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Viniculture in LI, Part III: Peconic Bay Winery

Peconic Bay Winery, which derives its name from the eponymous body of water by which it is located, was established in 1979 by Ray Blum, making it one of the oldest wineries in Long Island.  Owned by Paul and Ursula Lowerre, who live and work in New York City, the winery closed its doors in October of 2013, because, according to Paul, as quoted in the North Fork Patch of October 28, “Our decision to stop production at Peconic Bay Winery was based on simple economics. . . .  I’m not going to say we’re finished producing wine – but we’re most likely finished making wine for ourselves.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the meantime, the Oregon Road vineyard parcels have been taken over by Premium Wine Acquisitions, and under the supervision of Russell Hearn is being managed by Bill Ackerman, of North Fork Viticultural Services.  The vineyards, at least, shall remain in production for the foreseeable future.

Based on  interviews with Jim Silver and Charlie Hargrave, 20 April 2011, updated 28 October 2014. Cynthia Caprise was interviewed on 12 November 2016.