Tag Archives: Barbara Shinn

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.

Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing: The Road to Certification

The Challenge to be Sustainable

LISW logo“Green”  is a global movement to promote sustainable practices in all walks of life, from recycling waste to reducing one’s dependence on materials that cannot be reused, as well as improving automobile fuel economy, minimizing energy consumption (reducing one’s ‘carbon footprint’), and promoting safer, cleaner means of producing energy, primarily by the use of renewable sources such as wind and solar power.  It also means promoting and using sustainable practices in agriculture, whether in the raising of farm animals and produce, or in viticulture (the growing of table and wine grapes)—itself a type of agriculture.  Green—a synonym for “sustainable”—is now a mantra for the ecologically-aware and sensitive consumer and it demands to be taken seriously by those who produce food, wine, and care for the land on which it is raised.

A big push towards sustainable practices in viticulture in New York State recently has been made by Walmart, which joined the Sustainability Consortium in 2009, and wants to sell grape juice with an “ecolabel” displayed on the containers, showing that it has been sustainably produced. Given that Walmart is the world’s largest retailer, its demand has forced winegrowers throughout the state, whether producing juice grapes or wine grapes, to respond to it.  What follows is about the response to the challenge on the part of Long Island winegrowers.

In a presentation by Barbara Shinn, of Shinn Estate Vineyards, and Richard Olsen-Harbich, of Bedell Cellars, given at the 31st Annual Long Island Agricultural Forum, held on January 13, 2012, attended by most of the vineyard managers in the region—all were invited to attend—an outline of the process by which vineyards could become certified for practicing sustainable viticulture gave clear form to what is involved in achieving that goal, with the objective of minimizing environmental impact and as a means of responding to the needs of the community at large.

The VineBalance Program

What follows is a précis of the presentation along with relevant commentary by the participants who together form the Core Group in the certification project:  Barbara Shinn, Richard Olsen-Harbich (the presenters), Jim Thompson of Martha Clara Vineyards, and Larry Perrine of Channing Daughters.  In addition, Alice Wise, who is the Viticulturalist and Education Specialist for the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, at the Long Island Horticultural Research & Extension Center in Riverhead, provided some background for this article on the initial sustainable viticulture program for New York State, VineBalance:

“In 1992, I received a grant to create a Long Island sustainable viticulture program. Working with a group of growers, we created a set of vineyard management guidelines that emphasized good stewardship practices. Established programs such as Oregon LIVE, Lodi Rules, and AEM (Agricultural Environmental Management) were very helpful to us. A number of individuals associated with those programs provided guidance as well. Our efforts drew attention from both upstate wine growers and the upstate Concord industry. Starting in 2006, a group from Cornell and from the industry received a series of grants to create statewide guidelines, now called VineBalance.

“Growers participated in the process of creating the guidelines so additional review has not been necessary. That said, VineBalance was written to be inclusive of all grape industries in NY. There are certain things in it that do not apply to Long Island. Also, vineyard management is not a static thing, it evolves each season as we learn how to best manage our vineyards. Consequently, Long Island growers decided to further refine VineBalance to more closely reflect the current management of Long Island vineyards.

“VineBalance will continue to serve as the framework for any sustainable viticulture programs in NY. The creation of additional, region-specific guidelines is great, it shows that growers are analyzing their practices and are genuinely interested in the process. All regions should do this.”

Why Certification?

However, while VineBalance provides a pathway to self-certification, that does not carry the same weight as certification by a recognized third-party certification authority, and is therefore not really meaningful in the marketplace or wine industry.  Certification by an outside authority has many advantages, such as:

  • Validation of a claim of sustainable farming practices
  • Promotion of on-farm accountability
  • Provision of a pro-active response to local needs and concerns
  • Acting as another tool with which to respond to global competition
  • Improving the strength and viability of the Long Island wine brand

The concept of sustainability as laid out in virtually every certification program in the U.S. boils down to three concerns[1]:

  1. Environmental soundness
  2. Economic viability
  3. Worker & Community care

Certification Program Models

There are, already, a number of third-party certification authorities with national or global recognition, based on the strength of their guidelines and regulation, such as:

  • Certified California Sustainable Wine (CCSW)
  • Lodi Rules
  • Napa Green—Napa Valley Vineyards (NVV)
  • Oregon Certified Sustainable Wine (OCSW)
  • Oregon LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology)
  • Sustainability in Practice (SIP)

Serra presentation to LI Winegrowers

Each of these, as well as the internationally-recognized authority, Sustainable Wine New Zealand (SWNZ), is directed at specific ecological systems, which is why Long Island needs its own authority, but these at least provide models for the project to be known as Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers (LISW).  In December of 2011, Chris Serra, of Oregon’s LIVE certification program, was invited to give a presentation to the East End vineyard managers.  The expenses for his trip were paid for by Martha Clara, Bedell, Shinn Estate, and Channing Daughters, the four vineyards whose managers form the Core Group.[2]

Whatever certification authority Long Island wine growers create must have credibility and address not only agricultural standards of sustainability but must also deal with ethical issues; for example, a certifier representative must not be involved with the vineyards being visited in the capacity of consultant or have any other ties to them.

How Certification Works

Certification is a seasonal program that would involve:

  • Use of the VineBalance Workbook (the full title is The New York Guide to Sustainable Viticulture Practices Grower Self-assessment Workbook)
  • Core Criteria based on the Workbook
  • Winegrower’s Pledge that is signed in the spring prior to the growing season.

One of the challenges regarding sustainability and certification is the issue of participation.  The larger the body of participants, the more viable and reputable the certifying authority will be.  Jim Thompson, a thoughtful Midwesterner with long experience in agriculture, says that “sustainability [in Long Island] is achievable.”  Furthermore, a Sustainable Certification will help the local industry survive by giving it stronger bona fides.  Thus, he believes that certification should be made accessible to all vineyard managers.  However, as Olsen-Harbich pointed out, “One of the issues that the certification project needs to address is that of offering ‘inclusivity’ versus ‘teeth.’  In other words, the lower the bar for certification, the more people will join, but once standards for certification have real ‘teeth’ and make real demands on those who want certification, the likelihood is that fewer will seek it.”[3]

Participation in a third-party certification program means that:

  • Members get a visit from a certifier representative in the first and second years of the track to certification and every third year thereafter.
  • A visit means a walk through the vineyard and a view of the records kept by the vineyard
  • A review of practices in the VineBalance Workbook
  • A review of vineyard inputs (i.e., chemicals used to control disease and fertilizers applied to the fields)
  • The report by the representative is then sent to the Core Group of the certification authority

For example, Shinn Estate is currently seeking to be certified by both Demeter (the Biodynamic® Certification body) as well as the National Organic Program (N.O.P.), each of which applies standards for general agriculture, but not specifically viticulture.  As is the case with all certification agencies, the record keeping is fully standardized though the standards are not particular to viticulture.  For Shinn, there is one visit per year every year, which comes at the end of the season, often right after harvest.  It involves a two-to-three hour visit consisting of a walk through the vineyard followed by a sit-down session in which the vineyard records are reviewed.  The advantage of a late-season visit is that it allows the certifier to see the condition of the vineyard after a full season’s farming, such as the ground cover, and allows for a full review of the entire season’s inputs.  For Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers, after the first two years, there is one visit every three years.  “It isn’t very demanding,” says Shinn, “provided you’ve kept good records.”

Scouting the Vineyard

Let us consider one aspect—a very important one—of a vineyard manager’s responsibilities, for it bears directly on the issue of sustainable practices.  It begins with the concept of Integrated Pest Management (IPM).  An authoritative viticultural specialist and qualified soil scientist, Larry Perrine explains:  “IPM originally and primarily has to do with the control of insects.  It requires knowledge of the life-cycle of each of the insect pests, thus to know when they are most vulnerable to pest-control applications.  Insect infestations don’t behave like fungal ones—fungal control requires foliar application before an infestation develops, whereas insect pests can be tolerated up to a certain level of insect damage.  Therefore, scouting in the vineyard is necessary to determine when or if the insects are reaching the point at which insecticide application is necessary.  Scouting means that the vineyard manager needs to check a block of vines and calculate the density of pests present on, say, 50 leaves.  For example, Grape Berry Moths overwinter in trees that may border a vineyard.  Vineyard rows bordering those trees are most vulnerable to GBM attack.  They can best be controlled by strategic use of insecticides, after scouting—for minimum environmental impact.  The use of pheromone lures on twist ties, which confuse the moths during their mating season, can be helpful.”

Shinn Estate, 08Barbara Shinn, who has long been deeply committed to certification, elaborates, “I might go out to a particular block of vines and check the vine leaves for the presence of mites.  If, say, I find that out of forty rows of vines, ten of the middle rows of vines have significant mite populations whereas the rest only had one or two mites, then I would have to consider applying the appropriate insecticide for the mites in the infected rows only—the more specific the target that the insecticide is designed for the better, as there is less collateral damage.  Of course, each grower has to set his or her own limits—there is no set number.  All growers have a list of acceptable inputs for sustainable, or organic, or Biodynamic practices.  One selects from the list starting with the inputs with the lowest impact to the environment to those with the highest.”

What Certification Means

There are real potential benefits that come with sustainability and certification, and Long Island’s third-party certification will be carefully watched by wineries elsewhere in the Eastern United States, including Virginia, South Carolina, and New Jersey.  What LISW does will certainly influence them in the development of certification authorities for their regions.

The Web site for LISW will include:

  • The VineBalance Workbook
  • Downloadable forms
  • Weather Data
  • A list of participants in the Certification Program

Olsen-Harbich, an articulate, acknowledged expert in both the vineyard and the winery, pointed out that, “Sustainability is a pathway which is ongoing and is not an ideology.  It must be, and is, based on peer-reviewed science.  It is the most viable form of safe agriculture.”  Nevertheless, vineyard managers and all other farmers, whether sustainably farming or not, often use three products that are not naturally-made:

  • Stylet oil, a highly-effective, biologically-degradable foliar input used to control fungal diseases such as Downy mildew, but which is itself a highly-refined petroleum product
  • Sulfur, while a natural element, is another highly-effective foliar input used to control diseases and is usually a by-product of petroleum refining
  • Copper sulfate is also a widely-used industrial product that is used in agriculture primarily as a fungicide.

In addition, he points out, “Chemical companies have their ears open to what is going on in agriculture, and as a major player in the production of agricultural inputs (herbicides, fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, etc.), they are always ready to come up with new products.  These, in turn, often push the boundaries between natural/sustainable/synthetic inputs.  They need to be considered, but with great care, when addressing the issue of sustainability.”  Perrine cautions that, “There is no such thing as a ‘natural’ pesticide.  Both traditional materials such as copper or sulfur, as well as the most recently developed hydrocarbon-based pesticides need to be considered for environmental impact, therefore sustainability.”

Olsen-Harbich goes on to say, “There is also the matter of synthetic nitrogen vs. compost nitrogen—which is the preferred product to use in a sustainable program?  Fish products, which are natural, are often used in the form of compost and fertilization material, but the very practice of commercial fishing is itself not sustainable.”  To which Perrine adds, “Synthetic nitrogen accounts for more than 50% of the nitrogen used to grow plants around the world.  To maintain a food production to feed the world, requires more than the organic sources of nitrogen that are available.  The 100,000,000 tons of synthetic nitrogen produced around the world consumes only 1.5% of the world’s annual fossil fuel consumption.  Indeed fish fertilizer is not sustainable, while synthetic N is

Weighing in on the nitrogen issue, Barbara Shinn has this to say:

“Here is where even amongst a group of ecologically-based farmers opinion differs. I prefer to take a byproduct from the fishing industry and make it useful by regenerating my soil with it – along with seaweed, whey (from the cheese making industry) and compost (made on-farm with our winemaking musts, bedding from the local horse-boarding industry and wood chips from the local tree trimming industry). The reuse and recycling of materials helps close a cycle that otherwise could be viewed as unhealthy for our planet and does not originate from a fossil fuel. I prefer to use materials on my soil that are connected to an originally living material. This type of soil work has been proven in peer reviewed papers to produce more minerally complexed food, and of course wine is an agricultural product so wine is food. In my opinion synthetic nitrogen dumbs down the soil, skipping over the all-important step of feeding the microbial life and in essence ignoring the natural lifecycle of our soil. In this respect, synthetic nitrogen is not sustainable. This difference in opinion is what makes our LISW group dynamic and, in the end, a viable springboard for fascinating discussions.”

Furthermore, “As ecologically practicing farmers it is important to retain our brotherhood. Whether we practice Sustainable, Organic, Permaculturalist, Biodynamic, or any other restorative-based farming, our  root issues are the same. As a whole group banded together our concerns for the future of this planet have a huge voice, much louder than if we were separated by difference of opinions.”[4]

For the LISW, there are potential partnerships with environmental entities such as:

  • The CCE (Citizen’s Campaign for the Environment), which is committed to encouraging citizens’ involvement in promoting strong environmental policy at the state and local levels
  • Sustainable Long Island, which promotes community revitalization
  • Peconic Land Trust, “which is dedicated to conserving Long Island’s working farms and natural lands.”

According to the CCE, “Long Island has been designated as a sole-source aquifer region by the U.S. EPA. This means that 100% of our drinking water supply comes from underground. The almost 3 million residents on our island are completely dependent on groundwater as our fresh water supply. The Lloyd aquifer is the deepest and cleanest source of drinking water on Long Island.”  Larry Perrine says, quite bluntly, that with respect to agriculture, “there is, of course, the question of where the line gets drawn, especially with respect to a community’s sole-source water supply—as is the case in Long Island—the protection of which is of pre-eminent concern.”

Further to that, Perrine pointed out, “The Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing program will include on its Web site materials to help the public better understand what sustainable farming is and how it helps protect the community and its drinking water.  The reason this must be done is that too many people come to conclusions based on the easiest and most available informational sources, which often are not reliable, fact-checked, or accurate, but often sensationalize the news.  Such sources include TV, the Web, and newspapers.  We wish to provide science-based and factual information that can be readily understood by the concerned public.”

Sustainability and the Community

To the question of how a vineyard relates to its community, Barbara Shinn, made the following points:

  1. “Farming practices, as mentioned above, such that they should not have a negative effect on the community at large; choice of sustainable inputs is an important part of this.
  2. “Land conservation, which means how the vineyard property seeks to maintain and protect animal and plant species and their variety that naturally appear and exist on the property, apart from pests that need to be controlled
  3. “Public education about vineyard practices and objectives, particular to both viticulture and to farming practices generally.  This can include information offered to visitors to the winery as well as the publication of books and articles for the general public (such as this one).”

Jim Thompson, 02Jim Thompson, observed that the issue of sustainability carries with it legal, environmental, and personal concerns.  On a legal basis, certification would mean that a vineyard’s neighbors—often private homes or other, non-farm businesses, could rest assured that nothing dangerous is going into the ground or being wafted into the air that could affect a person’s health or neighborhood.  On an environmental level, it would mean, for instance, that ground water would be protected, hence the community drinking water would be safe.  “On a personal level,” he went on to say, “it means a safer environment in which to work, with the satisfaction of knowing that vineyard workers would be not exposed to the potential toxicity that is present in many of the [possible] input applications used in the vineyard.”

Larry Perrine summarized the situation well when he said:  “It should be kept in mind that the natural world is in most cases self-healing over time.  Farming itself is not natural, for it represents a massive intervention in nature.  The goal of sustainability is to mitigate the impact of that intervention.  The farmer is therefore in a compromised position, for in agriculture there is no perfection—he is always striving for something at which we can never arrive.  Still, we want to leave a proper legacy for our children.”

3 Spheres of Sustainability

The Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers program became a reality in April 2012.  With its debut, Long Island is be the Eastern US leader in Sustainable Certification.  (It has 501(c)(3) not-for-profit status.)

 According to Perrine:  “LISW expects about 10 wineries to sign up initially.  Others are taking a wait-and-see attitude.  It may take a few years for them to join.  Not all of the initial members will effect a complete change-over to the sustainable practices advocated by LISW in the first year.  It is, after all, only a pathway and not in itself the goal.”  [One of the first to join apart from the core group was Wölffer Estate.]

Trent Pressler, CEO of Bedell Cellars, addressing the LISW audience.

On 6 June 2013 Bedell Cellars hosted the First Anniversary celebration of the founding of the LISW.  As of September 2015 the LISW now has nineteen members, with sixteen of them already having achieved full certification:

  1. Bedell Cellars (founding member)
  2. Channing Daughters (founding member)
  3. Corwith Vineyards (certified)
  4. Duckwalk Vineyards (in transition)
  5. Harbes Family Farm & Vineyard (certified)
  6. Kontokosta Winery (in transition)
  7. Martha Clara (founding member)
  8. Mattebella Vineyards (certified)
  9. McCall Wines (certified)
  10. Mudd Vineyards
  11. One Woman Vineyards (certified)
  12. Palmer Vineyards (certified)
  13. Paumanok Vineyards (certified)
  14. Pindar Vineyards (in transition)
  15. Roanoke Vineyards (certified)
  16. Sannino Bella Vita Vineyards (certified)
  17. Shinn Estate (founding member)
  18. Sparkling Pointe (certified)
  19. Surrey Lane Vineyards
  20. Wölffer Estate (certified)

Paumanok Vineyards and Sparkling Pointe are  the latest to achieve certification as of November 2015, bringing the total to 20 members.  So the majority are already certified, each having put nearly 200 elements of sustainable practice into operation for a year or longer with two left in transition to certification.  This represents very fast growth for a new certification authority, as it already has nearly a third of all the vineyards on the island.  Such rapid growth can be explained in part by the fact that many of the vineyards already were practicing the guidelines of Cornell’s VineBalance program, which is the underpinning of LISW approach.  There are still some that are taking a wait-and-see position, such as Osprey’s Dominion (“we’re already farming sustainably, but we need to be sure of the benefits of joining”) and Lenz (Sam McCullough told Wine Spectator [May 2012 issue]:

“The number one reason we’re not participating is that I typically buy my pesticides for the coming season at the end of the year [to save money], so I had already committed to purchase things that they don’t allow in the program,” said Sam McCullough, vineyard manager for the Lenz Winery. While he cited fungus control as his big concern in Long Island’s humid climate, he felt the sustainability program provides enough options to deal with any problems that might arise and didn’t think the required changes would be onerous.”  Still, McCullough has yet to decide about participating next year. “I think it’s a fine idea, but I don’t know that there are really that many genuinely harmful practices out here. We’re all pretty responsible. I see it mainly as a perception issue and a public relations act rather than changing the way we take care of the environment, but anything that helps market our product is a good thing.”

Furthermore, the Spectator pointed out that “smaller wineries are concerned about the cost and whether consumers are willing to spend more to offset the extra expenses. Right now, [Roz] Baiz [of The Old Field Vineyard] said, she’d rather use the combined $800 in membership and inspection fees to purchase some new needed equipment.”

But twenty have joined so far, such as Mudd’s Vineyard, which says that “It’s the right thing to do.”

For wineries that are certified, the LISW logo can be included on the wine labels, thus showing that the wines are made from grapes raised with a conscience.  This, it is hoped, will also help promote Long Island wines among those consumers who care about this, and the number who do are steadily growing.

Certification is accomplished by the expertise of LISW’s independent third-party inspector:  Allan Connell, the former District Conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), using the New York VineBalance Grower Workbook as a roadmap for evaluation of the sustainable viticultural practices of Long Island vineyards.

More information about sustainable farming is available upon request from LISW at lisustainablewine.org, facebook.com/sustainablewinegrowing, and twitter.com/liswinegrowing.

As of Feb. 27, 2014, a new post was published on the Bedell blog by Richard Olsen-Harbich: “Seal of Approval,” pursuant to a visit last December by one of the world’s leading experts in the field of sustainable viticulture – Dr. Cliff Ohmart.  Pursuant to that visit, on March 17, 2014, Wine Spectator published a blog post by its Managing Editor, Dana Nigro:  How Serious Is Long Island About Sustainable Wine? with the subtitle, “Region’s new program gets green thumbs-up from outside expert.”

From Lodi, we have this interesting piece in :  Sustainable Winegrowing Certification: Why Do Growers Participate?  The most recent article, as of September 2014, is available online at the Wine Industry Advisor Website:  “Demand for Sustainability Resonates . . .

Further to that, a February 6, 2016 NY Times article, “Cover Crops: A Farming Revolution with Roots in the Past” finds that all kinds of agriculturalists all over the country are finding out that cover crops are good for their crops!

NOTES:

[1] Interview with Larry Perrine, 10 February 2012, at Channing Daughters

[2] Interview with Jim Thompson, 4 February 2012, at Martha Clara

[3] For example, Oregon LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology), which was established as a sustainable viticulture certification program in 1997, has about an 80% participation rate.

[4] E-mail from Barbara Shinn, 1 March 2012.

Correspondence by e-mail with Alice Wise was from January 29 to February 7, 2012.


Viniculture in LI, Part III: Bedell Cellars

Bedell Cellars was established by Kip Bedell in 1980, making it one of the oldest vineyards on the East End and only one of ten that have vines that are 30 years old or more.  Bedell was eventually sold in 2000 to Michael Lynne, executive producer of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and a former head of New Line Cinema.  Lynne, who already had just purchased Corey Creek Vineyards, brought both great enthusiasm and deep pockets to Bedell, has turned the winery and its tasting room into an elegant and modern space to make and display some of the most distinctive wines on the North Fork, as well as a collection of fine Contemporary Art.

Rich Olsen-HarbichBedell’s winemaker, Richard Olsen-Harbich, is himself a 34-year veteran of the wine trade in Long Island, both as a vineyard manager and winemaker, first working at Mudd Vineyards, and then worked at Bridgehampton Winery in both capacities.  It was while he was at Bridgehampton that he drew up the applications for the Hamptons AVA and then one for the North Fork, and finally one for Long Island.   It was at there that Rich saw the effects of bad vineyard siting, when the vines collapsed during a hard winter, due to cold spots and poor drainage.   Nevertheless, he managed to produce a number of award-winning wines at Bridgehampton, in the end working with purchased fruit.  He then went on to work at Hargrave Vineyard—the pioneer vineyard that had started viticulture on the island—and later helped establish Raphael with Steve Mudd, a well-known grower and vineyard consultant.  He remained at Raphael until 2010, when he moved to Bedell.  With a degree in agronomy from Cornell and his years of experience in the business, Rich has among the strongest credentials of anyone in the East End wine business.

David Thompson is Bedell’s vineyard manager and is responsible for, among other things, helping to write the Long Island sustainability guidelines for Cornell University’s Vine Balance Initiative, a ‘best practices’ handbook for sustainable grape growing in New York State.  So it’s clear that Bedell has a very strong team in the two men.  I unfortunately did not an opportunity to meet David and so conducted my interview with Rich alone.

Rich has been with Bedell Cellars for three years, and he has a complete grasp of what goes on in Bedell’s vineyards.  As pointed out by Jay McInerney, wine writer for the Wall Stret Journal, in his wine column of Sept. 6, 2013, “The Other Bordeaux Lies Closer to Home,” “The arrival of Richard Olsen-Harbich in 2010 seems to have marked a turning point. . . . [and he] has taken Bedell Cellars to new heights since he arrived at the winery.”  

With respect to the vineyards and the cultivation of the vines, he says that:

“When we plant a new field we start a liming program early on; our aim is to bring the pH up to 6.2 to 6.4.  Thereafter we only need to replenish the soil with lime once or twice in every ten years. We use a water tank to irrigate new vines when there’s a dry spell.

“Our preferred vine spacing varies, according to the plot of vines: it can range from 9’ by 7’ or 8’, 8’ by 3’ for Syrah vines, and even 8’ by 4’.  I’d say that the average spacing works out to about 9’ by 5’. We typically harvest about two tons an acre and we prefer to pick the grapes manually.”

“Practicing sustainable agriculture means that you have to have a system that pays attention to both ecology and economy.  You need low-impact strategies because, after all, our vineyards are near towns and we have an obligation to be good neighbors.  So, we hire local people, do not foul our own nests, and we have social obligations as well.  For example, in order to preserve the vineyards as farmland forever, we have sold our development rights to the Peconic Land Trust. “We make our own compost, using the natural by-products of grape pressing and fermentation and returning these to the vineyard soil.  In my opinion, using fish fertilizer is not sustainable, as it means devastating wild fish populations, so I consider that to be ‘dirty’; it’s better and cleaner to use commercial nitrogen fertilizer made from peanut byproducts.” The Website adds that “We avoid or minimize the use of synthetic fertilizers, instead encouraging responsible natural stewardship of soil health, fertility, and stability.”

Bedell has long participated in the Cornell University VineBalance program, and both Dave and Rich sit on the advisory committee that provides recommendations for the ongoing research.  The winery is also a founding member of the North Fork Sustainable Winegrowing certification program, itself an outgrowth of VineBalance.

With respect to organic farming, Rich says that he believes that the science of organics is flawed and that much more work needs to be done before we can say that we really understand what organics add to sustainability.  In this respect he points out that both copper and sulfur of the kind that is used in farming are industrial products, so neither can be considered ‘natural’ or ‘organic,’ and copper, while highly toxic and with long persistence in the soil, is permitted in organic agriculture.  Both sulfur and copper are insuperable fungicides and are difficult to replace when humid conditions may prevail, as is often the case in Long Island.

Bedell’s excellent Website adds the following information:

There are several other ways we have worked for the public interest through a sustainability-minded vineyard program:

  • We participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service Environmental Quality Incentive Program and Conservation Security Program, which rewards good land stewardship through nutrient, pest and cropland management, natural windbreaks, and non-planted wildlife buffer areas.
  • We established a dense cover crop of grasses, fescues, and clovers between the rows of grapevines to maintain high biological species diversity in the vineyard.  These row-middle cover crops also reduce soil erosion and promote symbiotic relationships between plants and beneficial insects.
  • We minimize off-farm inputs such as agricultural chemicals to protect the farmer, the environment, and society at large.
  •  If we have to spray a fungicide to control a specific grapevine pathogen such as powdery mildew, we use one with the lowest possible environmental impact.
  • We avoid or minimize agricultural chemicals that do not biodegrade and might build-up in the soil over time.
  • We scout the vineyard for insects using Integrated Pest Management principles and economic threshold evaluation to eliminate or minimize insecticide use.
  • We encourage a natural flow of ecosystem elements through the presence of Bluebird houses, honey bee hives, and deer migration corridors. At Bedell, we employ sustainable, ecological viticulture to ensure the highest quality fruit without unnecessary, high-risk practices.  We grow grapes for our own unique environmental conditions – the first step toward a pure expression of local terroir in our wines.

Bedell’s conviction about terroir is found, vividly expressed, in the cave of the winery, Bedell Soil Cross-sectionwhere a plexiglass box hanging on the wall displays a cross-section of vineyard soil (though compressed vertically many times over) showing how loam, sand, clay, and gravel are layered.  (The image also holds the reflection of wine barrels, appropriately perhaps.)  It helps explain how stratification can account for such factors as drainage and/or retention of water in the soil—which is important in understanding how vines respond to the terroir in which they grow, along with the effects of slope, aspect to the sun, etc.  (See “Olson-Harbich’s Obsession with Soil . . . ” on the New York Cork Report blog, June 2, 2011.)

Furthermore, it goes on to say, “We maintain viticultural practices that produce the highest quality fruit possible, while also being sensitive to the environment and financially viable over time. . . . Each of our three unique vineyard sites is a holistic ecological system,” and together total approximately 80 planted acres: Bedell Home Vineyard on the Main Road in Cutchogue, behind the winery and tasting room; Corey Creek Vineyards on Main Road in Southold, adjacent to the Corey Creek tasting room; and Wells Road Vineyard on Main Road in Peconic.  According to Rich, there are five sections planted to Merlot, its most important variety, for a total of 32 acres in 50 separate plots, as can be seen on the maps below.  The other varieties planted at the sites include Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Syrah.


 

 

 

 

 

 

Bedell’s viticultural philosophy is presented very clearly on its Website (about the vineyards); indeed, I find it is the fullest, yet pithiest exposition of its viticultural practices of any of the Island vineyards, and the only one to offer plot maps.  Rich’s blog posts on the Website are especially worth reading-for example, his assessment of the 2013 vintage: Lucky 13.  (Shinn Estate discusses organic and Biodynamic viticulture (along with its harvest reports, wine releases, dinners, and so on) in its “Shinn Digs” blog, which is updated weekly with posts by both Barbara Shinn and her husband, David Page, and Channing Daughters, via its blog with posts by James Christopher Tracy, from his “Winemaker’s Wonderings” column in Edible East End, a quarterly journal devoted to food and wine of the region.)

As a vintner dedicated to making ‘natural’ or ‘minimalist’ wines, he points out, first of all, that “we try to stay away from late season fungicide applications in order to preserve the wild yeasts tBedell wild yeast brewhat are used for fermentation.”  Indeed, one of Bedell’s hallmark’s is its commitment to the use of indigenous yeasts, thanks to Rich, who, in fact has inaugurated what has become a new ritual at Bedell–the care and feeding of the  yeast in preparation for the fermentation of the new harvest.  It’s a bit of a witch’s brew, minus the eye of newt and leg of toad–perhaps it should be called a ‘fairies’ brew,’ given the addition of wildflowers, freshly-picked local fruit, including apple, pear, and a white peach.  (A post on Facebook about this provoked an article in October 2013 by Louisa Hargrave, The Yeasty Beasties, which is well-worth reading.)  In fact, Eric Fry has an amusing anecdote about Rich’s commitment to wild yeast:

That’s his thing and he does it… he’s been doing it for years and he seems to have it figured out, and cool, that’s good fine, yeah, good for him, good for him. It’s really funny because when Rich moved from Raphael to Bedell, he showed up at Bedell and he’s looking around, he’s rummaging around, and seeing what’s there and everything like that, and he came over [to see me at Lenz] and said “I’ve got like six or eight boxes of yeast here, do you want them?”

I said “OK, I’ll take them.” Because [Rich] says “I don’t want them.”

As with all of the top vineyards that I’ve visited on the East End, Bedell’s wines begin in the vineyard and the results are telling.  For example, it’s Bordeaux-style blend (with some Syrah), Musée, was awarded 91 points by Wine Spectator for the 2007 vintage—the highest score by that publication for a red wine yet attained by any East End winery.  The sample I tasted was already rich in flavor, with good acidity and tannins to give it backbone, but it was still a bit closed.  (Musée is also very expensive, but I bought two bottles that I plan to lay down for several years.)  Bedell claims that it can keep for up to 15-20 years.  Any wine that can develop for that long has to be exceptional, so to drink it now would be to commit infanticide.  I also bought a few bottles of Corey Creek’s Gewürztraminer, which I found to be among the best of that variety of any North American ones that I’ve tasted.  Irresistible. 

This is a vineyard and winery that commands high respect and praise.  I recommend visiting winery and its elegant tasting room, festooned with a collection of contemporary art including works by Barbara Kruger, Chuck Close, and others.  If you cannot get there soon, at least visit the Bedell Website.

Based on an interview with Richard Olsen-Harbich on 12 May 2011, with additions from the Bedell Website            updated 13 Sept. 2013 and 30 Dec 2014

The Challenge of Growing Certified Organic Grapes in Long Island.

Virtually every wine grape vineyardist in Long Island wants to work his fields as organically as possible, though very few ever actually intend to become fully organic or certified organic.  Most of them farm sustainably, and about twenty vineyards are practicing Certified Sustainable Winegrowers.  Shinn Estate in September 2010, succeeded when it harvested its first entirely organic grapes, 2.6 acres of Sauvignon Blanc, but it has been a struggle to maintain organic practices from season to seaason, given the disease pressures on Long Island.  a year later the first certified-organic grapes were harvested by a little-known farm with a vineyard in Calverton.  The Farrm, owned by Rex Farr, has been organically-certified since 1990, growing various vegetable crops such as heirloom tomatoes, leeks, and lettuce.  Its first vinifera grapes were planted in 2005 though its first successful grape harvest took place in October of 2011.  On August 28, 2013, Southold Farm announced on its Website that it plans to produce the first Long Island wine made from certified organic grapes purchased from The Farrm’s 2013 harvest.[1]

The challenge has been met, but as Ron Goerler, Jr., former president of the Long Island Wine Council has said, “it’s extremely challenging” and other farmers have tried and failed at it.  Nevertheless, several East End gardeners and farmers of other crops have been using organic and biodynamic methods with some success for years now.  An excellent article, “Farming to a Different Beat” by Geraldine Pluenneke, published in April 2011, [2] discusses in a very fair-minded way the issues of biodynamic farming and viniculture in Long Island.  It points out the success that some of the practitioners have had, such as Amy Pink, a backyard vegetable gardener, or K.K. Haspel, who grows “legendary tomato seedlings,”  or Mary Wolz, a beekeeper in Southold who maintains a hundred hives on both forks of the island.

Kareem Massoud, of Paumanok Vineyards, is cited in Pluenneke’s article as saying that “Whatever viticultural methodology allows me to achieve the healthiest, ripest grapes possible is the course that I shall pursue, regardless of whether that method is known as conventional, IPM, sustainable, practicing organic, organic, biodynamic or any other name.”  In a separate interview that I had with Louisa Hargrave a years ago, the doyen of Long Island wine vineyards made clear that if she had to do it all over again, she’d consider using Biodynamic® practices.

There is a series of posts in this blog that deals with the individual vineyards and takes off from this piece (now updated to April 2014).  So far, twenty of the vineyards of the East End have been written about in Wine, Seriously.

Both the sustainable and organic/Biodynamic®  movements in winegrowing are among the most important developments in the wine world in recent years.  Whether or not it results in superior wines is difficult to say with any certainty, but that is a separate argument that will not be pursued here.  Rather, the focus is on the challenge not only to produce organic wine in Long Island, which represents a special challenge, but also to look at the issue of sustainability in viticulture as a whole.

Let us begin by looking at two excellent wineries:  Channing Daughters Winery and Wölffer Estate Vineyards, both in the Hamptons Long Island AVA, which is to say the South Fork of the island, which has fields of Bridgehampton loam—sandy and well-drained—and a Bordeaux-like maritime climate, with Atlantic breezes that ward off frost until late in the harvest season.  The two forks, or East End–as they are collectively known, also enjoy the most days of sunshine and longest growing season of all of New York State, though the South Fork has a slightly later onset of spring and a somewhat longer season than the North, as well as a less windy clime.  All of the East End has high humidity and, potentially, a great deal of rain right into harvest time.

In discussions with Larry Perrine of Channing Daughters and Richard Pisacano of Wölffer’s, I learned that both had decided against seeking organic certification, though they do practice sustainable viticulture as far as is possible.[3] Their primary reason for rejecting the organic certification route was that the climate conditions—cool and very humid—seriously militates against organic farming.  As Perrine pointed out:  “Organic is virtually impossible in rainy climates like Bordeaux, Friuli, and LI; downy mildew and black rot cannot be contained by using organic methods.”  In Pisacano’s view, “organic certification is too demanding and expensive, apart from the fact that the level of humidity in the area is just too high to allow for organic practices for preventing the control of diseases and molds like powdery mildew and botrytis.”[4] Both want to be able to use conventional pesticides as a fallback if needed, and they also find that added sulfites are needed in the wineries, and these are precluded by USDA Organic Certification;[5] nevertheless, both vineyards do participate in the New York Sustainable Viticulture Program, or VineBalance, as well as in the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers program, which is itself based on VineBalance and provides a different kind of certification for sustainable (not organic) practices.[6]  But all of this was said back in 2009.

The North Fork Long Island AVA shares much of the same terroir as the Hamptons AVA, but it is affected more by its proximity to Long Island Sound than to the Atlantic, and it suffers from similar issues.  Only one of its fifty-six vineyards are yet organically certified (The Farrm, as mentioned above), although a number of them, such as Macari Vineyards and Palmer Vineyard work their land as organically and sustainably as possible, as do other vineyards, such as Peconic Bay.[7] In 2009 Joe Macari told me that he no longer believed that 100% organic viticulture is possible in the North Fork, though he practices sustainable farming to the extent possible, using only organic fertilizers and soil work, for example.  Back then Jim Silver of Peconic Bay Winery had said flatly that any idea of producing organic grapes in Long Island is simply impossible—the stuff of dreams.[8]

On the other hand, Shinn Estate has been working on conversion to full organic USDA certification and Demeter certification for the last thirteen years.  It is now 100% organic in soil work and pest control, and as noted above, has harvested the first (albeit not certified) organic/Biodynamic® grapes in Long Island.  If Shinn could have grown 100% organic/ Biodynamic® grapes for three successive years, the Estate would then have become certified, and that would be a major achievement for the East End.[9] Unfortunately despite continued and dedicate effort, disease pressure due to high humidity was such that it did not happen.  Instead, Shinn has chosen to join the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers program, established in 2012 and based on Cornell’s VineBalance.  This is a far more viable approach for most if not all vineyards on the Island.  (The sole exception has been Rex Farr, who has been growing certified organic produce since 1990 (certification came through the Northeast Organic Farming Association or NOFA).  His vines were planted in 2005, with the first harvest taking place in October 2011.  Farr sells his fruit to wine producers.)

The discussions mentioned above have taken place over a period of six years and it is clear that the perceptions and ideas about organic/sustainable viniculture in Long Island are still evolving.

What is it that makes it so challenging to grow certified organic wine grapes in Long Island?

Let us then look at what is required to produce certified organic grapes:  of first importance is how the chosen method will affect the quality of the wine made from organic grapes, along with the cost of the conversion to a new viticultural regimen, as well as the long-term operating costs—a determining factor with respect to profit.  Much literature has been devoted to the advantages of organic or sustainable viticulture, despite the significant obstacles that need to be overcome.

In the United States, the various forms of sustainable grape-growing are:[10]

  1. Organic (certified, which is to say, 100% organic as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture, [USDA] and its National Organic Program [NOP])
  2. Organic (but not USDA certified, falling under categories 2,3, and 4, listed further below)
  3. Biodynamic® (a special category of organic, but following the tenets of Demeter; not recognized by the USDA)
  4. Sustainable or natural (incorporating organic viticulture, but not completely)

Organic farming is defined by the USDA, as explained by the Organic Consumers Association Web page: [11]

[In 1990] . . . along came the National Organic Program (NOP), also part of the USDA.  The NOP’s goal has been to set guidelines for the processing and labeling of organic products and to maintain the “National List” of allowed and prohibited substances.  According to the NOP and the ATF . . . there are four categories that organic products can claim:

  1. 100% Organic
  2. Organic [95%+]
  3. Made With Organic Ingredients [70-95%]
  4. Some Organic Ingredients; i.e., less than 70%.[12]

As can be seen, the range of choices is wide, the ramifications of any particular approach daunting.  Time and cost are important considerations in the process of converting from conventional to organic/sustainable practice, and these vary according to the chosen option.  In the case of the USDA organic certification, at least 3 years is required to convert a vineyard for certification;[13] if Biodynamic®, the transition is the same as for USDA certification and, in fact, overlaps it.[14]

A comparative study performed by Gerald B. White, of Cornell University, ca 1995, broke out the costs of conventional vs. organic viticulture, and provides a basis for projecting those to be sustained after conversion.[15] The study concluded that the costs of organic farming could be considerably higher than it would be for conventional, but it was conducted in 1995 at a vineyard in the Finger Lakes, using very different varieties (one labrusca & two hybrids) from the vinifera ones grown in Long Island.[16] However, the fact that the three varieties in the experiment each had different issues, results, and costs, suggests that the same may be true with different vinifera varieties.[17] An article in the October 2007 issue of Wines & Vines Magazine, tells of wineries that have had some success with the transition to organic viticulture, including Shinn Estate.  Though more an anecdote than a scientific study, it captures much of what has changed since the 1995 Cornell study.[18]

Nevertheless, the choices remain dauntingly complex, for the issue is not merely to choose between USDA-certified organic or non-certified, or between Demeter certification or ACA-only certification[19], but there are different degrees or types of sustainable farming that go beyond standard certification (“natural” winemaking vs. conventional [or interventionist] winemaking as well as socially-responsible viticulture are two matters beyond the purview of this essay, as they are not directly concerned with viticulture proper[20]).

Clearly, a three-year transition period is really a minimum period, as was the case with Shinn Estate, where the process took much more time, before they finally decided to not try to be certified.[21] For certification, the transition needs considerable preparation, including establishing a USDA-mandated buffer zone of at least 25 feet (8 meters) to separate organic transition fields from those farmed conventionally.[22] The conversion also entails some significant adjustments:  there can be no chemical sprays, herbicides, and pesticides, or use artificial fertilizer for the vineyard plot, replacing them instead with natural pesticides and herbicides, foliate sprays, and organic manure or compost, which are all more expensive than the industrial versions.[23] On the other hand, fixed costs should not change, nor wage levels, but more manual field work would be necessary, especially if machine harvesting were not used, which would be the case a vineyard went the “natural” route.[24]

As pointed out by Kingley Tobin, “The three main areas of vineyard management to focus on are Weeds, Disease, and Pests.”[25] For weed control, using ground cover is a good sustainable practice, and helps reduce the use of glyphosate-based herbicides that tend to shut down the main precursor to plant phenolics; the improved phenolic content of the grapes should result in a better product.[26]

For disease, as the soil returns to a more natural state and the vines are no longer exposed to industrial products that diminish their ability to resist bacterial and fungal infections, they should, over time, develop Systemic Acquired Resistance (SAR).[27] Foliate inputs can be made organic by switching to highly-effective silicate applications such as the Demeter 500-series preparations (e.g., 501 horn-silica) or even horsetail tea, which has been used successfully upstate.[28] Periodic applications of chemical sprays may be needed until SAR has been induced, but the use of tunnel spraying apparatus should keep such sprays from entering the soil.  Even this may be avoidable if one applies safe, organic sprays such as sulphur for powdery mildew, while liquid seaweed, fatty acids, compost sprays can all be applied against botrytis.  Given the high humidity of the Long Island region, more frequent applications may make up for their general lack of toxicity as compared to industrial ones.

For pest control, properly-selected ground cover, such as clover, will attract bees and other beneficial insects.  Ladybugs can be purchased in quantity and released after flowering to prey on aphids, eggs, larvae, scale, and other parasites. [29] Pyrethrums (made from flowers) work naturally to deter wasps and yellow jackets that are attracted to the fruit.[30] Soil-borne pathogens that feed on the root damage caused by phylloxera may be controlled by measured use of hydrogen peroxide, as well as by application of harpins (e.g., Messenger®) on the grapes, while BTH can be used to help increase resistance to Botrytis.[31] All this means much more attention must be paid to the condition of the vineyard throughout the season, compared to a conventional approach.  This is essentially the practice of Integrated Pest Management (IPM).[32]

This can all be accomplished over time, though much experimentation as well as trial-and-error will usually be necessary, as every vineyard will have unique issues of its own.  The bottom line is that organic viticulture is more labor-intensive, but with potentially lower supply-and-materials costs, so that the fruit that results should be of higher quality, entirely free of industrial residue or traces, safer for consumption, and better for the land.  The question:  can 100% certified organic grapes, as stipulated in the USDA guidelines, be grown long-term in the Long Island AVAs, or is sustainable viticulture the best that can be hoped for?  The Farrm has been raising organically-certified fruit and vegetables since 1990, and vinifera grapes since 2005.  He has achieved this in part because he has been willing to accept smaller crops when the disease pressure is very strong, and that depends on the weather from year to year.

___________________________________

Endnotes

[2] Geraldine Pluenneke, “On Good Land: Farming to a Different Beat,” Edible East End, Spring 2011.

[3] Telephone interviews with Richard Pisacano of Wölffer Estate and Larry Perrine of Channing Daughters, both on 17 April 2009

[4] Ibid.

[5] United States Department of Agriculture, National Organic Program, “Labeling: Regulatory Text,” § 205.303 (5).  (Henceforth referred to as USDA, NOP, Labeling:)

[6] New York Guide to Sustainable Viticulture Practices: Grower Self-Assessment Workbook, “[the Program] . . . is designed to encourage practices with low environmental impact that maintain or improve soil.”  Also see Channing Daughters Winery, “A Vineyard With a Purpose” Web page.

[7] Interviews with Alejandra Macari and Barbara Shinn, 20 April 2009, with Jim Silver at Peconic Bay Winery, 7 July 2009, and with Miguel Martín of Palmer Vineyards, 12 October 2010.

[8] Interview with Jim Silver, 7 July 2009.

[9] Despite Shinn’s involvement with VineBalance, she does take issue with the term “sustainable,” holding that it can mean anything that a practitioner wants it to, and prefers to speak of “natural viticulture.”

[10] The five categories are my summation of several sources:  USDA, NOP, Labeling: § 205.301; Monty Waldin, “organic viticulture” The Oxford Companion to Wine, p. 498; Jon Bonné, “A fresh take on sustainable winemaking”; also, Sustainability in Practice (SIP) ™ Vineyard Certification Program, FAQ PDF.

[11] Organic Consumers Association, “Clearing up the confusion about Organic Wine,” introduction.  Also see the USDA, NOP, and Labeling: § 205.301a-d, the source for the list.  Only the first two items on the list (a & b) are of concern to us.

[12] USDA, NOP, Labeling: § 205.301-304 passim.

[13] Vincent Russo and Merritt Taylor.  “Yield and Quality of Vegetable Crops in Conventional and Organic Production Systems,” USDA Agricultural Research Service, n.p.

[14] Demeter USA, “Get Certified.”

[15] Gerald B. White, “The Economics of Growing Grapes Organically,” 19white.pdf.  This and other studies to be found at the http://www.nysaes.cornell.edu/hort/faculty/pool/ website were all part of a project funded by the federal Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension program (SARE) from 1991-95.

[16] White.

[17] White.

[18] Suzanne Gannon, “Extreme Viticulture: How Northeast growers farm vinifera organically and sustainably,” Wine & Vines Magazine, online, sections on Shinn Estate Vineyards (Long Island) and Cornell’s Program (n.p.)

[19] The need for certifying agents is mentioned in passing in the USDA, NOP, Labeling: § 205.303 (5).  For a discussion of Accredited Certifying Agents (ACA) see Renée L. Robin, “Defining Organic Practices for Wines and Grapes,” in Wine Business Monthly online, section on “Getting Certified: What Rules Apply?”:

These ACAs can be private, public or non-profit entities that have received authorization to certify from the USDA. As of January 2006, there are 53 domestic ACAs and 40 foreign-based ACAs. Currently 11 of these ACAs are located in California.

[20] Joe Dressner, “Natural Wine,” The Wine Importer, speaks of the “French Natural Wine Movement,” whose members refer to themselves, “. . .  as the sans soufistres” because they refuse to add sulfur to their wine when vinifying.  The movement to make wine without sulfites has spread to the United States and has, indeed, been incorporated into the USDA certification standard for 100% organic (USDA, NOP, Labeling: § 205.302).  The issue of what actually constitutes “natural” winemaking is open to debate, as pointed out in Pameladevi Govinda’s “Natural Progression: The Real Dirt on Natural Wine,” Imbibe Magazine online.

[21] Actually, practically speaking, it is more like ten to fifteen years, according to my interview with Barbara Shinn.

[22] See Russo and Taylor’s “Yield and Quality of Vegetable Crops . . .” Technical Abstract, which set up such a 70-meter buffer zone for their experiment.

[23] According to an article by Renée L. Robin, “Defining Organic Practices for Wines and Grapes,” in Wine Business Monthly online, production cost increases can be “as much as 5 to 10 percent” during the period of transition, after which such costs should be about the same or even less that conventional methods.

[24] Jancou, Pierre.  MoreThanOrganic.com:  French Natural Wine, “As it is picked, the fruit must be collected into small containers, to avoid being crushed under its own weight, and taken to the winery as quickly as possible.”

[25] Kingsley Tobin, “Organic Viticulture & Winemaking: Changing New Zealand Grapegrowing and Winemaking to an Organic Philosophy,” section on Solution to Problems, n.p.

[26] Don Lotter, “Wine quality, organic viticulture and vine systemic acquired resistance to pests,” section on “Vine systemic acquired resistance and wine phenolics” (n.p.).  Lotter states that “SAR is induced by low to moderate levels of insect and pathogen attack, the ability of plants, particularly organically managed plants, to induce a type of situation-responsive immunity to attack by diseases and pests is known as systemic acquired resistance (SAR), in which defensive compounds, mostly phenolics, are produced.”

[27] Lotter.

[28] Lotter.

[29] GardenInsects.com, “Natural Pest Control with Ladybugs,” Web page.  (Ladybugs are also called Ladybird beetles.)

[30] Lisa Anderson, “Organic Winemaking, Northwest Style,” under heading, “Challenges of Organic Viticulture,” from WineSquire.com.

[31] Lotter.

[32] United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Web site, “Integrated Pest Management (IPM)  Principles.”

[33] Barbara Shinn e-mail to me, 7 June 2010.  She further asserts that “This is a huge success for the region and a big tipping point. Hopefully the region will take comfort that it can indeed be done and done well.”

References

Anderson, Lisa.  “Organic Winemaking, Northwest Style,” WineSquire.com, at http://winesquire.com/articles/2001/wnw0107.htm, accessed 25 March 2009.

Asimov, Eric. “The Pour: Natural Wines Redux,” New York Times, 16 March 2007.

Bonné, Jon.  “A fresh take on sustainable winemaking,” 5 April 2009, SFGate.com, at http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/04/05/FD0H16NPIS.DTL&hw=wine&sn=003&sc=628

Brix, Samantha, “Calverton farmer boasts Long Island’s first crop of certified organic grapes,” Suffolk Times, 7 October 2011, at http://suffolktimes.timesreview.com/2011/10/21449/calverton-farmer-boasts-long-islands-first-crop-of-certified-organic-grapes/

Channing Daughters, “A Vineyard With a Purpose”: http://www.channingdaughters.com/

Cox, Jeff. “Organic Winegrowing Goes Mainstream,” Wine News Magazine, Aug/Sep 2000

Demeter-International e. V., International Certification Office.  List of Fees, Lizenz-&- Gebührenordnung.PDF, as at January 1st 2006 [in English], at http://demeter.net/certification/ce_procedures_fees.pdf?languagechoice=en&languageadmin=0

Demeter, USA.  “Get Certified,” Demeter-USA.org, at http://demeter-usa.org/get-certified/, accessed 8 April 2009.

Dressner, Joe.  “Natural Wines,” from the wine importer blog, 28 April 2007. from http://www.datamantic.com/joedressner/?2331.

Gahagan, Richard M.  “Use of Term ‘Organic’ on Wine Labels,” New York Agricultural Extension Program at Cornell University, at http://nysaes.cals.cornell.edu/research-extension/grapes-and-wine, accessed 8 April 2009.

Gannon, Suzanne.  “Extreme Viticulture: Now Northeast growers farm vinifera organically and sustainably,” Wines & Vines Magazine, October 2007.

Govinda, Pameladevi.  “Natural Progression,” Imbibe Magazine, Sept/Oct 2008.

Jancou, Pierre.  MoreThanOrganic.com:  “French Natural Wine” at http://www.morethanorganic.com/definition-of-natural-wine, accessed 21 April 2009.

Kolpan, Steven.  “Biodynamic Wines: Beyond Organic,” Steven Kolpan on Wine, November 2008, at http://stevenkolpanonwine.blogspot.com/2008/11/biodynamic-wines-beyond-organic.html.

Lotter, Don, Ph.D.  “Wine quality, organic viticulture and vine systemic acquired resistance to pests,” Organic Wine Journal, 11 November 2008, at http://www.organicwinejournal.com/index.php/2008/11/wine-quality-organic-viticulture-and-vine-systemic-acquired-resistance-to-pests/

Macari, Alexandra, of Macari Vineyard, telephone interview conducted on 20 April 2009.

Natural Process Alliance Home Page, The.  http://www.naturalprocessalliance.us/home, accessed 8 April 2009.

Organic Consumers Association, “Clearing up the Confusion about Organic Wines,” from http://www.organicconsumers.org/Organic/OrganicWine.cfm, accessed 6 April 2009

Organic Viticulture, “Organic and Biodynamic Viticulture,” Tuscany-in-a-Bottle.com, from http://www.tuscany-in-a-bottle.com/organic.htm, accessed 25 March 2009

Organic Wine Company. “Organic Wines,” EcoWine.com, at http://ecowine.com/organic.html, accessed 25 March 2009.

Peterson, Walter.  “Marketing Organic Wines in New York,” New York Agricultural Extension Program at Cornell University, at http://nysaes.cals.cornell.edu/research-extension/grapes-and-wine, accessed 8 April 2009.

Pluenneke, Geraldine.  “On Good Land: Farming to a Different Beat,” Edible East End, Spring 2011; published online on 25 April 2001 at:  http://www.edibleeastend.com/online_magazine/farming-to-a-different-beat/

Railey, Raven J.  “Wine with a conscience:  How three local wineries go green,” San Luis Obispo’s website, 4 April 2009, at http://www.sanluisobispo.com/183/story/674260.html

Robin, Renée L.  “Defining Organic Practices for Wine and Grapes,” Wine Business Monthly, 15 April 2006.

Robinson, Jancis, MW, editor.  The Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd edition.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2006

Robinson, Jancis, MW, “More French Wineries go Biodynamic,” SFGate.com, home of The San Francisco Chronicle, 2 February 2006.

Russo, Vincent and Merritt Taylor.  “Yield and Quality of Vegetable Crops in Conventional and Organic Production Systems,” USDA Agricultural Research Service, at http://www.ars.usda.gov/research/publications/Publications.htm?seq_no_115=194264, 1 December 2006; last modified 14 April 2009.  [NOTE: this is an interpretive summary and technical abstract of a 2006 article: “Soil amendments in transition to organic vegetable production with comparison to conventional methods: Yields and economics.”  HortScience, 41(7):1576-1583.]

Shinn, Barbara, Vineyard Manager, Shinn Estate, telephone interview conducted on 20 April 2009.

Sustainability in Practice (SIP) ™ Vineyard Certification Program, “Frequently Asked Questions” [FAQ], PDF file downloaded from http://www.vineyardteam.org, accessed 8 April 8, 2009.

Tobin, Kinsley. “Organic Viticulture & Winemaking: Changing New Zealand Grapegrowing and Winemaking to an Organic Philosophy”, at http://organicnz.vibrantplanet.com/page/2020-18, accessed 25 March 2009.

United States Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] Web site, “Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Principles.”  From http://www.epa.gov/opp00001/factsheets/ipm.htm, accessed 21 April 2009.

United StatesDepartment of Agriculture, National Organic Program, “Labeling: Regulatory Text,” PDF file available at http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELDEV3003511, accessed 7 April 2009

VineBalance, New York Guide to Sustainable Viticulture Practices: Grower Self-Assessment Workbook. PDF file, at http://www.vinebalance.com/pdf/intro.pdf

White, Gerald B.  “The Economics of Growing Grapes Organically,” Department of Agriculture, Resource, and Managerial Economics, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, at http://nysaes.cals.cornell.edu/research-extension/grapes-and-wine, accessed 8 April 2009.

Wölffer Estate Vineyard, “Vineyards and Winemaking” Web page, at http://www.wolffer.com/store/

 

Wine Books I Recommend

Following is a highly selective list of books that I’ve read or consulted that I consider particularly worthwhile.  If I haven’t read or consulted a book, I do not recommend it.  Alas, there are more that I’ve not read than have—I’ve only 120 books on wine in my library, and some are still waiting to be read, though nearly all have served as references.

Grapes, Wine, Wineries, and Vineyards

There are seven general wine books that one should own in order to be truly well- and completely informed:

1.  Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine, 4th ed. (2015) is just indispensable, with a comprehensive coverage of just about every topic bearing on wine that one can think of, a true Abbocatto to Zymase encyclopedia.  All articles are signed, all cited references noted.  Robinson was both the editor and a contributor.  The 4th edition adds 300 additional, new terms, though many will only be of interest to wine professionals.  For a full review on this blog, see the post: The Three Indispensable Wine Books.

2.  Equally indispensable is Hugh Johnson & Jancis Robinson’s The World Atlas of Wine, 7th ed. (2013).  How else could one find the way around the vinicultural regions of the world, including NY State?  The maps are in full color, ranging in scale from street-level for the Champagne towns and the lodges in Oporto, to 1:45,000 and larger for wine regions.  The text for the many regions is the very model of pithy, clear writing.  For a full review on this blog, see the post: The Three Indispensable Wine Books.

3.  In 2013, two new, serious reference books on wine—sure to become indispensable and classic are:  Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy’s American Wine:  The Ultimate Companion to the Wines and Wineries of the United States (a very useful feature is its summary of each AVA, including the best grapes grown, and listing the top wineries by category); the other must-have is Jancis’s encyclopedic Wine Grapes:  A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including their Origins and Flavours, written in collaboration with Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz.  See my post, The Three Indispensable Wine Books, for a complete review of Wine Grapes.

4.  Emile Peynaud’s vital and perennial The Taste of Wine: The Art and Science of Wine Appreciation (trans. Michael Schuster, 1987).  Originally written in French as La Goût du Vin in 1983), it is considered definitive by many in the field.

But then, there is always Jancis Robinson’s How to Taste (2000), which is both a how-to for tasting and a guide to the aromatic and gustatory sensations of the different varieties and how they can differ from place to place (i.e., from terroir to terroir).  Robinson’s is certainly the more approachable for most readers.

5.  WSET students and graduates, anyone interested in wine certification, and indeed, even winemakers can benefit from David Bird’s Understanding Wine Technology:  The Science of Wine Explained, 3rd ed., which has been required reading for all WSET students, is a very clear and lucid explanation—in laymen’s terms—of what goes on right down to the molecular level of yeasts, viruses, and chemistry generally.  It’s also a very good read.

6.  I very much enjoyed and admired Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop’s Authentic Wine:  toward natural and sustainable winemaking (2011), which has many really interesting insights into what really goes on in a vineyard, a winery, and what it takes to be a sustainable winegrower and producer.  Much food for thought, though some may cavil about a few of the authors’ conclusions.

7.  If one wanted to carry as much information about wine in a portable package, there’s one that I cannot live without:  Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book 2016.  It is pithy, witty, thicker than ever, and claims to be the Number One Bestselling Wine Guide, which it deserves to be.  I’ve bought every edition since the very first one, published in 1977 (it was rather slim then).  Also available as a KIndle Book from Amazon.

New York and East Coast Wine

Long Island Wine Country:  Award-Winning Vineyards of the North Fork and the Hamptons, is an indispensable guide to visiting Long Island vineyards and wineries.  Written by Jane Taylor Starwood, editor-in-chief of Long Island Wine Press, she gives us an insider’s track on the owners, the winemakers, and the wineries themselves.  In a conversational tone (and amply illustrated), the book leads the reader from East to West on the North Fork, and then down to the Hamptons, as though it would be followed geographically. It’s a bit frustrating an approach if one wants to do research and would prefer an alphabetical organization, but it’s a quibble given the overall quality and usefulness of the book, which is still reasonably up-to-date as of 2013, given that it was published in 2009. One should bear in mind though, that already important personnel changes have taken place: Richard Olsen Harbich left Raphael in 2010 and went to Bedell Cellars, Anthony Nappa is now Raphael’s vintner, Kelly Urbanik Koch is winemaker at Macari, and Zander Hargrave, who was assistant winemaker at Peconic Bay Vineyards, is now unemployed, as Peconic Bay has closed its doors.  A new, major winery, Kontokosta Vineyards, opened in June 2013 in Greenport.
Louisa Thomas Hargrave wrote a gracious memoir, The Vineyard: The Pleasures and Perils of Creating an American Family Winery. One cannot begin to understand what was involved in creating the Long Island wine industry without reading this charming and touching account of the establishment of Long Island’s first winery, Hargrave Vineyard, in 1973, when there were only small farms and potato fields. It is charming in its modesty, touching in its honesty, and a remarkable tale of what it takes to start a vineyard from scratch when you don’t even know what you’re doing! And look at what it started–a whole industry that is one of the dominant features of the East End of Long Island, begun with passion, commitment, and hard work, but ultimately at the cost of heartbreak and renewal.  Now out of print, it may be available, used, on Amazon or AbeBooks.

In Marguerite Thomas’s Touring East Coast Wine Country:  A Guide to the Finest Wineries (1996) we have the first important guide to the wines and wineries of the East Coast, from Maine to Virginia, replete with useful insights and a good background on the history of the viniculture of each state. It also provides biography capsules of some of the most important or interesting winemakers. Given that the book was first published in 1996, a good deal of its information is now more of historical interest, and it needs, and deserves, a new edition.
More up-to-date than Marguerite Thomas’s East Coast guide is Carlo DeVito’s East Coast Wineries: A Complete Guide from Maine to Virginia, published in 2004. Still, even this needs to be brought up-to-date, but its value lies in its own take on East Coast wineries, with listings of the wines offered by each estate with brief descriptions, recommendations and excerpted tasting reviews of the wines. Let’s hope that, like Thomas’s guide, DeVito’s will also receive a new, updated edition soon. For the serious wine tourist, one guide complements the other, so why not buy both?
Vital–thanks to its clear, lucid writing and very useful history of LI viticulture and winemaking–is the excellent if outdated Wines of Long Island, 2nd edition (2000) by Edward Beltrami & Philip E. Palmedo.  It includes profiles of many of the most important personalities in the LI wine world, descriptions and reviews of wineries and their wines–both past and present–and a generally judicious insight into the trends and achievements of the region as of the end of the 20th Century.  Definitely worthwhile owning, if you love LI wines, but it has long been out of print, though Amazon or AbeBooks may still offer it, “pre-read”, online.  It is currently being brought up to date by me, with elements of the series on Long Island wines in this blog being incorporated into it.  We hope to bring out the 3rd edition by Spring 2017.

An interesting and somewhat chatty book is The Story of North Fork Wine: Historical Profiles and Wine Country Recipes (2009), John Ross’s up-close-and-personal look at the people who work in and run the wineries.  A chef who owned Ross’s North Fork Restaurant, he became close to many in the wine trade, especially given that he was interested in devising recipes and menus that would best accompany the wines of the region.

Organic and Biodynamic Viniculture

Rudolf Steiner’s Agriculture Course: The Birth of the Biodynamic Method, is the foundation text of the biodynamic movement. A compilation of eight lectures delivered in Germany in 1924 provides, in Steiner’s own words, the basis for what he called a new science based on the natural rhythms of the world and the cosmos, as recovered from the traditional practices of the peasant farmers of yore. It is meant as a healthy antidote to the rise of farming methods based on industrial chemicals and fertilizers. Many leading vineyards are farmed by this method, from the Domaine de la Romanée Conti in Burgundy to Shinn Estate in Long Island. You owe it to yourself to read the lectures if you wish to really understand what Biodynamics is about.
Nicolas Joly is a leading proponent of Biodynamic viticulture, and he practices his preaching at one of the greatest vineyards of the Loire, the Coulée de Serrant. Joly’s Wine from Sky to Earth: Growing and Appreciating Biodynamic Wine, is a true believer’s panegyric to Biodynamics.  His ideas and those of the founder of Biodynamics®, Rudolf Steiner, are put into practice at two vineyards that I know of:  Macari Vineyards and Shinn Estate.
Lon Rombough’s The Grape Grower: A Guide to Organic Viticulture, is an excellent introduction to how to grow grapes organically. It’s also very practical, as the guide is really intended for the novice who wants to start a backyard vineyard or even a commercial one. It takes the reader step-by-step on establishing an organic vineyard, imparting along the way a good deal of knowledge and savvy advice.
Other Wine Books of More than Passing Interest (or Not)

Tyler Colman, Wine Politics: How Governments, Environmentalists, Mobsters, and Critics Influence the Wines We Drink (UCal Press, 2008).  I highly recommend this book for its clarity and scholarship.  The subject of politics in the wine world proves to be fascinating, and the author chose to approach it by comparing, for example, the AOC laws of France (and by extension, much of the EU) with the AVA regulations promulgated by the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau).  There are surprising insights  into how and why wine is grown and made in different countries, why labels look the way they do on each side of the Atlantic, and the effects of custom, religion, crime, regionalism, nationalism, and so forth on the wine trade.  Eminently worthwhile for the serious wine-lover.

  • John Hailman, Thomas Jefferson on Wine (UMiss Press, 2006).  Another book that is based on sound scholarship and research, also well-written, but one may wish to skip all the tables and lists, which are difficult to grasp at times simply because the wines of Jefferson’s period (1743-1826) varied so much in name, currency, weights and volumes, that clear comparisons with our own period are so difficult to make.  Still, if one has the patience, there is reward in seeing how all-encompassing were the interests and tastes of the first great oenophile of the United States of America.

 

  • Thomas Pellechia, Wine: The 8,000 Year-Old Story of the Wine Trade (Thunder’s Mouth Press, NY, 2006)  A work with great potential written by someone who has long been in the wine trade but whose sense of history is lacking in scholarship and critical acuity.  Some of what he writes is couched in such vague or confused historical terms as to be virtually useless, especially when dealing with antiquity and the Middle Ages.  The writing style is breezy and casual, but it lacks polish and lucidity.  Such a shame.
  • A far better foray into wine history would be the classic Gods, Men, and Wine, (1966) by William Younger, or the more recent Story of Wine (1989)—or the New Illustrated Edition (2004)—by Hugh Johnson, both of which are better-written and historically more reliable.  Neither of the latter books is available in Kindle versions, but they do enjoy the virtue of been on real, durable paper bound in hardcover.

 

  • A History of the World in 6 Glasses, by Tom Standage (2005), is more than just about wine.  It tells its story by means of six beverages: beer (Mesopotamia & Egypt), wine (Ancient Greece & Rome), spirits (Colonial America), Coffee (Europe in the Age of Enlightenment), Tea (the British Empire), and Coca-Cola (Modern America and the Age of Globalization).  It’s both amusing and informative, but I’d put the emphasis on the amusement.  Unless you’ve utterly uninformed about wine or the other beverages, this is really History 001, rather lightweight.

 

  • Questions of Taste:  The Philosophy of Wine, edited by Barry C. Smith (2007), with essays by experts such as Paul Draper, Jamie Goode, Andrew Jefford, and others, with an enthusiastic Foreword by Jancis Robinson.  The contributors also include a couple of philosophers and a linguist.  The language of wine as presented in this book is clearly academic. A worthwhile but challenging book, well worth the time to read.

 

  • Wine Wars, by Mike Veseth (2011), which, with chapter headings like “The Curse of the Blue Nun,” “The Miracle of Two-Buck Chuck,” and “The Revenge of the Terroirists,”  is an interesting and amusing way of treating the effects of globalization on the modern world of wine.  It is also rather informative, and occasionally provides some surprising nuggets of information (such as the fact that Trader Joe’s is actually a German company).

 

 

Viniculture in LI, Part III: Palmer Estate

Based on interviews with Miguel Martin & Josh Karp on 12 & 22 October 2010

Palmer Vineyards was opened to business in 1986 when Bob Palmer, a New York City advertising and marketing executive, purchased farmland on the North Fork of Long Island in 1983, built what was then the most modern winery on the island, and planted a vineyard. Before long, using his marketing savvy and travelling worldwide to promote his new venture and its product, Palmer became one of the best-known LI wineries.  Since then many other vineyards and wineries have been established on the East End, some of them even more modern and larger. Yet Palmer is still one of the largest vineyards, at 100 acres planted to vines (in two parcels, each of 50 acres), with an annual production of 10,000 to 12,000 cases, including red and white wines, a rosé, and a traditional-method sparkling wine.

Palmer’s winemaker is Miguel Martín, who was hired by Mr. Palmer in 2006 to succeed Tom Drozd as winemaker. Miguel is an experienced and highly knowledgeable vintner who had previously worked at, amongst others, Robert Mondavi in California, Caliterra in Chile, and Gonzalez Byass in Spain. While living in Barcelona (he worked in the Penedés wine region of Cataluña) he and his wife, Ellen, who is from the Hamptons area, saw an ad in a trade publication for a winemaker in Long Island. When Palmer took Miguel on he was told that he had free rein to do whatever he deemed fit to run the winery and make wine. It was an offer Miguel could not turn down, so he moved back to the Island with his family and took over winemaking at Palmer. He has done exactly as Palmer told him to do, making very good, often excellent wines, and constantly extending Palmer’s offerings: Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Merlot, Muscat, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Viognier, and new this year—Albariño wine.

The vineyard manager is Josh Carp, who works very closely with Miguel. Josh is from Staten Island, and his interest in wine began when he was given an old wine press when he was a teenager. His own experience also took him around the world, first earning certification in viticulture and winemaking from UC Davis, working at Martha Clara Winery, then at Cloudy Bay in New Zealand before returning to LI where he eventually took on his position as vineyard manager at Palmer in June of last year. (An excellent profile of the two men at work is to be found in “Hours of Toil Precede the Wine”, by Paul H. Dudley.)

I’d visited Palmer Vineyards a few times before this, but in mid-October I arrived at the time of the harvest. In taking me around the vineyard, Josh had me observe first-hand the work of a mechanical harvester—a $300,000 behemoth that is share-owned with another vineyard in order to make it more affordable. The harvester is used for collecting the grapes so efficiently that it can complete a 200-yard row in about 10 minutes or less, with little damage to the fruit, but of course without the selectivity that comes with hand-picking. Obviously, this is not the method the winery uses for producing top-quality wines with prices to match, but rather is one means of producing decent wines at affordable prices. In this case the vineyard lot in question was planted with Merlot, and a crew of experienced vineyard workers efficiently went through the rows to be harvested, lifting and fixing the bird netting to expose the grape clusters. The harvester straddles a row and using a set of mechanical beaters shakes the vines so that the ripe grapes fall to a conveyor belt of plastic cups that carry the grapes up to a collection grid that dumps the grapes into either of two mechanical arms—one on either side of the harvester—with bins large enough to hold about a ton-and-a-half of fruit each. When the bins are full—after four or five rows have been harvested—the harvester delivers its largess to a stainless-steel gondola with a capacity of five to six tons. Once the gondola is filled with grapes, it proceeds to the winery, where it is immediately hooked up, by means of a 4̎-diameter hose, to a pump that then feeds the grapes into a destemmer-crusher.

The destemmer-crusher is a compact machine that accomplishes two things at once: it removes any stems or leaves from the grapes by means of a steel rotating spindle with long steel pins, hurtling them out at one end of the machine while the grapes pass through, by gravity, to the crusher. The crusher does just that to the fruit, which is to say that it crushes the grapes enough to break their skins and allow the juice to flow out. (Pressing is a much more forceful way of getting the maximum juice out of the grapes, leaving behind only the pomace—but more on that at a later time.)

On a subsequent visit in late October, I observed a handpicked harvest, where Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon were being selectively clipped, stems and grapes together, and delivered to the winery. This time, a crew received the bins of grapes and dumped them on a sorting table. Any bad bunches were removed and the rest pushed into the destemmer-crusher, which this time was piling the removed stems so quickly that they needed to be regularly removed by pitchfork and placed in a wagon. These grapes were destined for the high-end wines made at Palmer.

So, back at the winery, after a day’s harvest, I had a chance to sit down with Miguel and talk about another matter that is of special significance to this series of posts on viticulture in LI.: the question of terroir, which is something that has long been discussed, argued over, embraced as a concept of agriculture in France, while seriously questioned in the United States.

Here is a classic statement about it by one of its adherents:

‘The very French notion of terroir looks at all ‘the natural conditions which influence the biology of the vinestock and thus the composition of the grape itself. The terroir is the coming together of the climate, the soil and the landscape. It is the combination of an infinite number of factors: temperatures by night and by day, rainfall distribution, hours of sunlight, slope and drainage, to name but a few. All these factors react with each other to form, in each part of the vineyard, what French wine growers call a terroir.’ –Bruno Prats, the proprietor of Château Cos d’Estournel in Bordeaux, as quoted in The Vintner’s Art: How Great Wines are Made, by Hugh Johnson and James Halliday (1992)

(One of the factors not named explicitly above is the human one: culture, politics, agricultural practices, even belief systems play a part in terroir. In other words, human intervention, such as the choice of varieties to be grown, the vine density, pruning and training methods, how the vine rows are laid out—e.g., to take advantage of sun or to deal with prevailing winds—etc.)

According to Miguel, the most important issue in LI is the climate (which includes the weather), as it is the one element that cannot be controlled, being highly variable and therefore the greatest challenge to both the viticulturalist and the vintner. In 2009, for example, the vineyard lost 10-15% of harvest due to heavy rains, but had to spend more in order to retain the fruit that was still hanging. Indeed, climate is definitely a controlling factor in terms of site choice, viticultural practices as mentioned in the paragraph above, and dealing with such issues as vine diseases and pests, which is particularly problematic given the high humidity that prevails in LI. Thus, virtually all vineyards on the North Fork , including Palmer, use double-cordon training with Vertical Shoot Positioning (which is explained in my introductory post to this series, Viticulture in Long Island, introduction to Parts 2-xx).

With respect to the soil as a part of the concept of terroir, Miguel is firm in saying that the effects of soil alone are exaggerated, and he cites for evidence an article published in The New York Times in May of 2007, by Harold McGee and Daniel Patterson, “Talk Dirt to Me.” The point is made in the article that what we like to call goût de terroir (taste of the earth), is in fact not at all the result of rocks and soil alone, but more the result of the fermenting yeasts and human intervention. “Plants don’t really interact with rocks,” explains Mark Matthews, a plant physiologist at the University of California, Davis who studies vines. “They interact with the soil, which is a mixture of broken-down rock and organic matter. And plant roots are selective. They don’t absorb whatever’s there in the soil and send it to the fruit. If they did, fruits would taste like dirt.” He continues, “Any minerals from the solid rock that vine roots do absorb — sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, a handful of others — have to be dissolved first in the soil moisture. Most of them are essential nutrients, and they mainly affect how well the plant as a whole grows.” This insight is a clarification of the soil factor in terroir, but would seem to put to rest the notion of a goût de terroir as something discernible in wine.

In the Palmer vineyard, historically a combination of both natural and synthetic composts has been used based on soil needs, such as additional nitrogen or phosphate. The lack of either of these would be visible in the vine leaves by means of certain patterns of discoloration. Indeed, in what should be seen as a move towards a more organic viticulture, Josh wrote in an e-mail: “With some (much needed) advice from Barbara Shinn I have started a [natural] compost pile. At Palmer we always put the pomace back into the fields along with the prunings from the winters’ pruning but a [natural] compost I feel will affect the soil faster and with more nutrients.”

Palmer, like most East End vineyards, uses clones designed for late blooming and early ripening in its newer plantings, such as of Albariño, Viognier, and Muscat, in order to avoid the damages inflicted by spring frosts and autumn weather. Clover (which is self-seeding) is planted for ground cover between the rows, because it is low-growing and nitrogen-fixing. Copper-sulfate sprays are used up to one month before the harvest. One should only spray the foliates, not the fruit (there is a type of curtain spray system used for this—it has a trough that recovers and recycles dripped spray so that it doesn’t enter the soil, an important factor, as high levels of copper in the soil can be toxic to the topsoil biota). As harvest-time approaches, the copper sprays are put aside and alternative, more environmentally-friendly sprays such as Serenade or Stylet oil are used. (Stylet oil is a highly-purified white mineral oil which is extremely versatile and it functions as an effective insecticide, fungicide, and miticide.) Thus, if there is a late appearance of, say, powdery mildew, it can then be dealt with in a way that poses no risk to the plant, the fruit, the land, or the worker. Furthermore, said Josh: “Any product used is always being checked to see if it can be used less (fewer times used along with a lower rate) with the same effectiveness or can be replaced for a product that can be organic or that is considered less harsh.”

What this all means is that supervision of the vineyard is a constant, requiring that both Miguel and Josh are checking daily for signs of disease, pests, vine malnourishment, and so on. For example, overlapping canes lead to problems of rot, so must be corrected regularly by the vineyard workers in the field. Bird netting (seen in the picture wrapped and marked for the row on which each will be set) has to be carried, after veraison, into the rows of vines and set properly, otherwise birds would decimate the crop. (The nets do not trap the birds, but merely keep them from reaching the grape bunches.) That still leaves raccoons, deer, foxes, and other vermin to feed on low-lying fruit. Groundhogs need to be monitored too, for their tunnels and underground burrows can heave vines and kill them. One must love nature in a tough way in the vineyard. This year Palmer has installed both bat and owl boxes to help keep insects and animal pests under better control. Unfortunately, owls and bats seem to be rather particular about where they nest and the offer of domiciles has so far gone ignored. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t around, though. Both are among the vineyards natural friends, but there are also insect predators who feed on aphids, mites, caterpillars, moths, and so on. Ladybugs, for instance, are a natural control for aphids, which suck the vine leaves and can cause them to wither. In other words, to the extent possible, natural pest controls are used.

Again, Josh:

“At Palmer we are doing many things that are considered sustainable and adopting more each year. I feel it can not only improve the quality of the fruit and the vine health but can also reduce cost in the long run and be beneficial to the farm as a whole,” and also pointed out that “We have started to look into the Cornell’s Vine Balance program. I will be doing the evaluation given in the handbook and trying to improve where needed. . . . This year I will be trying to use one section of the vineyard geared to organic or as close as possibly organic; the problem is that that section would be Chardonnay, we have a lot of it; but Chardonnay can be problematic. The money spent in this section will be assessed as well as the quality of the fruit that comes out of this section compared to the others.”

Meanwhile, in search of new varieties to grow, as an experiment Miguel planted a small plot with Albariño vines three years ago, and this first harvest yielded enough wine for a very limited edition of perhaps 300 500ml bottles. Tasted out of the barrel, it was rich, complex and well-balanced, dry yet laden with fruit. It’s the first Albariño made in Long Island.

Bob Palmer died in January of 2009, and though the winery continues as he had envisioned it, his family has put the property up for sale.  Meanwhile Miguel intends to continue as he has been until there is a new owner. Then, one can only hope that Miguel and Josh will stay on to maintain continuity and continue experimenting with new varieties and innovative wines.

Palmer Vineyards

Aquebogue, Long Island, New York 11931

631.722.9436