Island Winery: Fine Fruits to Very Nice Vintages
Author: Kitty Bartell
We know grapes; we know them start to finish,” said Loren Mortimer, owner of Island Winery on Hilton Head Island, referring to the family business he shares with wife Georgene Mortimer. The couple is celebrating 10 years of their Lowcountry venture.
The Mortimers met while in school at Ithaca College in the Finger Lakes Region of Upstate New York. “A hot date for us was going to a winery because there are so many in that area. It was great because you could do tastings for free; it was a cheap date,” Loren Mortimer said.
“I never thought of making wine until the late ’90s when we were at home in Medford, New Jersey,” he said. “We bought all these beautiful fruits—blueberries, blackberries and raspberries—and we started experimenting. “It began as a hobby, but with Georgene’s science background (biology, geology, and a PhD in environmental science), Loren’s background in wine appreciation (he willingly admitted), and Westfall Farm (his family’s property in Montague, New Jersey), the couple embarked on their journey as boutique winery owners, committing time, resources and their mutual passion, while getting to know grapes very, very well.
“Westfall Farm was my grandfather’s, then my father’s,” Mortimer said. In 2000, he and Georgene planted a five-acre vineyard on the property and were rewarded with their first harvest in 2003. He credits their ongoing education in the business to some generous mentors, including those who were there for them when they were first starting out and those with whom they continue to build relationships who are working in wineries and vineyards around the world. “We have had a lot of experts and consultants helping us along the way. We did our fair share of wine tastings and seminars about growing grapes and manufacturing—the science and the chemicals.”
Visiting Hilton Head Island for the first time in 1998, the Mortimers frequented the area during the winters when there wasn’t much happening at their New Jersey winery. After their children finished high school, they purchased a condo and decided to bring their passion for vines and wines to the island. “We’d go to a lot of wine tastings down here and Wine Fest,” Mortimer said. “There’s a really good vibe. The only things they didn’t have were a wine school and a winery. We chose to do the winery.”
Taking much of 2005 to secure the licensing and location for Island Winery, opening day was on New Year’s Eve 2005. “We took a barrel and put it out on the street with a balloon and a sign that said, ‘Wine Sold Here,’” Mortimer said. “It was all Georgene and me. We didn’t hire anybody until we were approaching that first summer.”
Located on Cardinal Road in the light-manufacturing zone on the island’s north end, their location has a great deal to do with their success. Like some of their neighbors (including a local craft beer maker and a soon-to-open liquor distillery), this bustling district allows the Mortimers to select grapes from locations like South Carolina, Michigan, California, and Chile, have them shipped directly to their winery for crushing, fermenting, aging, bottling and labelling, and also welcome guests to a cozy space for tastings, a glass of wine, a cheese platter and some retail shopping.
Hand-crafted in the fully-equipped wine making space next to their retail tasting room, gorgeous oak barrels and stainless steel equipment provide a backdrop around which guests are able to relax, enjoy the fruits of the winery’s labors and get to know the team: Nancy Adair and Kathy Veldran. “I think they’re the best staff on the East Coast,” Mortimer said. Whether taking a respite from the heat of the day, celebrating a birthday or bachelorette, hosting a private party or simply winding down, the Island Winery team provides a knowledgeable, warm welcome.
The wine-making process begins with selecting the best grapes, often having them shipped to Cardinal Road in refrigerated containers two tons at a time. “They come in looking as fresh as they did when they were in the vineyard the day before,” Mortimer said. The grapes are selected and gently crushed to create a variety of wines, made in small batches, including (but of course never limited to) Riesling, Chardonnay, Malbec, Zinfandel, Merlot, their signature Peach on the Beach wine, and Southern Passion, their Southern-style version of Sangria.
Island Winery’s bottle labels are as varied and lovely as their vintages. Over the years, the label art has been commissioned (often traded for a few bottles) from artists with an appreciation for both the Lowcountry and great wine. Custom labels are also available for special orders to commemorate an event or occasion.
Selecting the fruit may be the single most important decision when making wine. “Right now we’re focusing on South Carolina fruit. We’re buying blueberries and peaches. We also do cranberries. We literally take a pickup truck and go right to the farm and pick up the fruit,” Mortimer said. “This is supposed to be a good year. Right now we’re getting our [grape] orders in. If all goes well, we’ll plan on making about 35 barrels for the fall crush.”
Another critical decision is selecting the vessel in which the wine will be aged. “For Chardonnay, we use a light French oak [barrel] to get that vanilla, creamy finish,” Mortimer said. “If you want something a little toastier, we might go with some Bordeaux-style French oak barrels. As far as red wines go, we kind of look at barrels as our spice rack. You have different types of oak for different types of wines.”
However, not all wines are best-suited to age in oak. “Some go into stainless steel tanks (mostly white wines),” Mortimer said. “With some white wines, if you oak them, they can lose some of the beautiful fruit finish.”
The growing list of island locations where you can find wines from Island Winery include local liquor stores, Carolina Tasting Room and Nick’s Steak and Seafood. Also try their Hilton Head Sherry Pepper Sauce, inspired by the Mortimers’ travels to Bermuda and made with their own barrel-aged, semi-dry sherry along with some added Lowcountry spices for a bit of local personality. The Island Winery also ships to 38 states, making it easy to do some tasting and then send favorites back home.
Waiting patiently for their debut in rich oak and modern stainless steel, the wines at Island Winery are a product of Loren and Georgene Mortimer knowing their grapes and their desire to create a special place to share them. “We hope to translate our passion for wine to our fellow islanders. It’s a labor of love. It’s like its own little universe here on the island, and it has a great vibe.”
Island Winery is located at 12A Cardinal Road, Hilton Head Island. For more information, please call (843) 842-3141 or visit islandwinery.com. You can also find them on Facebook and on the South Carolina Satisfy Your Thirst Tour at SatisfyYourThirstSC.com.