Viniculture in LI, Part III–Southold Farm+Cellar

Regan Meador comes across immediately as a thoughtful, open, and engaging individual whose personal warmth is adumbrated by his red beard. He’s well aware that his opinions can be rather strong and he likes to “stir the pot” in the Long Island wine community, but he also admits that he has backed away from that a bit to concentrate on his rather original ideas about making wine that’s different. The way he names his wines is emblematic of that, as the tasting menu in the photo shows, and the names tell us nothing at all about the wines, but rather are whimsical with a hint of poetry.

Southold wines on tasting menuHint as to what’s in the bottles: “Tilting at Windmills” is a Chardonnay, “Counting Stars” is a sparkling red wine made from Petit Verdot (red fizz has long been made in Australia, where it’s made from Shiraz), “Flying & Falling” is a Cabernet Franc from organic grapes from The Farrm Vineyard, “Illegitimi non Carborundum” (playful Latin for “Don’t let the bastards get you down”) is a red blend made from Rex Farr’s organic grapes. “La Belle Fille” is a Méthode Champenoise Brut Natur with a really interesting story behind it: when Regan went to Peconic Bay’s defunct winery to pick up some purchased equipment he found 100 cases of undisgorged sparkling wine dating to 2009. He purchased the lot, disgorged it with no dosage (hence Natur) and bottled it under his own label. Actually, the original maker of the wine was Greg Gove, winemaker at Peconic Bay before it closed. It should be pointed out that all other the wines are fermented using wild yeasts and often allowed the freedom to follow their own path, as it were, as in the case of the Chardonnay.

As is obvious from the above, Regan is a non-conformist is more ways than one. Consider that red sparklers are rarely made in this country. His is sold in a bottle with a crown cap, just like a Coke, but if the fizz is similar, the wine is a very different and much, much better thing than any soda pop. Indeed, his winemaking is a work in progress, as he has an inquisitive and original cast of mind. So are the varieties that he’s planted (“weird grapes”, in his words)—outliers like Lagrein, Goldmuskateller, and Terogeldo, along with the much less weird Syrah. Because the vineyard was only planted in 2013 the vines are still too young to bear fruit, but in another year or so they should be ready. Meanwhile, nearly all the grapes used to make the current wines are sourced from The Farrm, in Calverton, which is the only certified-organic wine-grape grower on the island.

Both Regan and his wife, Carey, had worked in advertising for a firm in the City, but the jobs wore them down and they decided on a major change in their lives. They left their jobs and the City to move to Southold. Regan got his start in the wine business when he saw an ad for an assistant winemaker with no experience. Since having no experience was a job qualification, he applied for the job at Osprey’s Dominion and kept bugging Adam Suprenant, the winemaker, enough that he was hired. He worked through two harvests at Osprey’s and then two more at Lenz, where he worked with Eric Fry. As a result, Regan feels that he knows as much about winemaking as any UC Davis graduate given his hands-on experience working with two masters at the trade.

As a result, Regan came to understand the things that can and cannot be done. There are some aspects of winemaking where one must never violate the rules and others where there is considerable flexibility about getting to the results that one wants to achieve. In other words, to be an iconoclastic winemaker, know which rules can be broken. As Southold Farm+Cellar as yet has no winery, he now makes its wine at Raphael, working with Anthony Nappa, so there is a third, experienced voice to heed.

It is thanks to the generosity of the Petrocellis, owners of Raphael, and the winemakers with whom he’s worked, that he can proceed with his ambitions as a wine producer. He sees this as an organic part of a living wine community, which is to say that the encouragement given to new members of that community leads to a more dynamic and evolving wine region. He expects that eventually, provided that his wine project succeeds and thrives, he will find himself doing the same for someone else who wants to join the trade.

Southold Farm wine studio

The wine studio is a very pleasant place in which to relax when the weather outdoors is inclement, all of it furnished with pickups from yard sales and used-furniture stores. But it has a funky yet homey look and feel about it and is perfect for drinking wine and talking about it seriously or less than. For Southold Farm+Cellar wines are worthy of conversation as well as being very good accompaniments for snacks or meals, from hamburgers and lamb chops to fish and nearly everything in between. Ever thought of have a sparkling with barbecued spare ribs. Think red fizz by Regan.

The Website is attractive but also unusual and different from most. The story that it has to tell is interestingly and amusingly told, but the wine descriptions are the best of all. Well worth a visit just to read them.

It was understood that at the beginning Regan would run the winery and tend the vineyard, as well as look after their son when Carey had to go to work in the city. However, recent setbacks have forced Carey to continue her hours-long commute to the city for much longer than they’d hoped.

Southold Farm noticeSouthold Farm + Cellar has been plagued this year by serious challenges to its existence by the Township of Southold, which has alleged that the vineyard and winery that have been created by Regan did not have the proper clearances and approvals necessary to operate. It appears to hinge on a very narrow reading of the rules and laws of the Township. It’s puzzling, because eight other wineries and vineyards have been established there for many years, including Corey Creek, Shinn Estate—just up the road; Mattebella, One Woman’s Vineyard, and Sparkling Pointe. How Southold Farm differs from these is not clear to Regan, who has had to engage a lawyer to help him deal with the issues raised. The Farm was shut down for several weeks starting July 9, 2015, and only allowed to reopen after an initial hearing on Sept. 11, 2015. It has a final hearing on Dec. 3, bearing on a variance for a winery and tasting room. There is determined opposition to the plan that may be due to a neighbor who lives down the road and has decided that she wants nothing to do with a new winery in her neighborhood. The outcome is not certain at the moment. Meanwhile, illegitimi non carborandum.

Interviews with Regan Meador, owner & winemaker, Feb. 2 & Nov. 16, 2015

Southold Farm logo860 Old North Rd, Southold

(631) 353-0343

Viniculture in LI, Part III: Corwith Vineyards

Interviews with David Corwith

Corwith VineyardCorwith Vineyards, in Watermill on the South Fork of Long Island, is a very new wine operation that was started with idea that it would be run as a sustainable operation from the beginning, and it became the first vineyard to begin operation as an already-certified member of the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing organization.

Dave Corwith, its owner and vineyard manager, has proven to be an iconoclast in his field from the outset, beginning with his choices of wine grape varieties to plant. He’d been a farmer for years, so I asked him, “Well, what motivated you to start a vineyard?”

He replied, “I’d done some nursery stock. I just didn’t have the interest in it. My heart wasn’t in it, and I started looking. . . . I’ve always wanted to do grapes. I wanted to do them with my brother twenty years ago and he said, ‘No. You can’t do it, Dave. Our season’s two weeks shorter than the season on the North Shore. It won’t work,’ and I sort of took his word for it [then], but I’ve always had it in the back of my mind and I said, ‘I’m going to give it a go.’ We went to Channing Daughters and Wölffer [Estate], [and if they] can do it, why can’t I?”

Dave started with a first planting of 300 vines on about half an acre three years ago. So far, he says, they’re doing well, promising to provide a small yield at this point. He deliberately began with varieties that are a bit easier to grow and have earlier seasons: Austrian varieties such as Lemberger, Blaufränkisch, and 100 vines of Dornfelder, a pretty popular red variety: it produces a light red wine, and the vine is very vigorous. Dornfelder was planted at Channing Daughters, where it does very well, and Dave says there’s also some on the North Fork, and that they’re pleased with it there too.

Though these are hardly run-of-the-mill varieties, so far only Channing Daughters has planted them in Long Island, along with a number of other German and Italian vines rarely seen in other vineyards in New York. However, over the years the viability of these varieties has been proven by Channing, and the popularity of the varietals made from them is proof enough.

Dave went on to explain, “I’m starting out. I was advised, and this is what I want to do, I want to start small . . . . Then again, there’s a learning curve, José. So I’ve got to learn how everything works. I’m not new to farming because I’ve been doing that since I was a kid. I’m new to grapes and all the idiosyncrasies that come along with it.”

“I’m about, I don’t know, three or four miles [west] from Channing Daughters. Channing Daughters probably [has] about the closest profile to what mine is as far as weather conditions, microclimates, etcetera. They’ve got thirty acres of good grapes over there and they really do the later varieties I was advised to stay away from, such as Cab Sauvignon and the fluffy Pinot Noir. So I’m not taking those on. You can grow Cab Sauv on the South Shore, but it’s going to be a little bit on the green side when it comes up and it will make a rosé, but you’re not going to make a first quality Cab Sauv that you can put away for a while. You will one in ten seasons, okay? But those other nine seasons you’re going to be making rosé, which is okay . . . . I chose not to go after the later [ripening] varieties, at least not until I get to know everything.

“I have two acres [planted] now. Lemberger, Dornfelder, those are two reds.  Grüner Veltliner (‘green velvet’ in German). One Woman Vineyards has it on the North Shore. [Claudia Purita and her daughter] Gabrielle are the only ones I know of that have it. I was just over there last weekend and we got a couple of bottles. So I put in 300 plants of the variety . . . .

“Then last year, José, I was up at the Rochester Convention. Once every three years they do a viticulture convention in the Northeast, and they named two grapes that Cornell’s been working on for probably 15 years plus, called Arandell and Aromella. Arandell is the red variety, which is highly disease resistant and it makes a really good grape. It has a Pinot Noir parentage and a complex parentage with it, as well as the interbreeding there; they made it a disease-resistant variety that still makes a good fruit. So I was very pleased with what I saw and I ordered a couple hundred plants of Arandell. ([Arándano] means ‘blueberry’ in Spanish, and Ell is [for] Cornell.) They had a naming contest last year in Rochester, and that’s the name that won for this grape. It has a blueberry nose to it, apparently. They gave us some at the conference. It was pretty good, so I put in 200 plants of that last year, and I’m excited, really eager to see how that’s going to play out.”

There is more information about Arandell and Aromella in Cornell’s Issue 13, March 2013, of the Viticulture and Enology Newsletter. They’re referred to as the 55th and 56th grape varieties named by the Agriculture Experiments Station in Geneva run by Cornell.  Dave’s information was particularly interesting, even newsworthy, because hybrid varieties have barely made a dent in LI viniculture, except for at Pindar. This is probably the first time that a new hybrid, Arandell, has been introduced to the LI wine region in years. Furthermore, Dave is one of the early adopters of Arandell and unique in planting a hybrid variety in Long Island when hybrids have mostly been eschewed entirely by other growers.

Dave went on to say: “I have 300 plants [of Arandell] this year. I’m very pleased with the growth and the disease resistance. It’s noticeably better disease resistant, and I’m just an amateur at this, and I can tell. Huge difference. So from a sustainable standpoint, . . . I’m very much involved with Long Island Sustainable Wine Council. Everyone [else who joined was already] established. I’m . . . the first guy to kind of take the Long Island Sustainable program from scratch. So one of the things that we don’t really talk too much about because everybody’s got theirs planted already is new planting. A good approach is to put in a disease-resistant variety that still makes a good wine. Those are hard to come by. This is where I’m sort of hedging my bet a little bit with the Arandell.

“What I’m learning in my research is that when you go either upstate, mid-west, Minnesota, and you get into these slightly colder climates, they really look hard at the cold hardiness of a specific variety as one of their key things that they have to pay attention to. We are not so much that way. We don’t pull up our grapes here on Long Island. It’s mild enough … I don’t even really worry about that at all when I’m trying to decide on a variety. But they have to. Vinifera, the European grapes, don’t do so well with the colder climates.

I replied that while his remark about vinifera varieties is largely true, there is considerable success in the Finger Lakes with Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and, of course, Riesling, which is most definitely a cool-climate grape. To which Dave said: “Right. So they made it work. They figured out how to make it work up there and I applaud them for being able to do that. Down here, on Long Island, I’ve had people tell me, ‘You can pretty much grow any variety you want.’ I’m sort of taking that advice, but carefully.

I pointed out that it’s absolutely astonishing how many varieties there are growing on Long Island. In a database about Long Island vineyards that I maintain I have listed so far thirty-seven: twenty whites and seventeen reds; add Arandell into the mix and that would make it eighteen red varieties.

Dave then popped another German variety to me:   “Well, here’s another one for you that I’m working with too. You probably have this on your list: Zweigelt.”

I replied, “Well, I think Zweigelt is being grown at Channing Daughters right now.”

He remarked, “They may have some. I don’t know. I know that Research Station has a little bit. I got a couple hundred plants of Zweigelt too. They’re babies. Here’s a story for you. Zweigelt and Lemberger, Blaufränkisch, are cousins.    They have the same parentage. Zweigelt is just a little bit spicier and it’s a little bit earlier maturing variety than Lemberger. So that’s another reason why in my research in trying to find a variety of grapes, when I came across Zweigelt I jumped on that. I think that would be a really cool one to have out here.”

To which I said, “Well, it looks like you’re trying to make your mark with varieties that are not typically grown in Long Island other than somebody like Channing Daughters, which loves to experiment.”

Dave replied, “Right. Part of my approach was, there’s fifteen hundred acres of Merlot on the north shore. Why am I going to put in more Merlot and compete? It’s a little bit of a ‘I’m a new kid on the block approach.’  I’m sort of going after some of the varieties that are not as commonly grown. That’s the marketing technique, the approach that I’m using. Because . . . initially I won’t have the high volume.”

At this point I asked him if he was growing grapes with the intention of selling them to other producers or have them made for you by another winery or a crush facility like Premier Wine.

Corwith Vineyards, garageDave pointed out that “Actually, I’m a do-it-yourself. I’m making the wine myself right now. The last two years I got some fruit from the north shore, Merlot and some Chardonnay, and we made up a nice batch last year. We made a rose, an orange, a Chardonnay, and a Merlot. You learn exponentially when you get your hands dirty and get in there and do it. I’m working out a garage right now . . . and I’m making small batches, okay? I have 100 to 150 gallons of wine. That’s all I have. A couple [of] barrels.”

I told Dave that it struck me that he was another garagiste, like Le Pin, the great, small winery in Pomerol.  He must be farming other crops in the meantime to derive some cash flow.

He said, “Yes. I put in about an acre or so of vegetables right now. I just put my tomatoes in today, this morning. I’m doing that and I take the organic approach to the maximum extent that I can, within reason. Without the onerous oversight of the federal government, which is difficult to sustain.”

This led to a discussion of organic farming in Long Island. At this point I feel that quoting the interview verbatim is useful, as the exchange between us was especially interesting (I should, however, point out that I don’t exactly agree with Dave about some of his ideas about the genealogy of some grape varieties, but they’re interesting in their own right):

JM-L:   Well, you know, Rex Farr, of course.

DC:     I know Rex.  Yep.  He’s taking the organic approach. He’s the only game in town, I think, [though] Barbara [Shinn’s] pretty close.

JM-L:   Barbara’s close, but not quite there. Rex, of course, has been farming other crops organically for years. I think he only started growing grapes in 2005. The fruit is excellent from what I understand and this other startup in the North Fork, Southold Farm and Cellar, is buying its fruit from Rex Farr.

DC:     Where my farm is there’s a forty-acre parcel that I share. I can expand if necessary, and I have farmland on another piece that I can work with. That’s not as good for potatoes; it would be better for grapes. So I got to look at that, but it’s presenting some challenges when I split the operation a mile away and you’ve got to have the earth cracks, you’ve got to have water, and you have to be able to get over there. When I retire from my full-time job and this becomes my full-time job, down the road, I’ll put in five or ten acres over there of something else I really like.

JM-L:   Of course. So tell me something. To whom did you turn for advice on how to prepare your fields and plant your vines?

DC:     Okay. A couple of things. I started with learning extensively about organic farming in general via dynamic approach, as well as the Soil Foodweb approach, which is Dr. Elaine Ingham. Look her up or Google Soil Foodweb. She’s the mother of compost teas. So I’ve been working a lot with compost teas the last several years for all of my crops.

Not just the grapes. I’ve had good results with it, but it’s something I would really like to see more testing done with. Compost teas are really good … They’re, basically if you take compost and you mix it with water and you mix it all up and you bubble it or you fish bubble it for 24 hours, you can culture the bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes. Then once you culture that and you grow those, remember from your science class bacteria splits every four hours, so same thing. If you can grow the fungi and the bacteria, that’s really what we’re after. Then you spray that on the plants as a foliar spray. The theory is you will push out [the good] from the bad guys. If you cover the leaf with beneficial bacteria and fungi, when the bad guys try to show up to eat the leaf, they get kicked out.

JM-L:   So this is Biodynamics?

DC:     Well, it’s a cousin to Biodynamics, [which] is taking compost, particularly what they call barrel compost, that’s been buried in the ground over the winter, put it in cow horns and it’s a dairy-based, or cow-based, manure compost, which is excellent. Then they spray that on. With compost tea, you take, particularly, a fungal dominated compost that you have made from a real thick compost pile. So you have to make compost correctly. You can’t just make dirt. You get a good quality compost, particularly one that has worm cavities in it, which is about as good as it gets, and then you put that in a teabag and you boil it … Well, you don’t boil it. You just bubble it in a barrel of water for 24 hours and you can take that and spray it out around your plants as a foliar nutrient spray, if you will. So I’ve been working with that, and that’s very, very similar to what the Biodynamics people are doing. Biodynamics takes it to the next level and they add a celestial component to it. What’s the phase of the moon when we’re doing all this?

JM-L:   Well, this, of course, is where Biodynamics becomes controversial.

DC:     I guess when people are . . . . When I try to explain Biodynamics to people, the simplest way, as I said, ‘Well, does the full moon change the tides on the Earth,’ and most of us know the answer is yes. Sure. It changes the high tide, low tide effect. So if the moon can change the high and low tides, why can’t the moon change the effect of way the plant is growing on a full or new moon. Then add that in and now Biodynamics goes five levels more than that, you know? Get in all the planets as well. That’s where it gets, like you said, controversial.

So I started with biodynamic and compost teas, learning how to work with those . . . . when it came time to look at grapes, I went over to talk to Alice Wise, kind of got to feel her out, and I went over and talked to Steve Mudd who’s put in probably half the grapes on the north shore. Talked to Steve about things and he was very helpful. Then I sort of got involved with the Long Island Sustainable program last year, and that’s been a tremendous benefit for me, a new guy learning how all this stuff works because they’re really promoting the educational side. Some of the speakers they brought [in] are really, really good.

The workbook that we use is excellent. It’s based on the Vine Balance Workbook, which is excellent with regard to how we’re farming it and … It looks at the big picture, which is good.

JM-L:   Actually, what’s interesting is that when the Vine Balance program was first developed by Cornell up in Geneva. They developed it for use statewide but they never took into consideration the proliferation of Vinifera grapes and, of course, at the time that they first came out with Vine Balance, there were no grapes being grown on Long Island. They had to modify it for the Long Island growers.

DC:     Okay. Well, then that sort of became the Long Island Sustainable [program], which they just started and that’s done very, very well. So that’s sort of how I got into it, and I very carefully researched for a couple of years different varieties and decided to go with earlier[-ripening] varieties. I ran them by some of the vineyard managers and they said, ‘Yeah. Those will all work for you.’

JM-L:   That’s fabulous. Now what, by the way, is your vine spacing?

DC:     I’m using nine by four and a half to five; nine feet on the rows and then five on the plants, four and a half to five. The first group I put in, I actually put them in about eight by three but that was too tight. It was too close.

JM-L:   Okay. Are you using machinery in the rows?

DC:     I use a mechanical weeder. I don’t use any herbicides. José, one of the things that came about with the Soil Foodweb model … I’m going to back up just a little bit here. The Soil Foodweb model talks about the fungi in the soil. It’s really … Dr. Ingham, for 30 years, she studied, “Well, what does the plant look like underground? What’s going on in the root system of the plant?” That’s what she studied. Okay? One of the things that she talks a lot about is what’s called mycorrhizal fungi. It’s a type of fungi that … I don’t know if you’re familiar or not, but I’ll give it to you. It’s root extensions. If you add extensions on the spiderweb of fungi that go out and get the nutrients for the plant. Dr. Ingham talks about this fungi going down, not feet, but higher than feet, they can connect. You can have fungi in the soil that can connect for even up to miles, distances. So it’s this fascinating web of fungi underground. With herbicides we kill the mycorrhizal fungi, so when I put my plants in, I gave them a shot of mycorrhizal fungi in with the soil mantis that I was using with the roots. I gave them a shot of that. Now they say you get another 20/25 percent growth if you put in mycorrhizal fungi.  I talked to Larry [Perrine of Channing Daughters] a little bit about it. Richie Pisacano over at Wölffer’s has been very helpful too.

JM-L:   Rich is fabulous. Rich is called the Grape Whisperer, you know?

DC:     I talked to him about Pinot Noir the other day. I said, “Richie, can I grow Pinot Noir here?” and he goes, “It’s a tough grape to grow.” It’s really tough. Although I talked to a guy that I order my grapes from upstate, and he has a clone that he said would work for me, what I’m trying to do. Pinot Noir 19, I think it is. That’s not what Ritchie’s got over at Wölffer. They put in Pinot 20 years ago and they make a rosé out of it, or they make a champagne out of it. They don’t make a [red wine].

Again, Dave began talking about other alternative wine-grape varieties, some of which have not been seen in Long Island before this:

I got a couple of out-of-the-box ideas for you for varieties that I’m sort of researching. I’ve got mixed emotions about all of them. Cabernet Sauvignon can’t do it. What about its sister grape? There’s Cabernet Dorsa, which is a cross of Cab Sauvignon and Dornfelder, earlier, that you can’t plant. You’ve got Franc, which is its own variety. Then there’s another one, Cabernet Mitos, which is a cross of Cab Sauvignon and Lemberger. These are varieties that I’m growing now, so I thought, ‘Well, okay. Maybe that’s how I can bring a Cabernet into the picture.’ Cabernet Mitos, I wasn’t able to find it . . . . I haven’t even tried it yet. There’s only 750 hectares worldwide, and it’s all in Germany. It’s a German-developed variety, so I’ve got to see what it can do. I’m looking at those and then the other ones that I think Chris and Larry are doing is Tempranillo, [which] is a sister to Grenache. Yes, and Grenache, they think, was originated in Sardinia and they called it Cannonau. At least that’s what they say, but it’s only grown in Sardinia.   And a sister to that is Tempranillo. I think Tempranillo would be a cool grape to try to grow around here. A good blender, you know what I mean? Also, Albariño.

JM-L:   Albariño! Well, you know, there are two people who are growing Albariño now. One is Miguel Martin at Palmer and Rich Olsen-Harbich has planted some at Bedell.

DC:     I put in 200 plants; that’s an experiment too. I got mine from upstate, The Grapevine, which is up by Geneva. They, I’m almost sure, grafted it for me. They put it on 3309 and Sl4 [rootstocks].

JM-L:   Miguel has been making a splendid Albariño himself. You should try it if you haven’t.

DC:     Yeah. I have. I’ve been over there. Miguel helped us make our Chardonnay this year. He is . . . terrific. Good people. You know, I want to say something, José. I kind of got into the grape thing, predominant over on the North Shore, but as I get to know people over these last three or four years, what I’ve discovered is it’s a small fraternity of wonderful people that all want to help each other out, and a rising tide lifts all boats. So I haven’t found anyone who has not been willing to help as I, have gone along the way. They’ve been very, very nice.

Corwith Vineyards, sign

JM-L:  Well, Dave, thank you very much. I think we’ve had a very interesting and instructive interview.  What you’re doing is exciting, and I want to continue to follow your progress.

This interview took place on May 20, 2014; a visit followed on November 17, 2015.

A trip to the Hamptons to visit my daughter was an opportune time to also see Dave at his farm.  The result was a delightful time in his garage winery and seeing the handmade and used equipment that he was using for his winemaking.  It’s pretty basic, and some would be familiar to any home winemaker.  Here are some pictures of the equipment, rudimentary and inventively-designed as it is:

Corwith Vineyards, pressThe basket wine press was purchased used and needed extensive repairs, which were done by Dave’s father.  It is very small–it has barely 50 gallons capacity–and not at all efficient, but it adequate for the small batches of wine that he’s currently producing.  This is a far cry from the much more advanced pneumatic presses that are used in most of the LI wineries, which have much larger capacity and press fruit with greater precision and control.



Corwith Vineyards, 1This is a handmade crusher-destemmer, again of very small capacity, so it requires considerable patience to work with it, but it works just as well as the much larger industrial versions and, after all, it is only being used for very small batches of fruit.  The crusher is at the upper left, and the fruit then drops into the perforated basket below, where the rotating wooden destemmer (with plastic tips removed from the posts) separates the stems, which are pushed out of the basket and fall on the ground while the crushed grapes pour through the perforations into a trough that flows the juice into a bin.

Corwith Vineyards, 6The must to be fermented is then placed in a metal or oak barrel, which in Corwith’s case are small and few in number.  Dave buys his oak barrels from a cooperage, East Coast Wine Barrels in Medford, a Long Island town.Their barrels are meticulously made from Romanian oak.  Dave has them medium-toasted to somewhat abate the oakiness that could be imparted to the wine.

Corwith Vineyards, 4When the wine is ready to be bottled, the bottles themselves first need to be properly sterilized by a dose of sulfur gas followed by a whiff of nitrogen to expel the sulfur so that it will not add flavor to the wine.  This is an entirely handmade device which has perforated wood bars allowing up to 12 bottles at a time to be treated.  Beneath the inverted bottle necks are nozzles that inject the gases into the bottles.  Rough-hewn as it is, it works perfectly well, even if it’s no match for industrial sterilizers that can handle far more bottles at a time with much less manual labor per bottle.



Corwith Vineyards, 5The final stage, of course, is filling the bottles with wine.  Yet another hand-crafted gizmo is brought to bear on this all-important function.  In this case only four bottles at a time can be filled, but it goes fairly quickly, especially if there are only small batches of wine.  However, each label has to be affixed to each bottle by hand and for now the contents are written by hand as well.  A completely automated device to do everything from filling the bottles to inserting the corks and adding the neck capsule, and finally applying the pre-printed labels costs many thousands of dollars and Corwith may never be able to afford one, but a larger rig like the one in the picture would certainly be called for once Corwith goes into commercial production.

Corwith Vineyards, DaveOf course a barrel-tasting was in order, and Dave very happily obliged.

The first wine was a “poor man’s” Bordeaux-style blend made of equal parts Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cab Sauvignon 2014 from North Fork vineyards, aged in Romanian oak.  It will continue aging in barrel for some more months, but it already is showing promise, with good fruit, lively acidity, and form tannins.

A Chardonnay from Lenz Vineyards fruit of 2015 is just weeks in stainless steel but the wine is from good, clean fruit and also shows good promise.

Also in steel is  a Grüner Veltliner from 2015 grapes of Corwith’s own vineyards.  Promising as well, but still too young to say much more.

An Arandell wine comes across as a tad foxy, but then it is a Cornell hybrid.  Dave plans to treat it like a Syrah or Petit Verdot but it will certainly have to be blended with a red vinifera to bring the foxiness under control.

All of this is the achievement of a “newbie garagiste.”  Not bad, not at all bad.

Corwith Vineyards LogoMailing Address:

Corwith Vineyards LLC
851 Head of Pond Rd
Water Mill, NY 11976


Please note that at this time Corwith Vineyards is not open to visitors and its website is new and under development.




Long Island Wines Finally Get Some Serious Attention

Anyone who has been enjoying wines from Long Island over the years knows that the quality of the wine has been improving to the point that most of the last several vintages have resulted in many superb wines. Occasionally a few wines here and there have received excellent review and high scores, such as from Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator. Oz Clarke has long been a fan. Still, the mainstream press has largely ignored the breadth of the achievement.

Finally, there is a level of recognition of the quality of Long Island wine that should leave no one in doubt, given two sets of tasting notes published this past June and October.   In the June 30, 2015 issue of the Wine Advocate eMag, Mark Squires has rated the wines of 26 producers and given scores of 90 to 94 points to 78 of nearly 200 that were tasted, along with some detailed tasting notes. In the October 30 issue, he reviewed some 2013 new releases that weren’t available at the time of his prior review, and six producers not included earlier:   Brooklyn Oenology, Suhru, Mattebella, Pindar, Duck Walk, and Diliberto.  In all, 26 wines out of 78 scored 90 to 93 points,  while Paumanok had the best results with 10 of its 12 wines scoring over 90.  What this means that of nearly 280 wines that have been tasted for the two reviews, over 100 had high scores, but as usual, read the tasting notes to understand the scores.

90-plus scores are what catch the attention of readers, but the details are in the notes, which should be read carefully to better understand the reason for the points that have been awarded. These reviews are the opinion of one man, but he is a seasoned wine professional and really knows his stuff. His essay about the Long Island wine industry is well worth reading, but one needs a subscription to the Wine Advocate in order to do so. (I obtained the article by subscribing for a month–$20).

Some salient points made by him:

  • “There is plenty of evidence that the region has arrived and is on the cusp of maturity, no longer an outlier, but increasingly reliable in good vintage years. More improvements are likely, to be sure, but overall there is a lot to admire.”
  • “They also care about making wines to age. The top wines here typically demand cellaring and reward it.”
  • “The array of sauvignon blancs that I saw fit in well here and they were extremely successful. This region may be underrated for its sauvignons right now.”

What is particularly notable about Squires’ reviews is that none of the wines scored less than 84 points and that so many (nearly 36%) scored 90 points or higher. Until now, no wines from the region had ever received more than 92 points, but this time 24 wines had that score or more. But again, it must be emphasized that the tasting notes are the thing to read. The scores should be used as pointers.

32 producers reviewed out of 53 that make commercial wines is just two-thirds of the total in Long Island (including two in Brooklyn). Squires points out that he will be returning to the region from time to time so it is to be hoped that he’ll get around to reviewing the rest, for there are some significant brands that have been left out of the first two sets of reviews, such as Castello di Borghese, Laurel Lake, Palmer, and T’Jara.

Squires’ article has also been thoughtfully commented on by Eileen Duffy in her byline on Edible East End.  Notably, she has also provided links to the tasting notes for each winery.  Furthermore, for those who do not subscribe to Wine Advocate, she’s done a great service by making these notes available to all.


Juanjo Garcel Piñol and his Wines of Terra Alta DO

Catalunya map, Terra AltaThe Terra Alta DO in Catalonia barely was mentioned as a source of quality wine by John Radford in his book, The New Spain: A Complete Guide to Contemporary Spanish Wine (revised edition, 2004). Perhaps it’s time for a new edition, because in the intervening years much has happened in Terra Alta. Indeed, in the 7th edition (2013) of The World Atlas of Wine, by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, had this to say about Terra Alta: “imported red varieties have been replacing the region’s Garnacha Blanca . . . . Vinos Piñol . . . make refined red Garnacha and Cariñena.” Remarkably, Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book 2016, doesn’t even mention Terra Alta at all, much less Vinos Piñol. However, José Peñín, the authoritative Spanish writer on the wines of that country had, in his Atlas de los vinos de España (2000), quite a bit more to say about the region and its wines and was rather upbeat about its prospects for making quality wine.

How can this be? Well, the region is a relatively new DO or Denominación de Origen as of 1982. It is very small, its winters cold and its summers hot, and its average rainfall is between 14 to 20 inches annually. The soil is mostly limestone interspersed with some clay, very similar to that of the better-known terroir of Priorat. The winds of the region, particularly the southerly cierzo and the garbí that blows from the northeast, help to keep the grapes dry and healthy, as does the wide diurnal temperature variation. Terra Alta is a rather tiny part of the province of Tarragona, situated in the high mountains of the Southwest of the province (see the pink area of the map). It was settled before the ancient Romans colonized Spain; indeed, there is evidence that winemaking preceded their arrival.

Originally known for its white wines, particularly an oxidized type called “amber blanc” or rancio, the inevitable arrival of the Phylloxera louse in the late 1800s forced the replanting of the vineyards. In 2000 it had but 8500 hectares (21,590 acres) planted to vines and by 2010 that area had grown but little, to 22,793 acres. However, it has undergone a major transformation in the last 20 years. Once dominated by winery cooperatives, a few indigenous varieties such as Garnatxa, both red and white (Grenache in Catalan) and some imported varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, it has been transformed by the rise of small wineries with big ambitions. Today, Terra Alta’s top white varieties are Garnacha Blanca, Macabeo, Parellada, Moscatel, and Chardonnay. Garnacha Tinta and Cariñena (locally called Samsó) are the most-planted red grape varieties; Garnacha Peluda, the rare Morenillo, along with the imports, Tempranillo, Syrah, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon are also in the vineyards. There are also experimental plantings of Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Marselan (a Cab Sauv × Grenache crossing).

Among the most notable of the newer wineries is Vinos Piñol, also known as Celler Piñol. This winery has been held in the Piñol family since 1945 for four generations. Their wines are made from entirely indigenous varieties that in many cases came from 85-year-old vines. The vineyard, located at an altitude of roughly 500 meters (over 1,600 feet), has been farmed organically since 2000. Most of the vines are trained to single-Guyot trellises and head-pruned.
Pinol, JuanjoJuanjo Garcela Piñol, trained as a chemical engineer, was called to the winery in 1998 by his aging parents, who needed his help in maintaining the vineyard and making the wine. Though he had no oenological training, his chemistry background was very helpful and over time he read heavily and took some courses in winemaking. Today he runs the winery and shares winemaking responsibilities with Toni Coca, along with María Mendoza, who also helps out in the winery and in the vineyard; his mother Josefa maintains the cellar.

His first bottling was the 1995 Avi Arrufi Blanco, of which there were 2,000 bottles. Nevertheless, apart from its appeal within Terra Alta, it turned out to be a very hard sell outside the region, itself barely known and the winery utterly unknown. However, today Piñol exports 85% of its production abroad and has received rave reviews and 90+ points many times since then. The US importer is Olé, which brings in a select number of each of nine different Piñol wines.

He currently produces wines made from four white varieties (Garnacha Blanca, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, and Macabeo) and six red ones (Cabernet Sauvignon, Garnatxa, Merlot, Syrah, Tempranillo, and Morenillo). He has also introduced three new varieties (Petit Verdot, Marselan, and Verdejo). From these he makes a total of 11 wines, most of which are blends. For the interview with him, the following wines were tasted: L’Avi Arrufi Blanca, Portal Tinto, Sa Natura Tinto, and Mather Teresina. All of these wines have received both critical praise from Jancis Robinson among others, and high scores of 90 to 95 from José Peñín, Robert Parker, and Stephen Tanzer of IWC.

The overall style of the wines is decidedly nuanced, but with clear and distinctive character. This is due to the fact that the focus of the winemaking is on expressing the unique terroir of the vineyards. Whereas many Spanish wineries are increasingly turning to imported varieties, Piñol prefers to emphasize the local, autochthonous varieties, though in the case of the red wines some Syrah is added to deepen the color of the wines, especially given that the dominant red variety, Garnacha, though rich in aromas and flavors, tends to make slightly pale wines. Three-quarters of the wines produced are reds, the rest are whites made from Garnatxa Blanca. (This variety is a specialty of the region, and 35% of the global production of that grape is in Terra Alta.) About 85% of all the grapes they use come from their own vines and the rest are purchased from other organic vineyards in the DO.

L’Avi Arrufí White
Microsoft PowerPoint - 100529 Lavi Arrufi Blanco.pptThe 2010 L’Avi Arrufi Blanca is made entirely of Garnatxa Blanca from 50-year-old vines. It spent eight months in French oak and yielded an alcohol level of 14.8%. The quality of the wine comes in good part from the fact that the vines have very deep roots that tap into the minerality of the soil, according to Piñol. The result is a wine of high minerality and flavors of stone fruit like peaches and apricots, with spiciness and smoky notes derived from the oak. Its mouthfeel is unctuous and rich, giving a long aftertaste that reminds of a fine white Burgundy. This is why Piñol has increased the production of its white varieties from 10% of its wines five years ago to 25% today. Only 300 six-packs have been imported by Olé, as it is now in high demand worldwide. 92 points from Robert Parker, 90 Points from José Peñín.
Sa Natura Tinto
At only $20 this red wine drinks more like a wine costing twice as much yet is made withPinol, Sa Natura label organic, estate-grown grapes, comprised by 50% Cariñena, 20% Garnacha, 15% Syrah, 15% Merlot varieties. The vines grow in clay and limestone soil at 356 m (1,168 ft) elevation. There are earthy tones, as well as pepper, blackcurrant and cherry fruit, with a medium to full body, balanced acidity, and lush tannins. 3,000 cases were produced. Drink it over the next 4-6 years.

Each variety was hand-harvested when optimum ripeness occurred for a given grape. After selecting the best grapes from each bunch, the grapes macerate with their juice for 4 days at 6ºC (43°F) for greater fruit expression. After that fermentation is carried out at a temperature of 27ºC (81°F). Maceration and skin contact lasts for 25 days. Malolactic fermentation then takes place, half in oak barrels and half in stainless steel tanks; after which the wine is aged for 13 months in 85% French and 15% American oak.  It contains 14% alcohol.

Pairing suggestions include a rare beef cheddar burger, but the wine’s fresh black and blue fruits will pair even better with a lamb or turkey burger with a slice of Jarlsberg. If grilling sausages, go toward sweet pork and veal rather than spicy, beef dishes. White meat also pairs well with Sa Natura due to its inherently sweeter character. The wine also pairs with meat dishes in mushroom sauce.

The 2011 earned 92 points from Wine Enthusiast & was an Editor’s Choice; prior vintages all earned 90+ points from Robert Parker and others.

Portal Tinto
Pinol, Portal Tinto labelThis wine is made from certified organically-grown grapes, from which 3,050 cases were produced for the 2012 vintage. The vines are head-pruned, dry-farmed (no irrigation), and grow in limestone and clay soil. The vineyards are located within Batea, a town at an elevation of 450 m (1,476 ft). The wine is comprised by 50% Garnacha, 20% Carignan, 10% Merlot, 10% Syrah, and 10% Tempranillo.

According to the Olé Website, “the grapes are brought to the winery in the early morning hours before being de-stemmed and crushed. Prior to fermentation, the must is macerated at a cool temperature (43°F) for four days in large tanks of 5,000-10,000 liter capacity. Fermentation starts [by] utilizing neutral yeasts from Levuline (used mostly in Champagne) and the skins mix with the juice for 22-28 days. Malolactic fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks. The wine is aged for twelve months in 300-liter French and American oak barrels.”
Portal Red is dark ruby-colored, while the aroma reveals minerality, cedar, tobacco, cassis, and black fruit. Ripe and fruit-sweet on the palate, with licorice, dried herbs and mineral notes, ending with a long, fruity finish. It should remain enjoyable for a few more years.
This wine’s ripe, juicy character is very easy to pair with foods like casual American fare (burgers, wrap sandwiches, burritos), spicy Latino dishes, as well as aged hard cheeses.

Mather Teresina Red
Pinol, Portal Tinto vineyardA vineyard from which the Mather Terisina wines are sourced.

This is Piñol’s premiere wine, made from a selection of the best barrels of Garnatxa (50%), Cariñena (30%) and Morenillo (20%) of the 2008 vintage, resulting in a limited production of 7,750 bottles, of which over 1,400 were imported by Olé to the United States. The vines, by the way, are anywhere from 35 to 60 years old. The wines spent 20 – 24 months in 85% French and 15% in new American oak barrels and fined with no animal products, so it can be considered a vegan wine. Its alcohol content is 14.85%.

This wine has high-pitched aromas of red fruits, wet stones and spices. With acidity that lends a “nervous” character to the fruit in the mouth, the wine’s tannins are substantial but fine grained. This is a wine of roundness, volume, depth and great length and should be enjoyed with dishes like pheasant, duck, venison, fois gras, roast pork, and aged hard cheeses.

Among the awards won by Mather Teresina, Vinum Magazine (Germany) has lauded it as one of the best wines in Spain, alongside the prestigious Vega Sicilia.  Robert Parker gave Mather Teresina 92 points in his Wine Advocate magazine.

The Olé Website tells us that “the vineyards are located a few miles southwest of Priorat, within the Terra Alta DO (Zone 5) in Catalunya’s Tarragona province in northeastern Spain. In this remote region, the winemaking tradition dates back to the Romans, around the 2nd or 3rd Century. The winery and vineyards are in the town of Batea, situated at 400 meters (1,312 ft.) elevation. The soils are composed of 95% limestone and 5% clay. Yields are low (24.5 hectoliters per hectare, or 3,500 kilograms per hectare), which enhances the concentration and complexity in the grapes. The vineyards are organically farmed and certified by CCPAE. For climate, the average temperature from April-October is 67.3ºF. The hot day and warm-to-moderate night temperatures make Terra Alta a drier and warmer region than Montsant or Priorat. These conditions produce bright purplish-garnet hued wines with greater weight and ripeness than wines from other areas within Zone 5. The low average yearly rainfall of 16.3 inches is less than neighboring regions.”

The wine offers aromas of spice and red berries, as well as notes of licorice and coffee, along with vanilla and mineral nuances in the background. It has a precision on the palate, with both sour cherry and sweet raspberry flavors that amplify with time. It is full-bodied and well-developed, though promising a long life ahead, given its well-knit tannins and good acid backbone. The finish is long and lingering. A wine for contemplation as well as food, especially beef or game in rich sauces.

A wine that was not tasted for this interview is the Finca Morenillo, based 100% on a rare, local variety that had almost vanished. It is of very limited production at 500 cases or 3,000 bottles and is unique in the wine world. A small amount has been imported into the USA by Olé. Once this writer finds it and has tasted it shall be added to this review.

Pinol, barricaCeller Piñol
Avinguda Aragó, 9, 43786 Batea, Tarragona, Tarragona, Spain




Based on an interview with Juanjo Piñol in July 2015.

Book Review: Grapes of the Hudson Valley, by J. Stephen Casscles

With the publication of Grapes of the Hudson Valley and Other Cool Climate Regions of the United States and Canada, Stephen Casscles joins a small group of writers who have concentrated on winegrowing in the Eastern United States, including such august figures as Lucie Morton and Hudson Cattell as well as, most recently, Richard Fiegel. This book is a significant contribution to that literature and in important ways it is unique.

First of all, it is organized in an unusual but sensible way. It begins as such books should by providing his interesting “A Short History” of winegrowing in the Hudson Valley, with a focus on the region’s hybridizers. It then proceeds to discuss the benefits of wine-grape hybridization, and then explores the basics of cool-climate viniculture. There is some excellent information and advice to be found in Chapter Three: “Basic Principles of Cool Climate Pruning and Vineyard Management,” including “10 Points to Consider When Cold-Weather Pruning,” an illustrated section on pruning methods and training systems, controlling disease in the vineyard, and a concluding section, “Additional Thoughts on Vineyard Management,” bearing on sod and sod management, mowing, under-canopy management, fertilizers, and earthworms. It pretty well covers the field.

It is at Chapter Six, “Selected American Grape Species Used for Breeding,” that the organization then differs from all other such books of which I am aware. The following chapter is about Labrusca hybrids, followed by chapters on the Hudson Valley hybridizers, then the Early French hybridizers, the Late French ones, Geneva hybrids, Minnesota hybrids, Central European Vinifera and hybrid varieties, and closes with a chapter devoted to selected classic Vinifera varieties suitable for growing in the Hudson Region. Within each such chapter is a brief historical background followed by short biographies of each of the important hybridizers and then a detailed description of each significant grape of the related developer.

“Selected American Grape Species” is an important contribution as it describes the leading native vines used for wine production (six species out of more than 70 that grow here): Vitis aestivalis and some of its vinous varieties; V. berlandieri (Texas and northern Mexico), V. cinerea (which favors rich soil along streams), V. labrusca (its varieties are among the best know, including Concord, Catawba, Niagara, and Delaware), and V. riparia (sometimes call River, Riverside, or Riverbank). Also included, partly by way of comparison, partly because it is now so widely planted in America, is the European species, V. vinifera. It then compares and explains the differences between the species, including their dominant habitats, geographical range, winter hardiness, and wine quality. This section is especially useful in helping understand the different varieties and hybrid that emanate from these species.

For each variety of whatever provenance, the author provides a capsule statement, identifies the parentage, the typical harvest date (a range), and then displays five symbols: one for winter hardiness, another for disease resistance, a third for vine vigor, yet another for productivity, and the fifth for wine quality. Each is grade A to D. For example, Concord has a parentage of labrusca, should be harvested “mid-season to early late season” and its hardiness is A+, resistance is A, vigor is B, productivity is A+, and quality is rated B-. He does this for most of the 171 varieties listed in the index, though clones may be given more cursory treatment. Interestingly, Pinot Noir, that elusive Holy Grail of a variety, gets these ratings: hardiness is C-, resistance is D, vigor is C, productivity C+, and quality A+. But then, Concord is a Northeast native and Pinot Noir is from Burgundy, France.

All this is explained in a section of the Introduction, How to Use This Book (pp. xviii-xix), which defines just what the capsule descriptions mean:

  • for Harvest Dates in the Hudson Valley “mid-season” means (Sept. 20 to 30);
  • for Winter Hardiness “medium hardy” describes a variety that “Will sustain some cold damage in harsh winters . . . .” (a grade of B);
  • for Fungal Disease Resistance, “Slightly susceptible” is a grade of A;
  • for Vigorousness, “Moderately vigorous means a grade of C;
  • for Productivity, “Very productive” is represented as an A+;
  • for Wine Quality, “Medium” receives a B, so the Concord’s B- means less than of medium quality.

Discussion of the various grapes can be as long as two whole pages for Concord, as an example, though most get a far briefer treatment of a few hundred words. The vinifera grapes like Pinot Noir are extensively discussed. These variety notes focus largely on the viability of the vines in a region like that of the Hudson River and similar ones in Canada and the Northeast of the United States and other states like Wisconsin and Minnesota. For Casscles, winter hardiness and disease resistance are primary concerns, along with wine quality.

Another very important subject of the book is the history and biographies of the major hybridizers, beginning with those of the Hudson Valley in the 19th Century. A.J. Downing and his brother Charles feature, along with Andrew Jackson Caywood (1819-89), who developed Dutchess, Nectar, Poughkeepsie, Ulster, and Walter, with capsule mentions of his minor varieties. Dr. William A.M. Culbert (1822-90) is also given respectful space, as is Dr. Charles William Grant (1810-81), who bequeathed Eumelan, the important Iona, and other minor varieties.   James H. Ricketts (1818 or 1830-1915) gave growers Black Hamburg, Clinton, Bacchus, Downing, Empire State, and Jefferson, and many minor varieties. And so it goes for other Hudson Valley breeders. Each biography is followed by careful descriptions of the respective varieties that each one bred. (It turns out that there are two different varieties named Bacchus: the Hudson Valley riparia/labrusca hybrid given to Ricketts as the breeder, and the German Bacchus (GF 33-29-133), an all-vinifera crossing of (Sylvaner × Riesling) × Müller-Thurgau.)

Then the author explores the Early French Hybridizers (1875-1925) in a following chapter, including Bertille Seyve, Jr. (1895-1959) who created Seyval Blanc. Yet another chapter is given over to the Later French Hybridizers (1925-1955), of whom Ravat gave us the now widely-planted Vignoles and Jean-Louis Vidal provided Vidal Blanc, a mainstay of the East Coast wine industry. Next are the Geneva (NY) hybrids from the NY Agricultural Experiment Station located there, which bred Chardonel, Melody, and Traminette (one of this reviewer’s favorites). After that come the Minnesota hybrids, with Elmer Swenson (1913-2004) featured, along with his own interspecific crossings such as the excellent La Crescent, La Crosse, and St. Pepin. Casscles remarks on the attitude of Swenson, who had “a very generous policy of sharing breeding material and grape variety selections . . . to anyone who requested them.” This generosity is seen as a great benefit to growers, and in Casscles view, “This should be a lesson to many of our current university-based grape-breeding programs, which seem to want to control the products developed, but in doing so they limit the scope of the field research that can be done by not widely disseminating their plant material for comment.” An important point and one well-taken.

In his thoroughness, Casscles also cover Central European Vinifera and Hybrid Grapes on pages 207-217, listing the German, Austrian, and Hungarian varieties that are suitable for planting in cold-climate regions. The final chapter is devoted to the leading vinifera varieties that can, despite disease pressure and severe winters, more or less thrive in the climates of the Hudson Valley and similar regions, including Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Gamay Noir, and Pinot Noir, including the latter’s many clones.

Thus Casscles approaches his main theme, which is about hybrid grapes and the how and why of their development over the course of two centuries in both the United States and Europe. The book is also about a personal voyage by the author and members of his extended family, the history of which goes back to the Eighteenth Century in the Hudson Valley.

This reviewer does have a grape of contention over a statement by the author that seems a bit misleading: “Running counter to the generally held belief of the Viniferists—especially those purists who would like limit production to a few “pure” classic vinifera grape varieties, such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, or Pinot Noir—all grapes are hybrids. Even the mighty purebred vinifera Chardonnay is a naturally occurring hybrid of Pinot Noir and the bulk grape Gouais Blanc.” -p.20.

However, this insistence that even intra-specific genetic mixing, whether occurring in nature or manmade, runs counter to the widely-accepted definition of Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc is a cross, not a hybrid. Karen McNeil’s The Wine Bible defines a cross as “A grape created by fertilizing one variety with another variety of the same species. While a cross may result from breeding, most crosses occur spontaneously in nature. . . . A cross is not the same as a hybrid.” To wit, “As distinguished from a cross, a hybrid is a new grape variety developed by breeding two or more varieties from different species or subgenera. The most common hybrids are part European species (Vitis vinifera) and part any one of several American species.” However, Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine (3rd edition) does cut Casscles some slack: “cross or crossing, the result of breeding a new variety by crossing two vine varieties of the same species, usually the European vinifera species. Thus Müller-Thurgau, for example is a cross. Crosses are different from hybrids, sometimes called interspecific crosses, which contain the genes of more than one species of the Vitis species.” –p. 197.

On the other hand, Casscles finds a couple of entries in Jancis Robinson, et al., Wine Grapes, regarding hybrid varieties are at times a tad off the mark. In his very extensive endnotes to each chapter he frequently cites Wine Grapes and where needed carefully provides corrections of that version.

The book is well-illustrated with many black-and-white photos, drawings, and diagrams as well as a set of color plates of 27 different varieties. It has but two maps, one of fruit-growing areas of the Hudson Valley, and another of the hardiness zones of NY State, showing the zones from 3a to 6b, but without explanation of what the zones actually mean. The map is based on the USDA Agriculture Research Service NY Plant Hardiness Zone Map, but if one were to go online to the USDA Website a far more detailed Zone map shows the entire range of the zone system, which is based on the minimum temperature range for each zone. Thus, zone 3b has a minimum range of -35 to -30° F., while zone 6b ranges down to -5 to 0° F. Indeed, the online map doesn’t even refer to zone 3a, which would have a range below -35° F.

But these are mere quibbles when one considers the overall quality and detail of the information provided in Casscles’ book. It is a real accomplishment and deserves respectful attention, particular from growers, winemakers, and anyone who is determined to cultivate cold-weather varieties and make wine from them, not to speak of serious oenophiles of any persuasion. Apart from the excellent and extensive endnotes to each chapter there is also a substantial bibliography as well as an index to the individual varieties covered in the text as well as a general index.

Grapes of the Hudson ValleyJ. Stephen Casscles, Grapes of the Hudson Valley and Other Cool Climate Regions of the United States and Canada. Forward by Kevin Zraly, Preface by Eric Miller. Coxsackie, NY: Flint Mine Press, 2015. 266 pages, including the Introduction and Indices. Paperback, $29.99.

Casscles has been a government attorney for the NY State Senate for the past 28 years, and has drafted at least 22 laws bearing on the wine and spirits industry, working with six State Senators over that period.  He has been growing wine grapes at his farm in Athens, NY, since 1990.  He is also the winemaker for the Hudson-Chatham Winery.

I highly recommend this book.





Bosco Falconeria, Sicily

Interview at Bosco Falconeria with Natalia and Tonino Simeti

My wife, Vals, a friend, Bosa Raditsa, and I went to Sicily in February 2015 for a three-week Palermo, Capella Palatina, 09holiday. Vals and I first flew to Naples, where we had an utterly splendid time visiting its great museums and dining exceedingly well before taking the ferry to Palermo, where we met Bosa, who had come from Genoa by ferry with her car. We spent a few days in Palermo visiting extraordinary sites such as its gold-mosaic- encrusted Norman churches before finally departing to drive around the island to see as much as we could in the time that we had left. Our very first stop after leaving the city was the vineyard and winery Bosco Falconeria en route to the medieval hilltop town of Erice.

Prior to our departure for Sicily Vals and I had read several books about the island and one of our favorites was On Persephone’s Island: A Sicilian Journal, by Mary Taylor Simeti. Mary Taylor had just graduated from college in 1962 and had decided to spend a year in Sicily before returning to the States to go to graduate school. Manhattan-born, she had gone to Radcliffe, where she majored in medieval history, but was unsure of what to do once she had earned her degree. Instead, after working as an intern for nearly year while there, she fell in love with and married Antonio Simeti, a professor of agronomics in Palermo. She has lived in Sicily ever since, raising two children, Natalia and Francesco, writing several books on food, history, and Sicily, and helping run a farm and vineyard.

By the late 1980s Mary’s On Persephone’s Island (1986) was enjoying good reviews and a receptive readership in the United States. It was on her visits back to New York to visit family and promote her book that she learned about organic agriculture and brought information about it back to the farm. It was decided that organic viniculture would be the path that they would pursue in their quest to make quality wine at a reasonable price. By 1989 the entire farm had been fully converted to organic growing and three years later it became officially certified. It was registered as Bosco Falconeria azienda biologica Simeti-Taylor, and was one of the earliest adopters of organic agriculture in all of Sicily.

Even before the trip I had read online that the farm, Bosco Falconeria, was a producer of organic grapes for wine, a special interest of mine, so I decided to visit them as it was only 60 km. from Palermo, in Partinico, en route to the west coast of the island. I also learned that Bosco Falconeria has also been seeking wider distribution of their wines in the United States. In that case, there was all the more reason to taste the wines and write about them. So I wrote to Mary Taylor Simeti, who responded very graciously to say that we were welcome to come though she would be in the States when we arrived. Besides, she now has little to do with the care of the vineyard or the making of the wine at a nearby azienda. It is her daughter Natalia who, with her husband, now runs the farm and attends to the wine.

Sicily, Bosco Falconeria, 03So, in mid-February we set out for the farm, having punched the address into our Garmin GPS. Alas, the GPS took us very close to the farm, but on the wrong road. GPSs have a flair for doing that from time to time, especially in rural areas that are not well mapped. ( Had we had the farm’s coordinates we’d doubtless have done much better.) We eventually arrived there, an hour late, to our dismay and Natalia’s, for it was terribly close to their lunchtime. Nevertheless, she and her father, called Tonino by his family and friends, gave generously of their time for the interview and the tasting. Indeed, they were very charming and the conversation was most informative.

The farm has been in the Simeti family’s hands since 1933. At that time it was a 25-acre farm mostly dedicated to vineyards and the winery was in the barn. It came into Tonino’s possession in 1966 after his older brother died suddenly. Tonino and Mary then converted the farmhouse into a vacation home, living most of the year in Palermo while spending holidays and weekends there. The devastating Benice earthquake of 1968 in western Sicily, with its epicenter not far from the location of the farm, did considerable damage to the property and required extensive repairs and reconstruction.

At one time there were several palmenti, or stone crushpads where traditionally the grapes were stomped by barefoot workers, the juice running into tubs that were then poured into vats in the barn, where the winery was situated. However, all but one palmento is left, partly because of the difficulty of removing it and partly, perhaps, because it is a chunk of nostalgia good for conversation. It’s in the farmhouse, covered by a desk.

The farm is located in the province of Palermo, near Partinico, in the region of the D.O.C. of Alcamo, which was best known for its white wines when it was created in 1972, but now has a much more diverse range of varieties, including Grillo, Catarratto, Inzolia, Grecanino and the non-native Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay among the whites. Nero d’Avola, as well as the non-native Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah are among the reds permitted in the zone. However, it should be pointed out that Bosco’s wines do not bear the Alcamo imprimatur of origin but rather the more general I.G.P. Terre Siciliani, which allows for a much wider range of varieties and styles than that of the D.O.C. It’s a small azienda of 17 hectares (42 acres) and 7 hectares (about 17 acres) are planted to vines.

Sicily, Bosco Falconeria, 08Natalia describes it thus: “ Our soil is red, rich in iron, grass-green in winter, sunburnt in summer. Our hills overlook the sea and the distant mountains: a patchwork of vineyards and olives, of fields and orchards.”

Tonino and Mary’s son Francesco eventually moved to the United States and lives in Brooklyn as a successful artist. Natalia went to university in Rome, where she earned a degree in Art History. Eventually that took her to the United States, where she worked as a museum administrator. However, Natalia returned to Sicily in 2005 and took a museological job in Palermo. She then met the man who would become her husband, Ramo Sali, from Finland, and now they two have children. After a while, as she was not that happy in her new job, and given that they spent every weekend at the farm, the lifelong connection to it proved to be too strong to resist. After three years passed she and Ramo took over running the farm and vineyard. Well before that the winery on the property had been closed down and the grapes were being sent to a small, local winery, Azienda Cossentino, which also makes organic wine of its own.

Natalia’s passion is not only the vineyard but the farm and its other products as well. There are olive groves and orchards with various species of fruit trees. The produce is sold in Palermo along with fresh and dried legumes as well. All are grown organically.

The varietals that they make are two of Catarratto and one of Nero d’Avola. Catarratto is a white grape and it is the most widely planted variety in Sicily and the fourth in all of Italy. While it has been used for the production of sweet, fortified Masala, but it has moved up in the world to offers, at its best, a citrusy nose, nutty taste, or can even, resemble Viognier when fully ripe. The Nero d’Avola is a red-wine grape that is the most planted—at nearly 50,000 acres—on the island. Once used primarily as a tenturier in the making of wines on the mainland that needed more color, it too has found its place, producing varietal wines with black fruit aromas and high acidity. The best will age well. It is sometimes blended with Cabernet Franc, Syrah, or other such varieties, and in Cerasuolo da Vittoria, Sicily’s only DOCG, it is blended with Frappato to make a distinctive light red wine. The important thing is that the two varieties thrive in the black soils of this DOC.

At Bosco, there are two subtypes or clones of the Catarratto grape planted: Comune and Extralucido. The comune is, as the name implies, the more common of the two, and when ripened, has the highest sugar content and lowest acidity, with dusky grape skins, whereas the extralucido has the lowest sugar and highest acidity, with a rather bright skin (i.e., little or no bloom on it). The latter is also the one that has the most aroma. (In between these two subtypes is a third, lucido, but it does not feature in Bosco’s wines.) Today plantings of Catarratto of all three subtypes dominate in the provinces of Palermo, Agrigento, and particularly Trapani, mostly at elevations of 250 m. (820 ft. or more) which is almost exactly the altitude of Bosco Falconeria, located as it is in the hills in the west of Palermo province.

Bosco Catarratto labelBosco’s Catarratto come in two styles. One is designated as a varietal, with the name of the grape on the label. It is steel-fermented and the 2012 version has 13% alcohol. The second is called Falco Peregrino, which is fermented on the skins, using wild yeasts. Also steel-fermented, it has but 11% alcohol. It has more character, with a citrusy aroma and slightly tannic astringency derived from the skins, and a mildly bitter aftertaste that is typical of the variety. No sulphites are added to the second version. Both styles benefit from some age and should be served chilled. At present, only the rather austere Catarratto is available in the United States, the Falco Peregrino not yet, perhaps because it is less stable for travel given the lack of added sulphites.

According to Natalia, Catarratto, as a varietal, “gets better with time.” We tasted both a 2012 and a 2013, and vintage differences aside, the 2012 had the advantage of an additional year which made the wine a bit more rounded and somewhat less austere, but she pointed out that a recently-tasted 2007 was very nicely developed, but we didn’t have that for our tasting. How long these Catarratto will age obviously depends on the vintage, but clearly some age is recommended for the wine to express itself fully and well.

The vines are either pruned to a Guyot trellis or pruned in the Alberello alcamese manner, which is to say, in the form of a small tree kept low to the ground with a short cane carrying three or four buds tied to a spur on another branch, thus forming an arc. This kind of pruning is ideal in areas of strong and persistent winds, so that though the fruit may be splayed on the ground, it is kept dry and free of disease by the breezes. A great advantage of this kind of pruning is that all the fruit is close to the trunk and tends to ripen at the same time. The disadvantage of the Albarello form is that it cannot be harvested mechanically and the labor is backbreaking.

However, when I pointed out to Natalia that harvesting Alberello-trained vines was so difficult, her response was to say that there’s a great deal of work that goes into installing a trellis system like the Guyot, it’s just that much of the work is at the beginning of the season rather than at harvest. Furthermore, she likes the fact that she doesn’t have to walk in a straight line to get to the end of a row and in fact can circle the vine and reach it and work on it easily. Indeed, it occurs to me that those advantages help explain why alberello has been in use since Roman times and until about the 1950s was almost the exclusive form of pruning in all of Sicily. Once modern vinicultural practices began to make headway in Sicily its use began to diminish precipitously. Today only about eight percent of all vines on the island are so trained.

Bosco Nero d'Avola labelNero d’Avola, Bosco’s other variety, is known for its tendency to grow radially rather than upright, which is what most vinifera varieties do. It therefore lends itself well to alberello training. Not long ago it was grown mostly in the southeastern part of the island, but it is more widely distributed now. It is an early ripener and its wine can be quite dark, with dark fruit notes on the nose, especially blackberry. It can be made with medium to high alcohol, depending on the site and so on, but it is typically high in acidity that in a well-made version will help balance the rather soft fruit.

At Bosco the variety is fermented and stored in stainless steel, so it never has contact with wood, for the idea is to have a pure expression of the fruit. Thus the wine is fermented on the skins and aged in steel for nine months and then refined in the bottle for about four months. The 2012 that I tasted offered a medium body with just 12% alcohol, but black fruit was evident on both the nose and palate, and it had a strong acid backbone.

All the wines are made to be sold at affordable price points and in that respect they offer decent value. The Catarratto that I purchased in New York City costs $20 a bottle. The total of all the wines produced is but 8,000 bottles, which is barely 660 cases.

It is only in the last several years that the Simetis have become more aggressive in promoting and selling the wine in new markets in Italy and abroad. Before that the wine produced had been sold locally and in Palermo, but today some of it is imported to the United States by Jenny & François Selections, who specialize in natural wines.

According to Jenny & François, most of the wines are sold to on-premise accounts so there are only a few retailers that carry them in New York State. These are:

  • Back Label Wine Merchants, New York City
  • Foragers City Wines, New York City
  • Grape Expectations in Tarrytown, NY

Bosco is also a B&B as well as a Tai Chi center, as Ramo is an instructor in that art of exercise.

Sicily, Bosco Falconeria LogoAddress: c. da Bosco Falconeria s.n.c. – 90047 Partinico (PA)

Owner: Natalia Simeti

Oenological consultants: Salvatore D’Amico, Vito Lauria
Vineyard managers: Antonio & Natalia Simeti

Sicily, Bosco Falconeria, 06Visits are by appointment only

Certified organic by Codex srl

Useful references:

Camuto, Robert. Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey, 2008

Nesto, Bill and Frances di Savino. The World of Sicilian Wine, 2013

Robinson, Jancis, et al. Wine Grapes. Ecco: NY, 2012

Simeti, Mary Taylor.  On Persephone’s Island, 1986

Viniculture in the Hudson Valley: Robibero Family Vineyards

For several years there was a winery called Rivendell that called 714 Albany Post Road in New Paltz home. Then, in 2003, Harry Robibero and his wife Carole purchased the 42-acre property with the hope that someday the winery operation would become theirs. As a matter of fact, the owners of Rivendell, Bob Ransom and Susan Wine, gave notice in 2007 and left the property for a new location.

Robibero, Ryan & TiffyAs Ryan Selby tells it, his father-in-law, Harry, mentioned this over dinner one night. “Did you hear? Rivendell is leaving. Do you guys want to start your own winery? Should I look for another tenant?” Tiffany replied, “Let’s do it. Let’s start a winery.” Ryan, her husband, agreed.  So they took a chance and quit their jobs.

Very shortly after, Harry and his family were busy refurbishing and renovating the existing building. In May of 2010 Robibero Family Vineyards opened for business.

When I first visited Robibero shortly after they’d opened and tasted some of their wines I was frankly disappointed. The wines that I tasted, made from purchased fruit, were thin, sharp, and unbalanced. I told them so and did not return for a couple of years. But eventually I did go back and each time thereafter it was evident that the wines were improving, so much so that in 2014 Robibero won a Double Gold for their 2012 Cabernet Franc from fruit sourced from Sheldrake Point in the Finger Lakes, which came in at 24 Brix. It was aged for nine months in French oak, 50% of which was new. Once the wine was bottled they entered the wine in the competition before they even had an approved label.  A Double Gold.

The change in quality came about in large part due to the winemaker who was hired soon after they started, Cristop Brown. Cristop came to Robibero after a stint in Washington State working for Long Shadows. He’d first worked at Millbrook Winery as the tasting room manager. After a few years he went Benmarl, in Marlborough, which has the oldest working vineyard in the country, and it was there that he learned to make wine from Eric Miller, son of Mark Miller, the owner. In fact, Eric made it clear to Cristop that a condition of his being hired was that he had to take courses in biochemistry so that he could better understand that processes that go on in the ripening of the fruit and in fermentation; making the wine was learned on the job. Soon he was assistant winemaker. In a few years Eric sold the winery to Matt Spaccarelli and moved to Pennsylvania, and Cristop then became the Benmarl winemaker. Now it was his turn to teach Matt the art of winemaking and they worked together for nearly four years before he took off for Washington State to see how wine and grape growing are done outside of New York State.

By the time of his return from Washington, Cristop had become a very accomplished oenologist and had become committed to make clean wine marked by varietal typicity and good balance. In fact, it was Matt Spaccarelli who then directed Cristop to Robibero, which had placed a “help wanted” ad in a wine journal.

Ryan is the winery and vineyard factotum or jack-of-all-trades. Depending on the season and the need he may be outside pruning or inside filtering wine with Cristop or in the tasting room pouring. He also drives the truck making deliveries to the various wine shops that carry their label, or whatever else must be done that no one else would be available to do.

When we stepped out in the vineyard our conversation there went on for a while. We were standing on the east-facing slope of the acre of Vidal and Cab Franc, and discussed viniculture.

Robibero Vineyards, 1Ryan and his family do all the handwork in the vineyard. They try to use organic sprays to the extent possible. Cornell came and gave them advise on how to plant a vineyard, including the orientation of the vine rows, the density, the recommended varieties for the location, and so on. Spacing is about 8 by 8, with original fescue between the rows. Soil pH was just right so that no input was needed to neutralize the soil. According to Ryan, the Cornell team told them that root stock 101-14 would work best in their soil and then provided a list of the vines and clones that they thought would do well on that stock. [101-14 is a root stock that was developed in France and released in 1882 by hybridizers Millardet and de Grasset. It is the result of an interspecific cross between V. riparia and V. rupestris. It produces moderate vigor in scions—the vine cuttings that are grafted to the stock—and has very good resistance to the devastating root louse Phylloxera, scourge of European-variety vineyards.]

Cornell wasn’t the only source of good advice for Robibero. Another was John Whiteman, from Crop Protection Services in Marlborough. When they were thinking of digging up the soil and mixing shale and other matter, then grading to aerate the soil, Whiteman made an important observation: “You know what? It took nature ten million years to create that soil. Don’t mess with it. Just put in some drainage . . . .” He went on to explain that the colloids in the soil [the chemically most active part of soil] took millions of years to develop. Bringing in topsoil would not improve the vineyard because vines grow well in soil that may be too poor for other plants.

So, Robibero is dealing with the land that it has as it is, apart from drainage needed because there is clay and shale there and vines don’t like wet feet.

Were the vineyard planted exclusively with hybrid vines it is possible that organic practices could be strictly followed, but the vulnerabilities of vinifera vines makes it impracticable in this region.

Robibero Vineyards, 3The winery’s cellar is very small but adequate for the level of production that they have at present. Cristop and Ryan work together both in the vineyard and the winery. With respect to the wines, at present virtually all is made from purchased fruit from the Finger Lakes, Long Island, and the Hudson Region itself. Most are made from vinifera varieties like Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and so on. However, one of their most popular wines, Rabbit’s Foot (non-vintage) has a base of 75% Baco Noir plus Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, of which 453 cases were made last year. They also have Bordeaux blend that they call 87 South, made with Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot, of which 210 cases were produced for the 2013 vintage. The 2013 New Yorkie Rosé is also a Bordeaux blend, but only 87 cases were made and it quickly sold out.

Robibero winesRobibero has won a Best in Category White Wine in the 2014 Hudson Valley Wine and Spirits Competition for their 2013 87 North as well as Gold Medals for their 2013 Traminette and New Yorkie Rosé, the last of which I find to be a perfect summer quencher—austere, dry, and delicately flavored.  It goes well with anything you wish to serve, as long as it’s not too spicy.

The tasting room is ample, well-organized, and offers a very good space for parties. A large veranda invites people to sit out-of-doors and enjoy the fresh air and the pleasant view. Because too many visitors seem not to understand that a small operation like Robibero’s depends on the sale of all manner of beverages including wine, a local craft beer, and even water, signs are prominently displayed telling visitors not to bring in their own drinks of whatever kind. But this is a problem all small wineries face.

Robibero Family Winery & Vineyards and its wines have arrived and the results are impressive. It is certainly worth a visit and a taste or two or three, or buy a case.

Interview with Ryan Selby & Cristop Brown 1 May 2015

Robibero Medallion logo

Robibero Winery
714 Albany Post Road
New Paltz, NY 12561




Books about Long Island Wine

Now that a new book on Long Island wine by Eileen Duffy has been published as of April 2015, it seems appropriate to review all of the books on the subject that have come out since 2000.  These are presented in order of publication:

The Wines of Long IslandVital–thanks to its clear, lucid writing and very useful history and background of the region’s viniculture and winemaking–is the excellent if outdated Wines of Long Island, 2nd edition (2000) by Edward Beltrami & Philip E. Palmedo.  It includes profiles of many of the most important personalities in the LI wine world (as of 2000), descriptions and reviews of wineries and their wines and a generally judicious insight into the trends and achievements of the region as of the end of the 20th Century.  Definitely worthwhile owning, if you love LI wines, though it has long been out of print, it is still available through Amazon.  (NOTE:  It is currently being brought up to date by this writer, with elements from the series on Long Island viniculture and wine in this blog being incorporated into the book.  It is hoped that the 3rd edition may be out by Spring 2016.)

Hargrave, The Vineyard, coverLouisa Thomas Hargrave wrote a gracious memoir, The Vineyard: The Pleasures and Perils of Creating an American Family Winery (2002). One cannot begin to understand what was involved in creating the Long Island wine industry without reading this charming and touching account of the establishment of Long Island’s first winery, Hargrave Vineyard, in 1973, when there were only small farms and potato fields. It is charming in its modesty, touching in its honesty, and a remarkable tale of what it takes to start a vineyard from scratch when you don’t even know what you’re doing! And look at what it started–a whole industry that is one of the dominant features of the East End of Long Island, begun with passion, commitment, and hard work, but ultimately at the cost of heartbreak and renewal.  Now out of print, it is still available on Amazon or AbeBooks.  Some used copies are available for a penny plus shipping from various book dealers.

Ross, NoFo Wine, coverAn interesting and somewhat chatty book is The Story of North Fork Wine: Historical Profiles and Wine Country Recipes (2009), John Ross’s up-close-and-personal look at the people who work in and run the wineries.  A chef who owned Ross’s North Fork Restaurant, he became close to many in the wine trade, especially given that he was interested in devising recipes and menus that would best accompany the wines of the region.  The first half of the book is comprised by his personal profiles, which include everyone from owners to winemakers to vineyard managers to tasting room personnel.  The second half is devoted to recipes from his restaurant and suggested wine pairings.  In the intervening years since the book was published many of the persons featured in the book have moved on, but many of their stories remain relevant even now.  Also out of print, but it can be found on

Starwood, Vineyards, coverLong Island Wine Country:  Award-Winning Vineyards of the North Fork and the Hamptons, is well-illustrated guide to visiting Long Island vineyards and wineries.  Written by Jane Taylor Starwood, editor-in-chief of Long Island Wine Press, she gives us an insider’s track on the owners, the winemakers, and the wineries themselves.  In a conversational tone (and amply illustrated), the book leads the reader from East to West on the North Fork, and then down to the Hamptons, as though the route would be followed by visitors travelling by car. It’s a bit frustrating an approach if one wants to do research and would prefer an alphabetical organization, but it’s a quibble given the overall quality and usefulness of the book, which is still reasonably up-to-date as of 2015, given that it was published in 2009. One should bear in mind though, that already important personnel changes have taken place: Richard Olsen Harbich left Raphael in 2010 and went to Bedell Cellars, Anthony Nappa is now Raphael’s vintner, Kelly Urbanik Koch is winemaker at Macari, and Zander Hargrave, who was assistant winemaker at Peconic Bay Vineyards, is now at Pellegrini; Peconic Bay has closed its doors.  A new, major winery, Kontokosta Vineyards, opened in June 2013 in Greenport; Southold Farm and Corwith Vineyard are brand-new startups as of 2014.

Duffy, Behind the Bottle, coverThe most recent contribution to the story of Long Island wines is Eileen Duffy’s book, Behind the Bottle:  The Story of the Rise of Long Island Wine (2015).  This is a book that focuses on the winemakers and their wines.   In fact, the conversations that Duffy had with the winemakers as they discussed their wines in considerable depth, give the reader the clearest sense possible of what the winemakers look for and try to achieve with their wines.  It makes for fascinating reading.  Unlike John Ross, who tried to include anyone whom he knew that was in the business, Duffy’s book includes interviews with just 16 of the region’s winemakers, including Louisa Hargrave, who still has a few bottles of her 1993 Cabernet Franc, still aging, still drinkable, and from a very great year for Long Island.  My favorite conversations, due to the great detail with which the winemakers discussed their craft, include one with Roman Roth, who talks about his 2008 Merlot as though he were painting a portrait of a lover.

Viniculture in the Hudson Valley–Whitecliff Vineyards (updated)

The Hudson River Region has three wine trails, of which two are on the East side of the river and one on the West. The western one is the Shawangunk, of which Whitecliff Vineyards is one of the wineries on the trail, which has the oldest continually-operating winery in the United States, now known as Brotherhood Winery. Located in Gardiner, NY, Whitecliff is easy to get to from the New York Thruway at exit 17, at New Paltz, where the earliest vinifera vines in the valley were planted in 1673—unsuccessfully—as they knew nothing then about pests like the devastating root louse, Phylloxera.  Today winegrowers know plenty about vine pests and diseases, and the Valley now has dozens of successful wine-grape vineyards planted to both hybrid and vinifera varieties.

ridgeBackgroundWhitecliff is a family-owned, award-winning winery and vineyard with 20 varieties currently planted. Most are experimental, but the production wines include both vinifera varieties such as Pinot Noir and Riesling, and hybrids like Seyval, Marquette, and Vignoles. Red, white, pink, and sparkling wines are made from these and other grapes. The owners are Michael Migliore and Yancey Stanforth-Migliore.  (Michael is also the current president of the Hudson Valley Wine and Grape Association.)

Of the varieties on the 26 acres of vineyard at Whitecliff there is a roughly a fifty-fifty balance of vinifera and hybrids. The experimental varieties may have just a row or two of vines.  All the varieties are VSP trained. Other vineyards in the Valley may use high wire for their hybrids, but at the time of harvest it’s really difficult, as one has to “fight through this jungle of leaves and tendrils and shoots” in order to get at the grapes. Using VSP with the hybrid varieties doesn’t really have much of a downside, given that the ones grown here are all pretty tame, like Traminette, Noiret, and so on. They have pretty restrictive soil, so there isn’t too much vigor and VSP helps manages it well. The soil is composed of clay of three different types: Churchville soil, which is a heavy clay, Castile, and Cayuga. The latter two have more sand and are sandy loams, more like the soils in Long Island. Cayuga soil has larger stones, small gravel, and affords good drainage and runs down from the top of the hill, where the Castile and Cayuga soils appear on either side of the winery at the base. This was once a flood plain for the Wisconsin Era glacial melting. There’s visible evidence of washout and conglomerate rock from the glacial action. The acidity is naturally at about 5.6 pH so every other year lime has to be added to the soil so that the acidity is kept at about 6.5-6.6, which is pretty basic. Also typical of the soils of the Hudson Valley is a deficiency of phosphorus. That’s another reason that one has to get into the soil and really work it, because added phosphorus is not mobile. It can’t just be spread it on the ground in the expectation that it will get down to the roots on its own.

Whitecliff Vineyards, 08Michael is an organic chemist by both degree and experience; he spent years at IBM working on projects involving optical lithography among other things. He planted the vineyard one year after he started working at IBM in 1978, so it took a long time to grow it to what it is today. They originally purchased eighteen acres of land and later on added another fifty acres. The vineyard was started by planting a one-and-a-half acre plot and another three-acre plot. They now have twenty-six acres under vines.  It is now one of the largest vineyards in the Valley.  He and his wife Yancey opened the winery when he was still working for IBM in 1999, offering wines from the 1998 harvest. For years before that they had sold their fruit to other wineries until they finally had their own facility.

Michael’s prowess in both the cellar and in the vineyard is such that he not only has won awards but is also the role model for other wineries in the region.

Whitecliff Vineyards, 11The Vineyard plots sit in clear proximity of the Shawangunk Cliffs–the most important rock-climbing site on the East Coast–hence the name of the vineyards.  The vines are planted about 4’ 6” to 5’ apart, and about 6’ for the Seyval–even that could be brought down to 5 feet. As Michael says, “If there’s anything that I’ve learned in thirty-six years of growing grapes, it’s that closer planting is better.” The rows are 9 feet apart but with replanting that may change over time.

Among red varieties Whitecliff has about an acre and a quarter of Pinot Noir, some of which is used for the sparkling wine, which has a cuvé that is 40% Pinot and 60% Chardonnay. Some goes into the rosé, which is 100% Pinot Noir. The rest goes into the still wine. It does well on the site, planted on a south-facing hillside with good drainage that seems ideally suited for the variety.   They also grow Cabernet Franc and Merlot as well as some hybrids such as Noiret and Marquette.

There are roughly an acre-and-a-half each of the Pinot Noir and Cab Franc at 4’ 6” spacing, which is good for the soil in which they are planted. The other big red-wine grape here is Gamay Noir—in fact, Whitecliff is one of only two vineyards in the state that grow that grape. In fact, Michael thinks that this is more of a Burgundian than a Bordeaux-like climate in that Pinot Noir, Gamay, Cab Franc, and Chardonnay all do well here. There is also an acre of Merlot but no Cabernet Sauvignon, which just doesn’t do well here.

On the other hand, Riesling thrives at the vineyard. With respect to Rieslings from the Finger Lakes or Long Island, Michael finds that when they bring them in they lack acidity, so they have to add Whitecliff Riesling to give it some backbone, then it’s really good. There is one acre of Riesling as well as three acres of Traminette, Another three acres are planted with Chardonnay. Michael kicks himself for not planting more Gewürztraminer, as he plans to release more next year—instead, he’s contracted an acre of it from another vineyard.

The Gewürztraminer x Joannes Seyvel 23.416 hybrid, Traminette, was released by Cornell, but it had been developed in Illinois by the hybridizer Herb Barrett in 1965. For Michael, Traminette is a great success story. white-rose-2013-imgThough he has both the Traminette and Gewürz planted in his vineyard, he finds the former easier to grow. It’s yields are higher, it’s less prone to disease, it’s more cold hardy. It has the core of the Gewürztraminer characteristics: lychee and rose aromas and flavors.  Gewürz is more of a challenge to the winegrower in order to get the full range of flavors that it can offer. It needs to hang longer for fuller ripeness, but the more time it spends on the vine, the more prone it is to rot, for example. Now the Migliores have embarked on a new 75% Traminette-25% Gewürz blend called White Rose.  The reason that Whitecliff doesn’t produce a Gewürz varietal is that the quantity grown presently doesn’t yield enough to reach a hundred cases, which is the minimum that they want for any of their wines. In truth, White Rose is a field blend—something that they’ve never done before. The Gewürz is added to the Traminette to bring up the blend’s flavor profile.

While they do use machinery for spraying, all the other field work is done by hand. They don’t need to use a curtain or recycling sprayer here because drip is not a problem with the neighbors so far away. The tower sprayer is more than adequate for the work that has to be done in the vineyard. At Whitecliff they try to follow an Integrated Pest Management Program (IPM), but they are not organic or Biodynamic. They deeply care about the environment and use as much of the organic inputs as possible, including copper and lime and phosphoric acid (about which there is a debate about whether or not it can be considered part of a certified organic program. They try to use minimal spray inputs and are constantly monitoring what they use. If a sprayer is fully loaded and taken into the field it can be worked all day, but the cost comes to about $500 to $600 each time, so obviously there’s no incentive to spray too much. The idea is to spray before any fungi or insects can take hold of a field, a kind of prophylactic treatment. Once anything takes hold, it is far more difficult and expensive to get it under control. Besides that, the winery needs to keep a lookout for new pesticides that might be more effective than what it currently is using.   (One reason for this is that organisms that survive a toxic application will beget resistant offspring. This is now a big problem in New York due to so much overuse.) Basically, the spray schedule for the season is from ten to fourteen days of spraying. They’ve done well so far, as they’ve not had any major breakouts in the vineyard.

Another problem with spraying is that many vineyard managers think that sprays contain systemic chemicals, which is to say that they remain in the plants and do not wash away in the rain, and they’re wrong. There are only a couple of them that are systemic, the rest need to be resprayed after a rain. Furthermore, as Michael says, “once or twice in every ten years you are going to have to use non-organic sprays because this isn’t the Napa Valley, it isn’t a desert; this is where it’s cold and damp.” All of which adds to the disease pressure. Last summer there was a great deal of rain. When a New York vineyard is hit by a lot of rain, it must be put on a seven-day spray schedule to save the crop and one doesn’t have much choice in terms of what must be sprayed. Copper, which is approved for organic farming, is an important input that gives excellent results, but over time it accumulates in the soil and is toxic, so one may have an organic farm but under these circumstances, but ironically, not be sustainable.

About disease pressure, Michael says that “Among the diseases that most press on the vineyard is Downy Mildew, which rears its ugly head every July, especially if you having. The next is Powdery Mildew, and then there’s Botrytis, which comes in at the end of the season. Black rot is another disease to reckon with, so it needs to be sprayed assiduously, and that includes the mummies that may be clinging to the canopy, where they can sporelate.”

The thing that Michael stresses about spraying is that the vineyard needs constant vigilance to always be ready to spray when needed.

WineryIt is because of Michael’s background as a chemist and years of experience with the high tech of IBM that he eventually invested in a state-of-the-art winery: a large, open structure built in 2011—the building could, in his words, also be called “an above-ground cellar.” It uses geothermal heating and cooling, costing about one-third of what it would be if doing it any other way. There are also supplemental heat exchangers that can also cool it off or heat it up. The heating comes up through the floor. This takes care of a space that is forty by eighty, or thirty-two hundred square feet. In addition, they have a fifteen by eighty-foot covered pad in the back, which though it has a roof, remains exposed to the outside.

Another way in which the winery is efficient is in using the glycol for the air conditioning Whitecliff Vineyards, 15for the cooling jackets for the fermentation tanks. When using the air conditioning for cooling the building, they use the extracted heat for their hot water. The winery is already oriented to the south so that when they install solar panels the energy use will be a net-neutral system.  (Perhaps at that point Whitecliff will even have a surplus that can be sold back to the grid.)

According to Michael, the system that’s in place cost about 30% more than one using a standard energy system, but because so much energy is saved the RTO is about seven years.

With respect to Michael’s philosophy about winegrowing, he sums it up in one word: “Quality.” In his case this means that the first thing he looks for is quality in the grapes that they’re going to harvest. For Whitecliff, when they bring good fruit into the winery the winemaker’s first obligation is to “not screw it up. Work with what is given and the rest is very simple.”  They look for a balanced wine, so if necessary they will chaptalize if the Brix isn’t high enough.  If a wine is too thin or too acidic, they will take the necessary measures to bring the wine into balance.  Given that this is not Napa Valley, and it’s a cold climate, and no two vintages are the same, adjustments of this kind will have to be made from time to time. Because of this, it is very challenging for the winemaker, and as far as Michael is concerned, if a winemaker can make good wine in the East, he or she will certainly succeed in Australia or California and have a much easier time of it.

When it comes time to harvest the crop, they typically bring in about ten people to help out. They also handle the fruit in other vineyards, so the crew can be kept busy for a number of days. In some cases they will work in a vineyard from which Whitecliff buys fruit—the owner may have a small crew and they supply the rest of the pickers. It’s all done by agreement.

In the winters of 2013 and 2014 deep freezes seriously damaged the Gamay Noir vines so Whitecliff has now purchased a six-acre plot on the East side of the Hudson near the foot of the Rip Van Winkle Bridge and just below the hills of Olana, Frederick Church’s legendary home.  Records indicate that this particular plot does not freeze, in good part because it enjoys the “river effect” where large bodies of water ameliorate the climate.  The vines are being planted and should be productive in a couple of years or so.

Whitecliff Vineyards, 13When they harvest, they drop the grapes into lugs that they then bring to the crush pad and deposit them in macro-bins capable of holding about 1,200 pounds, and then do as much gravity-fed processing as possible. The crusher sits directly over the press so that there’s no need for pumping the white grapes. One thing that they do at Whitecliff that is different from what is done by most other East Coast wineries, is not to use gravity settling for its whites, but instead use flotation clearing.  This began with their 2009 Riesling, which subsequently won a Double-Gold medal in the San Francisco International Wine Competition.  (More about this below.)  

In Germany this floation process, called Floatclear, is widely used.  After crushing winemakers  add enzymes to the juice, then run it through a centrifugal pump and bleed in nitrogen at a 6-bar pressure at a rate of four liters a minute. This results in nitrogen bubbles in the juice adhering to the particulate matter in it, which floats up to the top of the tank instead of letting the particles settle to the bottom. It greatly speeds up the process of clearing the wine prior to fermentation, because they can clarify about 3,000 liters an hour: in an hour-and-a-half they can finish a whole tank of juice to be ready for the yeast to be added, instead of having to wait about 24 hours or so for the settling to take place on its own. Also, the normal loss [of juice] is about five to ten percent when using gravity for clearing the juice as opposed to about three percent with this process.

As Michael said, “The result is so much cleaner, much better–we’re so glad that we’ve gone down this path that they can’t believe that not everybody is using it. Not only that, but just think of the energy that’s involved in cooling the tank for twenty-four hours, then bringing it back up to a temperature where you can get the fermentation started. It’s a brilliant tool. We’re one of the first in the state to adopt it. I know that some up in the Finger Lakes are doing it but I don’t know of anyone out in Long Island that’s doing it right now.”

Whitecliff has recently undergone several changes to its processing. For one, they’ve gone to synthetic corks for the whites. Screw caps, the other alternative to natural corks, require a capital investment of about $15,000 in machinery. Synthetic corks demand no changes in the equipment used for natural corks. Furthermore, synthetics cost less than natural, on the order of 16 cents versus 26 cents. Screw caps cost about 6 to 7 cents, but the investment up front is very high so that it takes a long time to get back your return on investment. They’re really more suited to larger operations than Whitecliff.

Natural corks allow an ingress of oxygen of about 30 parts per million, whereas synthetic ones allow only five parts. Screw caps had a problem with the barriers that were used for a long time; even today they aren’t recommended for keeping white wine for longer than about two years. Instead, Whitecliff uses a top-of-the-line Nomacorc product that is especially designed to control and limit the transfer of oxygen.

Production this year is about the same as last year—about 7,000 cases. And they want to rebalance their production. That is, “We over-produced on some and under-produced on others.”

Whitecliff’s number-one selling wine is Awosting White, a Vignoles-Seyval Blanc blend. They had hugely boosted production of it, so they overproduced it, so they’ve got to cut back on it. Michael says that, “It’s probably our signature wine. It’s held up well. The production of Traminette is growing, but it’s a problem where it is in that field, which is shielded so doesn’t get any wind. So it tends to get Botrytis and sour rot, too. This is something we’re still trying to figure out.” But this year they decided to harvest it early as a result of an experimental program over the last couple of years, and they’re going to move it into the sparkling wine program.

Whitecliff Vineyards, 10The winemaker is Brad Martz. He came to Michael after tasting some wines and he asked if they needed any volunteer help. So he helped out in the cellar, and worked with them in the sparkling wine processing. After a couple of years he came on as assistant winemaker. He learned much of what he knows about winemaking on the job at Whitecliff.   He also did self-study as well as earning a degree from UC Davis. “We worked together and he learned as we worked,” Michael said of Brad, “The thing about him is that he’s committed, he’s mature, and he has a good intellect and excellent palate.” He was just promoted to winemaker this year, but Michael remains involved in the final decision of what goes into the bottle of every wine. Michael believes that it’s better to learn on the job at the winery than to go spend that time earning a degree in winemaking, after which the graduate knows the concepts but not the practice.

So to the extent possible, they try to make natural wines, but they won’t touch ambient yeasts for the most part, so they use yeasts that are commercially available. In Michael’s view, companies have done very well with their yeasts, and he can decide, for example, to cold-ferment Riesling for eight weeks and there will be a yeast to do that. With natural yeasts that cannot be done; one may get the desired result sometimes but at other times one can end up with a stuck fermentation. In fact, once a winery has used a particular yeast for many fermentations, and the pomace is thrown into the fields, then that strain will become the dominant yeast out there, even if it’s not native.

They use gravity feed instead of pumps because if the must goes through a pump connected to a hose at high pressure there is the possibility that there could be sheared seeds that release green tannins. When running the red grapes through the destemmer they remove the rollers because they don’t want to macerate the fruit, so the grapes go into the fermenter as whole berries. The grapes will then initiate an internal carbonic fermentation on their own, and that will release more subtle fruits, which is part of what Whitecliff is after.

On the other hand, it makes punchdown in the tank much more difficult, which is why the winery uses pumpovers. To make sure that seeds are not in the pumpover must the tanks have mesh filters that catch the seeds as they sink to the bottom, so the filter can be removed and the seeds discarded. Thus, if harvest had to take place before there was phenolic maturation, then the green seeds can be removed before they can add a green, harsh character to the wine.

Generally they look for balance and do not seek to make sweet wines, but they make many bench tests, primarily to balance out the acidity, which tends to be high with the sugar on the low side, as the grapes are usually brought in at 20 to 21 Brix. That often means that they have to chaptalize the must. The resulting Riesling then comes in at 1.3% RS.

As an example of Michael’s scrupulous care and attention, before Whitecliff even made a sparkling wine to sell, bench tests were made for six years. The result is North River (a historical name for the Hudson, not just long ago, but even today, when boatmen may refer to the North River along certain spots of the waterway), Whitecliff’s second label for its sparkling wine, which is made in the traditional method, where the second fermentation takes place in the bottle in which the wine will be released. They make a cuvé, a rosé, and a Blanc de Blanc.  The cuvé is made up of 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir. Both varieties are estate grown, but from two vineyards, The Pinot is grown here, while the Chardonnay comes from a vineyard on the Hudson in Middle Hope, that Michael owns with a partner, John Hudelson, who’s a professor of oenology and viticulture at Central Washington State University on the West Coast. The New Hope vineyard sits on limestone at the warmest spot on the entire river, so that it never freezes. They do everything at the winery including the second fermentation, the autolysis, riddling, adding the final dosage, and bottling. Whitecliff also getting ready to create another line—“it’s really expanding, and we’re committed.”

One thing that they lack and need is a sorting table. Michael observed that if he had to spend money on new equipment, the $15,000 that a screw-cap bottler would cost could instead go to buy a $10,000 sorting table. That will raise the quality of the wine, whereas a screw-cap will not affect it at all.

Michael went on to point out that “We’re a whole team here, not just Brad and myself. There’s also Santiago—the vineyard manager-cum-factotum—and Paco, who are key parts of the winery. You need people for processing the grapes, help in the vineyard, the cellar . . . cleaning out barrels, all sorts of things. The great thing about Santiago is that I can just tell him, ‘Go do this.’ And he goes and does it, I don’t have to watch to make sure that he does it right.” And it is a family business that involves two members, Michael’s wife, Yancey, and their son Tristan. Yancey runs the tasting room, keep the books, man the phones, and so on. They also have a Tasting Room manager, Mike Hollis, who’s part–time but very enthusiastic.

Whitecliff Vineyards, 16The tasting room is a popular destination for tourists, but, he says, they have no curiosity or interest about what’s going on when they arrive at the winery. Work can be going on at the crush pad and they’ll just walk by without so much as a glance. They know nothing about agriculture and just don’t care. Michael has had people ask, “When do you harvest the grapes?” Yancey recalls one visitor who saw a bin full of fermenting grapes and asked if they were cranberries.

In other words, visitors don’t see or care about the business side of a winery–the hard work in both vineyard and winery, the technology, etc.–but they clearly love the wine.  After all, as one can see, they wine prizes.  I’d certainly give them a prize for their 2013 Pinot Noir–a light-bodied, red-berries and cherries on the nose and in the mouth, a touch of minerality, light tannins and ready to drink right now.  A perfect summer wine and terrific with fowl or fish, as well as roast lamb–a versatile wine indeed!  So too the Gamay Noir–it reminds one of Beaujolais (same grape variety) but with earthier flavors.  The Traminette is excellent, and though made from a hybrid variety, it has much of the aroma and flavor of Gewürtraminer (one of the parents), albeit toned down a bit.  The Riesling is just off-dry but extremely well made.  All of their wines, in fact, are honest ones that reflect their terroir and varietal character.

Another thing that is remarkable about their wines was pointed out by a rival winery not far away.  That is the fact that their standard wines, Awosting White and and Red Trail are remarkably consistent blends from year to year, a very difficult thing to achieve in a small winery.

In March 2015 the New York State Wine and Grape Foundation’s Grower of the Year award was given to Michael, which is especially notable given that the preponderance of the state’s wine grapes are grown in the Finger Lakes and Long Island.  Last December his Gamay won 90 points from Wine Spectator.  Out of over a 4,000 entries in the 2010 San Francisco International Wine Competition (the largest, most influential international wine competition in America, judged blind by a prestigious panel of nationally recognized wine experts).   Whitecliff’s 2009 Riesling won a Double Gold and Best White in Show and other awards have been given for the Reserve Chardonnay and Awosting White.  Most recently its 2013 Traminette won a double gold in the 2015 SF International Wine Competition.  Furthermore, in my own opinion, its barrel-aged Seyval Blanc defies all expectations of what a hybrid varietal should taste like.  What a track record.  It seems that when it come to wine, Whitecliff can do no wrong.


Whitecliff Vineyards, 04Whitecliff Vineyard & Winery,
331 Mckinstry Rd, Gardiner, NY, 12525

Whitecliff Vineyards

Based on interviews with Michael Migliore, his wife Yancey Stanforth-Migliore, and the winemaker, Brad Martz                 
March 31, April 18 & 28, 2014
Updated March 18, 2015 from a press release published in the New Paltz Times and again June 23, 2015 to reflect more recent information and news.

Book Review: Circle of Vines, The Story of New York State Wines

Richard Figiel ex-Holy TerroirRichard Figiel established the Silver Thread Vineyard in 1982, planting 10 acres near Lodi, NY to vinifera varieties and growing them organically to make natural wines.  He sold the property in 2011 and currently writes a column on NY wines for Wines & Spirits Magazine.  He had previously published Culture in a Glass: Reflections on the Rich Heritage of Finger Lakes Wine in 1995.

Happily for the reader he writes well and where appropriate turns to literary allusion or leavens the text with touches of dry wit. Most important of all, he reveals the history of wine in New York State by means of a sensibly-organized account that starts with the movements of the glaciers of the last Ice Age on through to the diaspora of the late Twentieth and early Twenty-First Centuries, when wineries, vineyards, and winemaking had spread throughout the state after a small and inconspicuous beginning in the Seventeenth.

In the Preface, Figiel mentions that after he purchased an abandoned Catawba vineyard he began “pulling out the past to plant the future . . . .  One day as I was lining up end-posts for the rows of my new vineyard (it was a matter of pride to get them perfectly aligned, row to row) my eye wandered beyond the last post into scrubby woods . . . and there among the junipers and brambles was a fitful row of weather-beaten posts, ghosts of a vineyard on that hillside that predated the vineyard I’d pulled out . . . . I was looking back into the nineteenth century, and my posts happened to line up arrow-straight with that bleached, overgrown line of ghosts.”

Which leads to this book and the far from arrow-straight history of New York wine, which instead ambles along from one wandering post to another in time and geography.

Chapter 1 covers prehistory, from the time of the last advance and final retreat of the mile-thick ice sheet that covered the Northeast and nearly all of New York until about 10,000 years ago. It traces the movement of soil and terrain carried by the massive bulldozer of ice that left chunks of granite from the Berkshires in the bluffs of the north coast of Long Island, among other shifts across the region. This is all depicted in the sole map to be found in the book:

Map of NY State glcial movementChapter 2, “Beginnings in the Hudson Valley,” recounts the earliest attempts at growing wine grapes in the region, including the many failures planting vinifera varieties. Determined growers then set about planting native varieties like Isabella and Catawba while some began experimenting with hybrids—that is to say, interspecies crossings, resulting in some of the most successful hybrids for commercial vineyards, starting with the Iona. The history is complex but Figiel successfully manages to thread all the different paths that winegrowing took in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries into a coherent whole.

The following chapter, “Settling in the Finger Lakes,” is an exploration of the very complicated story of wine in what is today the premier region for Riesling in the country. When first explored in the early 17th century, large amounts of native grapes were found and it is possible that the earliest record of winemaking may date to before 1668, but this is an inference from a text by a missionary who writes about “vines, which bear tolerably good grapes from which our fathers formerly made wine for the mass.” Rev. William Botwick of Hammondsport in the 1830s may have been the first to plant grapes in the Finger Lakes for making wine and disseminate grapes for winemaking to his neighbors, and it was found that Isabella, as an earlier-ripener than Catawba, took best to the climate of the lake region. It took a long time for vinifera to catch on in the Finger Lakes, and that was, of course, thanks to the hard work of Dr. Konstantin Frank in the 1950s.

Chapter 4 is devoted to “Western New York,” which in this case means not only what would become the Lake Erie Region AVA but also the area from Rochester to Niagara, including the Genesee Valley, where a winery was established by Samuel Warren in 1834, 5 years before the Jaques winery was opened in Washingtonville in the Hudson Valley. The Irondequoit winery was established on its eponymous Bay on Lake Ontario near Rochester in 1841. A winery cooperative was formed on the Niagara Escarpment near Lockport in the 1860s. Much of the wine that was made for sacramental use.  But where are these places, some of which are very little known?  A map would be helpful.

“Collision of Cultures” (Chapter 5) covers one of the most interesting and fractious periods in American wine history—the rise of the anti-alcohol movement that led to Prohibition and the struggle of the producers of alcoholic beverages to resist that movement. As early as 1808 there was a reaction against the excessive consumption of spirits in particular, when a doctor near Glen Falls despaired of healing hard drinkers and founded the Moreau Temperance Association, which was aimed at spirits and brews, but not wine. By 1833 the American Temperance Union was established and the question became one of “which alcohols” to ban outright. Those who joined the Union and swore to totally abstain from the imbibing of any alcohol had a “T” placed by their names, hence the term ‘Teetotaler.’ Long before Prohibition, in fact, Rutherford B. Hayes, a teetotaler, was elected President in 1877. Figiel writes that “he drained the nation’s first household Dry . . . . Visiting dignitaries were confounded: ‘Oh, it was very gay,” one European ambassador said of a state dinner with the President, ‘the water flowed like Champagne.’ Individual towns and counties throughout the country and in New York began passing laws banning the sale of alcohol; indeed, the New York legislature passed a law restricting the sale of alcohol in 1845. That law was rescinded two years later, but the battle lines were drawn and the fight was on. The history of Prohibition is well-known and often told, and Figiel tells it with well-selected anecdotes to enliven the tale.

The sixth chapter, “Restart,” is about the hardscrabble road to recovery from Prohibition.

Chapter 7 is devoted to the Revolutionaries, those who changed the attitude and approach to grape growing and wine making in the State and withal most of the Eastern United States. There are capsule accounts of the work and accomplishment of five key figures who helped bring about significant change in the wine industry: Everett S. Crosby, Frederick S. Johnson, Konstantin Frank, Walter S. Taylor, and Mark Miller. Crosby was introduced to wine “in the rumble seat of a roadster after high school basketball games” during Prohibition and went on in 1950 to found High Tor Vineyard in the Hudson Valley. It was the first vineyard planted exclusively to French hybrids and the wines found a positive reception in wine shops and restaurants in New York City. In 1960 Johnson would establish his vineyard and winery on the Lake Erie escarpment and plant mostly hybrid grapes, bringing the region into the wine world after years of producing table grapes and grape juice. Frank, a difficult, determined, and uncompromising man is the father of vinifera wine in New York. Over a dozen years, starting in 1953, he planted a quarter of a million vines of a dozen vinifera varieties grafted to selected American rootstock and proved definitively that European vines could grow and thrive in the extreme cold of the Finger Lakes. Walter S. Taylor has to have been one of the most colorful characters on the wine industry stage: a rebel with a cause in opposition to big business and its overreaching attempts at control, particularly over the issue of the Taylor family name. Once Coca Cola had acquired the Taylor Wine Company it had an injunction issued against Walter S. using his surname on his own wines at Bully Hill. His irrepressible humor and anti-establishment outlook had him take on a goat as a mascot and quipped, “You can’t get my goat.” But read the story. And there was Mark Miller, owner of Benmarl Vineyards, who helped bring about a transformative law, the Farm Winery Act of 1976 that changed the New York wine industry forever.

“Transformation” is a chapter about the growth of large corporations like Coca Cola and Seagram’s that dominated the wine industry in the ‘60s and ‘70s until the passage of the Farm Winery Act of 1976 that was signed in to law by Governor Carey. Some of the winemaking practices in the larger wineries including “blending old American varieties like Catawba, Concord, and Delaware with bulk wine from California and new inputs from French hybrids. Water and cane sugar were routinely part of the mix. It was not uncommon for final blends to be up to one-third water and one-quarter Californian wine.” In some cases a small and profitable miracle was produced with “large quantities of bulk wine from small quantities of fruit.”

This is followed by a chapter devoted to Long Island, the last major wine region to be planted to wine grapes, unique among all the State AVAs in growing vinifera varieties only, with a tiny exception. Its history is comparatively brief, with the first vinifera vines planted in 1973 by Louisa and Alex Hargrave. Amateurs in Long Island, they showed that European varieties could produce excellent wine there and today Long Island has the most extensive plantings of Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, and Cabernet Franc in the State, not to speak of nearly twenty others as well, including Pinot Noir, Chenin Blanc, Dornfelder, and Albariño as well.

The final chapter is about the “Diaspora” of the wine industry throughout the State, encompassing new wine regions—though not new AVAs—in places like the Thousand Islands on the St. Lawrence River and Lake Champlain, as well as further developments in the established AVAs of the Finger Lakes, the Hudson River Region, Lake Erie, Long Island, and New York City. In other words, “New York wine became more diverse, more promising, more impressive, more inconsistent, and more confusing.”

Circle of Vines bears comparison with Hudson Cattell’s Wines of Eastern North American, previously reviewed in a post on this blog. However, while there is some overlapping history, Catell’s book touches on the period From Prohibition to the Present (i.e., 2013). It is meant as a “History and Desk Reference,” and is a far more scholarly approach than Figiel’s, replete as it is with endnotes, an extensive bibliography, and seven appendices with tables and charts. This is not to denigrate what Figiel has done, but his is a less formal approach, and he does list his sources and include an index; his book is 169 pages devoted to just New York, while Chattell’s 235 pages cover the entire gamut of Eastern wineries from Maine to Florida and all the way to the Mississippi River. Both are informative and very useful resources. A reader would be glad to have them both.

Regrettably, the book has very poor-quality illustrations—given their half-tone newsprint reproduction—and there are no maps to support the text, apart from the one that shows the movement of the ice sheet that covered the state over 10,000 years ago. One can only hope that if there is a second edition there will be a map for each chapter as well as higher-quality images.Circle of Vines cover Circle of Vines, The Story of New York State Wines,  by Richard Figiel, 2014.  Excelsior Editions imprint of SUNY Press, Albany. 194 pages with appendices and index.  31 monochrome half-tone illustrations, including one map.