Author Archives: JoseM-L

About JoseM-L

I hold a WSET Diploma from the International Wine Center in New York City, having previously earned a WSET Advanced Certificate with merit. I'm the designer and developer of a Website, RiverRunBy.net and the author of two blogs, Polymath and Wine, Seriously. I also have an MA in Art History and taught Art History, History, and Spanish in NY private schools for 12 years. In addition, I also worked as a Senior Programmer/Developer for the auction house, Sotheby's, for 16 years, all the while maintaining a translation/interpreting service, Translation International, which I established in 1969. I serve as a consultant in various fields, including database design and development, and wine, of course.

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.  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 Paul, as quoted in the North Fork Patch of October 28, “Our decision to stop production at Peconic Bay Winery was based on simple economics. . . .  I’m not going to say we’re finished producing wine – but we’re most likely finished making wine for ourselves.”

As of 2017 the wine store on the property is now open as a full-time tasting room, not only selling  the remaining wine and spiritls inventory produced by Peconic Bay Winery, but also the wines, spirits, and brews of many New York State Producers.  Good values are to be had, such as a Peconic Bay grappa half-bottle for $10, verjus for $4, Peconic Bay Riesling (2005 and 2007) for $15, and its excellent Blanc de Blanc, among other offerings.

Sales at the tasting room are managed by Cynthia Caprese, who is also the Comptroller of the winery. The idea is to revive the concept of Empire State Cellars, albeit in miniature, they already offer their former winemaker Greg Gove’s Race Wines (North Fork of Long Island), and they are offering wines from the Finger Lakes, such as Red Tail Ridge, the Hudson River Region (e.g., Millbrook), the Niagara Escarpment (Arrowhead Spring Vineyard), and perhaps from the Lake Eire Region and the brand-new Champlain Valley Region near the Canadian border. They also sell craft beers and ciders, such as Saratoga Lager and Half Sour Brooklyn Cider, as well as New York distilled spirits. There are many choices in all categories and everything is very fairly priced.

It does not, at this time, have a Website.

31320 Main Rd, Cutchogue, NY 11935

(631) 734-7361

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

When 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.

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 of this kind of collaboration and attention wass that Peconic Bay wines 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.

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.  The vineyards, at least, shall remain in production for the foreseeable future.

Based on  interviews with Jim Silver and Charlie Hargrave, 20 April 2011, updated 28 October 2014. Cynthia Caprise was interviewed In June 2017.

Viniculture in LI, Part III: Shinn Estate

Shinn Estate, 01By 2017 Barbara Shinn and her husband, David Page, had worked very hard for twenty years to create a natural ecosystem in their vineyard.  In order to achieve this they committed themselves to growing grapes that they hoped would be organically certified by the USDA, as well as being fully certified by Demeter as a Biodynamic vineyard. It didn’t work out, at least not exactly. More about that below.

They did, however, become leaders in the sustainable farming movement in Long Island, so what happened in April 2017 was a complete surprise to the wine community. Interestingly, it was a surprise to Barbara and David as well. They received an unanticipated, solid offer to purchase Shinn Estate, including the winery, vineyard, inn, and windmill, that they could not refuse. The property was sold to  Barbara and Randy Frankel, who live in the Hamptons.

When Barbara and David bought their property on the North Fork in 1998, they knew nothing about grape-growing or wine-making.  At the time, they already owned a successful restaurant, Home,  in New York City, but they were drawn to the North Fork by its excellent produce and seafood, as well as the rural charm and unspoiled villages.  Already committed to the idea of using local produce served with local wines, a philosophy that was embedded in the cuisine and wine offerings of their restaurant, the wineries of the area also beckoned, and they finally bought a twenty-two acre plot of what was once a wheat field.  They became friends with many vintners, including Joe Macari, Jr., who showed them how to develop a vineyard according to sustainable practices.

At first they only grew grapes for sale to other wineries, but by 2006 had one of their own.  In 2007 David and Barbara opened their converted farmhouse into a B&B so that they could continue to pursue their devotion to the locavore movement along with their own wines.  They moved from conventional farming to an increasingly organic and then Biodynamic approach slowly and carefully beginning in 2002, then started the transition to organic viticulture in 2005, and to Biodynamic practices by 2008. Unfortunately, they never got there.

The greatest problem facing Shinn Estate—as well as all vineyards in Long Island (and for that matter, all of the East Coast)—is the hot and humid climate, which helps promote all manner of diseases of the vine, including powdery and downy mildew, black rot, and phomopsis viticola, or dead-arm.  To control these pests, conventional farmers use a host of industrial pesticides with great success—it is this that has made vinifera grape-growing possible in regions where it would otherwise wither and die.  However, there are new weapons for the organic and Biodynamic growers, such as Regalia (according to the manufacturer, “a patented formulation of an extract from the giant knotweed plant (Reynoutria sachalinensis). Its unique mode of action switches on the plant’s natural defense mechanisms to inhibit the development of bacterial spot, bacterial speck, target spot, powdery mildew, [etc].”).  Shinn also uses Serenade (which according to its producer, “consistently helps growers win the battle against fungal and bacterial diseases, as it contains a unique, patented strain of Bacillus subtilis . . . to destroy diseases such as Fire Blight, Botrytis, Sour Rot, Rust, Sclerotinia, Powdery Mildew, [etc].”).

Nevertheless, as Barbara Shinn admits, the Achilles Heel for any organic or Biodynamic viticulturalist is downy mildew.  By far the most effective control of this blight is copper sulfate, which is an industrial product that is almost unique in being accepted for both USDA Organic as well as Biodynamic farming.  While there are usually few limits as to how much copper sulfate can be applied in the course of a growing season, anyone using it is aware that the copper content is inimical to healthy soil.  While it may destroy downy mildew, it is also highly toxic to organisms in the soil, and in sufficient quantities it will drive out beneficial ones such as earthworms.  Worse, it is a strong irritant to workers and also has long persistence in the soil, to which it bonds strongly, so it accumulates over time.  However, Biodynamic farming does allow up to three pounds of copper sulfate per acre to be added in the course of a year.  For many farmers, this would not be enough, and double that application would not be unusual, especially in this region.  Still, Shinn tried to abide by this strict limit.

Like all Long Island viticulturalists, the Estate uses Vertical Shoot Positioning (VSP) for training their vines.  The vines are planted to a 7’×4’ European-type density, which helps to lower yields and leads to more intense wine.  Then, shortly after budbreak they select the shoots that each vine will grow to provide canopy, removing the rest.  Once the vines bear fruit, they go through each one again, removing about two-thirds of the berries so that the remainder will benefit better from the resultant increased nourishment they receive from the vine.  This means that the wines made from this fruit will have more intense flavor and aroma without having to resort to very much intervention in the winery.

One approaches the winery from a narrow country road distinguished only by the sign Shinn Estate, 02for the estate and the attractive farmhouse by the entrance.  A tall windmill, newly installed to generate electricity for the winery spins its blades in the wind and stands as a testament to Barbara and David’s commitment to self-sufficiency and sustainability.  Carefully-tended rows of vines have been planted nearly to the edge of the road.  Barbara and David were in the parking area with Anthony Nappa, their winemaker back in 2010, when I arrived.  (Anthony is now winemaker at Raphael and Patrick Caserta has taken his place.)  Shortly, we went to the warehouse where they age their wines in oak barrels.

Tasting from the barrels is always an interesting challenge, as one is tasting a wine in the process of maturation rather than when it is ready to drink, but quality is evident in each sample of the red wine that we taste . . . much of which is destined for eventual blending.  Shinn produces a large variety of wines, red, white, rosé, and even a sparkling wine.  Their best wines are made exclusively from estate-grown grapes (the other wines are from grapes bought from local growers).  These are the wines that are meant to benefit from the organic and Biodynamic procedures that they follow.  We then proceeded to taste their many, distinctive wines in the tasting room. (A full discussion of the wines will come in a separate posting.)

The vineyard tour brought us first to the irrigation system, which is an electrically-controlled mechanism that Shinn uses primarily for its Biodynamic compost tea inoculation, which is administered once a month.  The tea is made by taking the Biodynamic preparation that has been aged in cow horns buried in the ground, then mixed with water into a 50-gallon batch that is fed into the twenty-two acre vineyard over a period of an hour.  This is but one of several means by which Shinn provides the necessary, natural nutrients to keep the soil healthy.  Other organic soil amendments include limestone, potassium, humic acid, kelp, and fish hydrolizate (liquefied fish, which is rich in nitrogen).

Furthermore, the Shinn vineyard uses a full cover crop, which is to say, the crop is not only between the vine rows, but grows right into them.  They do not even till the soil.  As the Shinn Website explains it:

Shinn Estate, 11As a vineyard is a monoculture crop, vegetal diversity is attained by planting various kinds of cover crops between the rows of vines.  Thus there are different kinds of grass, clover, and perennials and annuals that grow throughout the vineyard.  This cover crop provides habitat for all manner of insect life, enhances the organic mix of the soil, and is a healthy environment for the microorganisms of the soil.

In addition to its diversity, the cover crop also helps reduce the vigor of the vines by forcing them to compete for water with other vegetation when it’s rainy (a good thing when one is growing wine grapes) and at the same time helps the soil retain moisture better when it’s dry.

Like any vineyard that is farmed according to sustainable practices, Shinn Estate employs Integrated Pest Management to deal with insect pests (which means using natural predators to help control them).  They also have sought to encourage insectivore bats to live in special habitats built for them in the vineyard—so far, however, the bat houses have no takers.

They planted different clones of each grape variety, with six selections of Merlot, for example, and three each of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.  There are also two selections of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon that account for the white varieties.  Each block of grapes is hand-harvested separately, with the east and west sides of each row of vines being picked separately as well.  In addition, they also lease a small, five-acre plot, Schreiber Vineyards, which is planted with 30-year-old vines of Chardonnay and Riesling, which adds more variety to their portfolio of wines.  It lies just a mile up Oregon Road and is farmed identically to the Shinn vineyards.

Given all of this care and attention in the vineyard, the fact remains that weather will inevitably have an impact, and in a region like Long Island—unlike California—weather variability is a given.  It is, of course, a major reason for vintage differences.  Last year, for example, there were very heavy rains that affected some vineyards much more than others.  Where some vineyards only a few miles away lost up to 30 or 40% of their fruit, Shinn only lost about 10 to 15%.  The reason was their particular mesoclimate—the heavy rains left their crop thoroughly soaked, and the vines looked as though they were on the verge of collapse, but just after the rain was over, a strong, persistent wind came up that dried the vines quickly, so that even the wild yeasts on which they depend in the winery were restored after only a few day.  The berries lost all the water they’d absorbed very quickly too, so the damage was minimal.  (Of course, the weather of another summer could produce the reverse of this outcome; there is never a guarantee.)

By 2012 Shinn Estate was one of the founding Vineyards to join the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers certification program (for more about it see the post, LISW).  That was the easy part, as it were, since they were already following all the practices set forth in the LISW workbook.  The hard part, organic certification, still eluded them in 2017 as downy mildew, in this humid climate, still cannot be tamed by strict adherence to organic grower’s guidelines.

And now they have sold Shinn Estate to a New Jersey financier and his wife, Barbara and Randy Frankel: Shinn Estate Announcement of Sale. Newsday wrote that the sale had “not been part of the plan,” but an unexpected offer changed that. “It came as a surprise to us someone would walk through the door and make us an offer,” he said. He declined to discuss terms of the sale or the new owners.

Randy Frankel is a former managing director at Goldman Sachs, whose various business interests include a minority stake in the Tampa Bay Rays baseball franchise and part-ownership of Windham Mountain Ski Resort in Windham, N.Y., according to an online biography. The Frankels wanted to take a new path in business, and as residents of the Hamptons were well familiar with the wineries of the East End of the Island. They hired Robert Rudko as an advisor. Rudko, who has been in the wine trade for many years, helped find the property, which fit their hopes and expectations exactly.

Rudko is now running the property as both CEO and General Manager; he is working with the new owners, assessing the vineyard, the winery and tasting room, and the B&B. Already, according to him, an expanded tasting room with a real “Wow” design is in the works. The winery is due for some significant equipment upgrades and the B&B is being refurbished. He said that once all the work is completed, it will leave visitors “slack-jawed” by the transformation.

Patrick Certa, who has worked with the Shinns as winemaker for several years now, will continue in that role. The vineyard and the sustainable practices used to work it shall continue as well. However, the new owners are hoping to acquire new vineyard parcels to add to the current acreage in order to expand production.

Barbara and David were apparently mentally ready for this break, as they already had a commitment to running a hydroponic farm that they own in Maine. Nevertheless, they said they will remain connected to the business as consultants for the “foreseeable future.”

The sale represents the closing of a distinguished and dramatic chapter in the story of the wineries of Long Island and the opening of a new one.

Shinn Estate Vineyards and Farmhouse
2000 Oregon Road
Mattituck, NY 11952
631-804-0367

The Shinn Estate Website

Based on interviews with David Page and Barbara Shinn, 18 June 2010, with additions from their Website, and on 23 May 2014. The interview with Robert Rudko was on 24 April 2017.

Wines of Valencia: Bodegas y Viñedos Barón d’Alba

Interview with Mario Malafosse & Sergio Carrido of Bodega y Viñedo Baron d’Alba

The province of Castellón (Castelló in Valencian), is part of the Autonomous Community of Valencia. Castellón was granted VdlT (Vinos de la Tierra) status in 2001 and as an IGP (Indicación Geografica Protegida) in 2004. At present it is awaiting its designation as a DO, which indicates a higher standard than IGP. It consists of three comarcas or districts: Palancia–Alto Mijares, Sant Mateu, and  Les Useres–Vilafamés, the last of which is comprised by the villages of Benlloch, Cabanes, Les Useres, Serra d’Engarceran, Vall d’ Alba, Vilafamés y Vilanova d’ Alcolea. Barón d’Alba and its vineyard, Clos d’Esgarracordes, is located in the Les Useres district.

It is surrounded by mountains to the West, while to the East it borders the Mediterranean Sea. The plateau is marked by altitudes of 200 meters or more. Consequently, summer temperaturas can range up to 35 to 40° Celsius, while in the winter temperatures can drop to as low as -10° C. Typical seasonal rainfall—mostly in the autumn—is about 450 mm. The summer tends to be dry to arid. In other words, it’s a region of extremes, even for Spain.

Today, winemakers of the region have been endeavouring to bring back the halcyon days before 1982, when local producers were forced by law to uproot their hybrid vines, ‘Señorito’ and ‘Macameu.’ This seriously damaged the agrarian sector of villages such as Cabanes, Vilafamés, Vall d´ Alba, Benlloch, and Les Useres.

According to a 2014 article in the English-language online newspaper, Valencia International, “There are various local legends as to why the authorities took this decision; local producers claim that they were told that their grapes were toxic and could cause cancer, although many believe that their prosperous economy was sacrificed in order to favour the emerging La Rioja region.

The article points out that apparently, “the decision in fact was part of a series of sacrifices made by Spanish farmers in order to clear away the impediments to joining the Common Market, or EU as it is now affectionately known, which probably means that it was pressure from the French government that was the main cause, before they learned the complex technology of burning Spanish lorries.”

Red varieties allowed in Castellón include Bobal, Tempranillo, Garnacha Tinta, Garnacha Tintorera, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. White varieties include the native Tardana (Planta Nova) and Macabeo varieties, as well as Merseguera, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Parellada, Verdejo, and Moscatel (Muscat Blanc à pètits grains).

In the 2000 edition of José Peñín’s Atlas de los Vinos de España Castellón wasn’t even mentioned, but the atlas was focused almost entirely on the DOs of Spain. John Radford’s The New Spain, 2nd edition (2004), devotes little more to the region but does touch on the movement towards making quality wines. The Peñín Guide to Spanish Wine 2010 devotes only a few lines to wines of the region, again due to the focus on DO wines. Even online there is comparatively little information.

In October, 2016, we visited two wineries in the región at the invitation of Mario Malafosse, consulting winemaker to Barón d’Alba and Bodega de Moya, and interviewed him at both places, along with the owners.

Bodegas y Viñedos Barón d’Alba is located in L’Alcalaten which is the lowest part of the Les Useres district and lies at an altitude of about 200 meters, where it enjoys a suitable mesoclimate for the production of high quality-wines. The vineyard is planted in rows on trellis with a double Royat cordon. They use a planting density of 2600 vines per hectare and with a per plant production limited to a maximum of 1.5 to 1.75 kg per vine, depending on variety, making a closely monitoring of the growth cycle of the vine in order to obtain a high quality fruit.

The enterprise began with the planting of the varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Gewürztraminer, Garnacha, Macabeo, Merlot, Monastrell, Syrah, Tempranillo, and Monastrell, with the intention that they would focus on obtaining fruit of high quality as opposed to harvesting great quantity. Bearing in mind the exceptional quality that can be obtained from grapes grown in the region of Les Useres, the owners decided to build the winery right in the vineyard, Clos d’Esgarracordes, which offers a beautiful panoramic view of the region. The wines fall under the regulations of the Castellón IGP, even though they could use those of the Utiel-Requena, but choose not to. The IGP status gives them more latitude to make wine as they see fit.

The name of the winery, Baron d’Alba is actually derived from the names of two nearby, neighboring towns in Utiel Requena: La Barona and Vall d’Alba. There is no baron. The property has been in the Carrido family for generations, growing a variety of crops including wine grapes. However, in the 1970s, when Spain joined the EU, the vineyard was pulled out and an olive grove was planted in its place. No wine was produced until 2001, when Sergio, then 20,  and his father chose this particular plot of 15 hectares to plant a new vineyard. It has since grown to 20 hectares (50 acres) and produces about 70,000 bottles or nearly 6,000 cases, more or less, in any given year.

Sergio is driven by his passion for growing and making wine. It is a way of life that he chose and cannot imagine any other. He lives there with his family, who all get involved in some way or other from time to time. Sergio never thinks of going to work exactly because for him it is almost a diversion, almost like play, because he enjoys it so much. But he’s very serious about it as well.

There is, after all, another part to the equation of producing quality wines which goes beyond the choice of a vineyard site and the selection of varieties to plant, which is the growing level of professionalism of the vineyardists, winemakers, management, and so on. These people now often have university degrees in their chosen professions. For example, Mario Malafosse, his consulting winemaker.

Mario had studied oenology in Bordeaux was especially influenced by the great French oenologist, Denis Duboudieu. Mario has been working in Util-Requena since 2006 as a consulting winemaker for several wineries in the region. He also spends the Winter and Spring in the Southern Hemisphere (where it’s Summer and Autumn) working with Michel Rolland in Argentina and New Zealand. Furthermore, he also teaches viticulture and enology for the Master Vintage International credential at the Polytechnic University in Valencia.

Their approach to the terroir is interesting, especially given that they focus not just on the traditional notion of the soil as layers of dirt, or the structure of the layers, or the depth, but also on the microorganisms in the soil. These they see as also significant. In fact, they work to stimulate this soil life because, as this is such an arid zone, it’s necessary to take advantage of any factor that can enhance the growth and survival of the vines.

Furthermore, they do something unusual to protect the topsoil from getting fried by the intense sun of the region: they take the ends of live tree branches with their leaves and chop them up, then distribute the pieces on the ground around the vines, producing a kind of topsoil shade. This, of course, also slows down the evaporation rate of soil moisture. As organic matter, this also supports the surface biota, such as fungi that grow on the wood bits, providing nutrition for yet others, such as the insects that feed on fungi. Decomposition proceeds naturally and the compost becomes part of the soil. This has been done for the last two years and they are cooperating with the university in Valencia to study the process and its results. In fact, the idea for this came from Canada, where it is used in large-scale agriculture—not viticulture. Only the ends of branches are used in the fall season, when nutrients get concentrated in the branch tips and leaves. When used for ground cover, the nutrients then pass into the soil, yet another benefit of using the wood and leaves.

The thing is that when the wood is being decomposed by the fungi, a good deal of nitrogen is used up, with the risk that there may be insufficient nitrogen for the vines. To compensate, they also plant beans to restore the nitrogen balance in the rows.

Other advantages of the use of the tree matter is that it helps control weed growth and also reduces the need to work the vineyard mechanically, such as plowing. Although this treatment is certainly biological, they do not claim to be organic growers. Indeed, there are times, in this extreme climate, when they must resort to chemical means to protect the vines and fruit. Thus, organic certification is out of the question.

They have been experimenting with ground cover crops in a small plot, but the problem with that is that, given the aridity of the zone, cover crops may be in competition with the vines for what little rainfall there is. On the other hand, as can be seen in the photo above, they have to run irrigation lines for those times that the rainfall is too low for the vines’ needs. That was the case in the summer of 2016. The vines need a minimum of 400 litres of water per hectare, and the rain only delivered 100 litres. Irrigation made up for the shortfall. The other issue regarding rain is that very dry ground is not very absorbent so that there is significant run-off on the surface. The wood cover helps reduce the run-off; cover crops could also help with this.

The soil is reddish in color, suggesting the presence of high levels of iron which, fortunately, is balanced by the presence of limestone, which offsets the potentially toxic effects of too much iron by reducing the uptake of the mineral by the vines, but not so much that it would lead to chlorosis, a disease created by lack of iron, which is needed for chlorophyll production. There is a good deal of sand mixed in as well, thanks to the deposits that occurs when the rivers nearby overflow.

It’s in the deeper layers of soil that water actually can reside for a long time, allowing the deeply-rooted vines to have access to the moisture that they need in order to thrive. The deeper soil has a great amount of conglomerated rocks, much of which is composed of bits of limestone in a highly porous matrix that holds water like a sponge.

Viticulture in Utiel Requena used to focus on maximizing yields so that the wine could then be exported in bulk to countries like France. The wine, mostly Bobal, would then be blended with local varietals to make an inexpensive table wine. However, this came to an end in the 1980s, as standards of quality improved through Western Europe and monovarietals became all the rage thanks to the influence of American tastes. By the 1990s the wine industry nearly dried up as a result and it was obvious that a new approach had to be developed to recover in the market.

New varieties were then introduced and planted, including foreigners such as Cabernet Sauvignon. The trend of producing monovarietals and quality blends moved quickly, and Bodegas d’Alba became a part of it, focusing on varieties, some of them French, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah, in addition to the Spanish varieties Garnacha, Macabeo, Monastrell, and Tempranillo.

At harvest all the grapes are picked by hand, but the fruit of each parcel is kept apart from the others until it’s decided to blend them. But first they are taken to an air-conditioned cold storage area in the winery. The winery building is actually an attractive, modern stone structure.

The exterior is a fine stone building that has personality. Its interior walls are decorated by murals depicting the vintage season, the winemaking, and so on. The artist, Pancho Mirán, is Colombian, and his work reminds of that by his great compatriot artist, Fernando Botero.

The attractive interior also has stucco walls throughout. It is equipped with fermentation vats with up to 10,000 litres capacity each, or about 8,200 kilograms of grapes. All the tanks are equipped with modern cooling jackets to control the fermentation temperatures, allowing for the heating or cooling of the warehouse in a much shorter time and to exercise optimum control over the fermentation.

The warehouse holds one 15,000-liter tank and 3 stainless-steel, temperature-controlled storage tanks of 10,000 litres capacity each capable of holding the production of a single parcel. There are as well three 5,000-liter fermenters, four of 3,000 litres capacity, and one oak cask of 6,000 litres. In addition, there are devatting and peak tanks with a capacity of 72,000 litres.

Fermentation takes place at a controlled temperature with long macerations using cutting-edge winemaking technology.  Malolactic fermentation takes place in oak tubs, prior to the wines being transferred and aged in French and American oak barrels. Only 20% of the barrels are American, and they tend to be used for Tempranillo, which has a real affinity for them. Most of the French barrels, by the way, are oak but the ends, both top and bottom, are made of acacia, which adds complexity to the range of flavors and aromas of the wines made in them.

The barrel room had been excavated below ground and it is equipped with an air-conditioning system that not only ventilates the warehouse, but also allows controlling the temperature and moisture at desired levels. The arches that support the barrel room together with careful lighting create a unique atmosphere for the French and American oak barrels used aging the wine for not less than 14 months.

The bottle-aging room is equipped with the same air-conditioning as the barrel room, and has a capacity of 70 crates of bottles. Here the wine completes its aging for a minimum of eight months before being released.

Nearly everything is done by hand. There is a manual sorting table at the entrance to the winery and, apart from the use of forklifts and the use of an autmated bottling line, all else is done without the benefit of mechanical intervention, including lees stirring, racking, and so on. The entire focus is on producing wine of the highest quality possible. That can best be accomplished by careful manual attention. A major factor here is the recognition that for the wines of Castellón to gain the level of reputation that other DOs enjoy, such as Rioja, Rueda, and Ribera del Duero, they must be of outstanding quality. That is the mission of Barón d’Alba.

One way to achieve that is to make wines of great typicity, such that a consumer would know that a Monastrell tastes like itself and not something else. It should also reveal the terroir of the fruit. Indeed, not enough emphasis can be put on the importance of terroir in that regard. They have been identifying the specific microclimates of vines and parcels in order to make the wine in a manner appropriate to the innate terroir expression of the fruit. For example, there is a small parcel that allows Botritis to develop under the right conditions for making a dessert wine. Thus Clos d’Esgarracordes Dolç de Glòria, made from Macabeo grapes and aged in wood for 20 months. This was all made possible because Mario, who studied with Professor Debourdieu, who was also the manager at Château d’Yquem. One could say that Botrytis runs in Mario’s veins when conditions are right.

Both Mario and Sergio are committed to the notion that “wine begins in the vineyard.” They endeavor, together, to grow fruit that is characteristic of each parcel, and each parcel has recognizable features. Sergio is the vineyard manager, but given Mario’s own long experience in both the winery and the field, he depends on him for advise. They even work together in the vineyard at times.

Not every variety is successful in this region of extremes. The Tempranillo of Rioja is challenged here and survives thanks to the high altitude of the vineyards, but Merlot seems to have adapted better to the terroir. In fact, Merlot makes better wine here than does the native Monastrell.

Many of the wines are left on the lees after fermentation for about two months, with frequent lees stirring (battonage). This tends to give the wine more body and enhances the flavors and aromas.

The Clos d’Esgarracordes Blanco 2015 is dominated by a varietal not known for high quality: Macabeo. Nevertheless, Mario was determined to extract as much varietal character as possible from this grape, and blended with a touch of Moscatel and Viognier, yields a very agreeable wine with good mouthfeel and ample body.  This was a result of time on the lees with battonage. Aromas of apricot, peach, and mango can be detected, thanks to the Viognier and Moscatel in the blend. It earned 85 points and four stars in the Guía Peñín 2012. 10,000 bottles were produced.

The Clos d’Esgarracordes Tinto Barrica 2013 is a blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha, Monastrell, and some Merlot, and is aged for 12 months in mostly used French oak barrels. The result is a wine that is dominated by aromas and flavors of fruit, rather than oak, with its typical characteristics of coffee, chocolate, caramel, or cedar. In consequence, it has a certain purity and freshness, which is remarkable for a blend. It won a gold medal from Gilbert & Gaillard, a leading French wine magazine. It costs but €7.50 which is very cheap given the quality, but that’s because the region still hasn’t developed the necessary reputation.

The Clos d’Esgarracordes Tinto Crianza 2011 is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Monastrell, Tempranillo, and Syrah, having spent 17 months in both French and American oak, with a higher proportion of new oak barrels than the Tinto Barrica. It’s a big, powerful wine that needs time to open up once poured. Given its blend, it is also very complex, offering aromas of coffee, chocolate, and tobacco, and is mouthfilling, with a strong mid-palate and flavors of black stone fruit ending with a quite long finish. Very impressive. At five years it still suggests youthfulness and certainly has a potentially long life. It won a silver medal at the Concours Mondial Bruxelle 2011, and in 2012 earned 90 points and five stars in the Guía Peñín 2012.

Another wine that they are very proud of is the monovarietal Clos d’Esgarracordes Colección Pelegrí Cabernet Sauvignon, which is also their most expensive wine. It won a bronze medal at the prestigious Decanter World Wine Awards competition.

In all they make nine wines, with a line of inexpensive ones, a red and a white selling for €5. Most are red and white blends plus a rosé that is itself a blend of three varieties, but the Dolç de Glòria, the Cabernet, and the Gewürz are the only monovarietals.

Many of the labels are decorated with details taken from Pancho Mirán’s murals in the winery.

Obviously, in order to achieve such a reputation, they must produce wines of a very high quality for years, and consistently, so as to attract notice. Publicity is also needed if that is to happen.

To attract visitors to their rather remote site they offer full lunches or dinners at table, give tours, and can even celebrate weddings in their on-site chapel.

The Website is attractively designed and offers a great deal of technical information about their approach to winegrowing and winemakings, as well as detailed descriptions of their wines in Spanish. We can only hope that Barón d’Alba wines will eventually find their way into the American marketplace.

Address: Partida Vilar la Call, 10, 12118, Castellón, Spain

Viniculture in LI, Part III: Jason’s Vineyard

Jason’s Vineyard is in Jamesport on the North Fork of Long Island, encompassing 20 acres that he planted in 1996. But this was not Jason Damianos’s first vineyard. He had already worked at Pindar for much of his adolescence, so he really knew what it was like to work in one.

Jason, an intense and determined man, spent many of his weekends and summers during high school on Long Island working among the vines, cutting, pruning, suckering, and weeding, under the tutelage of the then winemaker Bob Henn. This is where he got his first exposure to the hard work in the fields that is the essential precursor to successful winemaking.

After studying business at the University of Hartford and obtaining two degrees, Jason found himself wearing a suit and being miserable. On visits to Pindar he would chat with Bob Henn, who advised him, “Jason, why don’t you become a winemaker? You don’t have to wear a suit. Do something you really care about.”  The proverbial light bulb brightened and Jason went west and obtained a degree in oenology at California State University in Fresno, where he graduated with honors, followed by several years of training at the University of Bordeaux—a Mecca for wine students; he worked in renowned regions like the Médoc, Premiere Côte de Bordeaux, Loupiac and Cadillac.

Influenced by his experience in Bordeaux, Jason planted his vineyard with very little space between the rows, largely to reduce the number of buds to about 30 instead of 60 on each vine, which should help promote superior fruit. Today the vineyard flourishes with carefully-selected French clones of Chardonnay, Merlot, and both Cabernets. The spacing he chose directly contradicted what the Cornell viticulturists who had come to dispense advice had told the new vineyardists of Long Island, going back to the time of the Hargraves. The Cornell team advocated nine by twelve-foot spacing between the vines. Jason remonstrated with them, saying that the soil here was different—not clay as in Northern New York, but topsoil and sand (not to speak of the difference in climate)—and he refused to take their advice. His experiences in France had convinced him that Long Island needed to look to the maritime province of Bordeaux for inspiration, rather than California, since he is convinced that climatically and topographically there are more similarities between Bordeaux and the Twin Forks than perhaps anywhere else, particularly Northern New York, so Jason planted accordingly;  his vines are spaced one meter by two meters apart.

In the spirit of the Golden Fleece, Jason brought a flock of sheep and alpacas to look after the vineyard in the most sustainable way he knew. They keep the weeds down and mow, with no need for mechanical intervention and, as a bonus, they fertilize the vines. The alpaca helps ward off pests.

Jason produces tightly-structured, full-bodied, and age-worthy wines that can, after reposing in a cellar over a span of time, eventually ripen into deeply-rewarding and long-lasting wines. This poses a dilemma for him since he feels the marketplace wants wines that are more immediately accessible. This dilemma is faced by a number of Long Island wineries. A compromise is not always easily obtained except by offering a wide selection of wines, some of which provide immediate and pleasurable consumption while others are for the more patient drinker who is willing to let the wine evolve in bottle for several years before pulling a cork.

The tasting room as the good ship Argo, which took Jason & his Argonauts to their fate. 

The tasting room is unique, given its abstracted representation of the ship Argo, which was sailed by Jason and his Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece. It adds a certain rather wacky charm to what would otherwise be just another tasting room. Greek mythology, history, and literature all enjoy a large place in the Damianos panoply of Long Island wineries: Pindar, after all, is named after the great ancient Greek poet, and two of Jason’s wines are named Golden Fleece and Hercules.

Jason & one of his sheep

Tragically, Jason, 49, died after a traffic accident on December 30, 2016. His family, which is very close-knit, is determined to keep his vineyard and winery in business for the foreseeable future. After all, they also run Pindar, Duckwalk, and Duckwalk North, so they know what they are doing.  Still, his loss is a significant one for the wine community. He was also director of wine making at Pindar.

Wine offerings may vary from this list. 5 whites: ‘Golden Fleece’ (an assemblage of five white grapes: dominated by stainless-steel-fermented Chardonnay plus Seyval Blanc, Cayuga, Vidal Blanc, Riesling), Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, 2 pinks: ‘Andy’s Candy,’ Rosé; 5 reds: ‘Hercules’ (a sweet red blend of Cabernet & Merlot), Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Meritage, Merlot; 1 fortified: a port-style dessert wine.

1785 Main Rd
Jamesport, NY 11947
T: 631-238-5801
E: jasonsvineyard@gmail.com

Viniculture in LI, Part III–Southold Farm+Cellar

On October 19, 2016, this final e-mail came from Southold Farm + Cellar:
Despite the hardships, the wines, made with indigenous yeasts and minimal amounts of the preservative sulfur dioxide, have been beautiful.”
Eric Asimov – New York Times.

By now most everyone should have had their wine arrive. Thanks to all of you for your support and patience as we made our way through that deluge of orders (during harvest no less!)!

We are going to keep the online store open until October 28th, with the last shipments going out by October 31st. So if you’d like to stock up for the holidays now would be a good time as we don’t imagine we’ll be up and selling again until late Spring 2017. 

So with that and the last of the grapes having been picked, the time has come for Southold Farm + Cellar to say goodbye to its current home, the place where it all started and begin the transition to its new home in Texas. We don’t want to get too maudlin, but we are going to miss this place and the people who have been a part of our little winery’s journey. We are better having had this opportunity here, even if it was only for a short time, and we wouldn’t change any of it, because as the old saying goes: things happen for a reason. So we leave with no regrets and our hearts full of excitement for what is to come.

However, read this late appreciation of Regan’s wines from none other than Jane Anson of Decanter MagazineDecanter, Nov. 18, 2016

Viniculture in the Niagara Escarpment: Arrowhead Spring Vineyards

First, a story.

I first learned of Arrowhead Spring Vineyards a few  years ago when I was shopping for wine at Empire State Cellars, a wine shop in the Tanger Mall in Riverhead, Long Island (since closed).  Asking if I was interested in trying something new and unusual, I of course said yes and was immediately directed to a section of the shelves that displayed a Pinot Noir from the Niagara Escarpment in Northern New York State.  It was only $17 so I thought, “What the hell can I lose by trying this?”, for though I trusted the recommendation I couldn’t help but be skeptical.  After all, I’d never heard of the Niagara Escarpment.  It certainly didn’t sound promising.

Arrowhead Springs wine dinner, 04The Pinot Noir, a 2009, utterly took me by surprise, with its aroma and flavors of red fruit (especially wild cherries), tobacco notes, already integrated tannins, balanced acidity and the promise of depth that should evolve over the next three to four years; a sapid, well-made wine with real typicity, as good a Pinot as any I’d had from a New York winery.  It was also very good value.  As a result, I began following this winery for a couple of years.  Then, this past June my wife and I went to a dinner held at The Riverhead Project, a Long Island restaurant, at which the owners of Arrowhead Spring were being honored with a dinner sponsored by Empire State Cellars.  As it happens, Vals and I were seated with Robin and Duncan Ross, the owners, and regaled with an excellent dinner by Lia Fallon Stanco accompanied by their wines.

I interviewed Robin at her vineyard in the Niagara Escarpment AVA on a warm August day in 2013 after spending a day in Ontario Wine Country on the other side of the Canadian border, which is to say, the Niagara Peninsula VQA, which includes part of the Niagara Escarpment that runs through there (and terminates some 500 miles to the West).  Indeed, the Escarpment is a geological feature so vast and significant that it is worth some background before I proceed with the interview with Robin.

The Niagara Escarpment

Niagara_Escarpment_mapStretching nearly 700 miles in the shape of a sickle that extends from Wisconsin in the West across Ontario to New York State in the East, and encompassing over 480,000 acres, the Niagara Escarpment—in Canada—is a UNESCO-designated World Biosphere site.  Essentially, it is the remnant shore of an ancient sea.  Its name is derived from its most well-known feature, the Niagara Falls.  An escarpment is a type of cuesta—a geological feature defined by an erosion-resistant caprock of dolomitic limestone overlaying fragile shale and other soils that was laid down nearly 450 million years ago.  The result is that differential erosion undercuts the more vulnerable layers under the caprock so that the land slumps more on one side than the other, with steep slopes in some places and more shallow ones elsewhere, depending on the makeup of the layers of the underlying soil.  In the vicinity of the Niagara River the collapse of the undersoil has resulted in the spectacular cliffs over which the Niagara falls.  Because the Escarpment here runs along the south shore of Lake Ontario, there is a pronounced “lake effect” in which the cold air of winter blows off the caprock down to the water and warmer air from the lake rises to the upper layers of the Escarpment, depending on how the winds blow.  The end result is that the Escarpment is warmer, overall, that any other wine-growing region of New York State, except for Long Island.

The North slope of the Escarpment as seen running through the Niagara Peninsula, Ontario

The North slope of the Escarpment as seen running through the Niagara Peninsula, Ontario

The escarpment is home to two AVAs at either end of the feature—Wisconsin Ridge AVA (2013?) that runs along the Western edge of Lake Michigan and the Niagara Escarpment AVA (2005), which comes to an end near Rochester, NY.  In between them are the Ontario VQAs—Niagara Peninsula’s Niagara Escarpment Region (which also includes the Short Hills Bench, Twenty-Mile Bench, and Beamsville Bench VQAs with a total of 22 wineries).  New York’s Escarpment AVA (at 18,000 acres the third-smallest of the State’s nine AVAs) has been home to wineries since the mid-1800s.  Since the 1990s six resident wineries have been establish in the Escarpment, including Arrowhead Spring, which was founded and opened in 2005 by the Rosses, the same year that AVA status was granted to the region.

The 2005 AVA application for the Escarpment stated that it possessed “‘well drained soils, a steady but moderate water supply’ in combination with the mineral content found in the soils, ‘result in superior pigment and flavor compounds in the resultant wine.’”   (see Appellation America, Niagara Escarpment, description)

Duncan, in a 2007 interview, describes the Escarpment in his area thus:

Escarpment cross-section“The Niagara Escarpment is an uplift of bedrock that runs parallel to Lake Ontario in Niagara County. It’s about a 200-foot drop in elevation facing north, with slopes of one half to several miles long. The underlying rock is dolomitic limestone and – in our vineyard – we have springs where the hydrostatic pressure from the escarpment releases water. This results in a great mineral quality being imparted to the fruit, and wine.

“The Niagara Escarpment also offers natural frost protection. Lake Ontario is a large heat sink and this powers wind towards the lake when the lake water is warmer than the air and away from the lake when it is cooler.

“It’s a maritime climate because the lake is so large. Moderate rainfall and more sunshine than any other major U.S. city in the northeast US contribute to the uniqueness of the escarpment for growing wine. We are the second warmest growing region in New York State.”

 The Interview:

Robin and Duncan had been in the software business, but after Duncan was laid off in a work-force “reduction” they decided to look at another lifestyle and, given their love for and fascination with wine, they decided to buy land in an area they knew and loved to grow wine grapes.  At first they bought their fruit from vineyards in Canada and would have from the North Fork of Long Island, as they’d only planted their own vineyard in 2006.  In fact, Robin recounted, she’d bought–and paid for–several tons of grapes in 2005 in advance of the harvest from Mudd Vineyards.  It turned out to be bad vintage due to the weather around harvest time, and they got a check in the mail from Steve Mudd, who explained that the crop was lousy and he couldn’t keep their money in consequence.  “You have to really admire and respect someone like that,” said she.

Indeed, it was the Canadian winegrowers in the Niagara Peninsula, which includes the continuation of the Escarpment, who helped them with variety selection and advise about growing vines in a cool climate (albeit the second-warmest in New York State).  Robin mentioned, in particular, Kevin Watson, of Watson’s Vineyard, in Niagara-on-the Lake, Ontario.

When they began looking for a vineyard site they based their search on soil maps that laid out the soil composition of the area.  Having come from a farming family, she knew what she was looking for and understood how to read the maps.  Duncan and she were looking for land that didn’t have too much clay in the topsoil, and they knew that the dolomitic limestone that underlay the topsoil would be especially good for winegrowing.

Since planting the vineyard in 2006 Robin has developed growing experience and knowledge that grows by the year.  She still asks questions of Kevin Watson occasionally.  Another person from whom she’s drawn inspiration is Barbara Shinn, of Shinn Estate in Long Island, whom she has found unstinting in helping her with advise and insights into issues of organic and Biodynamic viniculture.

Syrah is one of the varieties that have been planted, and Robin remarked that the only problem that she has with it is the uneven berry size, but that has not had any effect on the quality of the wine made from it.  The Syrah is on a Scott Henry trellis, which allows for two lines of fruit, one over the other, but they’ve been having some trouble with it this year, given that the season started very wet.  The thing is, Scott Henry allows for two wires for fruit, one above the other.  The lower line of fruit, however, can be covered over by very heavy foliage, which increases the disease pressure, especially from mildew.  Despite regular leaf pulling, the foliage “grows gangbusters,” as Robin says, due to the varieties high vigor.

When I asked her why they had decided that the particular mesoclimate of the vineyard, as well as soil and aspect (the terroir) was suitable for growing Syrah, she explained that while they are the first on the U.S. side of the region to plant Syrah, on the other side of the border there has been some success with the variety.  One thing that is important to understand about Syrah is that once it reaches ripeness it must be picked or the berries will begin to desiccate.  “If you have the grapes at 23º Brix and you hope to let them ripen to 25º Brix, forget about it, the grapes will start desiccating,” Robin warned.

Given the vigor of the vines on the vineyard, before they can run a tractor through the rows for a Spring spray, for example, they first have to go into the vines and spread apart the tendrils that have intertwined, lest they get caught in the tractor.

Arrowhead Spring, 14For ground cover the Rosses first planted clover for its nitrogen-fixing qualities, along with a broad-leafed orchard grass.  They need to plant cover that would not be torn up by the tractor, given that soil erosion can be a problem in the vineyard, since parts of it are very steep, what with the amount of rain that they get there.  They also planted rye, as it is so fast-growing, and one other fescue.  Robin is especially pleased that so wild plants have germinated in the cover as well, such as dandelions, which have deep-tapping roots that bring nutrients up to the surface.  One of the issues with farming a monocrop is that there isn’t much bio-diversity, which is something that one wouldn’t find in nature, so the diversity of the cover crop is important—for instance, in some of the alleys wild sweet-pea is growing, which attracts beneficial insects such that the pests are not a big problem in the vineyard.

With respect to disease pressure, for example with spores, it seems that the cover holds the spores close to the ground and they do not reach into the fruit zones.  In the space within the vine rows they actually weed with a hoe rather than use herbicides.  Essentially, it is apparent that this is very much an organic approach, though they are not certified nor are they seeking to become so.  Given that on the Canadian side there are two vineyards that are certified Biodynamic (Tawse, in the Niagara Escarpment VQA, and Southbrook, in the Niagara-on-the Lake VQA), they had looked into pursuing certification for either organic or Biodynamic farming, but they couldn’t find useful guidelines for going about it in their area on our side of the border.  Indeed, it was while doing research into the certification guidelines that she learned that copper, sulfur, and lime are all acceptable inputs that she thought, “Oh, good.  I can use Bordeaux mix on my vines.”  Then she realized that the sulfur she was using wasn’t approved for organic use, even though it was produced organically.  She found these kinds of things frustrating to deal with.  So they just go ahead and they follow the standard, but they remain.  For Robin it’s enough to be “clean and green.”

Thus, for instance, they have a windmill generator for electricity and they are trying not to have too much of an adverse impact on nature.  So, the fact of the matter is that they would like to be certified from a commercial point of view.  When people come to taste the wines one question that they often ask is, “Are your wines organic?”

The thing is, when people drive up to the tasting room they pass the vineyard and they can Arrowhead Spring, 03see how the Rosses farm.  It’s pretty obvious.  Also evident are their chickens, which they keep “as a last line of defense” against insect pests.  The chickens are kept in a fenced area because they would otherwise be lost to predation.  In a bug-heavy year they do let them loose in the vineyards where they are especially effective against Japanese beetles.  As Robin explains, “I rise at sunup and go shake the vines, and as the beetles don’t yet fly in the morning they fall on the ground and the chickens would eat them.”  This way they can have a few vines done one day and another few the next day and so on.  To do this, they invested in a mobile chicken house that can be towed behind the tractor—not a unique idea, farms with other crops may use one, but new to NY vineyards, I suspect—so that they can get the chickens to range where they want them to.  The only problem is that though the chickens are very effective at eating bug pests, if the coop is moved too far to the next place they often go to the last location they remember coop had been set, so they need to be directed to where the coop has been moved.  Sometimes at night she can be chasing the chickens around the vines—some of them will roost in the vines— which can take some time, so it can be very frustrating sometimes.

For mammalian pests like rodents and raccoons they have hawks and owls that nest and roost around the vineyard.

The vine rows not only run along the Escarpment North-South, which means that the northern rows  catch the sun at an advantageous angle but also towards the West, as the Escarpment has a shape not unlike an aircraft wing, with a sharp slope forward from the apex, and a shallow slope from there back to the trailing edge.  Here the trailing edge slopes to the West and catches the afternoon sun.  It makes for interesting driving on the tractor.

In describing the dominant aspect of the vineyard, Robin says, “Most of the land tilts—the hills run South to North and the vineyard actually slopes slightly to the West—you can notice this particularly when you’re driving a tractor, because you can be tilted in two directions [driving back and forth], which is interesting—but what it means is that we get a lot of Western sun in the afternoon.”  She goes on to explain, “I guess that it’s because that’s the way that the water drains.  My grandfather had it drilled into my head at a young age—my grandparents were fruit farmers—when he said, ‘You always plant north to south; that’s the way water flows.’ So that was in my head when we put the vineyard in.”

I asked Robin about what they do as the grapes get to veraison, given that birds will then be attracted to the fruit as it begins to develop sugar.  She explained that rather than use bird netting, they go out as the fruit changes color and attach glittery ribbon to the vine posts and pretty soon the entire vineyard looks like it’s festooned with these ribbons, which serve to dissuade the birds for a few weeks.  Later on they set up speakers in the vineyard that are attached to solar cells.  At sunup they turn on, at sundown they turn off, so during the day they play bird distress calls.  So that works pretty well for them, and they also put up balloons that look like owl eyes.  When all else fails, they put out propane cannon that make a loud boom and run on a variegated pattern.  They go off roughly every twenty to thirty minutes and go off from sunup to sundown.  But as Robin says, “That’s a last resort.  Obviously no one likes hearing cannon going off on the hillside, but sometimes it’s necessary, not to lose a crop.”

When I pointed out that in Long Island bird netting is used predominantly, she responded that one of the advantages of their site is that there aren’t a lot of power lines on which birds can roost.  In fact, towards the tree line behind the vineyard there are many birds of prey and the hawks also helping discourage birds from going into the vineyard.  I also mentioned how Carol Sullivan, owner of Gramercy Vineyard, has a dog that takes care of the raccoons that can decimate a vineyard; Robin told me that they once had a dachshund that had the same effect of driving raccoons away.  They now have a border collie, Ian, that does the same thing.  “In fact,” she said, “just the other day I saw him chasing a skunk.  He’s learned his lesson because last year he got sprayed by getting too close, but now he keeps about twenty feet away, but he continues to go after the skunk until it disappears into the tree line. . . .  As far as rats, mice, moles, we have an army of three cats, so from the bodies I find I can tell that they’re quite successful.”  Indeed, Robin hasn’t seen any raccoons in the vineyard since the dachshund first went to work.

The varieties that they grow on their property include Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot , Malbec, and Syrah.  They make a Meritage wine from a blend of their red Bordeaux varieties.  All the varieties’ vines are spaced at 8’×4’6″.  The grapes for the Pinot Noir that I mentioned that I like so much they buy from a vineyard five miles to the West on the Escarpment.

While most of the vines are on Scott-Henry trellis, some, like the Merlot, are clearly not doing well on it, so Robin is converting the Merlot over to VSP, because the variety isn’t not particularly vigorous, and Scott Henry is meant for vigorous growth.  The Cabernet Sauvignon is already on VSP trellises.

Cab Fran grapes at the beginning of veraison.

Cab Franc grapes at the beginning of veraison.

Last year the Cabernet Sauvignon hit 26° Brix and was picked in October, the day that the first frost came to the vineyard.  Typically they harvest the Cab Sauv and Cab Franc around November 4th.  That they can pick so late is due to Lake Ontario, which, given its enormous size, is a heat sink that provides a long autumn for the vineyard, which lies about eight miles away.  The lake is, in fact, a body of water even larger than Long Island Sound, and it also provides an early spring, thus prolonging the growing season.

Robin has one full-time employee, Tim, who helps her with leaf thinning and green harvesting by hand, as well as doing the spraying and driving the tractor, and Ryan, who now works full-time assisting Duncan in the cellar, can also give a hand when needed.  At harvest time, when they need more hands, they can call in professional apple-pickers who come in to help out, as well as customers who like to pitch in.  Harvesting can be a tense time for Robin, but it’s always worked out.  Furthermore, given the range of varieties, they tend not to all ripen at the same time, and with only seven acres of vine, it isn’t as though they have to race to pick all the fruit in a day.  The first thing that comes in is the Chardonnay, then the Merlot, followed by Syrah.  Then comes the Malbec, but there are so few vines that Robin could pick them by herself in less than an hour.  Unfortunately, the Malbec doesn’t do that well, and she’s essentially told it, “If you can’t do better than that, you’re gone!”

The issues with the Malbec have led to discussions about what to do about it.  Part of the problem is that it has been planted on an edge of the vineyard where it catches a lot of wind, which it apparently doesn’t like—it’s too rough.  Even the Cab Franc doesn’t care much for a lot of wind, but it’s terrible for the Malbec.  If Robin were able to do it over again, she’d plant the Malbec in a more sheltered location and move the Syrah to less vigorous soil and replant the less vigorous Cab Sauv to where the Syrah is planted now.  Grafting is an alternative to planting new vines, but she’s leery of grafting because it is prone to go badly if people don’t know what they’re doing—even grafting houses have graft failures.

Up until mid-August the 2013 season has been very difficult, thanks to too much rain along with high humidity and elevated temperatures—conditions that are mildew’s delight.   When I suggested that the spray schedule on the Escarpment must be less than it would be on Long Island, Robin pointed out that they’ve had to spray every week to ten days so far this year.  In fact, Robin keeps meticulous records after each spray, and when she reviewed them she found that it rained every single day after the vines were sprayed—“pretty awful.”

As we were walking the vineyard we came upon a patch of stunted vines where, it turned out, in 2007 a neighbor had been applying herbicide in his field in preparation for planting corn.  Apparently the spray boom hit a rock and lifted, pouring spray into the vineyard, wiping out a number of their vines.  The vines have still not recovered, with many killed and the rest have not recovered, as she’d hoped, even to this day.  When I asked her about whether or not Arrowhead had received compensation, she said that she turned the offer down—she’d rather have good-neighbor compensation:  were she to need help, they’d be more likely to lend a hand.  When they next buy new vines for the vineyard, they’ll replant this patch.

As it happens, after such a bad beginning to the season, the harvest on the Escarpment, including for Arrowhead Spring, was very good indeed.  By October 28 they had harvested seven tons of Cab Franc from a two-acre parcel—that’s 3.5 tons per acre on Scott Henry, which makes possible from 3 to 4.5 tons per acre; a lot of grapes.  In fact, it was good on both sides of the Niagara River.  We can look forward to some excellent wines from that part of New York and Ontario for 2013.

As for the Arrowhead Sprint Vineyard wines, I tried several in the tasting room, and ended up buying a number of them to take home:  Syrah, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Vidal Blanc Icewine, and Chardonnay.  No wonder:  the list of prizes that the wines have won is impressive, and not just from local tasting contests:

  • 2008 Estate Syrah
    87 points from Wine Spectator Magazine. Highest scoring Syrah from New York State in the history of the magazine.
  • 2008 Vidal Blanc Icewine
    89 points from Wine Spectator Magazine.
  • 2007 Vidal Blanc Icewine
    92 points from Wine Spectator Magazine (highest in New York).
  • 2006 Chardonnay
    86 points from Wine Spectator Magazine.
  • 2005 Vidal Blanc Icewine
    90 points from Wine Spectator Magazine.

awardsIn fact, Duncan first won a prize for his 2002 Pinot Noir, made years before he and Robin had purchased the vineyard or built the winery.  An inspired amateur then, who has since become a dedicated professional, along with Robin–his partner in wine–she runs the vineyard with considerable skill and aplomb, learning as she deals with each season, with some help from a dog, an army of cats, an occasional owl or hawk, and a very small but hard-working staff.

  •  2005 Gold – WineMaker International Amateur Wine Competition. American Wine Society Quality Award.

Quite a track record for such a new and very small winery in so seemingly improbable a location as the Niagara Escarpment.  (Psst!  In Ontario they’ve been doing it for years.)

Since the 2013 interview,  a May 2016 article in the May 2016 issue of BizJournal.com reported that Arrowhead Springs is expanding its operations significantly, a clear indication that it has enjoyed significant success:

“BeauVine Vineyards LLC in Lockport is spending $1.3 million to add a 14,000-square-foot grape processing/retail facility, new harvesting equipment and purchase nearby land for more farming.

“Plans call for expanding juice production not only for its own use, but also for other wineries on the Niagara Wine Trail and in other parts of the state.

“’As we plant more vineyards, that will allow us to have more grapes for our winery, but also to have more to sell to expand our presence as a wine-growing region,’” she said. “’Then with the equipment purchase portion, we’re hoping to get harvest equipment and other equipment we can use as a vineyard services company.’”

“In addition to crushing grapes for its own wines, the production equipment will be available by contract for other growers who need their grapes crushed on a custom basis, or those who want to buy bulk juice to finish at their own facility. The vineyard is also buying new harvesting equipment with help from a $370,000 grant from Empire State Development through the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council.

“The project supports growth of the wine sector in Niagara County, where more than 20 wineries make up the Niagara Wine Trail. The ESD grant will pay for harvesting equipment, which will also be available for lease to other vineyards in the region.

“Prior to last year, the company had 8,000 vines planted on seven acres. That’s now up to 20 acres, with more than 20,000 vines planted, including nine varieties of grapes. A land purchase now pending will allow the company to add more acreage nearby and grow even more. Meanwhile, the company broke ground this week on the building that will replace the existing 2,000-square-foot production/retail facility built into the hillside on the property.”

 Further to that, a June 2016 article in the Buffalo News reports that:

 

“Arrowhead Spring Vineyards . . .  has acquired 23 acres of additional land just a half-mile west of its property on the Niagara Escarpment, doubling its size as part of a larger $1.6 million expansion that includes vineyards and a new facility.  . . . It bought the land at 5126 Lower Mountain Road in Cambria from the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Lockport. Cornell had received it from George Kappelt of Flavor Farm, a produce grower for restaurants in the Buffalo area. The purchase price was $80,500.

“Duncan Ross, who co-owns the vineyard with his wife, Robin, said they plan to “prepare the land for planting in 2017, and then begin planting in 2018,” reflecting a typical two-year advance period for vineyards.

“’There is a lot of work to do in clearing some brushy areas and amending the soil with compost,’” he said. “’We will install many miles of drain tile under the surface to drain excess water, which improves quality and longevity for vines on the Niagara Escarpment.’”

“The purchase comes just after Arrowhead finished planting its current 23 acres with a mixture of Chardonnay, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo grapes.

“The winery also hired Molly Crandles as assistant winemaker and Molly Baillargeon as assistant vineyard manager.”

 4746 Town Line Road (route 93), Cambria, NY 14094

Arrowhead Spring Vineyards

 For a 2007 perspective on Arrowhead Spring Vineyards, see Lenn Thompson’s interview with Duncan Ross, Appellation America, Niagara Escarpment

 Arrowhead Spring Vineyards interview with Robin Ross,  14 August 2013, updated 5 November 2013; added material on 10 August, 2016.

Viniculture in LI, Part III: Whisper Vineyard

Whisper Vineyards, 05Whisper Vineyard is well off the beaten track in Long Island, given that it’s located in St. James, which is near Stony Brook, close to the middle of the Island and miles from the North and South Forks that comprise the East End. Owned and operated by Steve & Laura Gallagher and Barbara Perrotta of Borella’s Farms. They believe that by continuing the agricultural use of their land, they can help to retain the farming history of Long Island and preserve their family’s farming roots dating back to 1945.

In 1950, Joseph Borella purchased the properties known today as Borella’s Farmstand. In 1954 he married Theresa Scarcella, founder of Scarcella’s Florist in Cold Spring Harbor. Together they raised their two daughters, Barbara and Laura – instilling in their children a passion for the land and a strong work ethic. Farming was a family way of life.

In 1967, Joseph diversified from potatoes and cabbage to a larger venue of vegetables along with floriculture and horticulture, spearheaded by his wife Theresa.   He farmed every single day until his death in 2008 at the age of 89.

Whisper Vineyards, 02Their son-in-law Stephen Gallagher joined the family business in 1986. Steve developed a great passion for the land and deep appreciation for farming.  Looking to keep their agriculture roots intact and to keep the family farm viable, Steve began extensive research into vineyards, wine and winery production.  Studying geological climate, soil conditions and which clones would be most compatible with the terroir, the family planted their first clones in 2004.

It all began when Steve thought to use a patch of ground that was lying fallow as a vineyard. He spoke to his father-in-law and asked if he could use that land for a few years. Joseph replied, “Fine, go ahead. I can plow it up any time.” What can one say, it was a father-in-law/son-in-law relationship. Thus were vines planted on 14 acres of an 18-acre plot. The vineyard is currently maintained by Michael Kontokosta, who in addition to being an owner and the vineyardist at Kontokosta, is also a vinicultural consultant.

The varieties planted included three Dijon clones of Chardonnay, three clones of Merlot, Napa clones of Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as a small patch of Malbec, some Albariño, Cabernet Franc, and Pinot Gris. The Albariño was planted by accident when it came mixed in with an order of Cab Sauv. They use the small amount of Albariño they have to blend in with the Chardonnay to give it greater depth and definition with a touch of lemon zest. All the wine is made on contract by Eric Fry at Lenz, and the wines are made to reflect the soil and climate of the vineyard’s area of Long Island.  Well, there is one exception: Whisper buys Sauvignon Blanc fruit from Raphael and has the wine made by Anthony Nappa. With respect to the wines made from estate fruit by Eric, there is little question of the winemaker’s hand at work, but it enjoys the character of its distinctive terroir. All the wines sampled were of very high quality, which is to be expected, given the winemakers.

The vines are grown sustainably in what Whisper Vineyards’ owners feel reflects a deep respect for the land. Although not members of the LISW program, they were thinking about sustainability from the very beginning. For example, they purchased a tunnel sprayer to contain the sprays and prevent drift. After all, they have a school nearby and neighbors living in the area. Thus, Whisper Vineyards wines are crafted with grapes that are sustainably-farmed and hand-harvested – just like the vegetables at Borellas Farm have been for over half a century.  In fact, there is no mechanical harvesting at all, and picking and sorting with care by hand are crucial to the quality of the wine that’s made.

According to Steve Gallagher, an important advantage enjoyed by the farm and the vineyard is its isolation from the vineyards on the East End, particularly those of the North Fork. In his view, having so many vineyards cheek by jowl means that disease, spray drift, and so on are too easily shared across properties. To him, this isolation has meant that when problems, such as fungus and mold, are encountered at the vineyards to the east, they have little or no effect on Whisper’s vines.

Another point he made is that having taken six years to research viniculture meant that he was able to select the best clones and rootstocks for his vines—something that earlier vineyards had to learn by trial and error. Before he planted anything he examined the soil in the fallow field and determined that it had an organically-rich topsoil four feet deep with two feet of clay beneath that. Indeed, Steve told of how his father-in-law, an experienced farmer, was looking for property to buy for a farm in 1950, and coming to this property, took a handful of soil in his hand and compressed it, thereupon making an offer to the then owner. That’s how good the soil is.

They opened the Saint James Tasting room/Wine Boutique in November 2013 for tastings, wine sales, wine gift-related items & small events. Open Fridays and weekends, they offer music every weekend. They have a wine club as well, with a nice selection of wines: Sparkling, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Dry Rosé, Sauvignon Blanc, Off-Dry Riesling, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. They also offer reserve wines: 2007 Chardonnay, 2007 Merlot, and a 2007 Red Cape Blend.

Whisper Vineyards, 01Whisper has a big secret as well: plans to build an impressive new tasting room, as seen in the elevation plan at left. Perhaps a winery could be installed as well, but all of this is well down the road, as at present the only impediment is money. After all, they do not have the deep pockets of a Wölffer, Raphael, or Kontokosta, but they have the passion.

based on an interview with Steve Gallagher, March 30, 2015

 

Viniculture in LI, Part III: Castello di Borghese

Castello Borghese started as Hargrave Vineyard in 1973, the very first vineyard and winery in Eastern Long Island. By 1999 the Hargraves, Louisa and Alex had established not only that vinifera grapevines could be grown in Long Island, they had also proven that fine wine could be made from the fruit of those vines. It was a remarkable achievement and it gave rise to an industry that as of this writing includes over 60 vineyards, 24 wineries, one crush facility, and 53 tasting rooms serving a total of over 70 brands of wine. But time and the stress of raising a family and running a winery and vineyard had taken its toll on the Hargraves and in 1999 the property was put up for sale.  (A few years later Louisa would write a book, The Vineyard: The Pleasures and Perils of Creating an American Family Winery, based on the experience.)

The winery and its land in Cutchogue were put up for sale. That was when Marco Borghese and his wife Ann Marie were visiting friends in the Hamptons who suggested that they pay a visit to the North Fork and taste some wines. (At the time they were living in New York City and had a wine shop which carried fine wine from around the world. It was there, as Marco said, “that the palate was born” for fine wines.)  They twice visited Hargrave Vineyard, tasted the wines, were impressed by everything there.  Jane Starwood, in her book, Long Island Wine Country, provides this anecdote about the purchase of the winery:

“[Marco] was impressed by the quality of the wine and the beauty of the North Fork, so when he heard that Hargrave Vineyard was up for sale, being between business opportunities, Marco was intrigued.  One thing led to another and, as Ann Marie likes to tell it, ‘He said he’d bought it.  I thought he meant the bottle; he meant the vineyard!’
“Marco laughs when his wife offers her abbreviated version.  ‘Believe it or not,’ he asserts, ‘I did discuss it with my darling wife.'”

Borghese Vineyard, 01For a while after the purchase the property was designated the Hargrave/Borghese Vineyard and Louisa Hargrave was a consultant, but once they parted ways the name was changed to what it is today, with the designation, “The Founding Vineyard.” It is readily identifiable from County Road 48 (aka the North Road) not only by the sign but also the old truck with weathered barrels displaying the name of one of the varieties that is grown in the vineyard.

Marco Borghese, of the great noble family that began its prominence in Siena in the 14th Century, and included a 17th-Century Pope, Paul V, and a Cardinal, Scipione Borghese, who established the great art collection with works by Bernini, Caravaggio, Raphael, and others now held in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, was himself entitled to refer to himself as Prince, but sensibly did not, though royalty-besotted Americans insisted on the title for both him and his American wife, Ann Marie. Marco was in fact an unpretentious man of aristocratic mien, according to all accounts, and worked as a businessman living in Philadelphia, he in the leather business and Ann Marie in jewelry. They were also raising two young children, Giovanni and Allegra. Marco had a son, Fernando, by an earlier marriage, who lives and works in Philadelphia.

Marco soon found himself working in the vineyard and in the cellar, and Ann Marie was an events manager at their new property who also hosted weekend vineyard walks.  Again, Anne Marie’s wit led to this remark, “Marco thought he was going to be a gentleman farmer.  Instead he became a gentleman farming.”   Like many other small wineries, they held parties, events, and weddings. They were determined to create a unique place on the North Fork: Old World charm and New World accomplishment.

I contacted Marco months in advance of an appointment to interview him and he was warm and full of good cheer when I spoke to him. When I next spoke to him in June 2014 his demeanor over the phone was very different: somber and distracted. I arrived for the appointment on June 18 only to learn that he had left abruptly on a “family matter.” Two days later Ann Marie, who had been fighting cancer for months, died at a hospital in New Mexico where she was being treated. She was only 56. A week later Marco was killed in an automobile accident in Long Island. He was 71.   The entire wine community in Long Island was devastated by the double tragedy, not to speak of the family, and the question of the continuation or even the survival of Castello Borghese hung over the region for a while.

Borghese Offspring Web fotoBut there are the children: Fernando, Marco’s son by a previous marriage, and Giovanni and Allegra. Each of them had careers or planned on careers that had nothing to do with the winery.  Each of them had careers or planned on careers that had nothing to do with the winery.   All three decided that Castello Borghese had to survive and prosper, at the very least to honor their parents, but also because they felt a responsibility to the community and the people who had loyally worked at the winery for years. This was especially true for Allegra and Giovanni, who chose to set their careers aside in order to honor their parents by keeping the winery in business.

When I first went to Castello Borghese to interview the two offspring of Marco and Ann Marie, both Giovanni and Allegra greeted me very courteously.  It was November 2014 and barely five months had passed since the death of both their parents. Neither had expected nor planned to be running their parents’ winery and vineyard and they were proceeding very cautiously to take over the running of the enterprise. They had the support of their older brother, Fernando, but he was already committed to his own career and could not attend to the day-to-day operations of the winery.

At least Giovanni and Allegra had had the good fortune to grow up in Cutchogue, as they were 14 and 12 respectively when their family moved there from Philadelphia after purchasing the winery. Both had gone to high school there as well. The two now lived in the house that had been their parents’. Fortunately they had the support of the community, which is pretty tightly knit. They also have the commitment and dedication to carry on from the employees, especially Bernard Ramis, the vineyard manager, Erik Bilka, the winemaker who is on contract though he also has a full-time position at Premium Wine Group, and the tasting-room manager, Evie Kahn.

As Giovanni explained, “I feel like we owe it to our parents to really give it a shot. Could we sell? Sure, maybe, like if the time and the number is right, like we’re not destined to be vineyard owners and aren’t really attached to running this kind of business and lifestyle. But I think that in the year here that there is so much still, [of] their energy, it feels like part of the process to really just be here and see this little baby of theirs survive and do okay. Just because it’s not necessarily what our plan was doesn’t mean we’re going to jump ship and say, peace. I didn’t have plans for that.”

Then there was this exchange:

Giovanni: “There are employees here who . . .”

Allegra: “Are like our family.”

Giovanni: “Depend on this job . . .”

Allegra: “And love it here. So I think we owe them leadership.”

Clearly, they speak with one voice.

Allegra went on to explain: “It was in our background. It’s kind of like when you’re a kid and you don’t know how to talk yet and you’re hearing language and then you’re going to need to learn to use it to talk. It’s like that. All the nuts and bolts were there but actually putting it into the practical application of it is new. And you make mistakes or it’s not perfect right at the initial stage. But I feel like we are slowly learning to speak this language and do this role in a more sustainable and professional and natural way.”

In fact, employees have volunteered that they’ve found Marco and Anne Marie’s offspring to be just as thoughtful, kind, and considerate as were the parents. They have a strong commitment to Castello Borghese and the loyalty is clearly strong in both directions.

On a second visit to Castello Borghese some months later both Allegra and Giovanni had clearly gotten past the wariness and somewhat tentative attitude about keeping and running the winery. For one thing, they had taken it off the market and it is no longer for sale. They are definitely in it for the long haul.

In fact, though they want to follow in their parents’ way and they listen to the advice of the long-time winery team, they are also open to innovation. Consequently, they are offering local beer by Greenport Harbor in the tasting room because they recognize that some visitors come along with their wine-loving friends but don’t necessarily like wine themselves. Indeed, were there no local beer they probably wouldn’t offer it, because they really are most interested in supporting local businesses.

Borghese Vineyard, 05On the other hand, Allegra, who recently earned her graduate degree in counseling and art therapy from Southwestern College in Santa Fe, is continuing a project that was very dear to Ann Marie: art exhibitions at the winery, but with an important difference. In March 2015 there was a display of paintings by persons with Down’s Syndrome. The competence and beauty of the works was impressive indeed. Here is a happy marriage of Allegra’s special interest in art therapy with her involvement in the winery.

For example, the works illustrated at right were all painted by Lupita Cano: (top) “Me Being Happy” 2007; (middle) “Los Magos” 2010; (bottom) “Upbeat Series #1” 2007. Various works by other artists were included in the exhibition as well.

Allegra herself seems to be on her way to becoming a label designer for Borghese’s wines. The love of art runs deep in the family.

In speaking to Bernard Ramis, the vineyard manager, it was immediately apparent that this was a man with deep roots in the French countryside who spoke with real passion of working the land and growing vines. Actually, his parents were from Spain though he was born in southern France in 1962 after they settled there. He likes to point out that he was born in the kitchen so he likes to cook. He began working in vineyards after he quit school when he was 14. By the time he was in his late 20s he had become a vineyard manager, unusual in France where one usually reaches that position at a much later age.  Then he met an American woman who’d come to study winemaking and eventually they married. He came to this country in 1995 to join his wife, who’d returned to get a job in New York. He worked at a couple of prominent vineyards in Long Island before he joined Borghese Vineyards in 2004, and now has nearly 40 years of experience.

When Bernard arrived there had been no full-time vineyard manager and Mark Terry, then the winemaker, was doing double-duty in running the vineyard as well. Terry quit after about a year and an interim winemaker was hired who didn’t work out. So Marco and Bernard discussed his becoming the winemaker as well. Bernard had already worked in wine cellars and knew something about making wine, but he suggested that Borghese take on a consultant winemaker to work with them part-time, and as of 2010 that person has been Erik Bilka, a full-time production winemaker at Premium Wine Group. Bernard likes working with Erik because he finds him open-minded and ready to try new ideas. It is also, thanks to Erik’s gifts as a winemaker, that with Marco and Bernard they have the quality Borghese wines of today. Indeed, their 2013 Estate Chardonnay won a blue ribbon at the 2015 Eastern International Wine Competition.

With respect to the winemaking, Marco and Ann Marie both knew that they wanted their wine to be of a very high order of quality. Marco was very involved in the process but left the technique and skill to his oenologists, beginning with Mark Terry and then with Erik. Working with him, Marco sought to have quality over quantity, meaning low yields in the vineyards and prices fitting to the quality of the wines. As Allegra said of her father, “He had a lot of integrity.”

Indeed, Marco had deep discussions with both Erik and Bernard Ramis, his vineyard manager, to be sure that they had a clear idea of what he expected. Today, it’s Allegra and Giovanni who are having those conversations, and they deeply rely on the knowledge and experience of both men, particularly given that they well understood the standards that had been inculcated by Marco over the years. Though they’re trying to retain that approach they both know, in Allegra’s words, “that everything is an evolution when things change hands.”

For Bernard it is important that Erik trusts him to make decisions in the vineyard such as when the fruit is ready to be picked. They work well together which is important as the relationship between the vineyard manager and the winemaker is vital to the quality of the wines and the success of the winery. Bernard regards the two of them as accomplices together. For Erik the relationship is interesting in part because it involves a role reversal for him. As a production winemaker at Premium, his clients explain what they want their wines to be, usually with very precise directions about how they want them made. As a consulting winemaker, it is he who provides the instructions for how the wines at Borghese are to be made, and it is Bernard who then carries them out. All this is done with the active involvement of Giovanni and Allegra.

Borghese Vineyard, 06In the vineyard, Bernard is working with the very oldest grapevines on the Island, three acres of Sauvignon Blanc planted in 1973 and still thriving. Indeed, wine made from these vines is labelled “Founder’s Field.” 42-year-old vines tend to be shy bearers but the fruit is richer in flavor as a result. They have lived this long thanks to the quality of the soil, which despite a tendency to acidity is very amenable to the plant, and the care taken of the vineyard. As long as old vines bear enough they should, generally speaking, be kept and not pulled.

On the other hand, there is no Cabernet Sauvignon, for although the Hargraves planted it along with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the Cabernet vines died, though at the time of our interview Bernard was not sure of the cause. He had heard a story that a soil virus had attacked the vines and killed them. Bernard didn’t give much credence to that theory.

Louisa Hargrave provided this explanation in an e-mail:

“We did plant Cabernet Sauvignon the first year we came to the North Fork, in 1973:”

“The plant material we had access to was originally from Paul Masson vineyard in California but grafted at Bully Hill Vineyard in the Finger Lakes using the French-American hybrid Baco Noir as a rootstock. These plants thrived but were so vigorous that it was difficult to ripen the crop with such a massive forest of leaves. At some point, I think in the early 90s, we decided to pull out our original plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir because they were so vigorous and also because by then we were leasing Manor Hill Vineyard and so had another source of these varieties. We did not pull out the Sauvignon Blanc because it was planted on its own roots and therefore not vigorous.

“There was no soil virus. I think that idea may have come from the fact that the certified virus-free plants we bought from California in 1974 did have viruses, and were also pulled out eventually. I wrote about that particular debacle in my book [The Vineyard].”

Such were the travails of the pioneers of the Long Island wine industry.

Nevertheless, apart from the original plantings of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, and new plantings of Riesling, all the rest of the vines were pulled by Marco in 2000. Pinot Noir was then replanted that year as well as Cabernet Franc. Bernard would like to try Chenin Blanc in the vineyard as he thinks it would do well. For now, however, it is a proposal and not yet a plan.

When Bernard arrived there had been no full-time vineyard manager and Mark Terry, then the winemaker, was doing double-duty in running the vineyard as well. Terry quit after about a year and an interim winemaker was hired but he didn’t work out. So Marco and Bernard discussed his becoming the winemaker as well. Bernard had already worked in wine cellars and knew something about making wine, but he suggested that Borghese take on a consultant winemaker to work with them part-time, and as of 2010 that person has been Erik Bilka, a full-time production winemaker at Premium Wine Group. Bernard likes working with Erik because he finds him open-minded and ready to try new ideas. It is also, thanks to Erik’s gifts as a winemaker, that with Marco and Bernard they have the quality Borghese wines of today. Indeed, their 2013 Estate Chardonnay won a blue ribbon at the 2015 Eastern International Wine Competition.

With respect to the winemaking, Marco and Ann Marie both knew that they wanted their wine to be of a very high order of quality. Marco was very involved in the process but left the technique and skill to his oenologists, beginning with Mark Terry and then with Erik. Working with him, Marco sought to have quality over quantity, meaning low yields in the vineyards and prices fitting to the quality of the wines. As Allegra said of her father, “He had a lot of integrity.”

Indeed, Marco had deep discussions with both Erik and Bernard to be sure that they had a clear idea of what he expected. Today, it’s Allegra and Giovanni who are having those conversations, and they deeply rely on the knowledge and experience of both men, particularly given that they well understood the standards that had been inculcated by Marco over the years. Though they’re trying to retain that approach they both know, in Allegra’s words, “that everything is an evolution when things change hands.”

For Bernard it is important that Erik trusts him to make decisions in the vineyard such as when the fruit is ready to be picked. They work well together which is important as the relationship between the vineyard manager and the winemaker is vital to the quality of the wines and the success of the winery. Bernard regards the two of them as accomplices together. For Erik the relationship is interesting in part because it involves a role reversal for him. As a production winemaker at Premium, his clients explain what they want their wines to be, usually with very precise directions about how they want them made. As a consulting winemaker, it is he who provides the instructions for how the wines at Borghese are to be made, and it is Bernard who then carries them out. All this is done with the active involvement of Giovanni and Allegra.

From Giovanni’s point of view, while he and Allegra participate in the tasting of the batches of wine and the blends made from them, he feels that he still has much to learn but he trusts both men’s judgment and defers to them on many decisions. Largely, though, he feels that what they do decide to do is based on sound judgment and is happy to go along. After all, the most important thing is that the wines turn out well.

The basic line is the Estate wines, which include Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Reserve wines are Founder’s Field Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir. Reserve wines are made only from grapes of the highest quality, but that doesn’t happen every year. Borghese also has a Select category for wines that don’t quite make it to the Reserve level. The line of inexpensive wines is of exceptionally good value, including a red Petite Château and a white Chardonette, at $14 and $12 respectively. They also offer two Rosés:  an off-dry one called Fleurette and a dry version, Rosé of Merlot.

Castello di Borghese’s signature wines are the Barrel Fermented Pinot Noir and the Founder’s Field Sauvignon Blanc, and they have a string of award winners including Cabernet Franc, Meritage, Riesling, the Chardonnay mentioned above, and Bianco di Pinot Noir.

That Chardonnay earned its blue ribbon for its excellent balance of acidity, alcohol, and flavor. Cold-fermented in stainless-steel tanks, it underwent no malolactic fermentation so it has a purity of fruit that makes it stand out in the crowd. A delicious, refreshing wine with medium body and an agreeable mouthfeel that cries out for partnership with seafood. All this for only $18. The Founder’s Field Sauvignon is another wine that cries out for seafood; say, Peconic Bay scallops. It is grassy but lacks that intense aroma of some New Zealand versions that has been compared to “cat’s pee.” On the palate grapefruit flavors are prominent, and a bracing acidity and good balance make it a very good wine for summer drinking, even as an aperitif on its own. The tasting room staff compared it to a Sancerre, which is an apt comparison.

High-quality Italian olive oil from the family estate in Calabria can also be purchased in the tasting room.

Giovanni and Allegra have developed a natural division of labor at the winery, each doing what is most comfortable for one or the other. So Allegra has committed herself, for example, to working in the back office, designing the labels for the new wines, and so on, while Giovanni likes working up front helping to sell the wine, interacting with customers, dealing with the farm markets and things of that nature. Aware that each may have individual conversations with other persons, they make a point of bringing one another up to date so that neither is left unaware of what has been going on with the other. Together they share in all the major decisions about the direction the winery is taking.

New Moon wine labelChanges are already apparent on the Website, which has improved and offers more coverage of the winery’s events and offerings. The wines on offer are, happily, in the same style and of the same quality as before, given, of course, vintage variations. Some labels are new and some remain the same. The newest wine in the portfolio is an interesting white blend, New Moon, which is dominated by white Pinot Noir, in addition to 30% Riesling, and 20% Chardonnay. It is a distinctive blend with an unusual finish, for a white wine, of tart cherry. That, of course, comes from the Pinot Noir, which typically has a cherry nose and flavor when it is made as a red wine. The cherry, in other words, comes from the fruit and not the skins which impart red color to the red version and are not used in the making of the white: a distinctive wine with a distinctive label designed by Allegra.

So, the latest accolade for the Borghese Winery:  2015 Platinum Winner for Best Winery on Long Island from Dan’s Papers Best of the Best awards, which are based on readers’ votes.

As the saying goes, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Borghese Family for Website

 Castello di Borghese Vineyard
17150 County Route 48 (Sound Avenue & Alvah’s Lane)
(Mailing: P.O. Box 957)
Cutchogue, New York 11935
Phone: (631) 734-5111
Toll Free: (800) 734-5158
Fax: (631) 734-5485

Castello di Borghese Website

Owners: Allegra, Fernando, & Giovanni Borghese

Consulting Winemaker: Erik Bilka
Production Winemaker: Bernard Ramis
Vineyard Manager: Bernard Ramis

Tasting Room Hours
Daily from 11am – 5:30pm

Viniculture in LI, Part III: McCall Vineyards

content-logo“I’m only concerned about two things here: land preservation and the quality of the wine.  I want people to come here in 1000 years and see the same thing.”  – Russ McCall

With Long Island’s largest vineyard of Pinot Noir, and an equally-sized vineyard of Merlot, McCall focuses on crafting low-yield, quality-driven wines.  The original vineyard (planted in 1996) and surrounding farm are in the town of Cutchogue, which the McCall family has called home for generations.  The home of McCall Wines is an old potato barn previously used as a horse stable.  The rustic tasting room is there,  with its collection of old tools decorating the barn walls and the concrete buttresses reinforcing the walls a constant reminder of the North Fork’s agricultural past.   There it sits on the property, surrounded by an expanse of lawn and a charming, pastoral feel to it, with Charolais cattle grazing in the adjacent pasture.

Until roughly three hundred years ago, Downs Woods and the adjacent McCall vineyards were the cultural center of an Algonquin Indian tribe. Known as Fort Corchaug, these natives long ago selected this unique maritime area along the estuary as their home. About two hundred years later, in 1902, Russell Simeon Walker, president of the Dime Savings Bank in Brooklyn, rode his horse and buggy out to the North Fork to find a summer home. From the Walkers to the Munkenbecks down to the McCalls, the property has remained in the family for generations.

For years Russell McCall worked as a distributor for high-end wines in Atlanta, Georgia, but an offer too good to turn down led him to sell the business and return to Long Island. Hence his interest in fine wine found a home for making his own. And he knows what he wants.

At the farm, a commitment to the preservation of local wild and agricultural land and to the environment is an important part of McCall’s mission. In 1996 Russell McCall allied himself with the Peconic Land Trust to save Down’s Woods, Fort Corchaug, and the farmland adjacent to his family’s property (over 200 acres in total) from the threat of a proposed development of condominiums, after which he replanted the corn and potato fields with 21 acres of vineyards. By selling the development rights, he has guaranteed that it will remain in a wild, natural state or be devoted to agriculture in perpetuity. (The Trust is funded by a 2% land transfer tax whenever land is sold. The tax goes to the township and accumulates 100s of $1,000s, which then allocates the money to the Trust and decide which property to purchase the rights from.)

The tasting room is in an old barn, of which Martha Steward said, “In the charmingly rustic tasting room, I got to sample some of the wines and I was so impressed that I bought a mixed case, which I enjoyed immensely.”

The addition of a wind turbine in 2010—the first for a farm in Long Island—has provided the clean wind energy; enough that it also supplies clean power to the Long Island Power Association.

In the same year, McCall began ranching organically grass-fed Charolais cattle, which graze in the fields by his vineyards. There are 50 head of cattle, of which 10 to 15 are sent to an abattoir each year and the meat is then sold to high-end restaurants as well as at the farm store. The animal feed on grasses that have not been chemically treated for 15 years, so effectively organic.

With the use of innovative techniques such as recapturing spray, they manage to limit the use of pesticides and herbicides and ensure that they don’t dissipate from the vineyard or affect either the neighboring preserve or the Charolais cattle, not to speak of the native wildlife, so that on any given day one may see foxes, pheasant, deer, hawks, turtles, wildflowers and more.

Committed to quality and sustainability, McCall released his first wines in 2007. Since then, they have found critical acclaim.  They can be found on the wine lists of a handful of upscale restaurants in New York City and on the East End.

Corchaug Estate Vineyard

The original vineyard that Russell McCall planted in 1997 is referred to as Corchaug Estate. This vineyard was established on land rescued from development that borders the historic Fort Corchaug site and Down’s Woods preserve. The estate also includes our tasting room, an existing barn reclaimed as a place for visitors.

The southern end of the vineyard is planted with 11 acres of Pinot Noir, comprised by four clones selected from the best French clonal varieties grown in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, comprised by four clones: Pommard 4, and Dijon 667, 777, and 115. This is to date the largest successful Pinot Noir vineyard on Long Island.

Based on the French tradition, the vines are spaced closer than most in the region. On the north end of the farm the soil is rich with clay much like the best vineyards of Bordeaux, especially Pomerol, where there are ten acres planted with three clones of Merlot.

Gristina Vineyard

Just north of Corchaug Estate, across Route 25, lies a 16-acre vineyard planted by Dr. Peter Gristina in 1983. The neglected old vine Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay plantings were taken over by the McCalls in 2010, who first leased it for three years to assure the quality of the fruit, as the vines were not all in good shape. While rejuvenating them they found that the vines produce excellent fruit, and expanded the vineyard by adding a block of Sauvignon Blanc once the property was purchased in 2013. The land is unique in its hilly relief and the inclusion of a large kettle hole nestled in a parcel of protected forest. The glacial terrain, mostly sandy loam, has a positive effect not just on the drainage of the vines, but also the characteristics of the fruit.

Hence, the two vineyards reflect French influence from two of its greatest regions, Burgundy and Bordeaux. Russell’s approach to making quality wine is focused on the vineyards, because as far as he’s concerned, the fruit determines what the wine will be come. In other words, there is no “winemaking agenda, just a farming agenda.”

McCall is quite candid in saying that He doesn’t always produce Pinot Noir successfully. A major reason for that is the unpredictable weather from year to year, a problem that is common for a maritime, cold-climate region. It is a difficult grape to cultivate because it is so sensitive the vagaries of clime and weather so that both yields and quality can be highly variable. These are reasons that it’s called the “heartbreak grape,” but what makes it worthwhile is how splendid a wine it can make in a good year. The McCall Pinots have received high praise from the NY Times, Wine Advocate, and Wine Enthusiast.

He predicts that the 2014 vintage has potential for greatness. The weather was sunny and there was nearly no rainfall for July, August, and September, creating dust-bowl conditions, bad for grass but terrific for grapes like Pinot Noir. By September the fruit was fully ripe and was all harvested; indeed, the Pinot is always picked between the 10th and 20th of September from the time that the vineyard was planted in ’97 with over 22,000 vines.

For example, in a humid climate such as Long Island’s, it’s necessary to start leaf-pulling early to expose the fruit to the sun and air so as to keep disease at bay. If needed McCall will have as many as 20 workers out in the vineyards pulling leaves. Indeed, at harvest all the grapes are picked by hand, for he doesn’t believe that mechanical harvesting has been perfectly sufficiently to be used for harvesting high-quality fruit. Furthermore, very much in the French tradition the vines were planted just three feet apart, which makes it even more difficult for machines to work in the fields. In other words, the vine density is about 2050 plants an acre given a 3×7 spacing. An important advantage of such close spacing is that it forces the vines to compete for water and rather than spread roots more or less horizontally they are forced to dig down into the soil—one of Helen Turley’s many axioms about winegrowing (in Russell’s eyes she is a genius). The result is that about two tons of grapes are taken from each acre, resulting in a total production of just under 5000 cases a year, depending on the vintage.

As for the future, Russell has three children, of whom but one may be interested in taking over, but it’s not yet his time.

In 2013 McCall was rated “Best Winery in New York” by the NYWGF.  And in 2015 three of its wines were rate 90 or more in The Wine Advocate.

McCall’s makes two whites, a Chardonnay and a Sauvignon Blanc, that are quite good, especially as food accompaniment, but the winery’s real claim to fame is its reds, particularly the Pinots.

The 2010 Ben’s Bordeaux Blend is a wine that is only possible to craft in a great vintage like 2010.  It’s produced from the best estate Merlot, plus three other varieties: Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc in roughly equal proportions. The blend of these Bordeaux grapes, often known as a meritage, is named for McCall’s late vineyard manager Ben Sisson.  Drinking well now, it will continue to age well as a collector’s wine.  The 2010 Merlot was highly praised by Wine Advocate (90 points) as an excellent food wine, given its somewhat understate though beautifully balanced style.

All the wines except for the Pinots are made by Gilles Martin, a highly-regarded consultant winemaker, at PWG.

McCall PN Reserve 2010The 2010 Reserve Pinot Noir is made from 100% estate-grown and hand-selected fruit from the very best grapes in the Corchaugh vineyard, the 2010 reserve shows intense fruit and subtle earthy and mineral notes with a hint of the sweetness of French oak. Extremely low yield, due to green harvesting, the 11-acre vineyard has intensified the deep essence of the variety. A wine like this is only possible once in a five to eight-year weather cycle. It is best to decant and drink now or to save it until 2017 or after. It was named “Best Pinot Noir in NY” at the 2013 NY Wine & Food Classic. The New York Times’ Howard Goldberg had this to say: “The star was the sophisticated 2010 Corchaug Estate reserve from McCall Wines in Cutchogue, which specializes in the grape; its combined breadth, depth and length was world-class (as its price might suggest). McCall’s regular 2010 Corchaug Estate ($39), almost as serious, was round and plummy.” Both are made at Millbrook Winery in the Hudson Valley for McCall by John Graziano (winemaker) and Bob Cabral (consultant).

Louisa Hargrave, doyenne of the Long Island wine industry, said of Russ, “Honesty is a mantra for McCall. ”   But let Russ have the last work about himself:  “You can sum me up simply.  I’m not going to put our label on it unless it’s above average.”

However, none other than Jane Anson of Decanter Magazine had this appreciation of McCall’s wines: Decanter, Nov. 18, 2016

22600 Main Road, Cutchogue   (631) 734-5764

Hours: Th-Mon 12-6

McCall Wines

Viniculture in LI, Part III: Wölffer Estate (revised & updated)

Wölffer Estate entranceChristian Wölffer, a real estate entrepreneur, bought the 14 acres of potato fields known as Sagpond Farms in 1978. Enchanted by the idea of a vineyard of his own after tasting a Chardonnay planted by a Sagaponack neighbor, in 1988 he asked David Mudd to plant fifteen acres of vines. It has since grown to 55 acres, with ten parcels of vines with sub-parcels.  The vine rows were planted running North to South and East to West, depending on the best orientation to the sun based on the terrain. By 1996 he had assembled 168 acres, which he devoted mostly to grazing land for his horses. His first release, a Chardonnay, was in 1991.

Roman Roth and Richard Pisacano are the team that together produces some of the finest wine made in Long Island.  Roman, of course, is the winemaker (and now partner) at Wölffer, and Richie—as he’s known to his friends and colleagues—is the winegrower.  One is, as it were, the right hand and the other the left.  So close are they that Richie’s own wine brand, Roanoke Vineyards, is made by Roman.  Roman himself has his own label, Grapes of Roth, which, since he became partner this year, will be sold in Wölffer’s tasting room.

Roman has been with Wölffer Estate as winemaker since 1992, Richie came to the Estate in 1997.  Both of them had years of experience in the wine trade before coming to Wölffer’s.

Roman & full-time vineyard crew at lunch

Roman & full-time vineyard crew at lunch

Roman comes from southern Germany and learned about vineyards, varieties, and vinification there, as his was a winemaking family. He travelled and worked at wineries in California and Australia before returning home. In 1992 Roman received his Master Winemaker and Cellar Master degrees from the College for Oenology and Viticulture in Weinsberg.  Soon after, he accepted the position of winemaker at Sagpond Vineyards, a new winery in the Hamptons. This was a winemaker’s dream—to be part of a new and growing wine region with the chance to create something new, to leave a footprint at the foundational level.

Over the next several years, Roth managed the expansion of Sagpond Vineyards into “Wölffer     Estate,” now a 55-acre vineyard with a state-of-the-art winery producing a wide range of award-winning wines, all nestled in a 175-acre property with horses, paddocks, stables, and riding trails. Under Roth’s meticulous direction, Wölffer has become a Hampton’s destination, producing wines of excellent caliber and reputation.

In April 2003, Roman received the award of “Winemaker of the Year” presented by the East End Food & Wine Awards (judged by the American Sommelier Society). This reflected the excellence of the wines he produced as winemaker and as a consultant, and was recognition of his contribution to quality winemaking on Long Island as a whole. After Christian Wölffer’s untimely death in a swimming accident, the Estate was in the hands of his children, Joey and Marc. At that time Roman was made a partner in the firm and basically runs it.  In December 2015 he was elected as President of the Long Island Wine Council to serve for two years.

Wolffer Estate, RichieRich started his career with greenhouse plant propagation, then worked for Mudd Vineyards  (the first Vineyard Consulting Management firm in Long Island)  in 1977, while still in high school.  He went on the design and maintain vineyards for Cutchogue Vineyards (now Macari South), Pindar, Palmer, Island (now Pellegrini), Jamesport, and others before he came to Wölffer.  He was invited by Roman to come to Wölffer to help “rescue” the vineyard, to help bring the Estate to the next level and further improve the quality and reputation.  When he arrived he brought along with him the ideas of sustainable viticulture and in fact followed the precepts of Cornell’s VineBalance program for the last ten years.

The first fifteen acres of Wölffer vines were planted by David Mudd in 1988, and it has since grown to 50 acres, with ten parcels of vines with sub-parcels.  The vine rows were planted running North to South and East to West.

Wolffer Estate, views, 05Wölffer’s terroir, given its location on a hill, varies considerably, much more so than the vineyards on the North Fork.  The Estate has two types of soil, Bridgehampton loam and Haven.The Bridgehampton soils are mostly the flatter ground and the hillside soils, which are lighter, are mostly Haven. [i]    Where the two converge one overlaps the other with interesting effects on the micro-terroir of individual vines.  Both soils offer good drainage and the way that the vineyard slopes allows the cold air to flow out of the vineyard across to the Montauk Highway.  With its undulating topography and overlapping soils, it makes for an especially interesting terroir, particularly so for Long Island.  Rich refers to it as a “unique setting.”

Both Richie and Roman agree that “The vineyard comes first,” and “we focus on what we can do in the vineyard, then we can make wine from that.”

The California model is not a good one to follow in LI; Wölffer has healthy low vigor/well balanced vineyards.  With respect to viticulture, Rich’s is a balanced approach, with individual attention to the vines.  Indeed, given his 30-years of experience, they call him “the grape-whisperer.”  As Rich pointed out, in his straightforward but modest way, “given time, one develops an intuition.”

For Rich, rule number one for a vineyard manager is to throw out the personal calendar and appointment book—the vineyard has precedence over all matters personal.  The Manager is like a doctor on call, always ready to respond to an emergency.  Or, as Rich puts it, “Sometimes I’m not a vineyard manager as much as I am vineyard-managed.”

For example, in 2011, despite the terrible weather, including Hurricane Irene’s contribution, Wölffer had no crop loss whatsoever thanks to the adequate manpower that was available to manage the problems engendered by the weather.  Wölffer managed to harvest 2.79 tons per acre, which was right at the 20-year average for their harvests.  The biggest challenge of the season was the sudden changes in the weather, and that requires a very nimble and highly attentive manager.

The symbiotic relationship between vineyard manager and vintner was demonstrated in the 2005 vintage, which had been a very good season until 20 inches of rain were dumped on LI in the space of a week just at harvest time, with the result that grapes were so swollen with water that the sugar levels were diluted to as low as 16 degrees Brix.  Some growers went ahead and picked the swollen grapes immediately after the rain, others abandoned entire parcels of fruit.  Roman, however, saw the potential for patience rewarded and had Rich leave the grapes alone for a few days.  Three days of dry weather led to the grapes shrinking back to normal size and reaching 23 Brix, and by the fifth day the sugar level had reached 25 Brix, which was unheard of in terms of sugar levels that increased so dramatically in so brief a time.  At that point some of the crop began to shrivel and raisin, so a 35-person crew was sent out to pick what were now very ripe grapes.  Some other vineyards had been watching what was going on at Wölffer Estate and held off as well, but none had the resources that the Estate enjoyed, so as soon as the grapes were brought in the crew was sent out to help harvest the grapes at the other vineyards as well.  As a result, some very good wine was made that year, although at much smaller yields than usual.  This is part of what Rich calls Roman’s “wine-rescue program.”

The fact of the matter is that Richie and Roman “get energy from  one another.”

Wölffer now has seven varieties planted, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Trebbiano and Vignoles—of which there is a half-acre.  Chardonnay needs to be picked at full ripeness.  In the mid-1990s the significance of proper clonal selection became better appreciated, so that optimal results can be obtained in the vineyard. Presently there are three Chardonnay clones planted:  Davis 3+4  Dijon 76, and Clone 96.  Dijon, which is a Burgundy clone, tends to offer comparatively low acidity by comparison with Davis 3+4, which was developed for the warmer climate of California.  Merlot clones include 181 (from France), 3 (from U. of C. at Davis), and 6 (from Argentina).

Wölffer planted Trebbiano Toscano [aka Ugni Blanc] in 2010, the only Long Island vineyard to do so.  The vines were productive by the 2nd year, yielding 3.5 tons / acre and by the 3rd year, 8 tons of good fruit.  Given the large and experienced vineyard crew that the Estate can call on at harvest time, it was possible to harvest by hand 6 to 8 tons per hour, or about 40 tons at the end of a 7-hour day.  In fact, many of the crew are people with other jobs but who have helped harvest the crop by hand for as long as ten years or more.  They know what they are doing and are very efficient.  According to Rich, the best of all the pickers are invariably women, who are more careful and attentive than are most of the men.

Vines’ vigor affects wine character.  For that reason, there are rows of Cabernet Franc and Merlot that are reserved for making rosé that run down a slope, with Bridgehampton Loam  eight feet thick at the top that is overlaid with Bridgehampton Loam  as one goes down the slope, until the Haven is only eight inches thick.  The Bridgehampton soils are mostly the flatter ground and the hillside soils, which are lighter, are mostly Haven.  This represents ever-changing terror, which is to say that each vine in a row has a micro-terroir of its own.  Indeed, thanks to drainage and soil changes along the rows, the vigor of the vines changes along the length of the slope.  Consequently, in order to “harmonize” that vineyard parcel, Rich has leaf-pulling and green harvesting done along the rows at graduated intervals, with the vines furthest downslope getting the most attention, and those at the top less.  Thus, the vines mature and are ready for harvest at nearly the same time.  This is the work of a ‘grape-whisperer.’

Roman & crew at soccer. Goal!

Roman & crew at soccer. Goal!

Wölffer always has an adequate vineyard crew—for one thing, the Estate make harvesting fun and treats the harvest as a celebration.  They feed the workers very well, with much coffee and snacks available throughout the workday.  Because of so much attention in the vineyard throughout the season, there is mostly clean fruit at harvest time, which makes it easier and faster to hand-pick.  In fact, a good crew can pick [clean fruit] by hand faster than a mechanical harvester is able to do.  Naturally, by harvest time there are an abundance of workers available due to the fact that the tourist season has come to an end and many of the workers had been in the hospitality industry for the summer season.

Wölffer has already joined the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers program, which leads to certification in sustainable farming.  They had, as mentioned above, been growing their vines responsibly since the mid-90s, so the transition to the LISW program was actually very easy, as they’d been following the VineBalance guidelines that are the basis for the LISW ones, but modified to better fit the conditions of Long Island, rather than for the whole state of New York.  For example, they do not use pre-emergent herbicides or added nitrogen to the soil—the use of nitrogen-fixing cover crops takes care of that.  Periodically, given the high acidity of the Long Island soil, about 1½ tons of lime per acre is added to raise the pH level of the soil to make it more amenable for the vines.  By May of 2013, the vineyard had succeeded in meeting all 200 requirements of the LISW and obtained its certification for sustainable winegrowing.

The winery is large and sophisticated, enjoying excess capacity such that not only does Wölffer buy grapes from five other vineyards, including Mudd’s vineyard,  Dick Pfeiffer’s, and Surry Lane’s to make Long-Island appellation wines under the Wölffer label.  Roman gets to use the winery facilities  to make his own Grapes of Roth and Richie’s own Roanoke Vineyards wines.  He also uses the facilities to make wine for clients Scarola Vineyards and Gramercy Vineyards as well.  Indeed, in 2009 an extremely selective picking of botrytised Riesling grapes took place in Jamesport Vineyards, allowing Roman to make a TBA  under his Grapes of Roth label.  Not too many TBAs are made anywhere in the US of A; the very first one was a feat of the late, great Konstantin Frank, in 1965, of Finger Lakes fruit, of course, not LI.  That one made headlines—in 2015 Roman’s two latest efforts with botrytised wines have earned him the highest scores ever awarded for Long Island wines.

In fact, given that Roman makes three rosés, eight whites, thirteen different reds, three award-wining dessert wines, two sparkling wines, and two apple ciders (a total of 29 different wines alone for Wölffer’s, not to speak of the wines he makes for Roanoke Vineyards), the question arises. How does he do it? Well, as he explained, working at the Karlschüle in South Germany he dealt with a wide variety of reds and whites. There he learned that close attention to detail mattered: every tank had to be topped up, every bung properly place, etc. He also gave credit to the excellent wine-growing climate of Long Island, which shares the same latitude and Madrid and Naples and gets the most sun of all of New York State. So, in early August they begin picking the grapes for sparkling wine, when they’re not fully ripe, then grapes for the rosés, which also don’t need full ripeness, and on to the whites, then the reds, which need more ripeness, and at the end of October, the late-harvest grapes. It means he has time to deal with the winemaking over a period of as much as three months. He gives as much attention to a basic white as he does to a Christian Cuvée red, because he can, all because of the enabling climate and soil.

For Roman, to make good wine demands a very scrupulous attention to detail. Not only are the grapes all hand-picked at the proper time, but when the fruit arrives at the winery they have as many as 56 hands at work at the sorting table, so no bad fruit goes into the must. Few wineries have the resources to bring more than a dozen hands to that task. When the must is fermenting in the tanks they do pumpovers three times a day, where most wineries do it only twice or even once. Of course, it helps to be able to afford a cellar team that can give this kind of time to such matters. It also helps to have had one fabulous vintage after another since 2010—2011 being the exception—and it may be true for 2015 as well.

To Roman, the great untold story about Long Island wines is their longevity: a 20-year-old Chardonnay still drinking well, for instance, and red wines that can mature and hold up for 25 to 30 years. The word has not yet gotten out to collectors that the wines of the region can be laid down and over time they will increase in value—not yet like great Bordeaux, perhaps, but as rarity and demand increase, even that is a possibility.

Roman introduced a dry rosé to the Long Island wine repertoire in 1992, within a year of his arrival at the winery—he was quite bullish in his pursuit to make Wölffer rosé a respected and fashionable wine.  The 2011 is made with 54% Merlot and 21% Chardonnay, 9% Pinot Noir, 8% Cabernet Franc, 8%Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2012 consists of 69% Merlot, 16.5% Chardonnay, 5% Pinot Noir, 4.5% Cabernet Franc and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon.  The blend, as one can see, varies considerably from year to year, depending on the results of the harvest.  Whatever the blend, Wölffer calls it “Summer in a Bottle.”

Along with its wide range of varietal wines, including Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Trebbiano, and so on, Roman also makes a non-alcoholic verjus that is a low-acid alternative to vinegar (used in a salad make the salad much more wine-friendly), but it is also an eminently quaffable beverage that is its own “Summer in a glass.”  Perfect for those friends who can’t or don’t drink wine, yet almost as enjoyable.

Wolffer merlot 2007And I cannot omit mention of the time that I stopped by at Wölffer’s tasting  room to try a glass of the 2000 Merlot, which at a $100 a bottle had caused a sensation.  The glass of wine cost only $25, and I sipped it slowly for over an hour, observing how it evolved with time and exposure to air.  Slightly closed at first, it wasn’t long before it was offering notes of plum and black berries, and then hints of cedar and clove, becoming brighter and deeper in bouquet and flavor, and lingering long on the palate.  An extraordinary wine.  I knew then that Long Island wine had arrived on the world stage.  I had become hooked.

More recently, an article on the North Forker website of July 6, 2015, “Long Island wines receive record-breaking reviews in The Wine Advocate” stated that the critic, Mark Squires, of the Advocate had awarded two Wölffer Estate Vineyard wines — the Descencia Botrytis Chardonnay and Diosa Late Harvest — the highest scores ever received in the region, each earning 94 points.

Wölffer wine offerings board“If I had to name a ‘short list’ of top wineries in the region, this would have to be on it, without requiring any thought,” Squires wrote in his review. “Under winemaker/partner Roman Roth and Vineyard Manager Rich Pisacano (who also owns Roanoke, at which Roth is also the winemaker), this winery excels in making age-worthy, structured wines.”

Further to that, in the Nov. 16 issue of Wine Spectator Wölffer’s Grapes of Roth 2010 Merlot one of the top 100 wines of the year 2015.  No other Long Island winery has ever achieved that accolade.  Tom Matthews wrote:  “A polished texture carries balanced flavors of tart cherry, pomegranate, toasted hazelnut and espresso in this expressive red. Features firm, well-integrated tannins and lively acidity.  Elegant.  Drink now through 2022. 2,592 cases made.”

Wölffer logo139 Sagg Road, PO Box 900. Sagaponack, NY 11962.   Phone 631-537-5106

Wölffer Estate

P.S. – Wölffer’s also has some sample vine trellises alongside the winery.  It provoked yet another post on the blog:  Wölffer’s Trellis Sampler.

An excellent article about Roman Roth by Louisa Hargrave can be found at Roman History:  Winemaker Profile published by the North Forker in April 2015.


[i] According to the  LISW Climate & Soil Web page, “Bridgehampton-Haven Association: These soils are deep and excessively drained and have a medium texture. It is its depth, good drainage and moderate to high available water-holding capacity that make this soil well-suited to farming.”