Alighting in a new winery

The endeavors of artists and oenophiles come together at Aquila’s Nest Vineyards, Fairfield County’s newest winery.

For the traveler in search of Aquila’s Nest Vineyards, it is easy to bypass this destination while traveling down Pole Bridge Road in Sandy Hook. A small sign points to an inconspicuous driveway, with nary a vine in sight.

But after you circumnavigate the steep gravel road that curves severely during its ascent, the glory of Aquila’s Nest become apparent. Situated on a hilltop surrounded by extraordinary vistas, the 41-acre property offers a majestic vineyard worthy of Napa Valley and a boldly designed event space that looks like a sublime union of old-school Quonset hut reimagined through a Frank Gehry-worthy spectrum.

Aquila’s Nest is Fairfield County’s newest vineyard, having opened in October during Halloween weekend. And lest we forget, 2020 was hardly a trick-or-treat romp for anyone, especially start-up businesses like Aquila’s Nest.

“When you open during a pandemic, you never know what to expect,” says co-owner Neviana Zhgaba without a trace of irony. “So, you set your bar low.”

But perhaps Zhgaba was being a bit too modest, as the local wine-loving community was rooting for the new vineyard’s success.

“The town has been very supportive,” she continues. “We have a big outdoor space that has attracted bigger groups because of Covid and the need to safely gather.”

Zhgaba runs the vineyard with her husband, Ardian Llomi, who admits the couple were not originally planning careers as oenophiles.

“We were looking for a place to build our house,” he explains, noting that they were shown the property, once a working farm, in 2016 and fell in love with it, even though it far exceeded their initial modest plans. “OK, so how do we support this property?”

The answer, Zhgaba adds, was to turn one of the couple’s leisure activities into a business pursuit.

“We love wine and we’ve been to almost all of the wineries in Connecticut,” she says. “That’s what we loved to do in our free time before we had this venue. And it’s rare to have that kind of view and this kind of property in this area.”

While the couple never worked in the wine trade before — Zhgaba was a senior technical program manager at General Electric in Norwalk while Lloma was a senior mechanical design engineer at Sonitek in Milford — the opportunity was too good to pass up. Furthermore, they theorized the supreme views from their hilltop location would bring visitors from far and wide when New England’s glorious fall foliage came into full hue.

Llomi acknowledges, however, that not everyone is familiar with Connecticut’s wine industry, which is relatively young compared to other states. The modern wine industry in Connecticut only began in 1978 with the passage of the Connecticut Winery Act.

“Basically, everyone’s kind of new in a way, learning and adopting and trying to find the best advice,” he says, pointing out that New England’s mercurial and often extreme weather proves a challenge to winemakers, who would have less of a meteorological headache in consistently drier climates.

The couple says their first months were a learning curve, with Zhgaba admitting “we didn’t know what the demand was” for an endeavor of this nature. As wineries are rare in their section of the state — Aquila’s Nest is only the fourth in Fairfield County — they decided that something extra was needed to call attention to this endeavor.

“I had a call with Lisa Scails, who is the executive director of the Cultural Alliance of Western Connecticut,” Zhgaba recalls. “And I was just describing to her that the winery is going to be mythology themed and we want to tell stories and would like art on all the walls.”

Scails responded by having the Cultural Alliance of Western Connecticut launch “Accessible Art with Aquila’s Nest Vineyards,” featuring a pair of exhibitions of regional artists offering sculptural work under the themes “Nesting” and “Migration.” The “Nesting” exhibition opened June 18 and continues through Sept. 9, with “Migration” arriving Sept. 24 before its departure on Nov. 29.

Zhgaba and Llomi have also opened their property to regional performing artists, turning Aquila’s Nest into Fairfield County’s newest and most eclectic entertainment venue.

“We’ve had music practically every day that we’re open,” says Zhagaba. “We have many types of events, including crafting, yoga and poetry in the vineyard. We have karaoke every Wednesday and Thursday night, and we are planning a ‘Twilight in the Vineyard’ series, which is kind of an intimate event that’s included chamber music. The next one is a jazz, and then they’re going to do Broadway songs.

“Afterwards, we’re planning to do another classical music concert with the Connecticut Symphony Orchestra, and we planning to do dance performances in the venue.”

But what about the reason for all of this work? Aquila’s Nest currently offers a quintet of wines — Nest Red Blend Wine, Merlot, Dry Rosé Wine, Dry Riesling and Moscato — and provides visitors with a $21 wine tasting flight that includes a selection of four samples of Aquila’s wines paired with cheese, crackers, nuts and chocolate.

But which wine is the recommended favorite? Llomi smiles and plays coy. After all, do you ask a parent to choose a favorite child?

“I’m a guy, so I think it’s all fabulous,” he laughs. “It’s selling like crazy and we can’t make it fast enough.”

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