LEEDS — “We couldn’t have asked for a better start of the season,” winemaker Lindsay Benson said with a calm exuberance as the sun shone Wednesday afternoon on the eight acres of cold-hardy grapes at WillowsAwake Winery.

The temperature was peaking at about 85 degrees and there was low humidity for the vines exploding with new growth.

“We’ve been seeing a lot of buds pushing everywhere throughout the whole vineyard. Pretty much every bud on every vine wants to grow this year,” Benson added. It’s her second year as winemaker and vineyard manager at the young and budding operation owned and operated by Tony Lyons and his wife, Brenda.

WillowsAwake Winery owner Tony Lyons and manager and winemaker Lindsay Benson talk Wednesday afternoon about the art of growing grapes in the vineyard in Leeds. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

They have created a winery, upscale restaurant (No. 10 Eatery) and event destination at the 70 acres of former hayfields in northeastern Androscoggin County — not exactly where one would expect to find a grape vineyard.


Tony Lyons established the vineyard in 2018, planting primarily Frontenac, Itasca and Petite Pearl hybrid grapes developed by the University of Minnesota’s cold-hardy grape breeding program, recognized as one of the top wine research programs in the country.


Hybrid grapes can withstand temperatures of 25 degrees and are disease resistant, making them a perfect choice for Maine and the rest of New England.

WillowsAwake is one of about 50 licensed wineries in the state and about 30 are members of the Maine Winery Guild, according to Lyons, who is no longer president of the group but remains very active.

“2023 was a season marked by challenges and resilience.” he said. “Our vines were put to the test, with weather and climate-related wrenches thrown at us throughout the year.”

That’s how Benson described last year’s season in her blog and sums up a challenging year.

The vineyard is past what they call “bud break,” when buds start pushing, looking like little flowers. Walking through the rows of Itasca and Petite Pearl vines, Benson shows off the 6- to 10-inch shoots coming out of virtually every vine.


Frontenac Gris grapes grow Wednesday at WillowsAwake Winery in Leeds. The buds will begin to flower and bear fruit in the next few weeks, a critical time for the winery. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

“The next phase that we’re anticipating, looking forward to is bloom, which will be kind of mid-to late-June,” Benson explained. “And that’s when we’ll really be able to see what kind of yield we’ll get once we see the flowers come out.”

With the onset of summer, the buds begin producing flower clusters, which will eventually bloom. They are known as “perfect flowers” because they pollinate themselves without the need for bees or wind

As the fertilized ovary develops, it produces green berries in a process known as fruit set. Favorable weather is vital during the flowering period — too much rain can cause problems that will impact the harvest size and quality.

Until that fruit set takes place, and even beyond, the big unknown is out of the vineyard manager’s hands.

“As long as the weather holds up and we keep seeing the trends that we’ve been seeing,” Benson said, “we’re on track for a really, really substantial harvest.”

Grapevines take between three and six years to reach full productivity, and this year marks six years since Lyons, along with friends and family, hand-planted 4,800 new vines.


“I’d be dancing a jig at 2,500 cases,” Lyons said when asked what a bounty harvest would be this year.

Most of the vineyards in Maine use fruit as the basis of their end product. WillowsAwake is one of about 10 vineyards in the state making wine from grapes. But it has also been experimenting with apple and blueberry crops over the winter.

That does two things, extend their wine repertoire and help compensate in years of lower crop yields. “I think that gives us a little experience of what we can do with apple and blending it as well,” Lyons explained. “We also bought a small volume of blueberry just to try the blueberry. And I think we’re going to blend that with some Frontenac.”

This is where the skill and magic of a winemaker come into play. Benson spent part of the winter working on a piquette wine from the pomace, or pulp of the grape skins. It contains a lot of sugars and when blended with water and bottled for a secondary fermentation will add another offering in the WillowsAwake lineup.

Benson describes the end result as “just a nice, light body that’s low alcohol, like around 6 to 8%.”



The owner and the winemaker have spent the past year getting to know each other.

“Last year also was a way for Lindsay and I to basically learn to work together,” Lyons said, adding it’s going great.

Over the winter the pair bottled much of last fall’s harvest, planned, and moved equipment around in the wine barn, which was purpose built.

The amount of catch-up work is a little daunting considering most of it has to be done by hand, from pruning to training vines, removing old cane from the vines and looking ahead to this year’s harvest.

WillowsAwake Winery owner Tony Lyons talks Wednesday afternoon about the art of growing grapes in the vineyard he and his wife own in Leeds. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

They don’t have any immediate plans to add more vines for now, but introducing new wines is on the menu.

“We’re releasing Haut d’Taut,” Lyons explained, “which is a very popular red wine from Frontenac. We made what we call Crickets, which is a fortified Frontenac… which is really, really good.” He describes it as a dessert wine.


To be sure, there is an air of optimism at WillowsAwake this year.

“I mean, it’s full of optimism and opportunity where I just, I feel really … anticipation,” Benson said with a smile.

“I mean, if you believe in karma, I think we’re due for a good year,” she said.

WillowsAwake is holding a Budburst Celebration on Sunday from 2-4 p.m.

For more information email tickets@willowsawake.com.

The tasting room is open Thursday-Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.

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