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

Phone
845.255.9463

Fax
914.693.9593

Email
Rnywine@yahoo.com

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 Amazon.com.

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.

331 McKinstry Road, Gardiner, NY 12525 • Phone: (845) 255-4613

Whitecliff Vineyards

Whitecliff Vineyards, 04     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.

Viniculture in LI, Part III: The Lenz Winery (updated)

A statement on the Lenz Winery Website by Sam McCullough, its vineyard manager:

At Lenz, our philosophy in the vineyard is high-touch.  We are interventionists and we intervene, at great cost in time and effort, to micro-manage each vine to ripeness each year.  Leaf removal, shoot thinning, cluster thinning, crop reduction, triple catch wires, super-attentive pest and fungus control (our ‘open canopy’ approach keeps fungus problems to a minimum), all combine to add cost (unfortunately) but to ensure fully ripe grapes of the highest quality.

Lenz, 36 years, 2Established in 1978, the winery has three vineyard plots with a total acreage of about 70 acres planted to nine different vinifera grape varieties: Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir.  Of these, the principal red variety is Merlot and the principal white is Chardonnay.  Bearing in mind that the original Lenz vineyard is over thirty years old and came under new ownership only in 1988, when Peter and Deborah Carroll purchased it from the original owners, Patricia and Peter Lenz, the original vines of Chardonnay and Merlot are among the oldest on the island.

Sam is an affable, direct, and very knowledgeable farmer, with a degree in horticulture and with long experience in the business of growing wine grapes.  He is not shy about saying that though the Lenz vineyards are farmed as sustainably as possible, when there is a need for using conventional farming methods he’ll not hesitate to employ them.  The reason is simple:  there is too wide an array of fungal and other pests to rely entirely on biodegradable or organic means of control.  With respect to herbicides, he prefers to use what he calls pre-emergent controls so that stronger ones are not needed later in the event of an outbreak.  The same is true of the fungicides he uses:  low-impact controls for prevention, but will not hesitate to use copper and sulfur when infections do break out.  It is because of this that he makes no claim to running a sustainable-farming operation, but is rather a conventionally-farmed property that tries to be ecologically low-impact where possible.

In other words, Sam is not taking Lenz down the organic road due to cost and practicality.  Speaking frankly about Shinn Estate’s achievement in bring in its first organic harvest of grapes, he takes a wait-and-see attitude with regards to being able to achieve similar results three years in a row—which is necessary for organic certification.  He feels that the weather last season was especially favorable for organic viticulture.  It may not work so well this year if the weather turns too harsh.  On the hand, Sam feels that some Biodynamic® applications may actually work insofar as even the very small quantities of compost tea that are used (about 50 gallons per acre) may enhance the development of healthy biota on the vines and help them better resist pests and other infections.  He’s not persuaded that cow horns or astronomical events such as the soltices are at all important, and that the applications would work anyway.  As he put it:

I am not opposed to organic viticulture or biodynamics.  I am indeed skeptical that it is possible to consistently succeed at producing vinifera grapes in our climate without the use of synthetic chemicals and I am in no position to try it.  I do not disdain or ridicule those making the effort.  I wish them success.

I do believe, and strongly, that it is quite possible to use conventional agricultural methods responsibly and safely: safe for the environment, the farmer, farm workers and the consumers of our crops.

I believe conventional farming to be safe and economical.  Without conventional farming, the 2% of our nation’s population who are involved in agriculture could not feed the country with production to spare.  Those who wish to use alternative methods that avoid the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are free to do so and I wish them success.  The popular hysteria so easily incited by the mention of pesticides and food is unfounded.  However, those who wish to consume naturally-produced foods and can afford to do so constitute a lucrative market.

Thus, to the extent possible Lenz employs “green” practices in the vineyard, such as the use of self-seeded cover crops between rows so that there is considerable variety in the flora and fauna of the soil.  These, of course, are a natural habitat for insects that are predators of many vineyard pests such as aphids.  The crops also include plants that return nitrogen to the soil, encourage earthworms to propagate, and generally keep the soil healthy.  Nevertheless, while he prefers to use pre-emergent herbicides to control pest plants, he will use Roundup to control weeds within the vine rows proper when necessary, as he considers it to be highly efficacious and of low environmental impact if used sparingly.  So too with pesticides—he uses Danitol, a wide-spectrum insecticide/miticide that is essentially a synergized pyrethrin that is especially effective with grape pests such as the glassy-winged sharpshooter, the grape berry moth, and others, but will also use Stylet oil, which is biodegradable, as well.

Sam tries to use dry farming for the three vineyard plots and therefore has no irrigation lines permanently threaded into the rows of vines as is the case at some of the other wineries (not that those irrigate at times other than drought either).  He finds that if there is a need to irrigate, it’s easy enough to bring the irrigation lines into the vine rows as needed, Furthermore, he explains that given the problems with permanently-installed irrigation lines, such as leaks, breakage, blocking of the lines, and so on, he really doesn’t think that it’s worth the expense, especially since irrigation is only needed once in every three to four seasons, when there is drought.  So too with machine-harvesting vs. hand-picking the grapes.  Rather than use a large and expensive machine such as that employed by a few other wineries, Lenz removes the grapes with a tractor-towed harvester.  He notes that hand-picking clean grapes can cost around $100 a ton; hand-selecting while picking grapes can elevate the cost to about $200.  By using a towed harvester with an attached selection table and a man or two to pick out the detritus—leaves, stems, bad grapes, insects—he can keep costs low and still have the advantage of selected grapes.

Actually, some varieties are better off being hand-picked, due in part to the thinness of the skins, and that is the case for the Lenz Old Vine Cabernet Sauvignon.  These are, after all, 36-year-old vines, which are able to produce more concentrated, flavorful fruit than can young vines, though they are rather shy bearers.

Sam works closely with Eric Fry, the winemaker who has been at Lenz for 25 years. When Sam first came to Lenz in 1990 the two “butted heads” at the beginning, but they now have a very effective relationship. It is, after all, for the winemaker to decide when the crop is ready to harvest, and both men agree that the kind of ripeness that they are looking for in the fruit can only be tasted, not just measured for sugar levels with a densitometer or looking at phenolic ripeness. It must taste just right to be harvested—this is experience, not science, at work in this instance.

Because they collaborate closely on the timing of the harvest, which includes deciding which parcels and which varieties to pick first—at optimum ripeness to the taste of the winemaker, ultimately, the estate grapes are ready to be made into wine not only for Lenz, but for several clients that do not have their own vineyards or winemaking facilities. These clients (not all of them in Long Island), buy their grapes from parcels set aside for them by Lenz and are then made into wine by Eric according to their style specifications. He also works closely with several local vineyards to help make their fruit into wine at the Lenz facilities.

Lenz Winery, Eric Fry 2Eric, by the way, is a really gifted winemaker and highly respected by his peers. Some refer to him as a kind of genius. He wears his gray hair in a pony tail and has something of the Hippie about him still. He is actually a very gentle person, very direct, strongly opinionated, self-assured, and generous with his time and readiness to help others. For Lenz, Eric’s practice is to make its best wines to be capable of aging, and he refers to himself as an “acid head”—not referring to LSD but to high acidity levels in the wine. In other words, he encourages it in the wines he makes. It is acidity, after all, that helps give wine structure and longevity. For Eric, that means holding on to the wine for a few years before releasing it. Most wineries don’t hold on to their wines any longer than is absolutely necessary once they’re bottled. It costs money to store it and it means that money is tied up until the wine

So, for example, when Eric works with clients, some of whom have collaborated with him for years, he tries to get them to take his advice. He feels that wine should be held for at least two years before being released to market, but not all of his clients see things his way—at least not at first.

He explains that “I actually have custom clients that I bottle for, that I make wine [for] here. We’re bottling the wine, and they’ll stand there and at the end of the bottling run, they’ll take cases off and throw them on the market, and I’m going, ‘Your call, I wouldn’t do that!’”

Over time, many of his collaborators come around to his way of thinking, or as he puts it, speaking of some of them: “Old Field is into my rhythm, Whisper’s into my rhythm, Harmony, they’re into my rhythm. This is a new client that we’ve just taken on, and I’m still trying to teach him my rhythm, to teach him my way of doing things, and so he had several wines that he was out of stock, and he was calling me up every day going ‘Oh, I need it, I need it.’ And I go like, ‘That means you didn’t plan ahead.’

“At the beginning he bristled and he got all upset and he was like, ‘You’re not cooperating with me.’ And I’m going, ‘I’ll do what you want, but if you want good wine, you should do what I want.’ So he’s coming around, he’s beginning to understand the concept, because I bottled a red wine for him and he wanted to release it right away and I said ‘It’s your wine, you can do whatever you want.’ And he goes and takes a sample and he goes ‘This doesn’t taste like it was before we bottled it.’ I’m going, ‘Well, hello? It needs some bottle age.’ And he’s going, ‘Oh, OK.’”

When he makes a Chardonnay, be sure that the wine is not just made from the Chardonnay grape, pressed, fermented in steel, and bottled—a simple, straightforward, and possibly excellent wine. That’s not Eric’s way. He seeks complexity, and a Chard may be, as he says, 5 % of the wine may be “keg fermented” in 15-year-old barrels, with perhaps a little M-L (malo-lactic) to add more character, but not so much that it makes the wine buttery, as a full M-L may do to a Chard. It imparts more complexity, but in the background. You can’t taste the oak, you can’t discern the M-L, but you can tell that the wine is complex.

But let’s talk about yeast. Eric is a “control-freak,” which means that he’s not someone who uses wild or indigenous yeast in his fermentation. He prefers to buy yeast that has been specifically modified for a particular set of characteristics. For example, for the Chardonnay just mentioned, he used EC1118, a workhorse yeast that brings out fruit flavors. In fact, as he explains, “I’ve been experimenting with yeasts for thirty years. Right after harvest, you go through and taste the barrels or taste the kegs; it’s like ‘Holy cow, this one tastes like this and this one tastes like this, and they’re so different and it’s amazing the yeast affect whatever like that.’ Six months later, you can’t tell them apart.”

He went on to say, “With different wines I use different yeasts on purpose and get different characters on purpose, but most of all the concept that I have is, if whatever yeast you’re using or whatever you’re doing, if the fermentation sticks you’re screwed. So what I do is I use yeasts that are dependable, that will not screw up, because if they screw up, everything’s out the window. All the wonderful nuances you’re looking for, they’re gone.

“The yeast does have a function and does make different flavors, but it’s overrated, it’s not a large factor.”

Eric is also something of a provocateur, so he asked me what I thought about the concept of terroir. I said that I considered the idea of terroir—as conceived by the French—to be something real and that affected the wine made from grapes grown in a particular place. To which he replied, “Terroir is BS, strictly a marketing gimmick. It’s all about marketing.” He then offered me a glass of wine of which he was very proud: the first botrytised dessert wine made at Lenz in the twenty-three years that he’d been winemaker there. Usually botrytis only produced gray rot, something to be avoided and which needed to be controlled with fungicide, but last year the conditions were unique, and the botrytis that settled on the Chardonnay grapes appeared when the grapes were very ripe, the early-morning humidity would burn off as warming sun rose in the East, and violà, a rich and delicious botrytised dessert wine at 73° Brix. When I pointed out that this happened in most years in the Sauternes region of Bordeaux, which surely was an expression of terroir, Eric was dismissive, “Well, whatever.”   Provocative, indeed. With respect to organic viticulture Eric feels, again, that it is mostly a matter of marketing rather than making a better wine.

Sam was a bit more philosophical about the matter of terroir, suggesting that its influence may be exaggerated but that it shouldn’t be entirely dismissed out of hand. And, after all, I would like to point out, it is what is done in the vineyard by human intervention, whether by using one kind of trellising over another, say single vs. double Guyot, or vertical shoot positioning or something else, how often the vines are green-harvested or not at all, the use of sustainable practices such as crop cover or biodegradable pesticides, and even the use of a recycling tunnel sprayer for pesticide agents, that are all part of terroir. This, of course, is a broad definition of the term; the traditional definition is more narrow and confines itself to geographical/geological/climatological issues of soil, climate, slope, drainage, aspect to the sun, etc.

Thus, both Lenz wines and the client wines benefit from the careful, practical, and highly professional care that is given to the grapes in the fields from which they are made. Then there is the thoughtful care that the wines get in the winery itself. These are crafted wines, not “natural” ones. The result can be tasted and Lenz wines have often been compared—favorably—to great European wines; for instance, the Lenz 2005 Old Vines Chardonnay held its own to a Domaine Leflaive 2005 Puligny-Montrachet “Les Folatieres,” while a Lenz 2002 Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon tied with a 2002 Château Latour at a blind tasting held at the great Manhattan restaurant Le Bernardin in April 2011. These comparative tastings have been held every year since 1996 and always pit Lenz wines against French equivalents—not California ones, for the Lenz style is closer to that of France than the West Coast. The Lenz Website has a list of these blind tastings and the results.

I can attest to this personally with a blind tasting that I conducted with friends in 2012, comparing a 2007 Meursault-Charmes 1er Cru with a 2007 Lenz Old Vines Chardonnay–they all guessed that the Lenz was the Burgundy wine.

And to think that such results come from a Long Island vineyard . . .

Lenz logo38355 Route NY 25, Peconic, NY 11958    631.734.6010

office@lenzwine.com
Lenz Winery home page
Based on interviews with Sam McCullough & Eric Fry at the Lenz Winery in April 2011 and September 2014

For further reading, Fry and his wines were written about by Eileen Duffy in her book, Behind the Bottle (Cider Mill Press, 2015). Profiles on Sam McCullough and Eric Fry by John Ross can be found in his book, The Story of North Fork Wine: Historical Profiles and Wine Country Recipes (Maple Hill Press, 2009).  Jane Taylor Starwood, former editor-in-chief of Long Island Wine Press, featured Lenz Winery in Long Island Wine Country: Award-Winning Vineyards of the North Fork (Three Forks, 2009). Philip Palmedo and Edward Beltrami discussed Lenz in The Wines of Long Island (Amereon House, 2000).

Oenology in Long Island: Anthony Nappa Wines

Anthony at ESC

Anthony Nappa pictured with his wines prior to a Winemaker’s Tasting at Empire State Cellars in Riverhead

Anthony Nappa wears several hats at once: as winemaker for Raphael, a major winery on the North Fork, as founder and owner of Winemaker Studio in Peconic, Long Island, and as winemaker for his own brand of wines with intriguing names like Anomaly, Luminous, Spezia, and more. Of the eleven Nappa wines that are presently offered at the Winemaker Studio three have earned 90 points from Wine Enthusiast and a red has won 91 points–the highest score ever by WE for a North Fork wine. That’s really quite remarkable for such a small producer—albeit clearly a gifted one.

Anthony’s road to becoming a winemaker in Long Island was, as is so often the case, circuitous. Born in Massachusetts, he went to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst to earn a degree in agriculture with a focus on fruit-growing. A couple of years later he decided to obtain a degree in viticulture and found that the program at Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand, was the most economical for an English-speaking country. It ended up being a degree in oenology as well, and that was where it discovered that he had an aptitude for it. Four years later he went to Italy, where his family is from, and spent a year at a winery near Naples. After six years abroad he returned and helped start a winery, Running Brook, in southern Massachusetts. He was there for a year before moving on to California to try winemaking there, but West Coast life wasn’t for him. Finally, in 2007, he came to Long Island, got married, and in partnership with his wife, Sarah Evans, who works as a chef, started making his own wine while working at Shinn Estate.

I met Anthony several years ago, when he was at Shinn (2007 to 2011). When he first went to there it was with the understanding that he could use their facilities to make wine for his own label, which bears his name. His first wine under his label was 200 cases of LI Pinot Noir that he dubbed Nemesis. After he left Shinn he focused more on his own wines and made them at Premium Wine Group, the custom crush facility in Mattituck.

He now has same arrangement with Raphael. As he explains, “We keep everything very separate. [Raphael’s] business is very separate from ours. We pay to make the wine here; it’s just like at Premium. We pay to store it; we pay everything just like we would if we were just a customer. A lot of times I’m working on my stuff, I’m working on their stuff or whatever, but I just try to keep everything very separate.” (To read about Raphael’s wines, see Viniculture in LI: Raphael.)

For Anthony, who has certainly had plenty of experience on both coasts, Long Island is the place to make wine in the East. He told me that “I really think Long Island is the best wine region on the East Coast by far. It’s so diverse; we’ve so much potential. The wines that I’d tasted even ten years ago were better than anywhere else along the East Coast, and they’re even better now.”

As Anthony Nappa Wines has no vineyards of its own, all the wines are made from purchased grapes. Anthony explains:

“I buy grapes from a dozen different vineyards. It changes all of the time. We buy grapes from Upstate, as well. We made a Riesling in the beginning. For me Finger Lakes Riesling is the best Riesling in the country, and I’m just buying grapes. Why wouldn’t I make Finger Lakes Riesling? We label it Finger Lakes and everything; we put vineyard designation on as much stuff as we can.”

Speaking of the dependence on purchased fruit, Anthony said, “The hard part about only buying grapes is we can’t necessarily be consistent. We don’t always get the same quality of fruit. So we might make a wine and then not be able to make it again for years. So it’s hard to be in the marketplace that way. But on the other hand, it’s got its advantages, because we can adjust our production levels every year. We can be opportunistic and jump on good vintages and make extra wine and hold back in bad vintages. We can just do a one-off wine with some grape variety that I was able to purchase and make whatever even just once, if there are some grapes available. We can be opportunistic at the last minute and buy fun stuff, different stuff. There are a lot of advantages to not owning a vineyard, and there’s a lot less risk.”

For example, Anthony has made Nemesis, his first wine, a Pinot Noir, only once.  He eschewed making again until this year as he did not find grapes of the quality he demanded for making that varietal again.  Talk about fussy.

Anthony operates on the idea of honesty in all things bearing on his wine: honest wine that is made with minimal manipulation (if any) and reveals its varietal character; honest marketing—with full disclosure of how the wine is made; and honest labeling—straightforward and direct, without unneeded embellishments.  A testament to that is found in his wine spec sheets which accompany each of his wines.  Talk about full disclosure.

The Winemaker Studio

anomaly_speziaAnthony’s The Winemaker Studio is owned and operated by him and his wife, Chef Sarah Evans Nappa, of Anthony Nappa Wines.   They moved to the North Fork in 2007 and in the same year Anthony established his own wine brand, Anthony Nappa Wines while working as winemaker for Shinn Estate.  His first wine was Nemesis, a white wine made from Pinot Noir, of which 200 cases were made.   Sarah has considerable international experience and is previously the Sous Chef at the North Fork Table & Inn in Southold, NY.  When she is not looking after their son Leonard (born in 2013), or running the tasting room, she is available for hire as a private chef for small events and dinner parties.

In the beginning Anthony invited other winemakers who were producing their own brands but had no tasting facilities of their own to offer their wines at the Studio.  It was a cooperative venture, and tasting rotated with a different brand being highlighted for tasting each weekend.  Over time a number of them moved to other tasting rooms that were more connected to their production.  For example, Russell Hearn, John Leo, and Erich Bilka all work at PWG (Premium Wine Group, a custom crush outfit) which has its own tasting facility, The Tasting Group, for brands that are made at PWG.  So while their wines are now available at retail from the Studio, their wines are no longer offered as part of the tasting menu, which now only highlights Anthony’s own wines and Greg Gove’s Race label of wines.

The Winemaker Studio is currently offering:

  • Anthony Nappa Wines from winemaker Anthony Nappa of Raphael Vineyards
  • Race wines by Greg Gove, former winemaker at Peconic Bay Winery—now closed.
  • SUHRU Wines from winemaker Russell Hearn of Lieb Cellars at PWG
  • Leo Family from winemaker John Leo of Clovis Point at PWG
  • T’Jara Wines from winemaker Russell Hearn of Lieb Cellars and PWG
  • Influence Wines from winemaker Erik Bilka of Castello di Borghese at PWG
  • Coffee Pot Cellars from winemaker Adam Suprenant of Osprey’s Dominion Vineyards, who now has his own tasting room.

Anthony’s own wine labels are elegant in their simplicity and he likes to give his wines distinctive names—each in a different typeface—that reflect something of the character of each.  For example, of three that we sampled, the names suggest a story:

Anthony, anomalyAnomaly, so named because it is just that:  a white wine made from a red grape–in this case Pinot Noir.  According to the spec sheet for this wine, the fruit is sourced from several vineyards: that from the Finger Lakes brings acidity and fruitiness, while from the North Fork the grapes impart more structure and body.  Together the blend brings forth a good balance to Anomaly.  All the fruit comes from sustainably-maintained vineyards.  The grapes are hand-harvested and gently pressed with no skin contact, but using red-wine yeast from Burgundy.  Cold-fermented for two weeks, no oak was used nor was there a malolactic fermentation.  It was bentonite-filtered for heat stability, cold-stabilized, and sterile-filtered before bottling.

The 2013 Anomaly comes from an excellent vintage characterized by a cool summer and 50 days without any precipitation until harvest, resulting in fully-ripe and very clean fruit. The wine is of a medium lemon color with a slight blush, with a full body, firm acidity, and notes of strawberry, white peach, and a minerally finish, perfect as an aperitif or summer wine. 12.3 % abv; $20; ;  90 points from Wine Enthusiast.  Drink within a year.

Anthony, dodiciThe 2012 Dodici is a blend of 67% Merlot, 28% Cabernet Franc, and 5% Cab Sauvignon; the fruit, of an excellent vintage, came from two pre-eminent vineyards on the North Fork:  McCullough and Matebella, which are sustainably farmed.  The spec sheet also tells us that the grapes were fermented after 5 weeks of maceration and aged separately for 18 months in French oak, only blended just prior to bottling unfiltered and unfined.  Just 187 cases were produced. The resulting wine is a deep brick-red color with suggestions of tobacco, licorice, and red fruit on the nose while offering a full body and a nice, long finish with mineral notes. Drinkable now, it could be laid down to evolve for five more years.  It will happily accompany any red-meat dish or go with a full-bodied cheese. 13.2% abv; $35;  91 points from Wine Enthusiast.

Anthony, chardonnayAnthony’s 2013 Chardonnay has an Italian spelling that reflects what he considers to be a “rustic Italian style,”  but given that the grapes come from McCullough Vineyards one might wonder if there weren’t a touch of the Irish about it as well.  Anyhow, the vintage has been described above and as a result the fruit shows beautifully.  Unoaked, the wine was fermented with wild yeast and then underwent a malolactic fermentation, yielding aromas of ripe peaches, citrus, and buttery notes.  With that we have a full-bodied wine with firm acidity and a medium-length with some minerality.  In fact, we’d call it elegant, and it has excellent typicity–this can be nothing other than a Chardonnay, and a very-well made one at that.  Perfect with any fish or seafood.  13.9% abv;  $20; ;  90 points from Wine Enthusiast; to drink now or hold for a few years.

Anthony, TWS signAnthony Nappa Wines

Viniculture in LI, Part III: Peconic Bay Winery

Peconic Bay Winery, which derives its name from the eponymous body of water by which it is located, was established in 1979 by Ray Blum, making it one of the oldest wineries in Long Island.  Now owned by Paul and Ursula Lowerre, who live and work in New York City, the winery closed its doors in October of 2013, because, according to Lowerre, as quoted in the North Fork Patch of October 28, “Our decision to stop production at Peconic Bay Winery was based on simple economics.  We still farm over 52 acres of premium grapes in Cutchogue and in Mattituck, so I’m not going to say we’re finished producing wine – but we’re most likely finished making wine for ourselves.”   Twenty-five acres of vineyard on the Main Road in Cutchogue have in fact been put up for sale, though the thirty acres of vines on Oregon Road are not.

The account that follows is now primarily of historic and vinicultural interest only:

While it was in full operation, the day-to-day running of the winery was by a very capable team that included Jim Silver, the General Manager, Greg Gove, the winemaker (who now makes wine under his own label, Race Wines), Zander Hargrave, the assistant winemaker (and now winemaker at Pellegrini), and Charlie Hargrave, Peconic Bay’s vineyard manager, not to speak of the vineyard crew.

Charlie, who just retired at the end of the 2012 vintage, started his career by working to help establish Hargrave Vineyard with his brother Alex and sister-in-law Louisa Hargrave, which in 1973 was Long Island’s pioneer winery, converted from an old potato farm.  As the area’s earliest vineyard manager, he therefore brings many years of experience with him to Peconic Bay Winery, where he started working in 2001.  He’s involved in every aspect of the vineyards, from the winter pruning all the way to the harvest and its post-season cleanup.

While managing roughly 55 acres of planted vines, Charlie applied sustainable vineyard practices, working with organic and biodegradable pesticide agents to the extent possible, though there was no intention of seeking organic certification.  After all, given the challenges of a humid climate and the ever-present fungal pressures on the vineyards, as well as other pests, conventional pesticides such as copper may occasionally be necessary to control, for example, downy mildew, although it is used as little as possible, and not at all in most years, as it is toxic and builds up in the soil. He also tried organic products like Regalia, for instance, and may test it again; however, Serenade did not provide satisfactory results when it was used.  Above all, the ultimate objective for viticulture at Peconic Bay is two-fold—growing the highest-quality fruit in an economically-sustainable manner.  For example, one of the most pernicious of grapevine pests is the grape berry moth (or GBM).  Rather than use insecticides to control it, the vineyard employs pheromones that confuse the male moth and make it difficult for it to mate.

To help keep weeds down and encourage the emergence of beneficial insects such as ladybugs, praying mantises, and other pest predators, Charlie planted two grasses, perennial rye and creeping red fescue as cover crops; they are low-growing and do not require as much mowing as do other grasses.  Within the vine rows, Roundup–unfortunately not a sustainable product–was used to control weeds which can cover or hide problems with the bases of the vines and any suckers that may appear, as these sap energy that the plant could better use for the crop fruit.  Fortunately, as vines are deep-rooted, the herbicide doesn’t affect the plant itself.

Another aspect of managing the soil is maintaining its pH, for North Fork soil tends to be acidic and must be balanced by adding lime, but its acidity will periodically return to unacceptable levels, requiring that the soil be tested every year and when needed, say every third year, additional lime was spread in the vineyards to be soaked into the soil by rain.

One of the ways that the winery tried to keep a low-impact profile when using pesticide sprays, such as Stylet oil (mixed with phosphoric acid and calcium to build up the vines’ cell walls and provide some resistance to fungi), is to employ a tunnel sprayer such as the one shown on the left, a Lipco TSG-2 trailer for spraying two rows at a time.  This machine can recycle up to 40% of the spray material over the course of a season, saving thousands of dollars just of pesticide alone by recovering what drips off the foliage, not to speak of the fact that it almost entirely prevents drift in the air, thus protecting field personnel, other fields and crops, and nearby bodies of water.

Indeed, because of its commitment to sustainable viticulture, Peconic Bay is directly involved with the VineBalance program of Cornell University Agricultural Extension.  In fact, an entire row of Chardonnay had been turned over to the program by Jim, the GM, so that they could experiment with it as they wish.

Much of the care and nurturing of grapes simply cannot be done by machine.  Pruning and tying, shoot positioning, thinning the leaves (also referred to as “opening up the canopy”) is vital to providing proper air circulation and sun exposure to the grape clusters; all these methods require knowledgeable, practiced hands.

The varieties grown at the vineyards included Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Chardonnay, which produced some of their best wines.  For example, on the parcel called Sandy Hill the grapes are more subject to drought than elsewhere in the vineyard.  Its terroir, however, also grows grapes with sugars that are higher and more concentrated, ultimately resulting in the best Chardonnay grapes of the property.

Charlie also knows the region and its climate better than most on the North Fork, and understands what weather changes can mean to fruit growing in any parcel of the vineyard, so he would quickly grasp what needed to be done through all vagaries of weather, be it excessive rain or periods of drought.  For example, Greg Gove, the winemaker, said, “In 1999 we had hurricane Floyd come through.  We were picking the grapes around these rain events, and in the midst of it all, the press broke down.  We had to borrow a refrigerated truck to load it with as many grapes as we could.”

Jim Silver, Greg Gove, and Charlie conferred throughout the harvest, comparing notes on what affects each aspect of their responsibilities in deciding when to pick.  The perfect balance of three factors are vital to deciding when to pick the grapes:  pH, sugar levels (measured in Brix), and Total Acidity, or TA.  Then they considered issues like short-term weather forecasts, available tank space in the winery, and the ready availability of a machine harvester or a hand-picking crew.

The result is that Peconic Bay wines have won many awards over the years.  To mention but a few:  La Barrique, an oaked Chardonnay has won multiple awards, including Best Wine Discovery (White) at the 2007 Wine Literary Awards in California, their Riesling was named one of the top ten Rieslings in the United States, a Merlot was designated as Best in New York State, and so on.  Quite a track record.  And it all began in the vineyard.

The last wine made and bottled at Peconic Bay was as Lowerre Family Black Label at Empire State Cellars, and was described by Jim Silver as Greg Gove’s masterpiece, by far and away the finest red wine he has made.

In the meantime, the Oregon Road vineyard parcels have been taken over by Premium Wine Acquisitions, and under the supervision of Russell Hearn is being managed by Bill Ackerman, of North Fork Viticultural Services, while the Main Street vineyard is being maintained by Steve Mudd.  The vineyards, at least, shall remain in production for the foreseeable future.

*An interview posted on Oct 28, tells about Peconic Bay’s fate:  North Fork Patch, interview with Jim Silver

Based on  interviews with Jim Silver and Charlie Hargrave, 20 April 2011, updated 28 Dec. 2014.

An all-New York Wine Outlet: Empire State Cellars

Empire State Cellars, once located in the huge Tanger Mall in Riverhead, Long Island, closed its doors on December 27, 2014.  It was unique as the only retail outlet to sell wine, brews, and spirits from all of New York State.  Not really a store, it was a satellite tasting room of Peconic Bay Winery, in Cutchogue, on the North Fork of Long Island, whose owners, Paul and Ursula Lowerre, fully financed ESC’s creation.  However, Peconic Bay closed the winery doors last year, and closing ESC is another cost-cutting move on the part of the Lowerres, who were unwilling to continue to pay the very high and profit-robbing rent.

The story of how it came to be, however, is worth preserving.

Jim Silver, who was the general manager of Peconic Bay Winery until it closed its doors in 2013, first conceived of the idea of a satellite tasting room in 2010, when it became clear that the large number of visitors to the tasting room at Peconic Bay Winery was regularly pressing its capacity.

It was not possible to expand the tasting room given current conditions, so Jim pitched his idea to the winery’s owners that a satellite tasting room in the area could draw yet more people and at the same time provide for exposure not only of Peconic Bay’s own wines, but those of other wineries from all the viticultural regions of New York State, include the American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) of the North Fork, the Hamptons, all of Long Island (which includes Queens and Brooklyn), the Hudson Valley, the Finger Lakes, Lake Erie and the Niagara Escarpment.  They liked the idea and gave Jim the go-ahead to follow up on it.

Jim negotiated with the Tanger Outlets Mall in Riverhead for a store location and worked with the State Liquor Authority on the licensing of the premise.  The lease was dependent on the license. The cooperation from the SLA could not have been better, given that a mandate of the agency is to help promote New York State wine.  When the SLA chairman, Dennis Rosen and his counsel came to talk to Jim, Jim told them, “This is what we’re going to do.”  Withal, he explained that, as a NY winery, Peconic Bay Winery was allowed by law to open an off-premise retail outlet.

In this case the outlet would offer not only PBW’s own wines, but those of any and all wineries in NY State, provided that they’d be willing to sell their wines to a competing winery at a fair discount from their on-premise retail prices.  (One must understand that most of NY State’s wineries have a very small production, so it behooves them to sale from the winery tasting room, where they can sell at full price with no discount for retailers.  On the other hand, a presence at other outlets, including restaurants, gets them a broader exposure to the public.)  Furthermore, as a retail outlet of a winery, ESC could also sell wine to restaurants at wholesale prices.  The SLA counsel immediately grasped the scope of the idea and observed that this was the three-tier distribution system rolled into one.  Indeed, across the United States, wine is typically distributed as follows:

  1. Wineries can sell to customers directly at their premises or distribute them to retailers by selling at a considerable discount to wholesalers or distributors.
  2. Wholesalers provide the wine to duly-licensed retailers and restaurants at a price that allows them to sell the wine profitably.
  3. Retailers then sell the wine to the public with whatever markup they choose to make.

New York, as a leading producer of table wine, has enacted fairly liberal laws on behalf of its wineries, so its laws permitted exactly the kind of retail outlet that Jim had conceived.  Ergo, Empire State Cellars.  Roughly a third to a half of the wines offered come from Long Island, with the balance coming from the rest of the state.  ESC then broadened its offerings to include New York State craft brews and spirits. There are NY Vermouth and Absinthe makers, Bourbon and Single Malt Whiskeys, liqueurs, rums, vodkas, and so on. All craft and all of high quality. Craft brews of all manner are made in New York as well, garnering a great deal of attention and respect. One could have it all by confining oneself to just the products of our State.  It also had a very active and popular wine club the selections of which were selected by Lenn Thompson of New York Cork Report which offers a farewell to ESC and tells about the club, which offers its last selections until the store closes.

We can only hope that someone else will pick up on this good idea and carry it forward elsewhere.  In the meantime, we wish the Lowerres well–they certainly set a high bar for the sale of New York wine, beer, and spirits.

ESC logo

Viniculture in LI, Part III: Raphael Winery

Based on interviews with Anthony Nappa and Steve Mudd

Raphael Winery entrance, by Petrocelli Construction

Raphael Winery, in Peconic, on the North Fork of Long Island, was founded by John Petrocelli Sr. and his wife, Joan, and is family-owned.  Petrocelli is also the owner of J. Petrocelli Construction, which specializes in quality design and building, and the handsome, 28,000 sq. ft.  winery was designed by him, inspired by the architecture of the Neapolitan monasteries of his native Italy.  He named it after his father, Raphael, who was an avid home winemaker like his own father before him, so John Sr. came by his oenophilia perhaps genetically.  The venture was five years in planning and cost $6,000,000 to complete, with the intention of making the premium winery of Long Island, Italian-inspired but Bordeaux-oriented.

When the commitment to build the winery was made, it was clear that a vital component, the vineyard, needed to be tended to by expert viticulturalists.  The family then hired David and Steve Mudd—Mudd VMC is the premier vineyard management consulting firm on the Island—to help guide them in the development of a Bordeaux-type of winery.  Also hired as advisers were Paul Pontallier, managing director of Ch. Margaux—one of the five Premier Cru châteaux in Bordeaux— along with Richard Smart, a respected Australian viticulture consultant who had earned his Ph.D. at Cornell.   With their advice the cellar and equipment was developed along those lines, and built twelve feet below the ground in order to allow for the first gravity-fed fermentation tanks to be used in the region, using as models Opus One and Mondavi, of Napa Valley.   (Gravity feed is considered to be less stressful and damaging to the fruit and organic matter that constitutes the must than is mechanical pumping.)

One of Raphael’s vineyard plots

In 1996 the Mudds planted the first vineyard for Raphael with Merlot, and have been managing the vineyard, which has grown to 60 acres over the years, ever since, using sustainable practices, including what Steve Mudd calls “fussy viticulture”—green harvesting by hand—from the very beginning.  (In fact, the first wine made under the Raphael label came from Merlot vines grown at the Mudds’ own vineyard and were vinified at Pellegrini Vineyard.  The first wine produced at the new facility was the 1999 vintage.)  Other varieties have been planted since the Merlot, including Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Riesling, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

According to Steve Mudd, a nine-foot space between rows is supposed to provide room for equipment to move along the rows, but it’s a myth that that much space is necessary.  Pontallier, when asked his opinion about the row spacing and vine density, said, “it is not for me to say” what it should be, but back in 1994, when the vineyard was still in the planning stage, he had argued against close spacing, suggesting 3 meters (10 feet).  The density of the first planting at Raphael is just 820 vines per acre (9’x6’ spacing) as opposed to about 2,550 in Bordeaux.  Later plantings increased the density somewhat, and the rest of the vineyard is now spaced at 9’x5’, or 968 vines/acre.

The quality wines produced by Raphael simply would not be possible if it weren’t for the work done in the vineyard by Steve Mudd and his crew.  High-quality fruit is always there for the winemaker, even in a bad-harvest year like 2011.

For further insight into the viticultural practices at Raphael, the reader is referred to another post, on Mudd VMC, the contracted vineyard manager for the winery.

Richard Olsen-Harbich, who had been Raphael’s winemaker since its founding and helped define its style of wines—made reductively, using native yeasts, with minimal intervention, in order to allow the hand-picked grapes to more clearly express the terroir.  After he left in 2010 to work at Bedell Cellars  Leslie Howard became winemaker, but in 2012 Les moved on and Anthony Nappa, former winemaker at Shinn Estate, maker of Anthony Nappa Wines, and founder of the Winemaker’s Studio, took over as winemaker at Raphael.

I met Anthony several years ago, when he was winemaker at Shinn (2007 to 2011). When he first went to there it was with the understanding that he could use their facilities to make wine for his own label, which bears his name. His first wine under his label was 200 cases of LI Pinot Noir. After he left Shinn he focused more on his own wines and made them at Premium Wine Group, the custom crush facility in Mattituck.

Anthony-Nappa at RaphaelHe now has same arrangement with Raphael. As he explains, “We keep everything very separate. [Raphael’s] business is very separate from ours. We pay to make the wine here; it’s just like at Premium. We pay to store it; we pay everything just like we would if we were just a customer. A lot of times I’m working on my stuff, I’m working on their stuff or whatever, but I just try to keep everything very separate. They don’t sell our wine, we don’t sell their wine.”  (To read more about Anthony Nappa and his own wines, see Oenology in LI:  Anthony Nappa Wines.)

For Anthony, who has certainly had plenty of experience on both coasts, Long Island is the place to make wine in the East. He told me that “I really think Long Island is the best wine region on the East Coast by far. It’s so diverse; we’ve so much potential. The wines that I’d tasted even ten years ago were better than anywhere else along the East Coast, and they’re even better now.”

To the question, “What have you done since you’ve been here to in any way define the wines of Raphael to a new standard, an Anthony Nappa standard?”

He replied that by “having standards, the first goal is to just figure out where we are and what’s going on with sales and production, and try to get the business side of things in line as far as what we’re making, cutting packaging costs, and streamlining the whole production side. Raphael wants to make money, so obviously the financial side of it is important. And then on the winemaking side, it was just looking at every product. The first thing is to only make as much as we sell. A lot of wineries just bring in the fruit, make it, bottle it, warehouse it. Our goal is to figure out what we’re selling, and any excess we sell off in bulk—any fruit or wine or whatever—and then figuring out each product and having a standard for it.

“We have a whole line of what we call ‘First Label.’  It’s all the Reserve wines, and those are all from our vineyard. We buy a lot of fruit too, but those are all from our vineyard. It’s just like with my own wines, we have very high standards for fruit and we have very high standards for the quality of each wine. I’ll just not make a wine. If the quality is not there, if the fruit doesn’t deliver, it gets downgraded to a lower level wine, and if the vineyard doesn’t deliver, we just don’t buy the fruit. That’s easy for me, because I’m the one buying the fruit.

“It’s easy to fuck things up. You’re taking grapes and from the moment you pick them, it’s all downhill. You’re just trying to protect it through the process, but it’s on a long, slow trail to becoming vinegar from the moment you pick it . . .”

I replied, “It seems to me every single winery should have a sign that says ‘First thing, don’t fuck it up.’”

He went on: “But we try to make everything.  I’m a non-interventionist. I want the grapes to express themselves. I want the Cab Franc to taste like Cab Franc and I don’t want to just make everything taste the same. So usually I just bring things in and let everything ferment wild and let things go. And then I intervene when I have to. When the fruit comes in we look at it and we make decisions sometimes on the fly based on what we’re going to do. Then I always err on the side of caution. If I’m not sure about something I do nothing, and I intervene when I have to.”

Anthony concluded with this remark: “I think a lot of wineries just go through the motions and just make the same wines every year and there’s a huge separation between upstairs and downstairs and outside and inside and there needs to be more synergy, there to have some more consistency. No one has done anything different ever in this business that hasn’t been done for the last thousands of years. It’s just about taking thousands of decisions and putting them in a different order and you get a different result. But there are no secrets, you know.”

Trying Raphael’s wines in the spacious and handsome tasting room proved to be very interesting, as there was a wide range of wine types and styles on offer, and he had plenty to say about them.  (Please note:  the wines identified as “First Label” are considered to be Reserve Wines; i.e., the best produced by the winery.)

The 2010 First Label Chardonnay ($39), which came out of Mudd Vineyards (there is no Chardonnay planted at Raphael) was pressed to yield 120 gallons per ton of grapes (clone CY3779), so out of 5 tons of this particular parcel 600 gallons, or about 3,000 bottles, were made.  It underwent a 100% malolactic fermentation, was kept on its lees, and spent eight months in oak barrels.  It was bottled unfiltered, with low sulfites.  The result was that in the glass the wine was clear, offering citrus, butterscotch flavors, and toasty notes.  It has the typicity of an oaked Chardonnay, somewhere between a Burgundy or California version.  2010 was perhaps the greatest wine vintage in Long Island—given its early budding, excellent weather, and early harvest—and the quality of the Chardonnay was also a reflection of this.  Made by Leslie Howard.

The 2013 First Label Sauvignon Blanc ($28)  The last months of the growing season had no precipitation and no notable disease pressure, so Raphael was able to harvest each grape variety at leisure and at each one’s peak. According to them all the wines from 2013 show exceptional natural balance and full ripeness, which is also promising for the future longevity of the wines of this vintage.  The Sauvignon Blanc was made from hand-selected grapes from their oldest vines to help produce balanced, structured wines. Made with partial skin contact and cold-fermented in stainless steel, this dry wine exhibits a bright nose of citrus and pineapple, along with flavors of pineapple, grapefruit and lemongrass, a full body and a long dry acidic finish.It’s a clear, pale-lemon colored wine with aromas of pineapple, white peach, and, citrus; clean, medium-bodied, with high acidity and a mineral finish.  An exceptionally enjoyable Sauvignon Blanc that matches well with seafood and spicy Indian and other Asian cuisines.  Made by Anthony Nappa.  13.1% ABV.

Raphael Riesling 2013The 2013 First Label Riesling  ($28) from the same excellent vintage as that of the Sauvignon Blanc described above.  The grapes were hand-harvested and pressed very gently after two days of skin contact in the tank. The juice was fermented using naturally-occurring indigenous yeasts from the  skins. Fermentation was carried out cold at 55F and lasted 5 weeks. The wine saw no wood, as befits a Riesling.  It was blended from several batches and then bentonite-fined for heat stability, cold-stabilized and sterile-filtered before bottling.  This is a limited-production, dry Riesling that offers a firm but balanced acidity matched by fruit concentration that produces a beguilingly aromatic and rather full-bodied—for a Riesling—with a dry, minerally finish.  This wine shows flavors of fresh apricot and ripe pear.  Excellent as an aperitif or to accompany seafood, chicken dishes, and spicy cuisines.  Anthony Nappa.  12.4% ABV.

The 2013 Cabernet Franc ($25) also benefited from the excellent conditions of the vintage.  The fruit was hand-harvested, de-stemmed, and crushed. The grapes from different lots were then fermented apart.  The fermentation was carried out at 75F to retain fruit flavors and took a month with pumpovers twice a day. The wine was aged with 50% in stainless steel and the rest in French oak barrels, where it underwent natural malolactic fermentation. The aging took ten months before the wine was blended and then bottled unfiltered and unfined.  The resulting wine has a firm acidity, full body, and offers a pronounced fruity aroma of ripe red berries with herbal notes and a hint of tobacco.  It is actually ready to drink now bout would certainly bear aging a few more years, given that it was so recently bottled.  A fine accompaniment to any variety of pork, beef, or lanb dishes.  It would be good with cheese or chocolate as well.  Anthony Nappa.  12.9% ABV.

13 June 2012; updated 22 June 2014

39390 Main Road/Route 25, Peconic, NY 11958; (631) 765.1100

Raphael Wine

tastingroom@raphaelwine.com

For further reading, Anthony Nappa and his own brand of wines were written about by Eileen Duffy in her book, Behind the Bottle (Cider Mill Press, 2015).

Viniculture in LI, Part III: Macari Estate

Based on interviews with Alex and Joe Macari, Jr on 9 July 2009 & 17 June 2010; updated 21 November 2014

Macari sign, 2014, 0Macari Vineyards is on the North Fork of Eastern Long Island (aka the East End) in Mattituck, and owned and operated by the Macari Family.  Joseph Macari Jr., now runs the winery with his wife, Alexandra (called Alex by those who know her—but actually Alejandra, for she’s originally from Argentina).  Though Macari Vineyards was established in 1995, the Macari Family has owned the 500-acre estate—bounded by the south shore of Long Island Sound—for nearly 50 years [though in 2009 they sold 60 acres of non-vineyard land, so it is now down to 440 acres].  What were once potato fields and farmland now includes a vineyard of 200 acres of vines with additional fields of compost, farmland, and a home to long-horn cattle, goats, Sicilian donkeys and ducks.

Macari sees itself as on the cutting edge of viticulture and has long been committed to as natural an approach to winemaking as is possible. Since 2005 Joseph Macari, Jr. has been considered as a pioneer in the movement towards natural and sustainable farming on Long Island, employing principles of biodynamic farming beginning with the vineyard’s first crops.  By giving consideration to the health of the environment as a whole and moving away from the noxious effects of industrial pesticides towards a more natural and meticulous caretaking of the soil and plants, Macari believes that it has found a more promising way to yield premium wines (recalling the old French axiom, that wine begins in the vineyard).  This does not mean that Macari claims to be producing organic grapes, nor organic wines—that, in Joe’s view, is not possible for a vineyard of its size in Long Island, given the climate, with its high humidity and much rain during the growing season, both of which tend to encourage the ravages of fungal and bacterial infections of the vines, as well as attacks by a range of insects.

My first visit was in July of last year, and my follow-up visit was this June.  We started in the new and modern Tasting Room at the Winery.  Alex, as Joe’s wife is called) began with a tasting of a range of Macari wines, all of which were well-made and at the least, quite good, with some of very fine quality, well-balanced, with good acidity and fruit.  The winery produces both barrel-fermented and steel-fermented whites as well as barrel-fermented reds and a couple of cryo-ice wines (“fake” ice wine, as Alex teased, but Joe is an enthusiast, and the wine is actually delicious and has won awards).  In fact, the winery employs two winemakers, one of whom is Austrian and makes the steel-fermented whites as well as the ice wines.  (I’ll review the wines when I write about wine-making at Macari in a separate post.)

The vineyard tour in a 4-wheel-drive pickup truck began with an exploration of the composting area, where manure from the farm animals is gathered (cows—including long-horn steers—horses, and chickens) as well as the vine detritus (which is charred in order to render any infection or harmful residue neutral), and 35 tons of fish waste that is delivered once a week by a Fulton Fish Market purveyor (Joe says that the fish guts & bones provide excellent nitrogen & DNA for the compost, so it is highly nutritive for the vines).  At the time of my visit the compost heaps—some of which were from six to eight feet high—were covered in weeds, which will be removed before the compost is applied as fertilizer.

In order to save time and space—two valuable commodities in growing wine grapes—vineyards sometimes graft new vines onto a mature rootstock, rather than starting an entirely new plant.  According to the Macari Website, theirs is the first vineyard on Long Island to successfully grow over-grafted vines.  With over-grafting, a new variety can be grown from the rootstock of a different plant, which is a much faster way of growing vines than planting new ones.  The future of every vineyard depends on the carefully executed process of planting new vines.  Macari’s vision of the future is constantly evolving as the owners, vineyard manager and winemaker learn more about their vines, and the microclimates found in the fields.

The vineyard proper is very well-tended, the various varieties separated into blocks, using Vertical Shoot Positioning (VSP), and in many parcels irrigation tubes were carefully aligned along the bottom wires of the rows to provide drip irrigation if necessary, though the high humidity and rainfall of the region reduces the likelihood of needing its use.  In fact, the 2009 season thus far has had such an excess of rainfall—often very heavy—that in many parts of the vineyard there was blossom damage and many of the developing bunches of grapes were, in effect, incomplete due to fruit loss.

Joe has been using, to the extent possible, both organic and Biodynamic® methods of viticulture, but due to the highly-humid conditions in the vineyard, he must still resort to conventional sprays from time to time, so he refuses to claim to be organic or biodynamic, though he finds that to the extent that it is possible to use these viticultural methods, it is worthwhile.  For one thing, Joe worships Mother Earth, and believes in the Rudolf Steiner principle that there ought to be a harmony between earth, sky, and water, and in consequence has resorted in the past to planting cow horns at the ends of rows, with the requisite composting “teas” that are recommended by the biodynamic movement.  He plans to return to this practice again in coming years.  Though Alex appears to be skeptical of the remedy, the special attention and care demanded by organic and biodynamic practice are evident in the vineyard, as can be seen in the picture above, which shows the cover crop extending from between the rows right into the vines themselves, weeds and all, in order to allow the greatest amount of vegetative variety and expand the quantity of beneficial insects and other fauna to find their natural habitat.

Another reason that Macari does not seek Organic Certification is economical.  It is one thing to apply expensive organic sprays on, say a 20-acre field, quite another to do so on 200.  The sprays cost twice as much as the industrial alternatives and the spraying would involve higher labor costs, as the number of times that the spray needs to be applied would be higher than for conventional applications.  Furthermore, the fact that you can practice organic and/or biodynamic farming without going for 100% organic—being pragmatic about using industrial sprays when absolutely needed, but otherwise being committed to organic ones when it is suitable—means that you can have a sustainable, healthy vineyard in almost all respects.

In other words, as Joe sees it, Organic Certification may be economically viable for a small vineyard, but is much less so for large ones.

One additional bit of evidence regarding the exceptional care given the Macari vineyards is the employment of a team of specialized grafters from California, who travel around the country—and the world—grafting new shoots to old roots, so that, for example, a field of Chardonnay can be quickly converted to Sauvignon Blanc.  The process is highly meticulous, requiring special knowledge of the condition of the roots.  For example, in the case of a root with splitting bark, one type of graft and wrapping may be applied as opposed to another for a root that doesn’t suffer from the problem.  This team of five men can graft about 500 roots a day at a cost of $2.00 per root—a highly efficient rate that is cost-effective for the vineyard.  (This team had earlier been working in Hawaii, and has also done grafting for Château Margaux—yes, that one in Bordeaux of 1855 Classification fame—and at the same time was working at Peconic Bay Vineyards nearby.)

As a further example of the globalization of viticultural practices, Joe also has a French specialist in tying vines to the trellising system come from Southern France with his own team in order to train his Guatemalan workers in how to properly tie vines to the wires, for it must be done properly if the vines are to be held to the wires for the duration of the growing season.

To the extent that one can achieve balance with nature in viticulture (or in agriculture as whole), Joe Macari has certainly shown that he in the vanguard of that search.  It is not for the sake of certification, either organic or biodynamic, that he does this, but out of respect for his vineyard’s terroir, which is to say, the land, the soil, the vines, the climate.  But all viticultural work involves experimentation, and Joe is always experimenting, as new ideas and information become available to him.  There is always a better way.  The pursuit is endless, and the story therefore never ends.

PS–For another recent appreciation of Joe Macari’s work, see the informed and thoughtful account by Louisa Hargrave in the January 14, 2010 issue of the Suffolk News at   https://www.macariwines.com/macari.ihtml?page=awards&awardid=184

B'klyn Uncorked, Kelly UrbanikLouisa also wrote a very nice profile of Kelly Urbanik Koch, Macari’s resident winemaker, in the Winter 2014 issue of Long Island Winepress:  Meet your winemaker Kelly Urbanik Koch of Macari Vineyards/

In fact, a favorite wine of ours offered at the New York Uncorked wine tasting was a really sublime 2013 Sauvignon Blanc by Kelly—deeply perfumed with floral aromas and the typical Sauvignon flavor profile beautifully tamed with a fine balance of citrus fruit and floral notes against a firm acidic backbone. The best American SB that I can remember, frankly. Kelly was so happy with the result that she said that she wished that she could “swim in it”–in a tank, to be sure.

In the summer of 2014, Macari was named New York State Winery of the Year at the NY Wine & Food Classic, a tasting competition of over 800 wines from across the state’s viticultural areas.  Macari’s 2010 Cabernet Franc was named by the competition’s judges as the Best Red Wine of the show.

Mattituck Winery

150 Bergen Avenue, Mattituck, NY 11952
(631) 298-0100

Cutchogue Tasting Room

24385 Route 25, Cutchogue, NY 11935
(631) 734-7070

http://www.macariwines.com/

This article was first published on June 30, 2010