LINCOLNVILLE — Elizabeth Murray and Jill Colavita, summer residents of central Maine, sat on a bench overlooking the vineyard at Cellardoor Winery.

The shopping bags at their feet were filled with bottles of wine they purchased after finishing up a tasting of Cellardoor’s Riesling, Syrah, Gewurztraminer and other selections from the almost 20 wines that are made on site. Stretching before them was a field of grapevines and a stunning view of Levenseller Mountain in the distance.

“I’ve never been there, but is this what Tuscany looks like?” Murray asked.

Colavita, who has traveled a lot and loves good wine, said she was “a little leery” at first about trying the wine in this off-the-beaten-track place that she’d never heard of – a place that she and her friend were, frankly, worried would be a little tacky. After all, Maine isn’t exactly widely known for its wine.

Instead, Colavita was wowed by the “beautifully done, no expense spared” facility. In the bag at her feet were four bottles of wine she bought for herself, two bottles she bought as gifts, and a set of wine glasses that happened to catch her eye.

“Well, wherever I go in Maine,” Colavita said, “I’m going to be looking for Cellardoor on the menu. I would say it was a pleasant surprise.”

There’s a large sign over the door of the renovated barn where Murray and Colavita had their wine tasting. It reads “Transcend Circumstance” and “Sense Possibility.”

The phrases aptly describe the trajectory that Cellardoor has taken since Bettina Doulton bought the 68-acre place in 2007. After a battle with breast cancer, Doulton was ready to take a huge risk and leave her 21-year, fast-track career with an investment firm in Boston.

“I had the yuppie townhouse, and I went to work 80 hours a week, and I wore perfect suits and little shoes – the whole thing,” Doulton recalled.

Doulton was following a longtime dream, one that had nothing to do with making wine or moving to Maine. She always wanted to own her own business, so she partnered with a friend and bought this property, with its 200-year-old post-and-beam barn on Youngtown Road, about five miles from Camden. (The winery also includes a second tasting room and gift shop in Rockport that Doulton calls “The Villa.”)

Doulton dove right in, with little knowledge of wine other than knowing that she liked to drink it.

“I love being on a constant learning curve,” she said. “It’s good for the brain, and kind of keeps my energy going.”

FIRST THINGS FIRST

One of the first tasks Doulton took on was renovating the barn, a move she felt would send a message to the community that she was going to be bringing a different approach to the business.

In summer 2008, she hired Aaron Peet, a Mainer who had moved to Washington state to study professional winemaking at the Center for Enology and Viticulture in Walla Walla. Peet’s wife, Christina, became “wine and food guru” at Cellardoor.

When Peet came on board, the wines produced at Cellardoor were all made on site, but the grapes came from Washington, California and New York. Doulton asked him to try growing the grapes for his wine in Maine.

Peet said a Maine vineyard presents several challenges, including the obvious – the weather. It’s cold here, and there’s more rain, more humidity and more fungus to battle. Maine-grown grapes face greater disease pressure, and it’s going to be harder to get the fruit to the correct sugar level to make really excellent wine.

Nevertheless, he planted half of the 5½- to 6-acre vineyard in 2008; the other half in 2009.

“We planted the vineyard with a lot of hybrids from the University of Minnesota and Cornell,” Peet said. “They’re actually designed to go down to negative 25 or so.”

The project is still in its infancy, as Peet basically experiments to see which varieties will grow best here. The key ingredient will be time. “We’re hoping to get a small batch of maybe marquette this year,” he said. “It will be small.”

Marquette is a red variety released by the University of Minnesota about five years ago.

“Fifty percent of its parentage is pinot noir, so it will be kind of similar in style to pinot noir, a little heavier than the classic red hybrids,” said Christina Peet. “Those are very light tannins. It’s the first red hybrid to have tannin content, which is really exciting for us.”

Using grapes grown in other states, Cellardoor typically produces between 5,200 and 5,500 cases of wine each year. Aaron Peet makes do with limited space under the barn, where he must crawl behind squat fermentation tanks and rotate equipment in and out because there’s not enough room to store everything.

That will change this year with the completion of a new facility across the road that will give Peet more flexibility and space to be creative, and allow Cellardoor to produce at least 9,000 cases of wine each year. The short, squat fermentation tanks have been replaced with tall, cylindrical tanks connected by raised crosswalks.

In addition to a new tank room, there are two barrel rooms for 300 oak barrels, a lab space for Peet, and extra space that will allow him to age wines for longer periods of time.

The new facility will be used mostly for production and warehousing, and “the guest experience” will remain across the road at the barn, Doulton said.

SOMEONE’S IN THE KITCHEN …

The “guest experience” at Cellardoor is constantly evolving – and the tweaks Doulton has made appear to be working, if a midweek visit to the winery is any indication. At least a couple dozen people were milling about; some trying the complimentary wine tasting while others shopped for wines and gifts or enjoyed the view from the grounds.

The winery gets anywhere from 70 to 250 visitors a day during the summer, Doulton said.

The barn has a commercial kitchen where chefs such as Bryan Dame from The Edge can teach cooking classes, pairing their food with Cellardoor wines. Lani Temple, owner of Megunticook Market in Camden, presented a series of Maine-inspired cooking classes this summer. She took one class to the local farmers’ market, where they met with farmers, chose ingredients and came back to the winery to create dinner.

Every weekend there are complimentary food-and-wine pairings – Saturdays at the Villa, Sundays at the barn – focusing on foods such as local chocolates and cheeses.

In warmer months, guests can choose a sandwich or cheese plate from the kitchen’s cooler, pick up their complimentary wine tasting in the form of a 5-ounce glass of wine, and sit on the porch or go out to the vineyard for a picnic.

The winery’s biggest event is Vinfest, which will be held this year on Oct. 1 and 2. Vinfest begins with a four-course dinner-dance under the stars and includes a fall harvest celebration featuring food, wine, live music, grape stomping, a crush demonstration, a ferris wheel, hot-air balloon rides and cooking demonstrations.

On Oct. 3, the final movie of the Camden International Film Festival will be shown in the vineyard.

BROADENING HORIZONS

Doulton has begun offering tastings outside midcoast Maine, and is hoping to get her wines into more Portland-area restaurants.

The Sea Glass restaurant at Inn by the Sea in Cape Elizabeth and David’s in Portland’s Monument Square were among the first to serve Cellardoor wines, and in August, Doulton held a party at the Portland restaurant Grace to introduce her wines to a wider audience here.

David Turin, owner of David’s, first tasted Cellardoor’s wines while he was filming a segment of the TV cooking show “The Chef’s Table.” He soon added two Cellardoor selections – Prince Valiant, a blend of zinfandel, mourvedre, tempranillo and malbec, and Viognier – to his 100-bottle wine list.

“I was blissfully unaware that there was anything other than blueberry wine being made in Maine,” Turin said. “I got to taste her wine and meet Bettina at that filming, and what made me want to put it on the list was when I tasted them. I had the Prince Valiant, and it knocked my socks off.”

Doulton, who has served this year as president of the Maine Wine Guild, has a vision not only for her winery but for all wineries in Maine. Visitors to the Virginia wine trail spend about a third more than the typical tourist to that state, she noted. She would like to see the same thing happen in Maine, which now has its own wine trail.

Less than 20 acres of commercial vineyards are planted in Maine each year, Doulton said, “but it’s growing, and the number of wineries is growing.”

“The vision or aspiration for the vineyard is that over time 20 percent of our grape needs are sourced inside the state of Maine, and that does not necessarily mean just Cellardoor grapes,” Doulton said. “If we can figure out what’s going to grow here, we can add some vineyard space, but we can also then find other farmers who want to plant grapes.

“We’ve already gotten calls: ‘If I plant grapes, will you buy them?’ “

Doulton still reads the Wall Street Journal, and she often finds herself advising stressed-out former colleagues who want to follow in her footsteps. She tells them to take a leap of faith and “make a big bet and go and try something different.”

Doulton’s big bet has paid off, and in more ways than one. In a recent blog posting, Doulton announced that the cancer that prodded her to change her life completely has not come back.

Now she has embraced a catchphrase that she says captures her new existence perfectly: “Live your life. Be who you are. Drink good wine along the way.”

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]