In the 1860s, Jonathan Dickerman, the grandson of the man whose house you have visited or seen on Mount Carmel Avenue, planted a vineyard and built a winery on the slopes of Sleeping Giant. This startling fact, mostly unknown by town historians and certainly by the rest of us, was the trigger that led my wife and I to write A History of Connecticut Wine, in which we detail many other examples of successful vineyards throughout the state before Prohibition, as well as the modern rise of today’s booming industry.
In 1872 Dickerman gave an award-winning report to the Board of Agriculture, detailing his decade of wine production in Hamden and his hope for the future of the practice in Connecticut. His rocky land had not even produced peas, but grapes thrived there. He even brought in a winemaker from Germany to help him care for the vines. Turning the grapes into wine tripled his profits in a year, and his lecture to the Agriculture Board inspired the Hartford Courant to champion the cause, encouraging farmers on rocky hillsides to grow grapes.
By the early 1900s, immigrants from southern Europe were planting vineyards all over the state, especially in the Hartford area, and some had vineyards ten times the size of Dickerman’s. However, Prohibition put an end to this in the state, until 1978 when it became legal again to produce wine for sale to the public. Our methods and technologies now allow us to grow the coveted European grapes that make superior (or at least not so sweet and grapy) wine, something Dickerman struggled with in the 1800s.
Today, wineries and vineyards are again springing up all over the state. There are two vineyards just to the north of us in Wallingford, and one on the other side of West Rock in Woodbridge. Hamden has several spots today that are even better for growing grapes, including the excellent site of Dunbar Hill. Maybe it’s time Hamden brought Jonathan Dickerman’s long-ago dreams to fruition.