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Oenology in Long Island: Anthony Nappa Wines

Anthony at ESC

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

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

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

I met 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

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

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

The Winemaker Studio is currently offering:

  • Anthony Nappa Wines from winemaker Anthony Nappa of Raphael Vineyards
  • Race wines by Greg Gove, former winemaker at Peconic Bay Winery—now closed.
  • Suhru Wines from winemaker Russell Hearn of Lieb Cellars 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:

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

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

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

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

Anthony, TWS signAnthony Nappa Wines

An all-New York Wine Outlet: Empire State Cellars

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

In fact, as of 2017, Peconic Bay Winery has opened its tasting room as a kind of mini-ESC. For that story, please read http://blogwine.riversrunby.net/viticultural-practices-in-li-part-iii-peconic-bay-winery/.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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