“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.
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.
The 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
Christian 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 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.
Rich 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.
Wölffer’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!
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.
And 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.
“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.”
139 Sagg Road, PO Box 900. Sagaponack, NY 11962. Phone 631-537-5106
[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.”
Corwith Vineyards, in Watermill on the South Fork of Long Island, is a very new wine operation that was started with idea that it would be run as a sustainable operation from the beginning, and it became the first vineyard to begin operation as an already-certified member of the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing organization.
Dave Corwith, its owner and vineyard manager, has proven to be an iconoclast in his field from the outset, beginning with his choices of wine grape varieties to plant. He’d been a farmer for years, so I asked him, “Well, what motivated you to start a vineyard?”
He replied, “I’d done some nursery stock. I just didn’t have the interest in it. My heart wasn’t in it, and I started looking. . . . I’ve always wanted to do grapes. I wanted to do them with my brother twenty years ago and he said, ‘No. You can’t do it, Dave. Our season’s two weeks shorter than the season on the North Shore. It won’t work,’ and I sort of took his word for it [then], but I’ve always had it in the back of my mind and I said, ‘I’m going to give it a go.’ We went to Channing Daughters and Wölffer [Estate], [and if they] can do it, why can’t I?”
Dave started with a first planting of 300 vines on about half an acre three years ago. So far, he says, they’re doing well, promising to provide a small yield at this point. He deliberately began with varieties that are a bit easier to grow and have earlier seasons: Austrian varieties such as Lemberger, Blaufränkisch, and 100 vines of Dornfelder, a pretty popular red variety: it produces a light red wine, and the vine is very vigorous. Dornfelder was planted at Channing Daughters, where it does very well, and Dave says there’s also some on the North Fork, and that they’re pleased with it there too.
Though these are hardly run-of-the-mill varieties, so far only Channing Daughters has planted them in Long Island, along with a number of other German and Italian vines rarely seen in other vineyards in New York. However, over the years the viability of these varieties has been proven by Channing, and the popularity of the varietals made from them is proof enough.
Dave went on to explain, “I’m starting out. I was advised, and this is what I want to do, I want to start small . . . . Then again, there’s a learning curve, José. So I’ve got to learn how everything works. I’m not new to farming because I’ve been doing that since I was a kid. I’m new to grapes and all the idiosyncrasies that come along with it.”
“I’m about, I don’t know, three or four miles [west] from Channing Daughters. Channing Daughters probably [has] about the closest profile to what mine is as far as weather conditions, microclimates, etcetera. They’ve got thirty acres of good grapes over there and they really do the later varieties I was advised to stay away from, such as Cab Sauvignon and the fluffy Pinot Noir. So I’m not taking those on. You can grow Cab Sauv on the South Shore, but it’s going to be a little bit on the green side when it comes up and it will make a rosé, but you’re not going to make a first quality Cab Sauv that you can put away for a while. You will one in ten seasons, okay? But those other nine seasons you’re going to be making rosé, which is okay . . . . I chose not to go after the later [ripening] varieties, at least not until I get to know everything.
“I have two acres [planted] now. Lemberger, Dornfelder, those are two reds. Grüner Veltliner (‘green velvet’ in German). One Woman Vineyards has it on the North Shore. [Claudia Purita and her daughter] Gabrielle are the only ones I know of that have it. I was just over there last weekend and we got a couple of bottles. So I put in 300 plants of the variety . . . .
“Then last year, José, I was up at the Rochester Convention. Once every three years they do a viticulture convention in the Northeast, and they named two grapes that Cornell’s been working on for probably 15 years plus, called Arandell and Aromella. Arandell is the red variety, which is highly disease resistant and it makes a really good grape. It has a Pinot Noir parentage and a complex parentage with it, as well as the interbreeding there; they made it a disease-resistant variety that still makes a good fruit. So I was very pleased with what I saw and I ordered a couple hundred plants of Arandell. ([Arándano] means ‘blueberry’ in Spanish, and Ell is [for] Cornell.) They had a naming contest last year in Rochester, and that’s the name that won for this grape. It has a blueberry nose to it, apparently. They gave us some at the conference. It was pretty good, so I put in 200 plants of that last year, and I’m excited, really eager to see how that’s going to play out.”
There is more information about Arandell and Aromella in Cornell’s Issue 13, March 2013, of the Viticulture and Enology Newsletter. They’re referred to as the 55th and 56th grape varieties named by the Agriculture Experiments Station in Geneva run by Cornell. Dave’s information was particularly interesting, even newsworthy, because hybrid varieties have barely made a dent in LI viniculture, except for at Pindar. This is probably the first time that a new hybrid, Arandell, has been introduced to the LI wine region in years. Furthermore, Dave is one of the early adopters of Arandell and unique in planting a hybrid variety in Long Island when hybrids have mostly been eschewed entirely by other growers.
Dave went on to say: “I have 300 plants [of Arandell] this year. I’m very pleased with the growth and the disease resistance. It’s noticeably better disease resistant, and I’m just an amateur at this, and I can tell. Huge difference. So from a sustainable standpoint, . . . I’m very much involved with Long Island Sustainable Wine Council. Everyone [else who joined was already] established. I’m . . . the first guy to kind of take the Long Island Sustainable program from scratch. So one of the things that we don’t really talk too much about because everybody’s got theirs planted already is new planting. A good approach is to put in a disease-resistant variety that still makes a good wine. Those are hard to come by. This is where I’m sort of hedging my bet a little bit with the Arandell.
“What I’m learning in my research is that when you go either upstate, mid-west, Minnesota, and you get into these slightly colder climates, they really look hard at the cold hardiness of a specific variety as one of their key things that they have to pay attention to. We are not so much that way. We don’t pull up our grapes here on Long Island. It’s mild enough … I don’t even really worry about that at all when I’m trying to decide on a variety. But they have to. Vinifera, the European grapes, don’t do so well with the colder climates.
I replied that while his remark about vinifera varieties is largely true, there is considerable success in the Finger Lakes with Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and, of course, Riesling, which is most definitely a cool-climate grape. To which Dave said: “Right. So they made it work. They figured out how to make it work up there and I applaud them for being able to do that. Down here, on Long Island, I’ve had people tell me, ‘You can pretty much grow any variety you want.’ I’m sort of taking that advice, but carefully.
I pointed out that it’s absolutely astonishing how many varieties there are growing on Long Island. In a database about Long Island vineyards that I maintain I have listed so far thirty-seven: twenty whites and seventeen reds; add Arandell into the mix and that would make it eighteen red varieties.
Dave then popped another German variety to me: “Well, here’s another one for you that I’m working with too. You probably have this on your list: Zweigelt.”
I replied, “Well, I think Zweigelt is being grown at Channing Daughters right now.”
He remarked, “They may have some. I don’t know. I know that Research Station has a little bit. I got a couple hundred plants of Zweigelt too. They’re babies. Here’s a story for you. Zweigelt and Lemberger, Blaufränkisch, are cousins. They have the same parentage. Zweigelt is just a little bit spicier and it’s a little bit earlier maturing variety than Lemberger. So that’s another reason why in my research in trying to find a variety of grapes, when I came across Zweigelt I jumped on that. I think that would be a really cool one to have out here.”
To which I said, “Well, it looks like you’re trying to make your mark with varieties that are not typically grown in Long Island other than somebody like Channing Daughters, which loves to experiment.”
Dave replied, “Right. Part of my approach was, there’s fifteen hundred acres of Merlot on the north shore. Why am I going to put in more Merlot and compete? It’s a little bit of a ‘I’m a new kid on the block approach.’ I’m sort of going after some of the varieties that are not as commonly grown. That’s the marketing technique, the approach that I’m using. Because . . . initially I won’t have the high volume.”
At this point I asked him if he was growing grapes with the intention of selling them to other producers or have them made for you by another winery or a crush facility like Premier Wine.
Dave pointed out that “Actually, I’m a do-it-yourself. I’m making the wine myself right now. The last two years I got some fruit from the north shore, Merlot and some Chardonnay, and we made up a nice batch last year. We made a rose, an orange, a Chardonnay, and a Merlot. You learn exponentially when you get your hands dirty and get in there and do it. I’m working out a garage right now . . . and I’m making small batches, okay? I have 100 to 150 gallons of wine. That’s all I have. A couple [of] barrels.”
I told Dave that it struck me that he was another garagiste, like Le Pin, the great, small winery in Pomerol. He must be farming other crops in the meantime to derive some cash flow.
He said, “Yes. I put in about an acre or so of vegetables right now. I just put my tomatoes in today, this morning. I’m doing that and I take the organic approach to the maximum extent that I can, within reason. Without the onerous oversight of the federal government, which is difficult to sustain.”
This led to a discussion of organic farming in Long Island. At this point I feel that quoting the interview verbatim is useful, as the exchange between us was especially interesting (I should, however, point out that I don’t exactly agree with Dave about some of his ideas about the genealogy of some grape varieties, but they’re interesting in their own right):
JM-L: Well, you know, Rex Farr, of course.
DC: I know Rex. Yep. He’s taking the organic approach. He’s the only game in town, I think, [though] Barbara [Shinn’s] pretty close.
JM-L: Barbara’s close, but not quite there. Rex, of course, has been farming other crops organically for years. I think he only started growing grapes in 2005. The fruit is excellent from what I understand and this other startup in the North Fork, Southold Farm and Cellar, is buying its fruit from Rex Farr.
DC: Where my farm is there’s a forty-acre parcel that I share. I can expand if necessary, and I have farmland on another piece that I can work with. That’s not as good for potatoes; it would be better for grapes. So I got to look at that, but it’s presenting some challenges when I split the operation a mile away and you’ve got to have the earth cracks, you’ve got to have water, and you have to be able to get over there. When I retire from my full-time job and this becomes my full-time job, down the road, I’ll put in five or ten acres over there of something else I really like.
JM-L: Of course. So tell me something. To whom did you turn for advice on how to prepare your fields and plant your vines?
DC: Okay. A couple of things. I started with learning extensively about organic farming in general via dynamic approach, as well as the Soil Foodweb approach, which is Dr. Elaine Ingham. Look her up or Google Soil Foodweb. She’s the mother of compost teas. So I’ve been working a lot with compost teas the last several years for all of my crops.
Not just the grapes. I’ve had good results with it, but it’s something I would really like to see more testing done with. Compost teas are really good … They’re, basically if you take compost and you mix it with water and you mix it all up and you bubble it or you fish bubble it for 24 hours, you can culture the bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes. Then once you culture that and you grow those, remember from your science class bacteria splits every four hours, so same thing. If you can grow the fungi and the bacteria, that’s really what we’re after. Then you spray that on the plants as a foliar spray. The theory is you will push out [the good] from the bad guys. If you cover the leaf with beneficial bacteria and fungi, when the bad guys try to show up to eat the leaf, they get kicked out.
JM-L: So this is Biodynamics?
DC: Well, it’s a cousin to Biodynamics, [which] is taking compost, particularly what they call barrel compost, that’s been buried in the ground over the winter, put it in cow horns and it’s a dairy-based, or cow-based, manure compost, which is excellent. Then they spray that on. With compost tea, you take, particularly, a fungal dominated compost that you have made from a real thick compost pile. So you have to make compost correctly. You can’t just make dirt. You get a good quality compost, particularly one that has worm cavities in it, which is about as good as it gets, and then you put that in a teabag and you boil it … Well, you don’t boil it. You just bubble it in a barrel of water for 24 hours and you can take that and spray it out around your plants as a foliar nutrient spray, if you will. So I’ve been working with that, and that’s very, very similar to what the Biodynamics people are doing. Biodynamics takes it to the next level and they add a celestial component to it. What’s the phase of the moon when we’re doing all this?
JM-L: Well, this, of course, is where Biodynamics becomes controversial.
DC: I guess when people are . . . . When I try to explain Biodynamics to people, the simplest way, as I said, ‘Well, does the full moon change the tides on the Earth,’ and most of us know the answer is yes. Sure. It changes the high tide, low tide effect. So if the moon can change the high and low tides, why can’t the moon change the effect of way the plant is growing on a full or new moon. Then add that in and now Biodynamics goes five levels more than that, you know? Get in all the planets as well. That’s where it gets, like you said, controversial.
So I started with biodynamic and compost teas, learning how to work with those . . . . when it came time to look at grapes, I went over to talk to Alice Wise, kind of got to feel her out, and I went over and talked to Steve Mudd who’s put in probably half the grapes on the north shore. Talked to Steve about things and he was very helpful. Then I sort of got involved with the Long Island Sustainable program last year, and that’s been a tremendous benefit for me, a new guy learning how all this stuff works because they’re really promoting the educational side. Some of the speakers they brought [in] are really, really good.
The workbook that we use is excellent. It’s based on the Vine Balance Workbook, which is excellent with regard to how we’re farming it and … It looks at the big picture, which is good.
JM-L: Actually, what’s interesting is that when the Vine Balance program was first developed by Cornell up in Geneva. They developed it for use statewide but they never took into consideration the proliferation of Vinifera grapes and, of course, at the time that they first came out with Vine Balance, there were no grapes being grown on Long Island. They had to modify it for the Long Island growers.
DC: Okay. Well, then that sort of became the Long Island Sustainable [program], which they just started and that’s done very, very well. So that’s sort of how I got into it, and I very carefully researched for a couple of years different varieties and decided to go with earlier[-ripening] varieties. I ran them by some of the vineyard managers and they said, ‘Yeah. Those will all work for you.’
JM-L: That’s fabulous. Now what, by the way, is your vine spacing?
DC: I’m using nine by four and a half to five; nine feet on the rows and then five on the plants, four and a half to five. The first group I put in, I actually put them in about eight by three but that was too tight. It was too close.
JM-L: Okay. Are you using machinery in the rows?
DC: I use a mechanical weeder. I don’t use any herbicides. José, one of the things that came about with the Soil Foodweb model … I’m going to back up just a little bit here. The Soil Foodweb model talks about the fungi in the soil. It’s really … Dr. Ingham, for 30 years, she studied, “Well, what does the plant look like underground? What’s going on in the root system of the plant?” That’s what she studied. Okay? One of the things that she talks a lot about is what’s called mycorrhizal fungi. It’s a type of fungi that … I don’t know if you’re familiar or not, but I’ll give it to you. It’s root extensions. If you add extensions on the spiderweb of fungi that go out and get the nutrients for the plant. Dr. Ingham talks about this fungi going down, not feet, but higher than feet, they can connect. You can have fungi in the soil that can connect for even up to miles, distances. So it’s this fascinating web of fungi underground. With herbicides we kill the mycorrhizal fungi, so when I put my plants in, I gave them a shot of mycorrhizal fungi in with the soil mantis that I was using with the roots. I gave them a shot of that. Now they say you get another 20/25 percent growth if you put in mycorrhizal fungi. I talked to Larry [Perrine of Channing Daughters] a little bit about it. Richie Pisacano over at Wölffer’s has been very helpful too.
JM-L: Rich is fabulous. Rich is called the Grape Whisperer, you know?
DC: I talked to him about Pinot Noir the other day. I said, “Richie, can I grow Pinot Noir here?” and he goes, “It’s a tough grape to grow.” It’s really tough. Although I talked to a guy that I order my grapes from upstate, and he has a clone that he said would work for me, what I’m trying to do. Pinot Noir 19, I think it is. That’s not what Ritchie’s got over at Wölffer. They put in Pinot 20 years ago and they make a rosé out of it, or they make a champagne out of it. They don’t make a [red wine].
Again, Dave began talking about other alternative wine-grape varieties, some of which have not been seen in Long Island before this:
I got a couple of out-of-the-box ideas for you for varieties that I’m sort of researching. I’ve got mixed emotions about all of them. Cabernet Sauvignon can’t do it. What about its sister grape? There’s Cabernet Dorsa, which is a cross of Cab Sauvignon and Dornfelder, earlier, that you can’t plant. You’ve got Franc, which is its own variety. Then there’s another one, Cabernet Mitos, which is a cross of Cab Sauvignon and Lemberger. These are varieties that I’m growing now, so I thought, ‘Well, okay. Maybe that’s how I can bring a Cabernet into the picture.’ Cabernet Mitos, I wasn’t able to find it . . . . I haven’t even tried it yet. There’s only 750 hectares worldwide, and it’s all in Germany. It’s a German-developed variety, so I’ve got to see what it can do. I’m looking at those and then the other ones that I think Chris and Larry are doing is Tempranillo, [which] is a sister to Grenache. Yes, and Grenache, they think, was originated in Sardinia and they called it Cannonau. At least that’s what they say, but it’s only grown in Sardinia. And a sister to that is Tempranillo. I think Tempranillo would be a cool grape to try to grow around here. A good blender, you know what I mean? Also, Albariño.
JM-L: Albariño! Well, you know, there are two people who are growing Albariño now. One is Miguel Martin at Palmer and Rich Olsen-Harbich has planted some at Bedell.
DC: I put in 200 plants; that’s an experiment too. I got mine from upstate, The Grapevine, which is up by Geneva. They, I’m almost sure, grafted it for me. They put it on 3309 and Sl4 [rootstocks].
JM-L: Miguel has been making a splendid Albariño himself. You should try it if you haven’t.
DC: Yeah. I have. I’ve been over there. Miguel helped us make our Chardonnay this year. He is . . . terrific. Good people. You know, I want to say something, José. I kind of got into the grape thing, predominant over on the North Shore, but as I get to know people over these last three or four years, what I’ve discovered is it’s a small fraternity of wonderful people that all want to help each other out, and a rising tide lifts all boats. So I haven’t found anyone who has not been willing to help as I, have gone along the way. They’ve been very, very nice.
JM-L: Well, Dave, thank you very much. I think we’ve had a very interesting and instructive interview. What you’re doing is exciting, and I want to continue to follow your progress.
This interview took place on May 20, 2014; a visit followed on November 17, 2015.
A trip to the Hamptons to visit my daughter was an opportune time to also see Dave at his farm. The result was a delightful time in his garage winery and seeing the handmade and used equipment that he was using for his winemaking. It’s pretty basic, and some would be familiar to any home winemaker. Here are some pictures of the equipment, rudimentary and inventively-designed as it is:
The basket wine press was purchased used and needed extensive repairs, which were done by Dave’s father. It is very small–it has barely 50 gallons capacity–and not at all efficient, but it adequate for the small batches of wine that he’s currently producing. This is a far cry from the much more advanced pneumatic presses that are used in most of the LI wineries, which have much larger capacity and press fruit with greater precision and control.
This is a handmade crusher-destemmer, again of very small capacity, so it requires considerable patience to work with it, but it works just as well as the much larger industrial versions and, after all, it is only being used for very small batches of fruit. The crusher is at the upper left, and the fruit then drops into the perforated basket below, where the rotating wooden destemmer (with plastic tips removed from the posts) separates the stems, which are pushed out of the basket and fall on the ground while the crushed grapes pour through the perforations into a trough that flows the juice into a bin.
The must to be fermented is then placed in a metal or oak barrel, which in Corwith’s case are small and few in number. Dave buys his oak barrels from a cooperage, East Coast Wine Barrels in Medford, a Long Island town.Their barrels are meticulously made from Romanian oak. Dave has them medium-toasted to somewhat abate the oakiness that could be imparted to the wine.
When the wine is ready to be bottled, the bottles themselves first need to be properly sterilized by a dose of sulfur gas followed by a whiff of nitrogen to expel the sulfur so that it will not add flavor to the wine. This is an entirely handmade device which has perforated wood bars allowing up to 12 bottles at a time to be treated. Beneath the inverted bottle necks are nozzles that inject the gases into the bottles. Rough-hewn as it is, it works perfectly well, even if it’s no match for industrial sterilizers that can handle far more bottles at a time with much less manual labor per bottle.
The final stage, of course, is filling the bottles with wine. Yet another hand-crafted gizmo is brought to bear on this all-important function. In this case only four bottles at a time can be filled, but it goes fairly quickly, especially if there are only small batches of wine. However, each label has to be affixed to each bottle by hand and for now the contents are written by hand as well. A completely automated device to do everything from filling the bottles to inserting the corks and adding the neck capsule, and finally applying the pre-printed labels costs many thousands of dollars and Corwith may never be able to afford one, but a larger rig like the one in the picture would certainly be called for once Corwith goes into commercial production.
Of course a barrel-tasting was in order, and Dave very happily obliged.
The first wine was a “poor man’s” Bordeaux-style blend made of equal parts Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cab Sauvignon 2014 from North Fork vineyards, aged in Romanian oak. It will continue aging in barrel for some more months, but it already is showing promise, with good fruit, lively acidity, and form tannins.
A Chardonnay from Lenz Vineyards fruit of 2015 is just weeks in stainless steel but the wine is from good, clean fruit and also shows good promise.
Also in steel is a Grüner Veltliner from 2015 grapes of Corwith’s own vineyards. Promising as well, but still too young to say much more.
An Arandell wine comes across as a tad foxy, but then it is a Cornell hybrid. Dave plans to treat it like a Syrah or Petit Verdot but it will certainly have to be blended with a red vinifera to bring the foxiness under control.
All of this is the achievement of a “newbie garagiste.” Not bad, not at all bad.
Corwith Vineyards LLC
851 Head of Pond Rd
Water Mill, NY 11976
Anyone who has been enjoying wines from Long Island over the years knows that the quality of the wine has been improving to the point that most of the last several vintages have resulted in many superb wines. Occasionally a few wines here and there have received excellent review and high scores, such as from Wine Enthusiast, Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator. Oz Clarke has long been a fan. Still, the mainstream press has largely ignored the breadth of the achievement.
Finally, there is a level of recognition of the quality of Long Island wine that should leave no one in doubt, given two sets of tasting notes published this past June and October. In the June 30, 2015 issue of the Wine Advocate eMag, Mark Squires has rated the wines of 26 producers and given scores of 90 to 94 points to 78 of nearly 200 that were tasted, along with some detailed tasting notes. In the October 30 issue, he reviewed some 2013 new releases that weren’t available at the time of his prior review, and six producers not included earlier: Brooklyn Oenology, Suhru, Mattebella, Pindar, Duck Walk, and Diliberto. In all, 26 wines out of 78 scored 90 to 93 points, while Paumanok had the best results with 10 of its 12 wines scoring over 90. What this means that of nearly 280 wines that have been tasted for the two reviews, over 100 had high scores, but as usual, read the tasting notes to understand the scores.
90-plus scores are what catch the attention of readers, but the details are in the notes, which should be read carefully to better understand the reason for the points that have been awarded. These reviews are the opinion of one man, but he is a seasoned wine professional and really knows his stuff. His essay about the Long Island wine industry is well worth reading, but one needs a subscription to the Wine Advocate in order to do so. (I obtained the article by subscribing for a month–$20).
Some salient points made by him:
“There is plenty of evidence that the region has arrived and is on the cusp of maturity, no longer an outlier, but increasingly reliable in good vintage years. More improvements are likely, to be sure, but overall there is a lot to admire.”
“They also care about making wines to age. The top wines here typically demand cellaring and reward it.”
“The array of sauvignon blancs that I saw fit in well here and they were extremely successful. This region may be underrated for its sauvignons right now.”
What is particularly notable about Squires’ reviews is that none of the wines scored less than 82 points and that so many (nearly 36%) scored 90 points or higher. Until now, no wines from the region had ever received more than 92 points, but this time 24 wines had that score or more. But again, it must be emphasized that the tasting notes are the thing to read. The scores should be used as pointers.
32 producers reviewed out of 53 that make commercial wines is just two-thirds of the total in Long Island (including two in Brooklyn). Squires points out that he will be returning to the region from time to time so it is to be hoped that he’ll get around to reviewing the rest, for there are some significant brands that have been left out of the first two sets of reviews, such as Castello di Borghese, Laurel Lake, Palmer, and T’Jara.
Squires’ article has also been thoughtfully commented on by Eileen Duffy in her byline on Edible East End. Notably, she has also provided links to the tasting notes for each winery. Furthermore, for those who do not subscribe to Wine Advocate, she’s done a great service by making these notes available to all.
The Terra Alta DO in Catalonia barely was mentioned as a source of quality wine by John Radford in his book, The New Spain: A Complete Guide to Contemporary Spanish Wine (revised edition, 2004). Perhaps it’s time for a new edition, because in the intervening years much has happened in Terra Alta. Indeed, in the 7th edition (2013) of The World Atlas of Wine, by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, had this to say about Terra Alta: “imported red varieties have been replacing the region’s Garnacha Blanca . . . . Vinos Piñol . . . make refined red Garnacha and Cariñena.” Remarkably, Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book 2016, doesn’t even mention Terra Alta at all, much less Vinos Piñol. However, José Peñín, the authoritative Spanish writer on the wines of that country had, in his Atlas de los vinos de España (2000), quite a bit more to say about the region and its wines and was rather upbeat about its prospects for making quality wine.
How can this be? Well, the region is a relatively new DO or Denominación de Origen as of 1982. It is very small, its winters cold and its summers hot, and its average rainfall is between 14 to 20 inches annually. The soil is mostly limestone interspersed with some clay, very similar to that of the better-known terroir of Priorat. The winds of the region, particularly the southerly cierzo and the garbí that blows from the northeast, help to keep the grapes dry and healthy, as does the wide diurnal temperature variation. Terra Alta is a rather tiny part of the province of Tarragona, situated in the high mountains of the Southwest of the province (see the pink area of the map). It was settled before the ancient Romans colonized Spain; indeed, there is evidence that winemaking preceded their arrival.
Originally known for its white wines, particularly an oxidized type called “amber blanc” or rancio, the inevitable arrival of the Phylloxera louse in the late 1800s forced the replanting of the vineyards. In 2000 it had but 8500 hectares (21,590 acres) planted to vines and by 2010 that area had grown but little, to 22,793 acres. However, it has undergone a major transformation in the last 20 years. Once dominated by winery cooperatives, a few indigenous varieties such as Garnatxa, both red and white (Grenache in Catalan) and some imported varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, it has been transformed by the rise of small wineries with big ambitions. Today, Terra Alta’s top white varieties are Garnacha Blanca, Macabeo, Parellada, Moscatel, and Chardonnay. Garnacha Tinta and Cariñena (locally called Samsó) are the most-planted red grape varieties; Garnacha Peluda, the rare Morenillo, along with the imports, Tempranillo, Syrah, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon are also in the vineyards. There are also experimental plantings of Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Marselan (a Cab Sauv × Grenache crossing).
Among the most notable of the newer wineries is Vinos Piñol, also known as Celler Piñol. This winery has been held in the Piñol family since 1945 for four generations. Their wines are made from entirely indigenous varieties that in many cases came from 85-year-old vines. The vineyard, located at an altitude of roughly 500 meters (over 1,600 feet), has been farmed organically since 2000. Most of the vines are trained to single-Guyot trellises and head-pruned. Juanjo Garcela Piñol, trained as a chemical engineer, was called to the winery in 1998 by his aging parents, who needed his help in maintaining the vineyard and making the wine. Though he had no oenological training, his chemistry background was very helpful and over time he read heavily and took some courses in winemaking. Today he runs the winery and shares winemaking responsibilities with Toni Coca, along with María Mendoza, who also helps out in the winery and in the vineyard; his mother Josefa maintains the cellar.
His first bottling was the 1995 Avi Arrufi Blanco, of which there were 2,000 bottles. Nevertheless, apart from its appeal within Terra Alta, it turned out to be a very hard sell outside the region, itself barely known and the winery utterly unknown. However, today Piñol exports 85% of its production abroad and has received rave reviews and 90+ points many times since then. The US importer is Olé, which brings in a select number of each of nine different Piñol wines.
He currently produces wines made from four white varieties (Garnacha Blanca, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, and Macabeo) and six red ones (Cabernet Sauvignon, Garnatxa, Merlot, Syrah, Tempranillo, and Morenillo). He has also introduced three new varieties (Petit Verdot, Marselan, and Verdejo). From these he makes a total of 11 wines, most of which are blends. For the interview with him, the following wines were tasted: L’Avi Arrufi Blanca, Portal Tinto, Sa Natura Tinto, and Mather Teresina. All of these wines have received both critical praise from Jancis Robinson among others, and high scores of 90 to 95 from José Peñín, Robert Parker, and Stephen Tanzer of IWC.
The overall style of the wines is decidedly nuanced, but with clear and distinctive character. This is due to the fact that the focus of the winemaking is on expressing the unique terroir of the vineyards. Whereas many Spanish wineries are increasingly turning to imported varieties, Piñol prefers to emphasize the local, autochthonous varieties, though in the case of the red wines some Syrah is added to deepen the color of the wines, especially given that the dominant red variety, Garnacha, though rich in aromas and flavors, tends to make slightly pale wines. Three-quarters of the wines produced are reds, the rest are whites made from Garnatxa Blanca. (This variety is a specialty of the region, and 35% of the global production of that grape is in Terra Alta.) About 85% of all the grapes they use come from their own vines and the rest are purchased from other organic vineyards in the DO.
L’Avi Arrufí White
The 2010 L’Avi Arrufi Blanca is made entirely of Garnatxa Blanca from 50-year-old vines. It spent eight months in French oak and yielded an alcohol level of 14.8%. The quality of the wine comes in good part from the fact that the vines have very deep roots that tap into the minerality of the soil, according to Piñol. The result is a wine of high minerality and flavors of stone fruit like peaches and apricots, with spiciness and smoky notes derived from the oak. Its mouthfeel is unctuous and rich, giving a long aftertaste that reminds of a fine white Burgundy. This is why Piñol has increased the production of its white varieties from 10% of its wines five years ago to 25% today. Only 300 six-packs have been imported by Olé, as it is now in high demand worldwide. 92 points from Robert Parker, 90 Points from José Peñín. Sa Natura Tinto
At only $20 this red wine drinks more like a wine costing twice as much yet is made with organic, estate-grown grapes, comprised by 50% Cariñena, 20% Garnacha, 15% Syrah, 15% Merlot varieties. The vines grow in clay and limestone soil at 356 m (1,168 ft) elevation. There are earthy tones, as well as pepper, blackcurrant and cherry fruit, with a medium to full body, balanced acidity, and lush tannins. 3,000 cases were produced. Drink it over the next 4-6 years.
Each variety was hand-harvested when optimum ripeness occurred for a given grape. After selecting the best grapes from each bunch, the grapes macerate with their juice for 4 days at 6ºC (43°F) for greater fruit expression. After that fermentation is carried out at a temperature of 27ºC (81°F). Maceration and skin contact lasts for 25 days. Malolactic fermentation then takes place, half in oak barrels and half in stainless steel tanks; after which the wine is aged for 13 months in 85% French and 15% American oak. It contains 14% alcohol.
Pairing suggestions include a rare beef cheddar burger, but the wine’s fresh black and blue fruits will pair even better with a lamb or turkey burger with a slice of Jarlsberg. If grilling sausages, go toward sweet pork and veal rather than spicy beef dishes. White meat also pairs well with Sa Natura due to its inherently sweeter character and also is a good match for meat dishes in mushroom sauce.
The 2011 earned 92 points from Wine Enthusiast & was an Editor’s Choice; prior vintages all earned 90+ points from Robert Parker and others.
Portal Tinto This wine is made from certified organically-grown grapes, from which 3,050 cases were produced for the 2012 vintage. The vines are head-pruned, dry-farmed (no irrigation), and grow in limestone and clay soil. The vineyards are located within Batea, a town at an elevation of 450 m (1,476 ft). The wine is comprised by 50% Garnacha, 20% Carignan, 10% Merlot, 10% Syrah, and 10% Tempranillo.
According to the Olé Website, “the grapes are brought to the winery in the early morning hours before being de-stemmed and crushed. Prior to fermentation, the must is macerated at a cool temperature (43°F) for four days in large tanks of 5,000-10,000 liter capacity. Fermentation starts [by] utilizing neutral yeasts from Levuline (used mostly in Champagne) and the skins mix with the juice for 22-28 days. Malolactic fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks. The wine is aged for twelve months in 300-liter French and American oak barrels.”
Portal Red is dark ruby-colored, while the aroma reveals minerality, cedar, tobacco, cassis, and black fruit. Ripe and fruit-sweet on the palate, with licorice, dried herbs and mineral notes, ending with a long, fruity finish. It should remain enjoyable for a few more years.
This wine’s ripe, juicy character is very easy to pair with foods like casual American fare (burgers, wrap sandwiches, burritos), spicy Latino dishes, as well as aged hard cheeses.
Mather Teresina Red A vineyard from which the Mather Terisina wines are sourced.
This is Piñol’s premiere wine, made from a selection of the best barrels of Garnatxa (50%), Cariñena (30%) and Morenillo (20%) of the 2008 vintage, resulting in a limited production of 7,750 bottles, of which over 1,400 were imported by Olé to the United States. The vines, by the way, are anywhere from 35 to 60 years old. The wines spent 20 – 24 months in 85% French and 15% in new American oak barrels and fined with no animal products, so it can be considered a vegan wine. Its alcohol content is 14.85%.
This wine has high-pitched aromas of red fruits, wet stones and spices. With acidity that lends a “nervous” character to the fruit in the mouth, the wine’s tannins are substantial but fine grained. This is a wine of roundness, volume, depth and great length and should be enjoyed with dishes like pheasant, duck, venison, fois gras, roast pork, and aged hard cheeses.
Among the awards won by Mather Teresina, Vinum Magazine (Germany) has lauded it as one of the best wines in Spain, alongside the prestigious Vega Sicilia. Robert Parker gave Mather Teresina 92 points in his Wine Advocate magazine.
The Olé Website tells us that “the vineyards are located a few miles southwest of Priorat, within the Terra Alta DO (Zone 5) in Catalunya’s Tarragona province in northeastern Spain. In this remote region, the winemaking tradition dates back to the Romans, around the 2nd or 3rd Century. The winery and vineyards are in the town of Batea, situated at 400 meters (1,312 ft.) elevation. The soils are composed of 95% limestone and 5% clay. Yields are low (24.5 hectoliters per hectare, or 3,500 kilograms per hectare), which enhances the concentration and complexity in the grapes. The vineyards are organically farmed and certified by CCPAE. For climate, the average temperature from April-October is 67.3ºF. The hot day and warm-to-moderate night temperatures make Terra Alta a drier and warmer region than Montsant or Priorat. These conditions produce bright purplish-garnet hued wines with greater weight and ripeness than wines from other areas within Zone 5. The low average yearly rainfall of 16.3 inches is less than neighboring regions.”
The wine offers aromas of spice and red berries, as well as notes of licorice and coffee, along with vanilla and mineral nuances in the background. It has a precision on the palate, with both sour cherry and sweet raspberry flavors that amplify with time. It is full-bodied and well-developed, though promising a long life ahead, given its well-knit tannins and good acid backbone. The finish is long and lingering. A wine for contemplation as well as food, especially beef or game in rich sauces.
A wine that was not tasted for this interview is the Finca Morenillo, based 100% on a rare, local variety that had almost vanished. It is of very limited production at 500 cases or 3,000 bottles and is unique in the wine world. A small amount has been imported into the USA by Olé. Once this writer finds it and has tasted it shall be added to this review.
Now that a new book on Long Island wine by Eileen Duffy has been published as of April 2015, it seems appropriate to review all of the books on the subject that have come out since 2000. These are presented in order of publication:
Vital–thanks to its clear, lucid writing and very useful history and background of the region’s viniculture and winemaking–is the excellent if outdated Wines of Long Island, 2nd edition (2000) by Edward Beltrami & Philip E. Palmedo. It includes profiles of many of the most important personalities in the LI wine world (as of 2000), descriptions and reviews of wineries and their wines and a generally judicious insight into the trends and achievements of the region as of the end of the 20th Century. Definitely worthwhile owning, if you love LI wines, though it has long been out of print. It is still available through Amazon. (NOTE: It is currently being brought up to date by this writer, with elements from the series on Long Island viniculture and wine in this blog being incorporated into the book. It is expected that the 3rd edition, to be published by SUNY Press, may be out by September 2017.)
Louisa Thomas Hargrave wrote a gracious memoir, The Vineyard: The Pleasures and Perils of Creating an American Family Winery (2002). One cannot begin to understand what was involved in creating the Long Island wine industry without reading this charming and touching account of the establishment of Long Island’s first winery, Hargrave Vineyard, in 1973, when there were only small farms and potato fields. It is charming in its modesty, touching in its honesty, and a remarkable tale of what it takes to start a vineyard from scratch when you don’t even know what you’re doing! And look at what it started–a whole industry that is one of the dominant features of the East End of Long Island, begun with passion, commitment, and hard work, but ultimately at the cost of heartbreak and renewal. Now out of print, it is still available on Amazon or AbeBooks. Some used copies are available for a penny plus shipping from various book dealers.
An interesting and somewhat chatty book is The Story of North Fork Wine: Historical Profiles and Wine Country Recipes (2009), John Ross’s up-close-and-personal look at the people who work in and run the wineries. A chef who owned Ross’s North Fork Restaurant, he became close to many in the wine trade, especially given that he was interested in devising recipes and menus that would best accompany the wines of the region. The first half of the book is comprised by his personal profiles, which include everyone from owners to winemakers to vineyard managers to tasting room personnel. The second half is devoted to recipes from his restaurant and suggested wine pairings. In the intervening years since the book was published many of the persons featured in the book have moved on, but many of their stories remain relevant even now. Also out of print, but it can be found on Amazon.com.
Long Island Wine Country: Award-Winning Vineyards of the North Fork and the Hamptons, is well-illustrated guide to visiting Long Island vineyards and wineries. Written by Jane Taylor Starwood, editor-in-chief of Long Island Wine Press, she gives us an insider’s track on the owners, the winemakers, and the wineries themselves. In a conversational tone (and amply illustrated), the book leads the reader from East to West on the North Fork, and then down to the Hamptons, as though the route would be followed by visitors travelling by car. It’s a bit frustrating an approach if one wants to do research and would prefer an alphabetical organization, but it’s a quibble given the overall quality and usefulness of the book, which is still reasonably up-to-date as of 2015, given that it was published in 2009. One should bear in mind though, that already important personnel changes have taken place: Richard Olsen Harbich left Raphael in 2010 and went to Bedell Cellars, Anthony Nappa is now Raphael’s vintner, Kelly Urbanik Koch is winemaker at Macari, and Zander Hargrave, who was assistant winemaker at Peconic Bay Vineyards, is now at Pellegrini; Peconic Bay has closed its doors. A new, major winery, Kontokosta Vineyards, opened in June 2013 in Greenport; Southold Farm and Corwith Vineyard are brand-new startups as of 2014.
The most recent contribution to the story of Long Island wines is Eileen Duffy’s book, Behind the Bottle: The Story of the Rise of Long Island Wine (2015). This is a book that focuses on the winemakers and their wines. In fact, the conversations that Duffy had with the winemakers as they discussed their wines in considerable depth, give the reader the clearest sense possible of what the winemakers look for and try to achieve with their wines. It makes for fascinating reading. Unlike John Ross, who tried to include anyone whom he knew that was in the business, Duffy’s book includes interviews with just 16 of the region’s winemakers, including Louisa Hargrave, who still has a few bottles of her 1993 Cabernet Franc, still aging, still drinkable, and from a very great year for Long Island. My favorite conversations, due to the great detail with which the winemakers discussed their craft, include one with Roman Roth, who talks about his 2008 Merlot as though he were painting a portrait of a lover.
A statement on the Lenz Winery Website by Sam McCullough, its vineyard manager:
At Lenz, our philosophy in the vineyard is high-touch. We are interventionists and we intervene, at great cost in time and effort, to micro-manage each vine to ripeness each year. Leaf removal, shoot thinning, cluster thinning, crop reduction, triple catch wires, super-attentive pest and fungus control (our ‘open canopy’ approach keeps fungus problems to a minimum), all combine to add cost (unfortunately) but to ensure fully ripe grapes of the highest quality.
Established in 1978, the winery has three vineyard plots with a total acreage of about 70 acres planted to nine different vinifera grape varieties: Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir. Of these, the principal red variety is Merlot and the principal white is Chardonnay. Bearing in mind that the original Lenz vineyard is over thirty years old and came under new ownership only in 1988, when Peter and Deborah Carroll purchased it from the original owners, Patricia and Peter Lenz, the original vines of Chardonnay and Merlot are among the oldest on the island.
Sam is an affable, direct, and very knowledgeable farmer, with a degree in horticulture and with long experience in the business of growing wine grapes. He is not shy about saying that though the Lenz vineyards are farmed as sustainably as possible, when there is a need for using conventional farming methods he’ll not hesitate to employ them. The reason is simple: there is too wide an array of fungal and other pests to rely entirely on biodegradable or organic means of control. With respect to herbicides, he prefers to use what he calls pre-emergent controls so that stronger ones are not needed later in the event of an outbreak. The same is true of the fungicides he uses: low-impact controls for prevention, but will not hesitate to use copper and sulfur when infections do break out. It is because of this that he makes no claim to running a sustainable-farming operation, but is rather a conventionally-farmed property that tries to be ecologically low-impact where possible.
In other words, Sam is not taking Lenz down the organic road due to cost and practicality. Speaking frankly about Shinn Estate’s achievement in bring in its first organic harvest of grapes, he takes a wait-and-see attitude with regards to being able to achieve similar results three years in a row—which is necessary for organic certification. He feels that the weather last season was especially favorable for organic viticulture. It may not work so well this year if the weather turns too harsh. On the hand, Sam feels that some Biodynamic® applications may actually work insofar as even the very small quantities of compost tea that are used (about 50 gallons per acre) may enhance the development of healthy biota on the vines and help them better resist pests and other infections. He’s not persuaded that cow horns or astronomical events such as the soltices are at all important, and that the applications would work anyway. As he put it:
I am not opposed to organic viticulture or biodynamics. I am indeed skeptical that it is possible to consistently succeed at producing vinifera grapes in our climate without the use of synthetic chemicals and I am in no position to try it. I do not disdain or ridicule those making the effort. I wish them success.
I do believe, and strongly, that it is quite possible to use conventional agricultural methods responsibly and safely: safe for the environment, the farmer, farm workers and the consumers of our crops.
I believe conventional farming to be safe and economical. Without conventional farming, the 2% of our nation’s population who are involved in agriculture could not feed the country with production to spare. Those who wish to use alternative methods that avoid the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are free to do so and I wish them success. The popular hysteria so easily incited by the mention of pesticides and food is unfounded. However, those who wish to consume naturally-produced foods and can afford to do so constitute a lucrative market.
Thus, to the extent possible Lenz employs “green” practices in the vineyard, such as the use of self-seeded cover crops between rows so that there is considerable variety in the flora and fauna of the soil. These, of course, are a natural habitat for insects that are predators of many vineyard pests such as aphids. The crops also include plants that return nitrogen to the soil, encourage earthworms to propagate, and generally keep the soil healthy. Nevertheless, while he prefers to use pre-emergent herbicides to control pest plants, he will use Roundup to control weeds within the vine rows proper when necessary, as he considers it to be highly efficacious and of low environmental impact if used sparingly. So too with pesticides—he uses Danitol, a wide-spectrum insecticide/miticide that is essentially a synergized pyrethrin that is especially effective with grape pests such as the glassy-winged sharpshooter, the grape berry moth, and others, but will also use Stylet oil, which is biodegradable, as well.
Sam tries to use dry farming for the three vineyard plots and therefore has no irrigation lines permanently threaded into the rows of vines as is the case at some of the other wineries (not that those irrigate at times other than drought either). He finds that if there is a need to irrigate, it’s easy enough to bring the irrigation lines into the vine rows as needed, Furthermore, he explains that given the problems with permanently-installed irrigation lines, such as leaks, breakage, blocking of the lines, and so on, he really doesn’t think that it’s worth the expense, especially since irrigation is only needed once in every three to four seasons, when there is drought. So too with machine-harvesting vs. hand-picking the grapes. Rather than use a large and expensive machine such as that employed by a few other wineries, Lenz removes the grapes with a tractor-towed harvester. He notes that hand-picking clean grapes can cost around $100 a ton; hand-selecting while picking grapes can elevate the cost to about $200. By using a towed harvester with an attached selection table and a man or two to pick out the detritus—leaves, stems, bad grapes, insects—he can keep costs low and still have the advantage of selected grapes.
Actually, some varieties are better off being hand-picked, due in part to the thinness of the skins, and that is the case for the Lenz Old Vine Cabernet Sauvignon. These are, after all, 36-year-old vines, which are able to produce more concentrated, flavorful fruit than can young vines, though they are rather shy bearers.
Sam works closely with Eric Fry, the winemaker who has been at Lenz for 25 years. When Sam first came to Lenz in 1990 the two “butted heads” at the beginning, but they now have a very effective relationship. It is, after all, for the winemaker to decide when the crop is ready to harvest, and both men agree that the kind of ripeness that they are looking for in the fruit can only be tasted, not just measured for sugar levels with a densitometer or looking at phenolic ripeness. It must taste just right to be harvested—this is experience, not science, at work in this instance.
Because they collaborate closely on the timing of the harvest, which includes deciding which parcels and which varieties to pick first—at optimum ripeness to the taste of the winemaker, ultimately, the estate grapes are ready to be made into wine not only for Lenz, but for several clients that do not have their own vineyards or winemaking facilities. These clients (not all of them in Long Island), buy their grapes from parcels set aside for them by Lenz and are then made into wine by Eric according to their style specifications. He also works closely with several local vineyards to help make their fruit into wine at the Lenz facilities.
Eric, by the way, is a really gifted winemaker and highly respected by his peers. Some refer to him as a kind of genius. He wears his gray hair in a pony tail and has something of the Hippie about him still. He is actually a very gentle person, very direct, strongly opinionated, self-assured, and generous with his time and readiness to help others. For Lenz, Eric’s practice is to make its best wines to be capable of aging, and he refers to himself as an “acid head”—not referring to LSD but to high acidity levels in the wine. In other words, he encourages it in the wines he makes. It is acidity, after all, that helps give wine structure and longevity. For Eric, that means holding on to the wine for a few years before releasing it. Most wineries don’t hold on to their wines any longer than is absolutely necessary once they’re bottled. It costs money to store it and it means that money is tied up until the wine
So, for example, when Eric works with clients, some of whom have collaborated with him for years, he tries to get them to take his advice. He feels that wine should be held for at least two years before being released to market, but not all of his clients see things his way—at least not at first.
He explains that “I actually have custom clients that I bottle for, that I make wine [for] here. We’re bottling the wine, and they’ll stand there and at the end of the bottling run, they’ll take cases off and throw them on the market, and I’m going, ‘Your call, I wouldn’t do that!’”
Over time, many of his collaborators come around to his way of thinking, or as he puts it, speaking of some of them: “Old Field is into my rhythm, Whisper’s into my rhythm, Harmony, they’re into my rhythm. This is a new client that we’ve just taken on, and I’m still trying to teach him my rhythm, to teach him my way of doing things, and so he had several wines that he was out of stock, and he was calling me up every day going ‘Oh, I need it, I need it.’ And I go like, ‘That means you didn’t plan ahead.’
“At the beginning he bristled and he got all upset and he was like, ‘You’re not cooperating with me.’ And I’m going, ‘I’ll do what you want, but if you want good wine, you should do what I want.’ So he’s coming around, he’s beginning to understand the concept, because I bottled a red wine for him and he wanted to release it right away and I said ‘It’s your wine, you can do whatever you want.’ And he goes and takes a sample and he goes ‘This doesn’t taste like it was before we bottled it.’ I’m going, ‘Well, hello? It needs some bottle age.’ And he’s going, ‘Oh, OK.’”
When he makes a Chardonnay, be sure that the wine is not just made from the Chardonnay grape, pressed, fermented in steel, and bottled—a simple, straightforward, and possibly excellent wine. That’s not Eric’s way. He seeks complexity, and a Chard may be, as he says, 5 % of the wine may be “keg fermented” in 15-year-old barrels, with perhaps a little M-L (malo-lactic) to add more character, but not so much that it makes the wine buttery, as a full M-L may do to a Chard. It imparts more complexity, but in the background. You can’t taste the oak, you can’t discern the M-L, but you can tell that the wine is complex.
But let’s talk about yeast. Eric is a “control-freak,” which means that he’s not someone who uses wild or indigenous yeast in his fermentation. He prefers to buy yeast that has been specifically modified for a particular set of characteristics. For example, for the Chardonnay just mentioned, he used EC1118, a workhorse yeast that brings out fruit flavors. In fact, as he explains, “I’ve been experimenting with yeasts for thirty years. Right after harvest, you go through and taste the barrels or taste the kegs; it’s like ‘Holy cow, this one tastes like this and this one tastes like this, and they’re so different and it’s amazing the yeast affect whatever like that.’ Six months later, you can’t tell them apart.”
He went on to say, “With different wines I use different yeasts on purpose and get different characters on purpose, but most of all the concept that I have is, if whatever yeast you’re using or whatever you’re doing, if the fermentation sticks you’re screwed. So what I do is I use yeasts that are dependable, that will not screw up, because if they screw up, everything’s out the window. All the wonderful nuances you’re looking for, they’re gone.
“The yeast does have a function and does make different flavors, but it’s overrated, it’s not a large factor.”
Eric is also something of a provocateur, so he asked me what I thought about the concept of terroir. I said that I considered the idea of terroir—as conceived by the French—to be something real and that affected the wine made from grapes grown in a particular place. To which he replied, “Terroir is BS, strictly a marketing gimmick. It’s all about marketing.” He then offered me a glass of wine of which he was very proud: the first botrytised dessert wine made at Lenz in the twenty-three years that he’d been winemaker there. Usually botrytis only produced gray rot, something to be avoided and which needed to be controlled with fungicide, but last year the conditions were unique, and the botrytis that settled on the Chardonnay grapes appeared when the grapes were very ripe, the early-morning humidity would burn off as warming sun rose in the East, and violà, a rich and delicious botrytised dessert wine at 73° Brix. When I pointed out that this happened in most years in the Sauternes region of Bordeaux, which surely was an expression of terroir, Eric was dismissive, “Well, whatever.” Provocative, indeed. With respect to organic viticulture Eric feels, again, that it is mostly a matter of marketing rather than making a better wine.
Sam was a bit more philosophical about the matter of terroir, suggesting that its influence may be exaggerated but that it shouldn’t be entirely dismissed out of hand. And, after all, I would like to point out, it is what is done in the vineyard by human intervention, whether by using one kind of trellising over another, say single vs. double Guyot, or vertical shoot positioning or something else, how often the vines are green-harvested or not at all, the use of sustainable practices such as crop cover or biodegradable pesticides, and even the use of a recycling tunnel sprayer for pesticide agents, that are all part of terroir. This, of course, is a broad definition of the term; the traditional definition is more narrow and confines itself to geographical/geological/climatological issues of soil, climate, slope, drainage, aspect to the sun, etc.
Thus, both Lenz wines and the client wines benefit from the careful, practical, and highly professional care that is given to the grapes in the fields from which they are made. Then there is the thoughtful care that the wines get in the winery itself. These are crafted wines, not “natural” ones. The result can be tasted and Lenz wines have often been compared—favorably—to great European wines; for instance, the Lenz 2005 Old Vines Chardonnay held its own to a Domaine Leflaive 2005 Puligny-Montrachet “Les Folatieres,” while a Lenz 2002 Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon tied with a 2002 Château Latour at a blind tasting held at the great Manhattan restaurant Le Bernardin in April 2011. These comparative tastings have been held every year since 1996 and always pit Lenz wines against French equivalents—not California ones, for the Lenz style is closer to that of France than the West Coast. The Lenz Website has a list of these blind tastings and the results.
I can attest to this personally with a blind tasting that I conducted with friends in 2012, comparing a 2007 Meursault-Charmes 1er Cru with a 2007 Lenz Old Vines Chardonnay–they all guessed that the Lenz was the Burgundy wine.
And to think that such results come from a Long Island vineyard . . .
Based on interviews with Sam McCullough & Eric Fry at the Lenz Winery in April 2011 and September 2014
For further reading, Fry and his wines were written about by Eileen Duffy in her book, Behind the Bottle (Cider Mill Press, 2015). Profiles on Sam McCullough and Eric Fry by John Ross can be found in his book, The Story of North Fork Wine: Historical Profiles and Wine Country Recipes (Maple Hill Press, 2009). Jane Taylor Starwood, former editor-in-chief of Long Island Wine Press, featured Lenz Winery in Long Island Wine Country: Award-Winning Vineyards of the North Fork (Three Forks, 2009). Philip Palmedo and Edward Beltrami discussed Lenz in The Wines of Long Island (Amereon House, 2000).
Anthony Nappa pictured with his wines prior to a Winemaker’s Tasting at Empire State Cellars in Riverhead
Anthony Nappa wears several hats at once: as winemaker for Raphael, a major winery on the North Fork, as founder and owner of Winemaker Studio in Peconic, Long Island, and as winemaker for his own brand of wines with intriguing names like Anomaly, Luminous, Spezia, and more. Of the eleven Nappa wines that are presently offered at the Winemaker Studio three have earned 90 points from Wine Enthusiast and a red has won 91 points–the highest score ever by WE for a North Fork wine. That’s really quite remarkable for such a small producer—albeit clearly a gifted one.
Anthony’s road to becoming a winemaker in Long Island was, as is so often the case, circuitous. Born in Massachusetts, he went to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst to earn a degree in agriculture with a focus on fruit-growing. A couple of years later he decided to obtain a degree in viticulture and found that the program at Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand, was the most economical for an English-speaking country. It ended up being a degree in oenology as well, and that was where it discovered that he had an aptitude for it. Four years later he went to Italy, where his family is from, and spent a year at a winery near Naples. After six years abroad he returned and helped start a winery, Running Brook, in southern Massachusetts. He was there for a year before moving on to California to try winemaking there, but West Coast life wasn’t for him. Finally, in 2007, he came to Long Island, got married, and in partnership with his wife, Sarah Evans, who works as a chef, started making his own wine while working at Shinn Estate.
I met him several years ago, when he was at Shinn (2007 to 2011). He went there with the understanding that he could use their facilities to make wine for his own label, which bears his name. His first wine under his label was 200 cases of LI Pinot Noir that he dubbed Nemesis. After he left Shinn he focused more on his own wines and made them at Premium Wine Group, the custom crush facility in Mattituck.
He now has same arrangement with Raphael. As he explains, “We keep everything very separate. [Raphael’s] business is very separate from ours. We pay to make the wine here; it’s just like at Premium. We pay to store it; we pay everything just like we would if we were just a customer. A lot of times I’m working on my stuff, I’m working on their stuff or whatever, but I just try to keep everything very separate.” (To read about Raphael’s wines, see Viniculture in LI: Raphael.)
For Anthony, who has certainly had plenty of experience on both coasts, Long Island is the place to make wine in the East. He told me that “I really think Long Island is the best wine region on the East Coast by far. It’s so diverse; we’ve so much potential. The wines that I’d tasted even ten years ago were better than anywhere else along the East Coast, and they’re even better now.”
As Anthony Nappa Wines has no vineyards of its own, all the wines are made from purchased grapes. Anthony explains:
“I buy grapes from a dozen different vineyards. It changes all of the time. We buy grapes from Upstate, as well. We made a Riesling in the beginning. For me Finger Lakes Riesling is the best Riesling in the country, and I’m just buying grapes. Why wouldn’t I make Finger Lakes Riesling? We label it Finger Lakes and everything; we put vineyard designation on as much stuff as we can.”
Speaking of the dependence on purchased fruit, Anthony said, “The hard part about only buying grapes is we can’t necessarily be consistent. We don’t always get the same quality of fruit. So we might make a wine and then not be able to make it again for years. So it’s hard to be in the marketplace that way. But on the other hand, it’s got its advantages, because we can adjust our production levels every year. We can be opportunistic and jump on good vintages and make extra wine and hold back in bad vintages. We can just do a one-off wine with some grape variety that I was able to purchase and make whatever even just once, if there are some grapes available. We can be opportunistic at the last minute and buy fun stuff, different stuff. There are a lot of advantages to not owning a vineyard, and there’s a lot less risk.”
For example, Anthony has made Nemesis, his first wine, a Pinot Noir, only once. He eschewed making again until this year as he did not find grapes of the quality he demanded for making that varietal again. Talk about fussy.
Anthony operates on the idea of honesty in all things bearing on his wine: honest wine that is made with minimal manipulation (if any) and reveals its varietal character; honest marketing—with full disclosure of how the wine is made; and honest labeling—straightforward and direct, without unneeded embellishments. A testament to that is found in his wine spec sheets which accompany each of his wines. Talk about full disclosure.
The Winemaker Studio
Anthony’s The Winemaker Studio is owned and operated by him and his wife, Chef Sarah Evans Nappa, of Anthony Nappa Wines. They moved to the North Fork in 2007 and in the same year Anthony established his own wine brand, Anthony Nappa Wines while working as winemaker for Shinn Estate. His first wine was Nemesis, a white wine made from Pinot Noir, of which 200 cases were made. Sarah has considerable international experience and is previously the Sous Chef at the North Fork Table & Inn in Southold, NY. When she is not looking after their son Leonard (born in 2013), or running the tasting room, she is available for hire as a private chef for small events and dinner parties.
In the beginning Anthony invited other winemakers who were producing their own brands but had no tasting facilities of their own to offer their wines at the Studio. It was a cooperative venture, and tasting rotated with a different brand being highlighted for tasting each weekend. Over time a number of them moved to other tasting rooms that were more connected to their production. For example, Russell Hearn, John Leo, and Erich Bilka all work at PWG (Premium Wine Group, a custom crush outfit) which has its own tasting facility, The Tasting Group, for brands that are made at PWG. So while their wines are now available at retail from the Studio, their wines are no longer offered as part of the tasting menu, which now only highlights Anthony’s own wines and Greg Gove’s Race label of wines.
The Winemaker Studio is currently offering:
Anthony Nappa Wines from winemaker Anthony Nappa of Raphael Vineyards
Race wines by Greg Gove, former winemaker at Peconic Bay Winery—now closed.
Suhru Wines from winemaker Russell Hearn of Lieb Cellars and head production winemaker PWG
Leo Family from winemaker John Leo of Clovis Point and production winemaker at PWG
T’Jara Wines from winemaker Russell Hearn
Influence Wines from winemaker Erik Bilka of Castello di Borghese and production winemaker at PWG
Coffee Pot Cellars from winemaker Adam Suprenant of Osprey’s Dominion Vineyards, who now has his own tasting room.
Anthony’s own wine labels are elegant in their simplicity and he likes to give his wines distinctive names—each in a different typeface—that reflect something of the character of each. For example, of three that we sampled, the names suggest a story:
Anomaly, so named because it is just that: a white wine made from a red grape–in this case Pinot Noir. According to the spec sheet for this wine, the fruit is sourced from several vineyards: that from the Finger Lakes brings acidity and fruitiness, while from the North Fork the grapes impart more structure and body. Together the blend brings forth a good balance to Anomaly. All the fruit comes from sustainably-maintained vineyards. The grapes are hand-harvested and gently pressed with no skin contact, but using red-wine yeast from Burgundy. Cold-fermented for two weeks, no oak was used nor was there a malolactic fermentation. It was bentonite-filtered for heat stability, cold-stabilized, and sterile-filtered before bottling.
The 2013 Anomaly comes from an excellent vintage characterized by a cool summer and 50 days without any precipitation until harvest, resulting in fully-ripe and very clean fruit. The wine is of a medium lemon color with a slight blush, with a full body, firm acidity, and notes of strawberry, white peach, and a minerally finish, perfect as an aperitif or summer wine. 12.3 % abv; $20; ; 90 points from Wine Enthusiast. Drink within a year.
The 2012 Dodici is a blend of 67% Merlot, 28% Cabernet Franc, and 5% Cab Sauvignon; the fruit, of an excellent vintage, came from two pre-eminent vineyards on the North Fork: McCullough and Matebella, which are sustainably farmed. The spec sheet also tells us that the grapes were fermented after 5 weeks of maceration and aged separately for 18 months in French oak, only blended just prior to bottling unfiltered and unfined. Just 187 cases were produced. The resulting wine is a deep brick-red color with suggestions of tobacco, licorice, and red fruit on the nose while offering a full body and a nice, long finish with mineral notes. Drinkable now, it could be laid down to evolve for five more years. It will happily accompany any red-meat dish or go with a full-bodied cheese. 13.2% abv; $35; 91 points from Wine Enthusiast.
Anthony’s 2013 Chardonnay has an Italian spelling that reflects what he considers to be a “rustic Italian style,” but given that the grapes come from McCullough Vineyards one might wonder if there weren’t a touch of the Irish about it as well. Anyhow, the vintage has been described above and as a result the fruit shows beautifully. Unoaked, the wine was fermented with wild yeast and then underwent a malolactic fermentation, yielding aromas of ripe peaches, citrus, and buttery notes. With that we have a full-bodied wine with firm acidity and a medium-length with some minerality. In fact, we’d call it elegant, and it has excellent typicity–this can be nothing other than a Chardonnay, and a very-well made one at that. Perfect with any fish or seafood. 13.9% abv; $20; ; 90 points from Wine Enthusiast; to drink now or hold for a few years.
Raphael Winery entrance, by Petrocelli Construction
Raphael Winery, in Peconic, on the North Fork of Long Island, was founded by John Petrocelli Sr. and his wife, Joan, and is family-owned. Petrocelli is also the owner of J. Petrocelli Construction, which specializes in quality design and building, and the handsome, 28,000 sq. ft. winery was designed by him, inspired by the architecture of the Neapolitan monasteries of his native Italy. He named it after his father, Raphael, who was an avid home winemaker like his own father before him, so John Sr. came by his oenophilia perhaps genetically. The venture was five years in planning and cost $6,000,000 to complete, with the intention of making the premium winery of Long Island, Italian-inspired but Bordeaux-oriented.
When the commitment to build the winery was made, it was clear that a vital component, the vineyard, needed to be tended to by expert viticulturalists. The family then hired David and Steve Mudd—Mudd VMC is the premier vineyard management consulting firm on the Island—to help guide them in the development of a Bordeaux-type of winery. Also hired as advisers were Paul Pontallier, managing director of Ch. Margaux—one of the five Premier Cru châteaux in Bordeaux— along with Richard Smart, a respected Australian viticulture consultant who had earned his Ph.D. at Cornell. With their advice the cellar and equipment was developed along those lines, and built twelve feet below the ground in order to allow for the first gravity-fed fermentation tanks to be used in the region, using as models Opus One and Mondavi, of Napa Valley. (Gravity feed is considered to be less stressful and damaging to the fruit and organic matter that constitutes the must than is mechanical pumping.)
One of Raphael’s vineyard plots
In 1996 the Mudds planted the first vineyard for Raphael with Merlot, and have been managing the vineyard, which has grown to 60 acres over the years, ever since, using sustainable practices, including what Steve Mudd calls “fussy viticulture”—green harvesting by hand—from the very beginning. (In fact, the first wine made under the Raphael label came from Merlot vines grown at the Mudds’ own vineyard and were vinified at Pellegrini Vineyard. The first wine produced at the new facility was the 1999 vintage.) Other varieties have been planted since the Merlot, including Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Riesling, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
According to Steve Mudd, a nine-foot space between rows is supposed to provide room for equipment to move along the rows, but it’s a myth that that much space is necessary. Pontallier, when asked his opinion about the row spacing and vine density, said, “it is not for me to say” what it should be, but back in 1994, when the vineyard was still in the planning stage, he had argued against close spacing, suggesting 3 meters (10 feet). The density of the first planting at Raphael is just 820 vines per acre (9’x6’ spacing) as opposed to about 2,550 in Bordeaux. Later plantings increased the density somewhat, and the rest of the vineyard is now spaced at 9’x5’, or 968 vines/acre.
The quality wines produced by Raphael simply would not be possible if it weren’t for the work done in the vineyard by Steve Mudd and his crew. High-quality fruit is always there for the winemaker, even in a bad-harvest year like 2011.
For further insight into the viticultural practices at Raphael, the reader is referred to another post, on Mudd VMC, the contracted vineyard manager for the winery.
Richard Olsen-Harbich, who had been Raphael’s winemaker since its founding and helped define its style of wines—made reductively, using native yeasts, with minimal intervention, in order to allow the hand-picked grapes to more clearly express the terroir. After he left in 2010 to work at Bedell Cellars Leslie Howard became winemaker, but in 2012 Les moved on and Anthony Nappa, former winemaker at Shinn Estate, maker of Anthony Nappa Wines, and founder of the Winemaker’s Studio, took over as winemaker at Raphael.
I met Anthony several years ago, when he was winemaker at Shinn (2007 to 2011). When he first went to there it was with the understanding that he could use their facilities to make wine for his own label, which bears his name. His first wine under his label was 200 cases of LI Pinot Noir. After he left Shinn he focused more on his own wines and made them at Premium Wine Group, the custom crush facility in Mattituck.
He now has same arrangement with Raphael. As he explains, “We keep everything very separate. [Raphael’s] business is very separate from ours. We pay to make the wine here; it’s just like at Premium. We pay to store it; we pay everything just like we would if we were just a customer. A lot of times I’m working on my stuff, I’m working on their stuff or whatever, but I just try to keep everything very separate. They don’t sell our wine, we don’t sell their wine.” (To read more about Anthony Nappa and his own wines, see Oenology in LI: Anthony Nappa Wines.)
For Anthony, who has certainly had plenty of experience on both coasts, Long Island is the place to make wine in the East. He told me that “I really think Long Island is the best wine region on the East Coast by far. It’s so diverse; we’ve so much potential. The wines that I’d tasted even ten years ago were better than anywhere else along the East Coast, and they’re even better now.”
To the question, “What have you done since you’ve been here to in any way define the wines of Raphael to a new standard, an Anthony Nappa standard?”
He replied that by “having standards, the first goal is to just figure out where we are and what’s going on with sales and production, and try to get the business side of things in line as far as what we’re making, cutting packaging costs, and streamlining the whole production side. Raphael wants to make money, so obviously the financial side of it is important. And then on the winemaking side, it was just looking at every product. The first thing is to only make as much as we sell. A lot of wineries just bring in the fruit, make it, bottle it, warehouse it. Our goal is to figure out what we’re selling, and any excess we sell off in bulk—any fruit or wine or whatever—and then figuring out each product and having a standard for it.
“We have a whole line of what we call ‘First Label.’ It’s all the Reserve wines, and those are all from our vineyard. We buy a lot of fruit too, but those are all from our vineyard. It’s just like with my own wines, we have very high standards for fruit and we have very high standards for the quality of each wine. I’ll just not make a wine. If the quality is not there, if the fruit doesn’t deliver, it gets downgraded to a lower level wine, and if the vineyard doesn’t deliver, we just don’t buy the fruit. That’s easy for me, because I’m the one buying the fruit.
“It’s easy to fuck things up. You’re taking grapes and from the moment you pick them, it’s all downhill. You’re just trying to protect it through the process, but it’s on a long, slow trail to becoming vinegar from the moment you pick it . . .”
I replied, “It seems to me every single winery should have a sign that says ‘First thing, don’t fuck it up.’”
He went on: “But we try to make everything. I’m a non-interventionist. I want the grapes to express themselves. I want the Cab Franc to taste like Cab Franc and I don’t want to just make everything taste the same. So usually I just bring things in and let everything ferment wild and let things go. And then I intervene when I have to. When the fruit comes in we look at it and we make decisions sometimes on the fly based on what we’re going to do. Then I always err on the side of caution. If I’m not sure about something I do nothing, and I intervene when I have to.”
Anthony concluded with this remark: “I think a lot of wineries just go through the motions and just make the same wines every year and there’s a huge separation between upstairs and downstairs and outside and inside and there needs to be more synergy, there to have some more consistency. No one has done anything different ever in this business that hasn’t been done for the last thousands of years. It’s just about taking thousands of decisions and putting them in a different order and you get a different result. But there are no secrets, you know.”
Trying Raphael’s wines in the spacious and handsome tasting room proved to be very interesting, as there was a wide range of wine types and styles on offer, and he had plenty to say about them. (Please note: the wines identified as “First Label” are considered to be Reserve Wines; i.e., the best produced by the winery.)
The 2010 First Label Chardonnay ($39), which came out of Mudd Vineyards (there is no Chardonnay planted at Raphael) was pressed to yield 120 gallons per ton of grapes (clone CY3779), so out of 5 tons of this particular parcel 600 gallons, or about 3,000 bottles, were made. It underwent a 100% malolactic fermentation, was kept on its lees, and spent eight months in oak barrels. It was bottled unfiltered, with low sulfites. The result was that in the glass the wine was clear, offering citrus, butterscotch flavors, and toasty notes. It has the typicity of an oaked Chardonnay, somewhere between a Burgundy or California version. 2010 was perhaps the greatest wine vintage in Long Island—given its early budding, excellent weather, and early harvest—and the quality of the Chardonnay was also a reflection of this. Made by Leslie Howard.
The 2013 First Label Sauvignon Blanc ($28) The last months of the growing season had no precipitation and no notable disease pressure, so Raphael was able to harvest each grape variety at leisure and at each one’s peak. According to them all the wines from 2013 show exceptional natural balance and full ripeness, which is also promising for the future longevity of the wines of this vintage. The Sauvignon Blanc was made from hand-selected grapes from their oldest vines to help produce balanced, structured wines. Made with partial skin contact and cold-fermented in stainless steel, this dry wine exhibits a bright nose of citrus and pineapple, along with flavors of pineapple, grapefruit and lemongrass, a full body and a long dry acidic finish.It’s a clear, pale-lemon colored wine with aromas of pineapple, white peach, and, citrus; clean, medium-bodied, with high acidity and a mineral finish. An exceptionally enjoyable Sauvignon Blanc that matches well with seafood and spicy Indian and other Asian cuisines. Made by Anthony Nappa. 13.1% ABV.
The 2013 First Label Riesling ($28) from the same excellent vintage as that of the Sauvignon Blanc described above. The grapes were hand-harvested and pressed very gently after two days of skin contact in the tank. The juice was fermented using naturally-occurring indigenous yeasts from the skins. Fermentation was carried out cold at 55F and lasted 5 weeks. The wine saw no wood, as befits a Riesling. It was blended from several batches and then bentonite-fined for heat stability, cold-stabilized and sterile-filtered before bottling. This is a limited-production, dry Riesling that offers a firm but balanced acidity matched by fruit concentration that produces a beguilingly aromatic and rather full-bodied—for a Riesling—with a dry, minerally finish. This wine shows flavors of fresh apricot and ripe pear. Excellent as an aperitif or to accompany seafood, chicken dishes, and spicy cuisines. Anthony Nappa. 12.4% ABV.
The 2013 Cabernet Franc ($25) also benefited from the excellent conditions of the vintage. The fruit was hand-harvested, de-stemmed, and crushed. The grapes from different lots were then fermented apart. The fermentation was carried out at 75F to retain fruit flavors and took a month with pumpovers twice a day. The wine was aged with 50% in stainless steel and the rest in French oak barrels, where it underwent natural malolactic fermentation. The aging took ten months before the wine was blended and then bottled unfiltered and unfined. The resulting wine has a firm acidity, full body, and offers a pronounced fruity aroma of ripe red berries with herbal notes and a hint of tobacco. It is actually ready to drink now bout would certainly bear aging a few more years, given that it was so recently bottled. A fine accompaniment to any variety of pork, beef, or lanb dishes. It would be good with cheese or chocolate as well. Anthony Nappa. 12.9% ABV.
In June 2015 the Wine Advocate blog posted a review of 200 Long Island Wines, of which 7 were from Raphael, earning scores of 86 to 92 points. The top Raphael wine was the 2010 Merlot First Label, by Leslie Howard, with 92 points, followed by the 2014 Suvignon Blanc First Label, at 91 points, by Anthony Nappa, and the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon by Howard at 90 points. Quite a track record from Robert Parker’s Website.
Based on interviews with Anthony Nappa and Steve Mudd
13 June 2012; updated 22 June 2014
39390 Main Road/Route 25, Peconic, NY 11958; (631) 765.1100
Based on interviews with Alex and Joe Macari, Jr on 9 July 2009 & 17 June 2010; updated 21 November 2014
Macari Vineyards is on the North Fork of Eastern Long Island (aka the East End) in Mattituck, and owned and operated by the Macari Family. Joseph Macari Jr., now runs the winery with his wife, Alexandra (called Alex by those who know her—but actually Alejandra, for she’s originally from Argentina). Though Macari Vineyards was established in 1995, the Macari Family has owned the 500-acre estate—bounded by the south shore of Long Island Sound—for nearly 50 years [though in 2009 they sold 60 acres of non-vineyard land, so it is now down to 440 acres]. What were once potato fields and farmland now includes a vineyard of 200 acres of vines with additional fields of compost, farmland, and a home to long-horn cattle, goats, Sicilian donkeys and ducks.
Macari sees itself as on the cutting edge of viticulture and has long been committed to as natural an approach to winemaking as is possible. Since 2005 Joseph Macari, Jr. has been considered as a pioneer in the movement towards natural and sustainable farming on Long Island, employing principles of biodynamic farming beginning with the vineyard’s first crops. By giving consideration to the health of the environment as a whole and moving away from the noxious effects of industrial pesticides towards a more natural and meticulous caretaking of the soil and plants, Macari believes that it has found a more promising way to yield premium wines (recalling the old French axiom, that wine begins in the vineyard). This does not mean that Macari claims to be producing organic grapes, nor organic wines—that, in Joe’s view, is not possible for a vineyard of its size in Long Island, given the climate, with its high humidity and much rain during the growing season, both of which tend to encourage the ravages of fungal and bacterial infections of the vines, as well as attacks by a range of insects.
My first visit was in July of last year, and my follow-up visit was this June. We started in the new and modern Tasting Room at the Winery. Alex, as Joe’s wife is called) began with a tasting of a range of Macari wines, all of which were well-made and at the least, quite good, with some of very fine quality, well-balanced, with good acidity and fruit. The winery produces both barrel-fermented and steel-fermented whites as well as barrel-fermented reds and a couple of cryo-ice wines (“fake” ice wine, as Alex teased, but Joe is an enthusiast, and the wine is actually delicious and has won awards). In fact, the winery employs two winemakers, one of whom is Austrian and makes the steel-fermented whites as well as the ice wines. (I’ll review the wines when I write about wine-making at Macari in a separate post.)
The vineyard tour in a 4-wheel-drive pickup truck began with an exploration of the composting area, where manure from the farm animals is gathered (cows—including long-horn steers—horses, and chickens) as well as the vine detritus (which is charred in order to render any infection or harmful residue neutral), and 35 tons of fish waste that is delivered once a week by a Fulton Fish Market purveyor (Joe says that the fish guts & bones provide excellent nitrogen & DNA for the compost, so it is highly nutritive for the vines). At the time of my visit the compost heaps—some of which were from six to eight feet high—were covered in weeds, which will be removed before the compost is applied as fertilizer.
In order to save time and space—two valuable commodities in growing wine grapes—vineyards sometimes graft new vines onto a mature rootstock, rather than starting an entirely new plant. According to the Macari Website, theirs is the first vineyard on Long Island to successfully grow over-grafted vines. With over-grafting, a new variety can be grown from the rootstock of a different plant, which is a much faster way of growing vines than planting new ones. The future of every vineyard depends on the carefully executed process of planting new vines. Macari’s vision of the future is constantly evolving as the owners, vineyard manager and winemaker learn more about their vines, and the microclimates found in the fields.
The vineyard proper is very well-tended, the various varieties separated into blocks, using Vertical Shoot Positioning (VSP), and in many parcels irrigation tubes were carefully aligned along the bottom wires of the rows to provide drip irrigation if necessary, though the high humidity and rainfall of the region reduces the likelihood of needing its use. In fact, the 2009 season thus far has had such an excess of rainfall—often very heavy—that in many parts of the vineyard there was blossom damage and many of the developing bunches of grapes were, in effect, incomplete due to fruit loss.
Joe has been using, to the extent possible, both organic and Biodynamic® methods of viticulture, but due to the highly-humid conditions in the vineyard, he must still resort to conventional sprays from time to time, so he refuses to claim to be organic or biodynamic, though he finds that to the extent that it is possible to use these viticultural methods, it is worthwhile. For one thing, Joe worships Mother Earth, and believes in the Rudolf Steiner principle that there ought to be a harmony between earth, sky, and water, and in consequence has resorted in the past to planting cow horns at the ends of rows, with the requisite composting “teas” that are recommended by the biodynamic movement. He plans to return to this practice again in coming years. Though Alex appears to be skeptical of the remedy, the special attention and care demanded by organic and biodynamic practice are evident in the vineyard, as can be seen in the picture above, which shows the cover crop extending from between the rows right into the vines themselves, weeds and all, in order to allow the greatest amount of vegetative variety and expand the quantity of beneficial insects and other fauna to find their natural habitat.
Another reason that Macari does not seek Organic Certification is economical. It is one thing to apply expensive organic sprays on, say a 20-acre field, quite another to do so on 200. The sprays cost twice as much as the industrial alternatives and the spraying would involve higher labor costs, as the number of times that the spray needs to be applied would be higher than for conventional applications. Furthermore, the fact that you can practice organic and/or biodynamic farming without going for 100% organic—being pragmatic about using industrial sprays when absolutely needed, but otherwise being committed to organic ones when it is suitable—means that you can have a sustainable, healthy vineyard in almost all respects.
In other words, as Joe sees it, Organic Certification may be economically viable for a small vineyard, but is much less so for large ones.
One additional bit of evidence regarding the exceptional care given the Macari vineyards is the employment of a team of specialized grafters from California, who travel around the country—and the world—grafting new shoots to old roots, so that, for example, a field of Chardonnay can be quickly converted to Sauvignon Blanc. The process is highly meticulous, requiring special knowledge of the condition of the roots. For example, in the case of a root with splitting bark, one type of graft and wrapping may be applied as opposed to another for a root that doesn’t suffer from the problem. This team of five men can graft about 500 roots a day at a cost of $2.00 per root—a highly efficient rate that is cost-effective for the vineyard. (This team had earlier been working in Hawaii, and has also done grafting for Château Margaux—yes, that one in Bordeaux of 1855 Classification fame—and at the same time was working at Peconic Bay Vineyards nearby.)
As a further example of the globalization of viticultural practices, Joe also has a French specialist in tying vines to the trellising system come from Southern France with his own team in order to train his Guatemalan workers in how to properly tie vines to the wires, for it must be done properly if the vines are to be held to the wires for the duration of the growing season.
To the extent that one can achieve balance with nature in viticulture (or in agriculture as whole), Joe Macari has certainly shown that he in the vanguard of that search. It is not for the sake of certification, either organic or biodynamic, that he does this, but out of respect for his vineyard’s terroir, which is to say, the land, the soil, the vines, the climate. But all viticultural work involves experimentation, and Joe is always experimenting, as new ideas and information become available to him. There is always a better way. The pursuit is endless, and the story therefore never ends.
PS–For another recent appreciation of Joe Macari’s work, see the informed and thoughtful account by Louisa Hargrave in the January 14, 2010 issue of the Suffolk News at https://www.macariwines.com/macari.ihtml?page=awards&awardid=184
In fact, a favorite wine of ours offered at the New York Uncorked wine tasting was a really sublime 2013 Sauvignon Blanc by Kelly—deeply perfumed with floral aromas and the typical Sauvignon flavor profile beautifully tamed with a fine balance of citrus fruit and floral notes against a firm acidic backbone. The best American SB that I can remember, frankly. Kelly was so happy with the result that she said that she wished that she could “swim in it”–in a tank, to be sure.
In the summer of 2014, Macari was named New York State Winery of the Year at the NY Wine & Food Classic, a tasting competition of over 800 wines from across the state’s viticultural areas. Macari’s 2010 Cabernet Franc was named by the competition’s judges as the Best Red Wine of the show.
150 Bergen Avenue, Mattituck, NY 11952
Cutchogue Tasting Room
24385 Route 25, Cutchogue, NY 11935