Landscape in a Bottle

Spring 2021

Madison’s kitchen is blue – the walls, the dishes, the hand towels, the toaster, the refrigerator magnets, the soda stream. I sit at the table on a bright floral printed seat cushion – blues and pinks and yellows – next to a vase of pink tulips. Madison is straightening up, she deep cleans every weekend. I help myself to coffee. The mugs are decorated with different types of wildflowers, and I choose one with a picture of a yellow flower and fern-type leaves. I ask Madison what it is.

“Yarrow’s a sort of plant that you can use in biodynamic teas,” Madison says. “You can mix it with maybe a little bit of clay or something and spray it on grape vines to fight disease.”

She turns back to wiping the counters with lavender scented all-purpose spray. Her blonde hair normally hangs in tight ringlets down to her waist, but she tied it back with a blue scrunchie to clean. Her sweatshirt is blue. Her eyes are blue. Her favorite color is blue. In the driveway outside, her yellow Jeep is adorned with a bumper sticker that reads “I brake for wildflowers.” In a blue pot atop her fridge, a pothos plant is dying.

“I’m probably stifling its growth – it should be repotted. I’m not very good with houseplants. Even succulents! Which are supposedly really hard to kill. I realized the ones in my room weren’t getting hardly any sun. I’m good with plants in the ground, but inside…” she trails off and walks over to the window, where a four-tier knect-a-shelf unit is loaded with trays of green sprouts. They’re labeled with masking tape: spearmint, lavender, lemon balm, sage, basil, thyme, parsley. “I’m really nervous about these guys, I’ve never done starters before. Someone told me I should do this–” she runs her hands over the tops of the plants, rustling their leaves – “to like, mimic the wind and make their stems strong. So you can imagine me standing here doing this every day.”

She moves onto the next shelf of sprouts, and I go over to help her. Before I came here, I chose a flower-scented perfume. She notices.

“What’s that called?” she asks.

Her Scent Inspired the Flowers,” I say, smiling. “The bottle’s got flowers all over it. I knew you’d like it.”

“Yeah, I don’t even know when that started,” she says. She means her affinity for wildflowers. “I think it was when I was working for Deirdre.” Deidre is a vintner.  “Whenever I was having a bad day, she’d tell me to go pick a bouquet of flowers for my room to ward off the negative energy.” Madison points at her pothos plant. “I was having a really bad day, and I thought, I need to nurture something.”

Deirdre owns La Garagista, the vineyard at which Madison used to work  in Vermont. When Madison would arrive for her 9:30 shift, Deirdre would be sitting at the table with a cappuccino, and she’d invite Madison to sit with her for a while. They’d talk about a plan for the day, finish their coffee, go out and work in the vines. In the afternoon, they’d sit down for an hour and a half lunch. Deirdre’s husband, Caleb, is a chef. They grow their vegetables in their garden, and have farm-to-table food. After lunch, they’d work until it got too dark, or until the bugs got too bad. Some days, Madison’s job was to pick diseased leaves off of the vines. She'd go through every vine by hand, assess each leaf. During harvest season in September and October, Madison would work for seven days a week for sixteen hours a day for up to eight weeks harvesting grapes.

“It’s intense and it can be beautiful and wonderful and all of those things at the same time. I think the job of a winemaker can be easily romanticized, and of course I can see why. When I picture myself doing this work I do feel at peace. But it’s hard work. You’re moving quickly, you’re on your feet for ten hours a day. That type of work can be romanticized because people think, oh, I love being outside. But do you love being outside as much when you're scything? Have you ever seen someone scythe before?”

“I’ve never even heard of a scythe,” I say.

“It’s a long wooden pole and on the end there's a crescent shaped very sharp blade–”

“Like death?”

Madison blinks, and then laughs. “Yeah! You know those things Death holds? That's what a scythe is.”

Madison stands up to demonstrate how she would use a scythe. She shows me how she has to use her abdomen muscles, because if she were to use her arms or her shoulders, she’d never be able to sustain that work.

“There were days when I would scythe for eight hours,” she says. “You don’t want to over-mow, so you don’t want to bring a lawn mower under the vines. We would use these scythes, these really sharp blades, to chop the grass under the vine.”

She explains how she chops the grass that grows under the vines to curate a dry environment so fungi can’t grow up the vines. It’s a way of keeping the ecosystem balanced.

“Do you think death carries a scythe to keep the ecosystem balanced?” I ask.

After a moment she says, “I think, moreso, it’s probably just a very dangerous medieval tool.”

At La Garagista, Deirdre farms using a lunar method, meaning she plants and harvests according to the phases of the moon. It’s thought that the moon affects groundwater, germination, and plant metabolism. Deirdre swears by it, and Madison swears Deirdre’s wine is the best she’s ever tasted.

“Is the lunar method real?” I ask. “Or is it one of those things that you have to believe in?”

“Well, whether or not it's real, what it does is it so deeply connects you to what you’re doing and to the place that you’re growing that it could never be a bad thing,” Madison says. “I’ve never felt such a deep connection to a place as when I worked in a vineyard.”

After graduating from Dartmouth, Madison had debt she couldn’t afford working her job at La Garagista, so she took an office job for two years. There, she fell in love with Joe, and followed him home to Duluth, Minnesota. She found that the city of Duluth aligned with her values of feeling connected to a place. Duluth loves local – local food, drinks, clothes, art. Duluth has local breweries, distilleries, and cider houses.

Duluth is a small coastal city located on the very tip of Lake Superior. To the north, forest. To the south, water. People like to call it “the city on the edge of the wilderness.” Many locals have their own gardens, chickens, compost operations. The social scene revolves around hiking, canoeing, fishing, camping. Rivers run all through the city on their way to the lake. Much of the natural landscape is swamp. Each spring, in the inner city, confused geese wander around the Mall parking lot, padding across the cement, between rows of cars, where there was once swamp land. In their bodies, they remember to come to this place year by year, but they can’t figure out why. Cattails still grow in the grassy road dividers.

It’s sapping season. Madison and Joe spend their evenings boiling maple syrup. They’re preparing their gardens for the growing season – vegetables because they’re practical, flowers because of Madison. She has one small patch of grapevines winding up a fence. When I pull into her driveway one day, all I see is the legs of her overalls, the upper half of her body buried in the vines, checking on the grapes hidden inside. The birds get the fruits before she does, she says, not at all begrudgingly when she emerges.

On the weekends, Madison and Joe drive up the shore to fly fish. He’s teaching her. She’s never landed a fish, but she caught one once. She got overly excited and pulled the pole up too hard, the fish went flying on the line and got tangled in a tree branch hanging over the water. There the fish hung, flopping just above the water, until Joe reached it, saved it, released it. On the table across from me, Madison sets down the new fishing pole she’s assembling. Joe gave it to her for their anniversary. She’s working to attach the rod guides to the rod; her windings are blue.

Right now, Madison works as the assistant cider maker at Wild State Cider. In March, she created her first original cider, named “tree hugger sap seltzer,” which is a light cider mixed with maple sap and a slight amount of maple syrup. She got the idea from a drink she used to like when she was in college in New Hampshire – maple seltzers, just carbonated maple sap. Collis Cafe sells them. Madison loved the idea and went ahead with it. It’s been hugely popular.

Wild State opened in Duluth two years ago, and it’s motto is, “preserving and celebrating what’s wild.” It’s written on all of the cider cans, its where they got their name. Madison says their cider making philosophy is simple, the way they make cider is simple, their cider is simple. Their cider is made up of only the simplest of ingredients, with no added sugars. The goal is to make a cider that represents an apple in its purest form.

“We get apple juice, I put yeast in it, we ferment it,” Madison says. Whereas other cider companies get apple juice concentrate (which, unlike juice, is processed and full of sugar), add water, ferment it, and then add more juice concentrate to sweeten the cider.

Wild State does it’s best to make natural cider. They sweeten their ciders with natural sugars like apple juice, honey, or maple syrup. They filter their cider through a ceramic membrane – a pressure filter.

“We don’t filter by adding things to [the cider],” Madison says. “If you look into different ways you can filter things like alcoholic beverages, there’s random weird shit like egg yolks that you can add into alcohol to make it filtered. It can be pretty gross. Anyways, the whole process [at Wild State] is clean. We’re not adding chemicals and stuff.”

The least natural part of their cider making process is the carbonation. It’s possible to naturally carbonate cider if the fermentation process were completed in a bottle that would trap the CO2 produced during fermentation. But at Wild State, they force carbonate, which Madison says is pretty common.

“We carbonate with a carb stone,” Madison says. “I actually don’t really know what the stone actually is, but it has all these really mini holes on it and you hook up a CO2 line to it and the CO2 disperses in the solution of the cider.”

Forced carbonation allows for the cider makers at Wild State to control how much or how little they carbonate a particular drink. With their fruitier, sweeter ciders, they add very little carbonation – just enough to round out the flavor. The classic cider, which is simply fermented apple juice, tastes better with more carbonation.

“We probably will create a naturally carbonated cider at some point because it’s something I really want to do,” Madison says. “A La Garagista, [natural carbonation] was all we would do. That’s just how it used to be done with traditional wine making. I would call the stuff we do at Wild State modern cider making. It’s just different styles of making products.”

While she works, Madison listens to artists like Dua Lipa and Taylor Swift. She's on a Lover kick right now. When she’s moving all those heavy tanks and buckets around, she likes being reminded of strong women. Wild State cider is the first male-dominated space she’s ever worked in – at the vineyard, in the office, her bosses have always been women. Now she feels the disadvantages of being of a smaller physical build than her co-workers. She tells me about the sixty-pound jugs of agave she had to haul across the building the other day, before she lifted them up to shoulder height to pour. She seems proud. But, meanwhile, her coworkers are able to lift, carry, and stack 160 pound kegs, which Madison physically cannot do.

When Madison goes in for work in the morning, one of the first things she does is taste the fermenting cider from the night before. She laughs about how high her tolerance for alcohol has gotten – she ends up drinking quite a bit on the job, taste testing. She’s started spitting her samples out, into the drains on the floor. She’s come to think maybe nine in the morning is too early.

Madison hopes to work at Wild State until she is able to buy a vineyard of her own. She loves to make cider, but it’s not her dream job. Her dream job, she says, would be one where she can put her hands in the dirt. Some days, since she’s been working at Wild State, she wakes up, walks from her house on the cement sidewalk to her car, and from her car across the paved parking lot into work. And her feet never touch the dirt. That’s not the ideal circumstance for her.

She’s been scouting properties just outside the city – potential vineyards. She wants to find some farmland with southfacing hills, which would optimize sunlight during Minnesota’s short growing season. She will plant her own apple trees and her own grapevines; the grapevines won’t produce fruit for three years after planting, and the apple trees, ten. But she wants to wait, she wants to do it right. And she knows that Duluth will appreciate her work and support a natural winemaker.

“Vikre Distillery, for example, is doing with spirits what I want to do with wine,” Madison says. Vikre is located in downtown Duluth, right on the shore. It was founded by another Dartmouth grad, Joel Vikre, and his wife, Emily. “They are creating a spirit that represents the physical landscape of Duluth. They use all locally sourced botanicals for gin and whiskey. They have a spruce gin and they pick their spruce tips in this area. They harvest local cedar for one of their cedar gins. The water is from Lake Superior. This landscape is in the bottle. I think that's beautiful.”

Vikre is kind of a cocktail bar, kind of a liquor store, kind of a distillery, and it’s the only place Alex Duncan has ever seen that does all of that in the same place. I sit in a royal blue velvet chair at a whiskey barrel table, talking to Alex. She’s worked here for about four years now, doing a little bit of everything. She’s dressed casually, in an untucked button down. She doesn’t sit, but stands in front of me, shifting her weight from foot to foot and rubbing her hands together while she talks.

“I’ve been on a lot of distillery tours in Kentucky and Tennessee, and this is the first time I've ever seen so much space integrated into itself,” she says. She talks over a lot of banging coming from the work area – “that would be the distilling process that is happening, those are barrels being banged on,” she’d explained earlier. When it gets a little too loud, she pauses, then continues. “You can see what’s happening. You see your vodka being put into a still, you see your cedar blossom that we throw into the cedar gin, you see the barrels we use to age the whiskey.”

I follow Alex behind the bar. Giant silver tanks tower. One very little lady paces back and forth among the tanks, carrying smaller barrels, pulling levers, checking temperatures, pouring things, banging on the whiskey barrels. From one of the tanks, she drains boiling water, and it gushes across the cement floor. My feet are saved by the trench-like drain stretching between me and a small river of boiling water.

Alex loves the color of whiskey. “Clear spirits are great,” she says. “They do their thing.” She shrugs. Whiskey, though. She loves the way it’s aged, the fact that sometimes, she’s drinking something years, decades older than she is. And she loves the way it reminds her of her grandpa. He didn’t drink much, but when he did, he drank brandy, and he drank whiskey. And he had that smell about him, a smell she remembered the first time she tried whiskey.

Vikre started with whiskey. Joel and Emily had been living in Boston at the time but were in Duluth visiting Emily’s mom when they were first given the idea for a distillery. Emily’s mom had recently gone to a whiskey tasting, and tried Swedish whiskey, or aquavit, which is a spirit made from Scandinavian botanicals and local water. Joel thought, Lake Superior’s right here in Duluth, and why not make an aquavit with that?

“My only skill is sort of taking a weird idea and then figuring out how to make it happen,” Joel told me on the phone. “In Boston, I was meeting with my therapist, and I told her this idea, and she goes, that sounds crazy to me, which is something that’s funny to hear from one’s therapist. But, to me, it made perfect sense. I don’t know, you sort of envision a thing, and then you solve all of the problems between where you are and that thing being real.”

After college, Joel went from ecology to public health to global health to nonprofit work to opening a distillery – says he learned about spirits on YouTube. Now he’s starting another company building saunas in Duluth.

“I had all these people in my life saying I need to pick a field and plant,” Joel said. “What they meant is I need to pick a career or an academic discipline and get all the way through it and become an expert. But the idea of Duluth is, well, what if instead of picking a profession, what if we picked a place. So Duluth is sort of a physical field.”

Alex tells me what she’s heard around town, that people come to Duluth for one of three reasons: because they grew up here, for work, or for love. Alex came for love, which left her looking around for work. She found it at Vikre.

 “It was just something I hadn’t tasted before,” she says. “They make gin with things you don't normally see in gin. The cedar is super heavy, so it’s smokey, but it’s also citrus-y.” Vikre uses local ingredients. The citrus, herbs, berries, botanicals, water. Some of their ingredients they source from Duluthians’ gardens, driveways, from “friends of friends of friends.”

Before Vikre was Certified Organic, it was easier to forage for ingredients. “We can’t just pick spruce tips like in the median on our street anymore,” Joel said. But his friend owns a certified organic farm in Duluth – The Food Farm – that has extended property. They’re able to get their foraged ingredients from that property.

Joel and Emily were drawn to Duluth because it’s the sort of place people go simply because they want to be there, not because they’re chasing something else. Boston is a place where people live temporarily; most people, Joel said, are there for their career, or for their reputation, or for academic success. He got tired of all of his friends moving away. Duluth, though, has a whole different set of values.

“It’s amazing to make friends here and be like, oh yeah, I might be friends with you my whole life,” Joel said. “[Duluth is] stable and it’s very oriented towards community and living well and less concerned about achievement.”

Madison says she has to meet Joel and Emily eventually. She’s lived in Duluth now for a year, and all of the people she knows, knows Emily and Joel. One of her coworkers at the cider house grew up across the street from Emily. Wild State cider sent Vikre some of their cider to distill this past winter.

I tell Madison that I talked to Joel about Vikre distillery. “Did you tell him I’m his biggest fan?” she asks. I did.

It had begun to rain outside, and Madison quickly mixed up batter for a banana bread and popped it in the oven to heat up the house. She moves on to cleaning the floors.

“Someday when I own a farm, people are gonna be like, this isn’t really a farmhouse.” She pushes a vacuum. “I’m gonna be like, why? And they’re gonna be like, it’s too clean.”