Category Archives: Wineries

Viniculture in LI, Part III: Shinn Estate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shinn Estate Website

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

Wines of Valencia: Bodegas y Viñedos Barón d’Alba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viniculture in the Niagara Escarpment: Arrowhead Spring Vineyards

First, a story.

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

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

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

The Niagara Escarpment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 The Interview:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cab Fran grapes at the beginning of veraison.

Cab Franc grapes at the beginning of veraison.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arrowhead Spring Vineyards

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

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

Viniculture in LI, Part III: Castello di Borghese

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then there was this exchange:

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

Allegra: “Are like our family.”

Giovanni: “Depend on this job . . .”

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

Clearly, they speak with one voice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Louisa Hargrave provided this explanation in an e-mail:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Borghese Family for Website

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

Castello di Borghese Website

Owners: Allegra, Fernando, & Giovanni Borghese

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roman & full-time vineyard crew at lunch

Roman & full-time vineyard crew at lunch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roman & crew at soccer. Goal!

Roman & crew at soccer. Goal!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wölffer Estate

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

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


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

 

Viniculture in the Hudson Valley–Whitecliff Vineyards (updated)

The Hudson River Region has three wine trails, of which two are on the East side of the river and one on the West. The western one is the Shawangunk, of which Whitecliff Vineyards is one of the wineries on the trail, which has the oldest continually-operating winery in the United States, now known as Brotherhood Winery. Located in Gardiner, NY, Whitecliff is easy to get to from the New York Thruway at exit 18, at New Paltz, where the earliest vinifera vines in the valley were planted in 1673—unsuccessfully—as they knew nothing then about pests like the devastating root louse, Phylloxera.  Today winegrowers know plenty about vine pests and diseases, and the Valley now has dozens of successful wine-grape vineyards planted to both hybrid and vinifera varieties.

ridgeBackgroundWhitecliff is a family-owned, award-winning winery and vineyard with 20 varieties currently planted. Most are experimental, but the production wines include both vinifera varieties such as Pinot Noir and Riesling, and hybrids like Seyval, Marquette, and Vignoles.  Red, white, pink, and sparkling wines are made from these and other grapes. The owners are Michael Migliore and Yancey Stanforth-Migliore.

Of the varieties on the 26 acres of vineyard at Whitecliff there is a roughly a fifty-fifty balance of vinifera and hybrids. The experimental varieties may have just a row or two of vines.  All the varieties are Vertical Shoot Positioning (VSP) trained, which is a standard system for vinifera vines. Other vineyards in the Valley may use high wire for their hybrids, but at the time of harvest it’s really difficult, as one has to “fight through this jungle of leaves and tendrils and shoots” in order to get at the grapes. Using VSP with the hybrid varieties doesn’t really have much of a downside, given that the ones grown here are all pretty tame, like Traminette, Noiret, and so on. They have pretty restrictive soil, so there isn’t too much vigor and VSP helps manages it well. The soil is composed of clay of three different types: Churchville soil, which is a heavy clay, Castile, and Cayuga. The latter two have more sand and are sandy loams, more like the soils in Long Island. Cayuga soil has larger stones, small gravel, and affords good drainage and runs down from the top of the hill, where the Castile and Cayuga soils appear on either side of the winery at the base. This was once a flood plain for the Wisconsin Era glacial melting. There’s visible evidence of washout and conglomerate rock from the glacial action. The acidity is naturally at about 5.6 pH so every other year lime has to be added to the soil so that the acidity is kept at about 6.5-6.6, which is pretty basic. Also typical of the soils of the Hudson Valley is a deficiency of phosphorus. That’s another reason that one has to get into the soil and really work it, because added phosphorus is not mobile. It can’t just be spread it on the ground in the expectation that it will get down to the roots on its own.

Whitecliff Vineyards, 08Michael is an organic chemist by both degree and experience; he spent years at IBM working on projects involving optical lithography among other things. He planted the vineyard one year after he started working at IBM in 1978, so it took a long time to grow it to what it is today. They originally purchased eighteen acres of land and later on added another fifty acres. The vineyard was started by planting a one-and-a-half acre plot and another three-acre plot. They now have twenty-six acres under vines.  It is now one of the largest vineyards in the Valley.  He and his wife Yancey opened the winery when he was still working for IBM in 1999, offering wines from the 1998 harvest. For years before that they had sold their fruit to other wineries until they finally had their own facility.

Michael’s prowess in both the cellar and in the vineyard is such that he not only has won awards but is also the role model for other wineries in the region.  Indeed, he is also the current president of the Hudson Valley Wine and Grape Association.

Whitecliff Vineyards, 11The Vineyard plots sit in clear proximity of the Shawangunk Cliffs–the most important rock-climbing site on the East Coast–hence the name of the vineyards.  The vines are planted about 4’ 6” to 5’ apart, and about 6’ for the Seyval–even that could be brought down to 5 feet. As Michael says, “If there’s anything that I’ve learned in thirty-six years of growing grapes, it’s that closer planting is better.” The rows are 9 feet apart but with replanting that may change over time.

Among red varieties Whitecliff has about an acre and a quarter of Pinot Noir, some of which is used for the sparkling wine, which has a cuvé that is 40% Pinot and 60% Chardonnay. Some goes into the sparkling rosé, which is 100% Pinot Noir. The rest goes into the still wine. It does well on the site, planted on a south-facing hillside with good drainage that seems ideally suited for the variety.   They also grow Cabernet Franc and Merlot as well as some hybrids such as Noiret and Marquette.

There are roughly an acre-and-a-half each of the Pinot Noir and Cab Franc at 4’ 6” spacing, which is good for the soil in which they are planted. The other big red-wine grape here is Gamay Noir—in fact, Whitecliff is one of only two vineyards in the state that grow that grape. In fact, Michael thinks that this is more of a Burgundian than a Bordeaux-like climate in that Pinot Noir, Gamay, Cab Franc, and Chardonnay all do well here. There is also a small plot of Merlot but no Cabernet Sauvignon, which just doesn’t do well here due to the short growing season.

On the other hand, Riesling thrives at the vineyard. With respect to Rieslings from the Finger Lakes or Long Island, Michael finds that when they bring them in they lack acidity, so they have to add Whitecliff Riesling to give it some backbone, then it’s really good. There is one acre of Riesling as well as three acres of Traminette, Another three acres are planted with Chardonnay.

The Gewürztraminer x Joannes Seyvel 23.416 hybrid, Traminette, was released by Cornell, but it had been developed in Illinois by the hybridizer Herb Barrett in 1965. For Michael, Traminette is a great success story. white-rose-2013-imgThough he has both the Traminette and Gewürz planted in his vineyard, he finds the former easier to grow. It’s yields are higher, it’s less prone to disease, it’s more cold hardy. It has the core of the Gewürztraminer characteristics: lychee and rose aromas and flavors.  Gewürz is more of a challenge to the winegrower in order to get the full range of flavors that it can offer. It needs to hang longer for fuller ripeness, but the more time it spends on the vine, the more prone it is to rot, for example. Now the Migliores have embarked on a new 75% Traminette-25% Gewürz blend called White Rose.  The reason that Whitecliff doesn’t produce a Gewürz varietal is that the quantity grown presently doesn’t yield enough to reach a hundred cases, which is the minimum that they want for any of their wines. In truth, White Rose is a field blend—something that they’ve never done before. The Gewürz is added to the Traminette to bring up the blend’s flavor profile.

While they do use machinery for spraying, all the other field work is done by hand. They don’t need to use a curtain or recycling sprayer here because drip is not a problem with the neighbors so far away. The tower sprayer is more than adequate for the work that has to be done in the vineyard. At Whitecliff they try to follow an Integrated Pest Management Program (IPM), but they are not organic or Biodynamic. They deeply care about the environment and use as much of the organic inputs as possible, including copper and lime and phosphoric acid (about which there is a debate about whether or not it can be considered part of a certified organic program. They try to use minimal spray inputs and are constantly monitoring what they use. If a sprayer is fully loaded and taken into the field it can be worked all day, but the cost comes to about $500 to $600 each time, so obviously there’s no incentive to spray too much. The idea is to spray before any fungi or insects can take hold of a field, a kind of prophylactic treatment. Once anything takes hold, it is far more difficult and expensive to get it under control. Besides that, the winery needs to keep a lookout for new pesticides that might be more effective than what it currently is using.   (One reason for this is that organisms that survive a toxic application will beget resistant offspring. This is now a big problem in New York due to so much overuse.) Basically, the spray schedule for the season is from ten to fourteen days of spraying. They’ve done well so far, as they’ve not had any major breakouts in the vineyard.

Another problem with spraying is that many vineyard managers think that sprays contain systemic chemicals, which is to say that they remain in the plants and do not wash away in the rain, and they’re wrong. There are only a couple of them that are systemic, the rest need to be resprayed after a rain. Furthermore, as Michael says, “once or twice in every ten years you are going to have to use non-organic sprays because this isn’t the Napa Valley, it isn’t a desert; this is where it’s cold and damp.” All of which adds to the disease pressure. Last summer there was a great deal of rain. When a New York vineyard is hit by a lot of rain, it must be put on a seven-day spray schedule to save the crop and one doesn’t have much choice in terms of what must be sprayed. Copper, which is approved for organic farming, is an important input that gives excellent results, but over time it accumulates in the soil and is toxic, so one may have an organic farm but under these circumstances, but ironically, not be sustainable.

About disease pressure, Michael says that “Among the diseases that most press on the vineyard is Downy Mildew, which rears its ugly head every July.  The next is Powdery Mildew, and then there’s Botrytis, which comes in at the end of the season. Black rot is another disease to reckon with, so it needs to be sprayed assiduously, and that includes the mummies that may be clinging to the canopy, where they can sporelate.”

The thing that Michael stresses about spraying is that the vineyard needs constant vigilance to always be ready to spray when needed.

WineryIt is because of Michael’s background as a chemist and years of experience with the high tech of IBM that he eventually invested in a state-of-the-art winery: a large, open structure built in 2011—the building could, in his words, also be called “an above-ground cellar.” It uses geothermal heating and cooling, costing about one-third of what it would be if doing it any other way. There are also supplemental heat exchangers that can also cool it off or heat it up. The heating comes up through the floor. This takes care of a space that is forty by eighty, or thirty-two hundred square feet. In addition, they have a fifteen by eighty-foot covered pad in the back, which though it has a roof, remains exposed to the outside.

Another way in which the winery is efficient is in using the glycol for the air conditioning Whitecliff Vineyards, 15for the cooling jackets for the fermentation tanks. When using the air conditioning for cooling the building, they use the extracted heat for their hot water. The winery is already oriented to the south so that if they install solar panels the energy use will be a net-neutral system.  (Perhaps at that point Whitecliff will even have a surplus that can be sold back to the grid.)

According to Michael, the system that’s in place cost about 30% more than one using a standard energy system, but because so much energy is saved the RTO is about seven years.

With respect to Michael’s philosophy about winegrowing, he sums it up in one word: “Quality.” In his case this means that the first thing he looks for is quality in the grapes that they’re going to harvest. For Whitecliff, when they bring good fruit into the winery the winemaker’s first obligation is to “not screw it up. Work with what is given and the rest is very simple.”  They look for a balanced wine, so if necessary they will chaptalize if the Brix isn’t high enough.  If a wine is too thin or too acidic, they will take the necessary measures to bring the wine into balance.  Given that this is not Napa Valley, and it’s a cold climate, and no two vintages are the same, adjustments of this kind will have to be made from time to time. Because of this, it is very challenging for the winemaker, and as far as Michael is concerned, if a winemaker can make good wine in the East, he or she will certainly succeed in Australia or California and have a much easier time of it.

When it comes time to harvest the crop, they typically bring in about ten people to help out. They also handle the fruit in other vineyards, so the crew can be kept busy for a number of days. In some cases they will work in a vineyard from which Whitecliff buys fruit—the owner may have a small crew and they supply the rest of the pickers. It’s all done by agreement.

In the winters of 2013 and 2014 deep freezes seriously damaged the Gamay Noir vines so Whitecliff has now purchased a six-acre plot on the East side of the Hudson near the foot of the Rip Van Winkle Bridge and just below the hills of Olana, Frederick Church’s legendary home.  Records indicate that this particular plot does not freeze, in good part because it enjoys the “river effect” where large bodies of water ameliorate the climate.  The vines are being planted and should be productive in a couple of years or so.

Whitecliff Vineyards, 13When they harvest, they drop the grapes into lugs that they then bring to the crush pad and deposit them in macro-bins capable of holding about 1,200 pounds, and then do as much gravity-fed processing as possible. The crusher sits directly over the press so that there’s no need for pumping the white grapes. One thing that they do at Whitecliff that is different from what is done by most other East Coast wineries, is not to use gravity settling for its whites, but instead use flotation clearing.  This began with their 2009 Riesling, which subsequently won a Double-Gold medal in the San Francisco International Wine Competition.  (More about this below.)  

In Germany this floation process, called Floatclear, is widely used.  After crushing winemakers  add enzymes to the juice, then run it through a centrifugal pump and bleed in nitrogen at a 6-bar pressure at a rate of four liters a minute. This results in nitrogen bubbles in the juice adhering to the particulate matter in it, which floats up to the top of the tank instead of letting the particles settle to the bottom. It greatly speeds up the process of clearing the wine prior to fermentation, because they can clarify about 3,000 liters an hour: in an hour-and-a-half they can finish a whole tank of juice to be ready for the yeast to be added, instead of having to wait about 24 hours or so for the settling to take place on its own. Also, the normal loss [of juice] is about five to ten percent when using gravity for clearing the juice as opposed to about three percent with this process.

As Michael said, “The result is so much cleaner, much better–we’re so glad that we’ve gone down this path that they can’t believe that not everybody is using it. Not only that, but just think of the energy that’s involved in cooling the tank for twenty-four hours, then bringing it back up to a temperature where you can get the fermentation started. It’s a brilliant tool. We’re one of the first in the state to adopt it. I know that some up in the Finger Lakes are doing it but I don’t know of anyone out in Long Island that’s doing it right now.”

Whitecliff has recently undergone several changes to its processing. For one, they’ve gone to synthetic corks for the whites. Screw caps, the other alternative to natural corks, require a capital investment of about $15,000 in machinery. Synthetic corks demand no changes in the equipment used for natural corks. Furthermore, synthetics cost less than natural, on the order of 16 cents versus 26 cents. Screw caps cost about 6 to 7 cents, but the investment up front is very high so that it takes a long time to get back your return on investment. They’re really more suited to larger operations than Whitecliff.

Natural corks allow an ingress of oxygen of about 30 parts per million, whereas synthetic ones allow only five parts. Screw caps had a problem with the barriers that were used for a long time; even today they aren’t recommended for keeping white wine for longer than about two years. Instead, Whitecliff uses a top-of-the-line Nomacorc product that is especially designed to control and limit the transfer of oxygen.

Production this year is about the same as last year—about 7,000 cases. And they want to rebalance their production. That is, “We over-produced on some and under-produced on others.”

Whitecliff’s number-one selling wine is Awosting White, a Vignoles-Seyval Blanc blend. They had hugely boosted production of it, so they overproduced it, so they’ve got to cut back on it. Michael says that, “It’s probably our signature wine. It’s held up well. The production of Traminette is growing, but it’s a problem where it is in that field, which is shielded so doesn’t get any wind. So it tends to get Botrytis and sour rot, too. This is something we’re still trying to figure out.” But this year they decided to harvest it early as a result of an experimental program over the last couple of years, and they’re going to move it into the sparkling wine program.

Whitecliff Vineyards, 10The winemaker is Brad Martz. He came to Michael after tasting some wines and he asked if they needed any volunteer help. So he helped out in the cellar, and worked with them in the sparkling wine processing. After a couple of years he came on as assistant winemaker. He learned much of what he knows about winemaking on the job at Whitecliff.   He also did self-study as well as earning a degree from UC Davis. “We worked together and he learned as we worked,” Michael said of Brad, “The thing about him is that he’s committed, he’s mature, and he has a good intellect and excellent palate.” He was just promoted to winemaker this year, but Michael remains involved in the final decision of what goes into the bottle of every wine. Michael believes that it’s better to learn on the job at the winery than to go spend that time earning a degree in winemaking, after which the graduate knows the concepts but not the practice.

So to the extent possible, they try to make natural wines, but they won’t touch ambient yeasts for the most part, so they use yeasts that are commercially available. In Michael’s view, companies have done very well with their yeasts, and he can decide, for example, to cold-ferment Riesling for eight weeks and there will be a yeast to do that. With natural yeasts that cannot be done; one may get the desired result sometimes but at other times one can end up with a stuck fermentation. In fact, once a winery has used a particular yeast for many fermentations, and the pomace is thrown into the fields, then that strain will become the dominant yeast out there, even if it’s not native.

They use gravity feed instead of pumps because if the must goes through a pump connected to a hose at high pressure there is the possibility that there could be sheared seeds that release green tannins. When running the red grapes through the destemmer they remove the rollers because they don’t want to macerate the fruit, so the grapes go into the fermenter as whole berries. The grapes will then initiate an internal carbonic fermentation on their own, and that will release more subtle fruits, which is part of what Whitecliff is after.

On the other hand, it makes punchdown in the tank much more difficult, which is why the winery uses pumpovers. To make sure that seeds are not in the pumpover must the tanks have mesh filters that catch the seeds as they sink to the bottom, so the filter can be removed and the seeds discarded. Thus, if harvest had to take place before there was phenolic maturation, then the green seeds can be removed before they can add a green, harsh character to the wine.

Generally they look for balance and do not seek to make sweet wines, but they make many bench tests, primarily to balance out the acidity, which tends to be high with the sugar on the low side, as the grapes are usually brought in at 20 to 21 Brix. That often means that they have to chaptalize the must. The resulting Riesling then comes in at 1.3% RS.

As an example of Michael’s scrupulous care and attention, before Whitecliff even made a sparkling wine to sell, bench tests were made for six years. The result is North River (a historical name for the Hudson, not just long ago, but even today, when boatmen may refer to the North River along certain spots of the waterway), Whitecliff’s second label for its sparkling wine, which is made in the traditional method, where the second fermentation takes place in the bottle in which the wine will be released. They make a cuvé, a rosé, and a Blanc de Blanc.  The cuvé is made up of 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir. Both varieties are estate grown, but from two vineyards, The Pinot is grown here, while the Chardonnay comes from a vineyard on the Hudson in Middle Hope, that Michael owns with a partner, John Hudelson, who’s a professor of oenology and viticulture at Central Washington State University on the West Coast. The New Hope vineyard sits on limestone at the warmest spot on the entire river, so that it never freezes. They do everything at the winery including the second fermentation, the autolysis, riddling, adding the final dosage, and bottling. Whitecliff also getting ready to create another line—“it’s really expanding, and we’re committed.”

One thing that they lack and need is a sorting table. Michael observed that if he had to spend money on new equipment, the $15,000 that a screw-cap bottler would cost could instead go to buy a $10,000 sorting table. That will raise the quality of the wine, whereas a screw-cap will not affect it at all.

Michael went on to point out that “We’re a whole team here, not just Brad and myself. There’s also Santiago—the vineyard manager-cum-factotum—and Paco, who are key parts of the winery. You need people for processing the grapes, help in the vineyard, the cellar . . . cleaning out barrels, all sorts of things. The great thing about Santiago is that I can just tell him, ‘Go do this.’ And he goes and does it, I don’t have to watch to make sure that he does it right.” And it is a family business that involves two other members, Michael’s wife, Yancey, and their son Tristan.  Yancey handles marketing and wholesale, keep the books, answers the phones, and so on. They also have a Tasting Room manager, Matt Student. Whitecliff Vineyards, 16The tasting room is a popular destination for tourists, but, he says, they have little curiosity or interest about what’s going on when they arrive at the winery.  Work can be going on at the crush pad and they’ll just walk by without so much as a glance.  Michael has had people ask, “When do you harvest the grapes?” Yancey recalls one visitor who saw a bin full of fermenting grapes and asked if they were cranberries.

In other words, visitors don’t see or care about the business side of a winery–the hard work in both vineyard and winery, the technology, etc.–but they clearly love the wine.  After all, as one can see, they win prizes.  I’d certainly give them a prize for their 2013 Pinot Noir–a light-bodied, red-berries and cherries on the nose and in the mouth, a touch of minerality, light tannins and ready to drink right now.  A perfect summer wine and terrific with fowl or fish, as well as roast lamb–a versatile wine indeed!  So too the Gamay Noir–it reminds one of Beaujolais (same grape variety) but with earthier flavors.  The Traminette is excellent, and though made from a hybrid variety, it has much of the aroma and flavor of Gewürztraminer (one of the parents), albeit toned down a bit.  The Riesling is just off-dry but extremely well made.  All of their wines, in fact, are honest ones that reflect their terroir and varietal character.

Another thing that is remarkable about their wines was pointed out by a rival winery not far away.  That is the fact that their standard wines, Awosting White and and Red Trail are remarkably consistent blends from year to year, a very difficult thing to achieve in a small winery, particularly given the fact that the Hudson Valley is so challenging for winegrowing.

In March 2015 the New York State Wine and Grape Foundation’s Grower of the Year award was given to Michael, which is especially notable given that the preponderance of the state’s wine grapes are grown in the Finger Lakes and Long Island.  Last December his Gamay won 90 points from Wine Spectator.  Out of over a 4,000 entries in the 2010 San Francisco International Wine Competition (the largest, most influential international wine competition in America, judged blind by a prestigious panel of nationally recognized wine experts).   Whitecliff’s 2009 Riesling won a Double Gold and Best White in Show and other awards have been given for the Reserve Chardonnay and Awosting White.  Most recently its 2013 Traminette won a double gold in the 2015 SF International Wine Competition.  Furthermore, in my own opinion, its barrel-aged Seyval Blanc defies all expectations of what a hybrid varietal should taste like.  What a track record.  It seems that when it come to wine, Whitecliff can do no wrong.

Whitecliff Vineyards, 04Whitecliff Vineyard & Winery,
331 Mckinstry Rd, Gardiner, NY, 12525
845-255-4613

Whitecliff Vineyards

Based on interviews with Michael Migliore, his wife Yancey Stanforth-Migliore, and the winemaker, Brad Martz                 
March 31, April 18 & 28, 2014
Updated March 18, 2015 from a press release published in the New Paltz Times and again February 21, 2016 to reflect more recent information and news.
 

Book Review: Circle of Vines, The Story of New York State Wines

Richard Figiel ex-Holy TerroirRichard Figiel established the Silver Thread Vineyard in 1982, planting 10 acres near Lodi, NY to vinifera varieties and growing them organically to make natural wines.  He sold the property in 2011 and currently writes a column on NY wines for Wines & Spirits Magazine.  He had previously published Culture in a Glass: Reflections on the Rich Heritage of Finger Lakes Wine in 1995.

Happily for the reader he writes well and where appropriate turns to literary allusion or leavens the text with touches of dry wit. Most important of all, he reveals the history of wine in New York State by means of a sensibly-organized account that starts with the movements of the glaciers of the last Ice Age on through to the diaspora of the late Twentieth and early Twenty-First Centuries, when wineries, vineyards, and winemaking had spread throughout the state after a small and inconspicuous beginning in the Seventeenth.

In the Preface, Figiel mentions that after he purchased an abandoned Catawba vineyard he began “pulling out the past to plant the future . . . .  One day as I was lining up end-posts for the rows of my new vineyard (it was a matter of pride to get them perfectly aligned, row to row) my eye wandered beyond the last post into scrubby woods . . . and there among the junipers and brambles was a fitful row of weather-beaten posts, ghosts of a vineyard on that hillside that predated the vineyard I’d pulled out . . . . I was looking back into the nineteenth century, and my posts happened to line up arrow-straight with that bleached, overgrown line of ghosts.”

Which leads to this book and the far from arrow-straight history of New York wine, which instead ambles along from one wandering post to another in time and geography.

Chapter 1 covers prehistory, from the time of the last advance and final retreat of the mile-thick ice sheet that covered the Northeast and nearly all of New York until about 10,000 years ago. It traces the movement of soil and terrain carried by the massive bulldozer of ice that left chunks of granite from the Berkshires in the bluffs of the north coast of Long Island, among other shifts across the region. This is all depicted in the sole map to be found in the book:

Map of NY State glcial movementChapter 2, “Beginnings in the Hudson Valley,” recounts the earliest attempts at growing wine grapes in the region, including the many failures planting vinifera varieties. Determined growers then set about planting native varieties like Isabella and Catawba while some began experimenting with hybrids—that is to say, interspecies crossings, resulting in some of the most successful hybrids for commercial vineyards, starting with the Iona. The history is complex but Figiel successfully manages to thread all the different paths that winegrowing took in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries into a coherent whole.

The following chapter, “Settling in the Finger Lakes,” is an exploration of the very complicated story of wine in what is today the premier region for Riesling in the country. When first explored in the early 17th century, large amounts of native grapes were found and it is possible that the earliest record of winemaking may date to before 1668, but this is an inference from a text by a missionary who writes about “vines, which bear tolerably good grapes from which our fathers formerly made wine for the mass.” Rev. William Botwick of Hammondsport in the 1830s may have been the first to plant grapes in the Finger Lakes for making wine and disseminate grapes for winemaking to his neighbors, and it was found that Isabella, as an earlier-ripener than Catawba, took best to the climate of the lake region. It took a long time for vinifera to catch on in the Finger Lakes, and that was, of course, thanks to the hard work of Dr. Konstantin Frank in the 1950s.

Chapter 4 is devoted to “Western New York,” which in this case means not only what would become the Lake Erie Region AVA but also the area from Rochester to Niagara, including the Genesee Valley, where a winery was established by Samuel Warren in 1834, 5 years before the Jaques winery was opened in Washingtonville in the Hudson Valley. The Irondequoit winery was established on its eponymous Bay on Lake Ontario near Rochester in 1841. A winery cooperative was formed on the Niagara Escarpment near Lockport in the 1860s. Much of the wine that was made for sacramental use.  But where are these places, some of which are very little known?  A map would be helpful.

“Collision of Cultures” (Chapter 5) covers one of the most interesting and fractious periods in American wine history—the rise of the anti-alcohol movement that led to Prohibition and the struggle of the producers of alcoholic beverages to resist that movement. As early as 1808 there was a reaction against the excessive consumption of spirits in particular, when a doctor near Glen Falls despaired of healing hard drinkers and founded the Moreau Temperance Association, which was aimed at spirits and brews, but not wine. By 1833 the American Temperance Union was established and the question became one of “which alcohols” to ban outright. Those who joined the Union and swore to totally abstain from the imbibing of any alcohol had a “T” placed by their names, hence the term ‘Teetotaler.’ Long before Prohibition, in fact, Rutherford B. Hayes, a teetotaler, was elected President in 1877. Figiel writes that “he drained the nation’s first household Dry . . . . Visiting dignitaries were confounded: ‘Oh, it was very gay,” one European ambassador said of a state dinner with the President, ‘the water flowed like Champagne.’ Individual towns and counties throughout the country and in New York began passing laws banning the sale of alcohol; indeed, the New York legislature passed a law restricting the sale of alcohol in 1845. That law was rescinded two years later, but the battle lines were drawn and the fight was on. The history of Prohibition is well-known and often told, and Figiel tells it with well-selected anecdotes to enliven the tale.

The sixth chapter, “Restart,” is about the hardscrabble road to recovery from Prohibition.

Chapter 7 is devoted to the Revolutionaries, those who changed the attitude and approach to grape growing and wine making in the State and withal most of the Eastern United States. There are capsule accounts of the work and accomplishment of five key figures who helped bring about significant change in the wine industry: Everett S. Crosby, Frederick S. Johnson, Konstantin Frank, Walter S. Taylor, and Mark Miller. Crosby was introduced to wine “in the rumble seat of a roadster after high school basketball games” during Prohibition and went on in 1950 to found High Tor Vineyard in the Hudson Valley. It was the first vineyard planted exclusively to French hybrids and the wines found a positive reception in wine shops and restaurants in New York City. In 1960 Johnson would establish his vineyard and winery on the Lake Erie escarpment and plant mostly hybrid grapes, bringing the region into the wine world after years of producing table grapes and grape juice. Frank, a difficult, determined, and uncompromising man is the father of vinifera wine in New York. Over a dozen years, starting in 1953, he planted a quarter of a million vines of a dozen vinifera varieties grafted to selected American rootstock and proved definitively that European vines could grow and thrive in the extreme cold of the Finger Lakes. Walter S. Taylor has to have been one of the most colorful characters on the wine industry stage: a rebel with a cause in opposition to big business and its overreaching attempts at control, particularly over the issue of the Taylor family name. Once Coca Cola had acquired the Taylor Wine Company it had an injunction issued against Walter S. using his surname on his own wines at Bully Hill. His irrepressible humor and anti-establishment outlook had him take on a goat as a mascot and quipped, “You can’t get my goat.” But read the story. And there was Mark Miller, owner of Benmarl Vineyards, who helped bring about a transformative law, the Farm Winery Act of 1976 that changed the New York wine industry forever.

“Transformation” is a chapter about the growth of large corporations like Coca Cola and Seagram’s that dominated the wine industry in the ‘60s and ‘70s until the passage of the Farm Winery Act of 1976 that was signed in to law by Governor Carey. Some of the winemaking practices in the larger wineries including “blending old American varieties like Catawba, Concord, and Delaware with bulk wine from California and new inputs from French hybrids. Water and cane sugar were routinely part of the mix. It was not uncommon for final blends to be up to one-third water and one-quarter Californian wine.” In some cases a small and profitable miracle was produced with “large quantities of bulk wine from small quantities of fruit.”

This is followed by a chapter devoted to Long Island, the last major wine region to be planted to wine grapes, unique among all the State AVAs in growing vinifera varieties only, with a tiny exception. Its history is comparatively brief, with the first vinifera vines planted in 1973 by Louisa and Alex Hargrave. Amateurs in Long Island, they showed that European varieties could produce excellent wine there and today Long Island has the most extensive plantings of Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, and Cabernet Franc in the State, not to speak of nearly twenty others as well, including Pinot Noir, Chenin Blanc, Dornfelder, and Albariño as well.

The final chapter is about the “Diaspora” of the wine industry throughout the State, encompassing new wine regions—though not new AVAs—in places like the Thousand Islands on the St. Lawrence River and Lake Champlain, as well as further developments in the established AVAs of the Finger Lakes, the Hudson River Region, Lake Erie, Long Island, and New York City. In other words, “New York wine became more diverse, more promising, more impressive, more inconsistent, and more confusing.”

Circle of Vines bears comparison with Hudson Cattell’s Wines of Eastern North American, previously reviewed in a post on this blog. However, while there is some overlapping history, Catell’s book touches on the period From Prohibition to the Present (i.e., 2013). It is meant as a “History and Desk Reference,” and is a far more scholarly approach than Figiel’s, replete as it is with endnotes, an extensive bibliography, and seven appendices with tables and charts. This is not to denigrate what Figiel has done, but his is a less formal approach, and he does list his sources and include an index; his book is 169 pages devoted to just New York, while Chattell’s 235 pages cover the entire gamut of Eastern wineries from Maine to Florida and all the way to the Mississippi River. Both are informative and very useful resources. A reader would be glad to have them both.

Regrettably, the book has very poor-quality illustrations—given their half-tone newsprint reproduction—and there are no maps to support the text, apart from the one that shows the movement of the ice sheet that covered the state over 10,000 years ago. One can only hope that if there is a second edition there will be a map for each chapter as well as higher-quality images.Circle of Vines cover Circle of Vines, The Story of New York State Wines,  by Richard Figiel, 2014.  Excelsior Editions imprint of SUNY Press, Albany. 194 pages with appendices and index.  31 monochrome half-tone illustrations, including one map.

Viniculture in LI, Part III: The Lenz Winery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lenz logo38355 Route NY 25, Peconic, NY 11958    631.734.6010

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

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

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.

ESC logo

Viniculture in LI, Part III: Raphael Winery

Raphael Winery entrance, by Petrocelli Construction

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

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

One of Raphael’s vineyard plots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raphael Wine

tastingroom@raphaelwine.com

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