By Kate Barcellos
POULTNEY — Dennis Brown, owner, and operator of Whaleback Vineyard, is revitalizing his old dairy and horse barn on Route 30 in East Poultney into a special-events hall.
“Back in the ’60s and ’70s, this was a dairy operation with registered Holsteins, about 60 of them,” he said. “After my parents closed down the operation in the late ’70s, they started raising thoroughbred horses for show and racing.”
In 1995, Brown returned from Colorado after traveling for 14 years. “I bought 16 acres off of my parents, and I had 100 acres titled to me,” he said. “About five years ago, the family left 140 acres as an estate to my nephews and I, to portion off between us however we saw fit. So this year, I bought out all my nephews. I now own 280 acres.”
Twenty years ago, he planted cold-hardy grapes.
“I planted my earliest St. Croix grapes on three and a half acres,” he said. “Since then, I’ve expanded to around 11 to 12 acres of cold-hardy grapes. My goal is to eventually plant 28 more acres of grapes for wine.”
Brown said he started thinking about rehabilitating the barn in 2009. “If I waited until 2011, it would have been beyond repair,” he said. “A major part of the frame had rotted, the beams holding the north part of the barn together were sinking in. Finally got around to finishing it this past year because my youngest daughter, Sadie, 22, wanted to get married there.”
Brown said he looked into state grants to help with financing, but couldn’t find anything to fit his needs and budget.
Instead, Brown, and various family members, including his future son-in-law Alan-Glen, pitched in to help fix up the barn and give it new life.
“I bought 16 big hydraulic jacks, jacked up a little at a time until everything popped back together,” Brown said. “I spent a summer jacking it up to the point where the roofline is perfectly level and built load-bearing petitions, which are walls that keep the barn in place. The barn can’t be taken apart without them.”
After the petitions were built and the barn secure, Dennis started building a winery. “That required lots of insulation for temperature control,” he said. “Now it stays in the 40s in the winter, 60s in the summer with no air conditioning or heating.”
Brown said he installed 5,000 feet of new pine flooring as part of the renovations. “I cut every log with a chainsaw, almost 20,000 feet of lumber. A local friend of mine came down and sawed the lumber for me, and I purchased an additional 4,000 feet of pine lumber from a sawmill in Benson.”
Over the course of time, the old barn began to take shape, in a process that took about a year and a half, Brown said.
“We removed old horse stalls, rebuilt rotten beams, and rebuilt the old floor to put a new floor over it,” he said. “There are new windows, new staircases, and two handicap-sized bathrooms, too.”
Brown said he hosted two weddings last summer and has already booked a wedding for next September, as well as Poultney High School’s 2018 senior prom.
“There were approximately 150 people at each wedding,” he said. “And there was plenty of room for dancing.”
Casey Daniell and his wife, Sheena, married at Whaleback in September, the first nonfamily to book an event in the refurbished space. “We were originally going to do a destination wedding on Sept. 9,” he said. “We changed our minds at the last minute.”
Casey Daniell said Brown mentioned the venue space at the Vermont Farmer’s Market, where the Daniells buy Whaleback Vineyard wines.
“He asked if we wanted to have our wedding in the barn,” Casey said. “We stopped over periodically to look at it through April and May. He was in the middle of renovation, and we thought, “There’s no way he’s going to have this done in September.”
Despite its humble beginnings, Whaleback Vineyard didn’t fail to impress, Casey said.
“He did such a great job,” Casey said. “It was perfect. With the barn and the vineyard, the scenery was beautiful. The sun was setting in the mountains and the barn was all lit up inside. You’d expect to spend $60,000 on a venue, and this was both inexpensive and romantic. I would absolutely recommend it.”
For Brown, this venue is only the beginning of potential for the vineyard.
“I want to bring people to Vermont to see what Vermont is capable of,” he said. “Show them that we’re still Vermont, and what Vermont’s all about. And that we can grow grapes here and make really good wine.”
Brown said that since the beginning, he only ever wanted to make people happy, and the venue is a testament to that.
“I like making wine because wine makes people happy,” he said. “Weddings make people happy, too.”
And so does dancing.