By working to create healthy and self-sustaining soil and vines, we can ultimately achieve what winemakers call terroir, which I define as the ‘taste of place’. Force-feeding vines with chemical nutrients and harmful pesticides is the extreme opposite of terroir, and cannot give anyone a true ‘taste of place’. –David Page
With these words, Shinn Estate Vineyards throws down the gauntlet on behalf of organic and Biodynamic® viticulture in Long Island. Barbara Shinn and her husband, David Page, have for the last twenty years worked very hard to create a natural ecosystem in their vineyard. In order to achieve this they committed themselves to growing grapes that they hoped would be 100% organically certified by the USDA, as well as being fully certified by Demeter as a 100% Biodynamic vineyard. It was not going to happen, at least not exactly. And that’s the real story.
When they bought their property on the North Fork, in 1998, they knew nothing about grape-growing or wine-making. At the time, they already owned a successful restaurant, Home, in New York City, but they were drawn to the North Fork by its excellent produce and seafood, as well as the rural charm and unspoiled villages. Already committed to the idea of using local produce served with local wines, a philosophy that was embedded in the cuisine and wine offerings of their restaurant, the wineries of the area also beckoned, and they finally bought a twenty-two acre plot of what was once a wheat field. They became friends with many vintners, including Joe Macari, Jr., who showed them how to develop a vineyard according to sustainable practices. At first they only grew grapes for sale to other wineries, but by 2006 had one of their own. In 2007 David and Barbara opened their converted farmhouse into a B&B so that they could continue to pursue their devotion to offering only local produce along with their own wines. They moved from conventional farming to an increasingly organic and then Biodynamic approach slowly and carefully beginning in 2002, then started the transition to organic viticulture in 2005, and to Biodynamic practices by 2008. As of this year they have committed themselves to full organic and Biodynamic certification, and they entered the National Organic Program, which requires that they work the vineyard for three full years before they are granted certification.
One approaches the vineyard from a narrow country road distinguished only by the sign for the estate and the attractive farmhouse by the entrance. A tall windmill, newly installed to generate electricity for the winery spins its blades in the wind and stands as a testament to Barbara and David’s commitment to self-sufficiency and sustainability. Carefully-tended rows of vines have been planted nearly to the edge of the road. Barbara and David were in the parking area with Anthony Nappa, their winemaker back in 2010, when I arrived. (Anthony is now winemaker at Raphael and Patrick Caserta has taken his place.) Shortly, we went to the warehouse where they age their wines in oak barrels.
Tasting from the barrels is always an interesting challenge, as one is tasting a wine in the process of maturation rather than when it is ready to drink, but quality is evident in each sample of the red wine that we taste . . . much of which is destined for eventual blending. Shinn produces a large variety of wines, red, white, rosé, and even a sparkling wine. Their best wines are made exclusively from estate-grown grapes (the other wines are from grapes bought from local growers). These are the wines that are meant to benefit from the organic and Biodynamic procedures that they follow. We then proceeded to taste their many, distinctive wines in the tasting room, including both Shinn Estate bottlings and those bearing Anthony Nappa’s own label. (A full discussion of the wines will come in a separate posting.)
The vineyard tour brings us first to the irrigation system, which is an electrically-controlled mechanism that Shinn uses primarily for its Biodynamic compost tea inoculation, which is administered once a month. The tea is made by taking the Biodynamic preparation that has been aged in cow horns buried in the ground, then mixed with water into a 50-gallon batch that is fed into the twenty-two acre vineyard over a period of an hour. This is but one of several means by which Shinn provides the necessary, natural nutrients to keep the soil healthy. Other organic soil amendments include limestone, potassium, humic acid, kelp, and fish hydrolizate (liquefied fish, which is rich in nitrogen).
Furthermore, the Shinn vineyard uses a full cover crop, which is to say, the crop is not only between the vine rows, but grows right into them. They do not even till the soil. As the Shinn Website explains it:
As a vineyard is a monoculture crop, vegetal diversity is attained by planting various kinds of cover crops between the rows of vines. Thus there are different kinds of grass, clover, and perennials and annuals that grow throughout the vineyard. This cover crop provides habitat for all manner of insect life, enhances the organic mix of the soil, and is a healthy environment for the microorganisms of the soil.
In addition to its diversity, the cover crop also helps reduce the vigor of the vines by forcing them to compete for water with other vegetation when it’s rainy (a good thing when one is growing wine grapes) and at the same time helps the soil retain moisture better when it’s dry.
Like any vineyard that is farmed according to sustainable practices, Shinn Estate employs Integrated Pest Management to deal with insect pests (which means using natural predators to help control the pests). They also have sought to encourage insectivore bats to live in special habitats built for them in the vineyard—so far, however, the bat houses have no takers.
The greatest problem facing Shinn Estate—as well as all vineyards in Long Island (and for that matter, all of the East Coast)—is the hot and humid climate, which helps promote all manner of diseases of the vine, including powdery and downy mildew, black rot, and phomopsis viticola, or dead-arm. To control these pests, conventional farmers use a host of industrial pesticides with great success—it is this that has made vinifera grape-growing possible in regions where it would otherwise wither and die. However, there are new weapons for the organic and Biodynamic growers, such as Regalia (according to the manufacturer, “a patented formulation of an extract from the giant knotweed plant (Reynoutria sachalinensis). Its unique mode of action switches on the plant’s natural defense mechanisms to inhibit the development of bacterial spot, bacterial speck, target spot, powdery mildew, [etc].”). Shinn also uses Serenade (which according to its producer, “consistently helps growers win the battle against fungal and bacterial diseases, as it contains a unique, patented strain of Bacillus subtilis . . . to destroy diseases such as Fire Blight, Botrytis, Sour Rot, Rust, Sclerotinia, Powdery Mildew, [etc].”).
Nevertheless, as Barbara Shinn admits, the Achilles Heel for any organic or Biodynamic viticulturalist is downy mildew. By far the most effective control of this blight is copper sulfate, which is an industrial product that is almost unique in being accepted for both USDA Organic as well as Biodynamic farming. While there are usually few limits as to how much copper sulfate can be applied in the course of a growing season, anyone using it is aware that the copper content is inimical to healthy soil. While it may destroy downy mildew, it is also highly toxic to organisms in the soil, and in sufficient quantities it will drive out beneficial ones such as earthworms. Worse, it is a strong irritant to workers and also has long persistence in the soil, to which it bonds strongly, so it accumulates over time. However, Biodynamic farming does allow up to three pounds of copper sulfate per acre to be added in the course of a year. For many farmers, this would not be enough, and double that application would not be unusual, especially in this region. Still, Shinn intends to abide by this strict limit.
Like all Long Island viticulturalists, Shinn Estate uses Vertical Shoot Positioning (VSP) for training their vines. The vines are planted to a 7’×4’ European-type density, which helps to lower yields and leads to more intense wine. Then, shortly after budbreak they select the shoots that each vine will grow to provide canopy, removing the rest. Once the vines bear fruit, they go through each one again, removing about two-thirds of the berries so that the remainder will benefit better from the resultant increased nourishment they receive from the vine. As David pointed out, this means that the wines made from this fruit will have more intense flavor and aroma without having to resort to very much intervention in the winery.
They plant different clones of each grape variety, with six selections of Merlot, for example, and three each of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. There are also two selections of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon that account for the white varieties. Each block of grapes is hand-harvested separately, with the east and west sides of each row of vines being picked separately as well. In addition, they also lease a small, five-acre plot, Schreiber Vineyards, which is planted with 30-year-old vines of Chardonnay and Riesling, which adds more variety to their portfolio of wines. It lies just a mile up Oregon Road and is farmed identically to the Shinn vineyards.
Given all of this care and attention in the vineyard, the fact remains that weather will inevitably have an impact, and in a region like Long Island—unlike California—weather variability is a given. It is, of course, a major reason for vintage differences. Last year, for example, there were very heavy rains that affected some vineyards much more than others. Where some vineyards only a few miles away lost up to 30 or 40% of their fruit, Shinn only lost about 10 to 15%. The reason was their particular mesoclimate—the heavy rains left their crop thoroughly soaked, and the vines looked as though they were on the verge of collapse, but just after the rain was over, a strong, persistent wind came up that dried the vines quickly, so that even the wild yeasts on which they depend in the winery were restored after only a few day. The berries lost all the water they’d absorbed very quickly too, so the damage was minimal. (Of course, the weather of another summer could produce the reverse of this outcome; there is never a guarantee.)
With respect to organic farming, David feels that this represents a return to the traditional farming that prevailed before industrial pesticides and fertilizer were introduced on a large scale in the 1950s. The Biodynamic aspect of farming the land goes back to a series of lectures delivered in the 1920s by Rudolf Steiner, whose approach to agriculture is holistic, in the sense that one must grasp the connections of soil, sky, water, the phases of the moon, the role of the sun, and indeed of the planets and constellations of the sky. Thus, planting and harvesting must be done according to an astronomic calendar. Much of this, of course, runs counter to the scientific agriculture that dominates in the developed world, measuring and quantifying data as it does, and applying it not only industrially, but also in the organic strictures of the USDA National Organic Program.
For Barbara, working the land and the vines is more than just the application of conventional science, for as she sees it, one’s gut & heart also affect the brain. Science alone is not enough. This attitude is clearly rooted in her and David’s love for land and nature. For them, rabbits and groundhogs have equal rights and are not to be exterminated, while birds are dealt with through the use of netting to keep them away from the fruit, which they would decimate if left alone. They seek an ecological Eden for their vineyard as well as a unique and distinctive terroir, and they work together to make it happen. In this respect they may be incurable romantics, but it is their hard work and commitment that has taken them so far along the path to full organic and Biodynamic certification—the first in Long Island, and one of the few on the entire East Coast. In three years, we shall all know whether it shall have been achieved. And if it has been, who will then pick up the gauntlet?
Shinn Estate Vineyards and Farmhouse
2000 Oregon Road
Mattituck, NY 11952
Shinn also has an interesting, chatty blog called “Shinn Digs” with contributions by both Barbara and David.
See also a June, 2010 article on organic farming on the East Coast, Wines & Vines, “Solutions for Eastern Winegrowers” as well as a 2006 interview with David Page at Appellation America, Art of Organic Terroir. An August 2010 posting on the New York Cork Report Website by Tom Mansell about Biodynamic farming is very worthwhile reading, along with the comment stream that follows, in which numerous LI winegrowers and winemakers weigh in, including David Page: Biodynamics, Part 1
Most recently, a piece on biodynamic growers on the East End, including Shinn Estate, as well as various gardeners, orchardists, and small farmers: “Farming to a Different Beat,” by Geraldine Pluenneke, was published in the Spring 2011 issue of Edible East End.
As of 2012 Shinn Estate was one of the founding Vineyards to join the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers certification program (for more about it see the post, LISW). That was the easy part, as it were, since they were already following all the practices set forth in the LISW workbook. The hard part, organic certification, still eludes them in 2014 as downy mildew, in this humid climate, still cannot be tamed by strict adherence to organic grower’s guidelines.
In April, 2017, the Barbara Shinn and David Page surprised the Long Island wine community by announcing in an e-mail that they have sold Shinn Estate to a New Jersey financier and his wife, Barbara and Randy Frankel: Shinn Estate Announcement of Sale
Newsday wrote that the sale had “not been part of the plan,” but an unexpected offer changed that. “It came as a surprise to us someone would walk through the door and make us an offer,” he said. He declined to discuss terms of the sale or the new owners.
Randy Frankel is a former managing director at Goldman Sachs, whose various business interests include a minority stake in the Tampa Bay Rays baseball franchise and part-ownership of Windham Mountain Ski Resort in Windham, N.Y., according to an online biography. The Frankels could not be immediately reached for comment.
Shinn and Page said they will remain connected to the business as consultants for the “foreseeable future.”
The sale represents the closing of a distinguished and dramatic chapter in the story of the wineries of Long Island and the opening of a new one.
Based on interviews with David Page and Barbara Shinn, 18 June 2010, with additions from their Website; and also on 23 May 2014.