Webster's Coffin Cellars winery is an Austin family tradition
Jamie Austin pours wine for his father Peter at the dinner table at their Webster home. Jamie, Peter, and Tim, Peter's other son, (left) run Coffin Cellar Winery together. Though Peter's wife Sarah (middle) enjoys their wine, the winery is mainly the work of Peter and his two sons, along with the help of many friends in the community.
(SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor Staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »
Jamie Austin tries a sample of his oaked blueberry wine at Coffin Cellars Winery which he runs along with his father and brother in Webster.
(SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor Staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »
Kael Clark, 6, Loudon Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »
There are lessons learned when making jalapeno wine, namely to wear gloves and to toss the seeds.
The Austin family came to know these guidelines the unfortunate way.
“The seeds almost got blended up so it’s a whiter, heavier type of ...”
Jamie Austin paused briefly, searching for the right sensation.
“... painful libation, I guess. We have not bottled any of that.”
Words typical of wine tasting – full, sweet, round, dry – don’t always make do when sipping the creations at Coffin Cellars. And they certainly seem insufficient when describing the varieties found over the years in the Webster kitchen of owners Peter Austin and his sons Jamie and Tim Austin.
The parsley wine was herbed and earthy. The lilac blossom was scented
and flowery. And the rose hip, according to 61-year-old Peter, was pretty good when it came out right.
“Every once in a while it tastes like varnish,” the father said.
The family became licensed to bottle their more successful mixes a few years ago and officially opened Coffin Cellars in the fall of 2010. In their garage-turned-winery, boxes of cranberry-pomegranate, peach and elderberry wines are stacked against the walls.
A vat of kiwi wine, made with a smooth-skinned version of the fruit that’s the size of a grape, is aging.
Another tank is filled with black currant, a mixture that at pressing smells, frankly, like feet, but mellows over time.
And bottles of jalapeño wine – made without seeds so it leaves a gentler, warm finish with rich peppery notes – are in the back room. Though Peter doesn’t care for that spicy variety, gravitating to the sweeter wines in his cellar, his sons love it.
The business partners might share a name and signature wiry mustaches but not palates.
Tim actually enjoyed the wine his father likens to a toxic wood varnish.
“He loved that rose hip. He thought it was great. I could not get it down,” Jamie said. “And I like to drink. On occasion.”
‘Doing something bigger’
Though the brothers now wilfully sacrifice their hands for a batch of jalapeno wine, their father initially enlisted them for their feet.
“I remember as a child stomping blackberries for dad to make blackberry wine. Until we realized that the acid in the blackberries were ripping our feet apart,” 32-year-old Jamie said with a laugh.
In those days, when the family lived in a log cabin in Webster that Peter built himself, the father made mostly dandelion wine, following a recipe drafted by famed outdoorsman Euell Gibbons.
In a 5-gallon stone crock, he mixed dandelion petals, sugar, lemon rinds and water, then floated rye toast coated in yeast on top.
The result, which often can be found in Peter’s fridge, tastes like “nectar,” according to 27-year-old Tim.
“It just tastes like sugary sweetness,” he said.
After a long hiatus from wine making, Peter got back into the hobby in recent years. Then, his sons began to help.
“People kind of said, “This is pretty good. We like this,’ ” Jamie said. “So after a while we thought ‘Well, are you guys just saying that because you’re family? If so, tell us now. We’re thinking about doing something bigger.’ ”
Bigger, for them, is still quite small in the world of wineries. Coffin Cellars, named after a side of the their family that has long been married out, is licensed to make about 2,300 gallons annually but bottled about 350 in the first year and 700 in the second. The owners would like to be bigger; all three dream of retiring and working on the winery full time.
But day jobs – Peter owns Austin’s Antiques in Chichester, Jamie works at Margarita’s in Concord and Tim is a carpenter – currently get in the way.
For now, the profit from selling wines at between $13 and $20 a bottle is poured back into better equipment.
They have trouble keeping up with the demand. But the Austins all clear their schedules for winery work on Thursdays. On the weekends, the brothers run tastings. (The winery is also open “by chance,” according to their sign.) The bulk of their sales come from farmers markets.
Coffin wines are found in a few local stores. And while the family can’t produce enough to sell in big grocery chains, they seem to like it that way, at least for now.
Yesterday, the owners of Concord’s Korner Kupboard stopped in for a tasting, hoping to add Coffin wines to their shelves. Bob Hill lifted a glass of jalapeno wine to his nose, then pulled the glass back tentatively.
“Whew,” he said, startled by the aroma.
As he took a sip, his eyes widened.
“The first sip is the spiciest,” Tim assured him. “Then you get used to it. Then you get that green peppery flavor.”
Sure enough, after a few sips Hill agreed.
“It’ll sell because it’s interesting,” he said, leaving with three bottles of the jalapeno wine and three each of the cranberry-pomegranate, elderberry and raspberry to stock his shelves.
After Hill left, Tim smiled, enjoying a new customer and what he called a “self-sufficient sale.” He loves visiting farmers markets and seeing loyal customers return for their products, but getting into stores like Korner Kupboard allows him to reach new buyers in spite of the limited hours the family can commit to the business.
“That’s awesome,” he said as Hill pulled out of the driveway. “There’s nothing bad about that.”
Dandelion wine is golden and syrupy and truly a pain to make.
A gallon of flowers equals about a gallon of wine, according to Peter. And the buds wilt quickly, meaning they can’t be separated from the stem at home. That has to happen in the field.
“It’s very tedious, and it’s right in the middle of black fly season,” Peter said. “You have to smoke a cigar” to keep the flies away.
That’s difficult to do while pulling out dandelion petals, according to Jamie, who said the process often leaves them with red eyes and bitten arms.
“But it makes a really, really nice wine,” Jamie said.
For now, though, the family will stick to selling varieties that are slightly less labor intensive.
For lime wine – a best seller that is currently out of stock but will be back in the spring – each lime is cut into nine segments, leaving a juicy core and eight pieces around it. They’ve found the approach allows for the most juice to be pressed out, but it means each case of limes will take four hours to cut, with five or six cases needed for a batch.
In a field a few miles down the road, the family grows berries for several of their wines and others they hope to make in the future. The low-lying white raspberry bushes should result in a mild, light pink wine, according to Peter.
The family is also working on a new tasting room. Their current setup, with windows shaped like coffins and barstools pushed against a cloth-draped table, is quaint but cramped. So they’re renovating an old storefront on their property, a building that was once used by a shoemaker who fashioned boots for the Union Army.
Tim, who works as a carpenter, recently started cutting down trees that will become new walls. In the mix of dirt and rocks on the floor, he’s found strips of leather.
They’d like to open the room in the spring. And while Tim sees timber beams across the ceiling, wine racks on the right wall and a tasting bar, they’re not sure what form it will take.
Like their wine, there are lots of possibilities.
“It’s endless, what you can do with wine,” Tim said. “And it’s terribly surprising. Like onion wine. Who would have thought?”