Category Archives: Tasting rooms

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.

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: 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 2016 the wine store on the property is open to sell the remaining wine and spiritls inventory.  Good values are to be had, such as a Peconic Bay grappa half-bottle for $10, verjus for $4, and Peconic Bay Riesling (2005 and 2007) for $15, among other offerings.

The Lowerres have decided that they would like to move forward with a new project that was recommended by Cynthia Caprese, who is the Comptroller of the winery. The idea is to revive the concept of Empire State Cellars, albeit in miniature, by offering wines from all around the stqte of New York. While they will continue to offer Peconic Bay’s own wines until the are entirely sold out, they already offer their former winemaker Greg Gove’s Race Wines, and they may also be offering wines from the Finger Lakes, the Niagara Escarpment, the Finger Lakes, and perhaps from the Lake Eire Region and the brand-new Champlain Valley Region by the Canadian border. They will also be offering craft beers and ciders, as well as distilled spirits that are made in New York. This could be a reality by early 2017.

I’ll keep my readers posted, so watch this space!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 on 12 November 2016.