Farming Magazine - July, 2012


Maple and Wine?

Heron Hill Winery integrates two high-value products into its operation
By J.F. Pirro

With wine, there's always the concern of knowing which varieties pair well with which foods. At Heron Hill Winery in Hammondsport, N.Y., John Ingle has found a way to pair his successful vineyard with a small sugaring operation at Ingle Vineyard as another puzzle piece in a sustainable lifestyle.

First drops of the 2012 season.
Photos courtesy of Heron Hill Winery.

During some 30 years of sugaring, he's tried unique, all-natural ways to tackle the trials of reducing maple sap to syrup, even using a winter's worth of pruned grape trunks to burn down sap over an open fire. He thinks he "might be the only guy to do that - in the world." He's also used what he surmises were old American Indian techniques of freezing and refreezing down sap prior to finishing the harvest by boiling.

With the first glimmer of spring in New York's Finger Lakes Region, 40-degree days open the first chapter of what Ingle calls the "annual yearbook" of his maple syrup "vintage."

Whether sugaring begins early or late, is short or bountiful, he always feels the rhythms of the season and faithfully responds. "We don't need to produce a lot of maple syrup," Ingle says. "Plus or minus 10 gallons in the cupboard keeps our friends and grandchildren smiling. It's very satisfying to just get it in the jar."

As a result of the warm winter and early spring, Ingle began sugaring on February 6 and finished March 1, his usual starting date. "When Mother Nature says go, you don't say why or when, you just go. As soon as it hit the low 40s, we did a couple test taps, and sure enough it was running," he explains.

Sugaring complements Heron Hill's October grape harvest with an early spring harvest for maple, a rhythm uniquely tied to "big cycles and little cycles," Ingle says.

"After almost 40 years you can feel [those cycles] in your blood," he says. "The maple syrup is the first thing on the spring docket, and we all get excited to see it come around. Even if there's still snow, or a late blizzard, we know the spell has been broken. Maple kick starts everything. It's the green flag, the green light. We feel the pages turning."

Ingle produced about 15 gallons of syrup this past season, and has refined his approach with each sugaring season. "I want it to be as nice as it can," he says of the finished product. "We boil it to a nice consistency. We test with candy thermometers."

When he thinks of maple, he mostly recounts 30 years of family and friends and memories of lots of young kids collecting sap and stoking the outdoor fire within a three-sided cement block frame. For 15 years, he boiled down sap in a large stainless steel milk storage container he bought for next to nothing at auction. This year, Ingle blogged about the process and posted a sugaring slideshow at ing-Ingle-Vineyard.

Jo Ingle and her daughter, Josie, with the new puppy, Tia.

Sugaring and sustainability

Ingle's family grows food using organic methods. Besides maple syrup, the Ingles make sweet cider and supplement their food supply by hunting and fishing. Surplus is frozen, canned or stored in the root cellar. Ingle's land is his legacy, and he searched the country for a farm, returning to the Finger Lakes Region where he says there's scenery, soil and an acceptable growing season.

Captivated by the pioneering work of J.I. Rodale, Ingle, now 65, began farming in the late 1960s. An English major who began a teaching career, he was quickly sidetracked by Rodale's organic gardening books. "I just had this feeling that it was important and that the movement involved me," Ingle says. "Plus, his initials (J.I.) were my initials, too. Once I started teaching, I figured if I was going to work that hard for that little money, I should chase my dream and start a farm, which evolved into a [23-acre] vineyard. It was so satisfying and gratifying that it turned into a lifestyle."

Now, many of his friends are grape farmers, and they're part of the life and lore of the Finger Lakes wine region, one of nine recognized viticulture areas in New York. The region is responsible for 85 percent of the 30 million gallons of wine produced annually in the state. Heron Hill is home to one of the oldest vinifera plantings on the East Coast.

"We're organic and sustainable, and that's where the sugaring came from," Ingle says. "I just wanted to do all of the stuff I could to live the organic and sustainable life, and to raise my kids organically, which is my greatest heritage."

Thirty years ago, he began reading up on what sugar maple trees look like, then went and found 15 of them along a hedgerow on his farm.

In the 1970s, the Finger Lakes Region experienced some vicious winters. Heron Hill was left with an enormous amount of dead grape trunks, which were pruned over the long winters - a process Ingle and a son-in-law continue to do themselves, pruning 12,000 vines over four months.

So he thought, "What do I do with them all?" He had to configure a sustainable use, and figured that if he burned and boiled down his sap outdoors, he could pile up the grape vines among a mix of woods. Pruned grape vines ended up in a wagon that departed for what Ingle calls Sugar Hill, his outdoor sugaring camp on the 150-acre farm.

"It's always helped that we've had a good supply of wood," he says. It takes about 5 to 7 cords for sugaring. "When we've used the cedars and other aromatic woods (grapevines, included), it's increased the taste. We mix a blend of woods, all from our land."

Ingle Vineyard Syrup has a noticeably different: "It has a smokiness, a flavor from the open fire," Ingle explains.


Another sustainable and cost-efficient sugaring technique Ingle has used is freezing sap. With a 50:1 water to sugar ratio, he'll store the sap outdoors in 50-gallon plastic trash cans, allowing it to freeze rather than burn off, often initially reducing 50 gallons of sugar water down to 20 gallons. Then, he'll refreeze several more times.

When he finally burns down what remains, the freezing causes an even greater caramelization of sugar. Plus, burning it down further enhances the flavor and gives the final product a dark, rich appearance.

Of course, freezing is weather-dependant, and this past season was so warm, Ingle couldn't freeze down.

"It can give you a real head start, and then there's not that marathon burn," Ingle says. "It's a rarity, but a real boon when it happens. I need to take advantage of that because I don't have a big evaporator or plastic tubing, or a lot of automation and mechanization."

He's sugaring the traditional way, which fits his farming philosophy. "I'm doing it as close to the ways in the late 1800s and early 1900s as possible," he says. "Though I do not have horses that I'm taking into the woods on a sled [to collect sap], though I have all the respect in the world for guys who are still farming with horses."

This year, Ingle invested in a new welded stainless steel tank, filtering system and finishing apparatus from Leader Evaporator in Vermont - a far cry from the elm bark troughs he thinks the Indians may have used for freezing-down their sap.

The reality among commercial sugarhouses is that mass producers don't have the time to experiment. For him, Sugar Hill is a mere 100 yards outside his kitchen window. He can look out and monitor the fire.

For almost-finished syrup, he'll bring it in to boil on the kitchen stove.

Sugaring novelties

There aren't any maple syrup labels here, but Ingle has been known to take out a silver autographing pen and sign a few maple jars.

Some into bottles, some into canning jars.

Among the unique sugaring innovations a small operation affords, he makes Sticky Dogs, local natural casing hot dogs from Zweigle's, dipped on a stick into boiling sap for five minutes to cook and coat the meat for friends and family. "You can also fire it up in the fire below to crisp it," Ingle says. "Put it on a roll and it's phenomenal."

However, with just 50 trees and 60 taps, Heron Hill has never sold maple syrup or maple products. "It's just for giving away," Ingle maintains.

This past season, the surplus went to Heron Hill employees, who each received a jug in addition to a bonus and a raise.

"We're not in Vermont, or in Quebec, but we have a small (maple) industry in the Finger Lakes," Ingle says. "There are about a half-dozen sugarhouses around me, but for us the participation is all about family. But it's also another way to create social links."

Ingle recently located another grove of 50 sugar maples on his property, though they're up a steep hill. "If we get a deep snow, I can't get there," he says.

Chances are he'll find a way.

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th century America, agrarian culture, land use and sports and recreation topics.