes from crop management. Creating the proper canopy of growth to protect the grapes is important, and Patrick said he has spent countless hours on his hands and knees pruning.

Once harvested, Patrick then supervises the creation of the wine, from start to finish.

Canopy management is key, he said, because too little canopy and overexposed fruit can have negative results on vine health, productivity and fruit quality. A healthy vine canopy is critical to achieve optimum airflow and sunlight exposure.

Patrick spends his time in the vineyard pruning, thinning shoots and bunches, removing leaves and positioning the shoots, all with the goal of helping produce the best possible fruit for creating the wines.

“It all comes down to crop management,” Patrick said. “The canopy is like a solar panel, collecting energy from the sun and transforming it into sugars and flavors going into the fruit. You can’t have good fruit without a good canopy. The canopy always needs to be perfect.”

Once the grapes are harvested and crushed, many are cold fermented in stainless steel tanks for two to three weeks, then aged in stainless steel tanks for anywhere from four to nine months before bottling. Some call for a blend of stainless steel and oak barrel aging for a year.

“We pour our heart and soul into this, and I feel that’s what separates us,” Jones said. “I feel we have the most state-of-the-art winery in the state. I’m proud of what we do here, and I really like being able to show that off to everyone.”