Tag Archives: Kareem Massoud

Viniculture in LI, Part III: Paumanok Vineyards

“At Paumanok we practice viticulture that allows us to achieve our goal of growing the ripest, healthiest grapes our vineyards can produce while managing the vineyards in a responsible, sustainable way.  In general, we follow the program and principles of New York State’s Sustainable Viticulture Program set forth here: VineBalance, by Cornell Cooperative Extension with whom Paumanok has had a productive relationship since my parents planted our first vines in 1983.  We believe that the most important factor in making great wine is starting with the healthiest, ripest fruit possible.  Growing grapes in order to achieve this goal and growing them sustainably are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they are one and the same.”

–Statement from an essay by Kareem Massoud, “Sustainable Viticulture at Paumanok”

Established in 1983, the 103-acre estate (with 72 acres currently planted to vine) is entirely owned and managed by Ursula and Charles Massoud, and their three sons, Salim, Kareem, and Nabeel .  The main red varieties are Merlot & Cabernet Sauvignon; the main white ones are Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc.   As for clones, a field already planted with Cabernet Sauvignon was replanted with clone 412, which produces very tiny grapes, which provide more flavor and tannins (it was developed by ENTAV/INRA of France, to which a royalty of $.20-.25 per plant is paid).  However, there are no experimental plots as such here, for, as pointed out by Kareem, everything planted in the vineyard could be said to be experimental.

The dense planting of the vineyards (at 1,100 vines per acre) they say produces more concentrated fruit and therefore higher quality wines.  Their wines are only made from estate-grown grapes and production is limited to just under 9,000 cases.

The first vineyard was planted across the street from the winery in 1982 (42 acres) but was not acquired until the late 1980s; the first Paumanok vines were planted in 1983, and the winery opened in 1991 with the release of the first estate-bottled wines; 12-15 acres were planted in a new field in 2005.  They had to apply one to two tons of lime (calcium carbonate) per acre for the first twenty years on their original plots to bring soil acidity into balance so that it is now stabilized to the higher pH that is more amenable for vinifera varieties.

A more recent addition to Paumanok vineyards is a plot of 25 acres that was purchased from the Riverhead School Board in June of 2014, which will be planted to Chenin Blanc, the signature grape of the property.  The property had originally been purchased by the school district for a school that was never built.  The proceeds from the sale add to the coffers of the school district and represent an important resource for Paumanok, which will plant the first five acres to Chenin Blanc in 2015.

Certainly the newest and biggest addition occurred in August 2018, when Paumanok acquired Palmer Vineyards on Sound Avenue. This has added another 40 acres of vineyards to Paumanok’s holdings. It is a good fit with regards to the varieties planted at Palmer. Perhaps most appealing is the Albariño, which has been a great success at Palmer, so much so that other wineries are also planting the variety. Indeed, Paumanok has ordered an acre’s worth of this variety that is to be planted next year. The plan is that the new Paumanok planting will eventually be incorporated with the Albariño at Palmer to make even more wine of that variety. Meanwhile, the relatively small planting of Riesling at Palmer will be used to augment the larger Riesling planting at Paumanok.

The juice from the Palmer vineyards will be fermented at that winery but will be finished at Paumanok’s facility. Kareem will be responsible for all the winemaking for both properties.

Kareem, the eldest son, has been the winemaker in partnership with his father, Charles, for the last sixteen years.  He also works very closely with his brother Nabeel, who manages the vineyard.  Salim, the second son, is the factotum of the family business.  For the Massouds, “sustainable” means “healthy,” for “the riper and healthier the berries the better the wine made with the least intervention.”

In the essay he provided me for this article, Kareem writes that “My perennial barometer of whether what we are doing is sustainable is the biodiversity in our vineyard: lady bugs, praying mantis, dragon flies, earth worms, etc., are present in our vineyard in abundance.  As you probably know, some farms and vineyards actually  introduce populations of some of these beneficial insects as biological controls.  So the fact that we have them without having to introduce them says to me that we must be doing something right. We maintain a permanent cover of grasses and wild clovers and other vegetation [between the rows] and under the vine which create a habitat for all the biodiversity cited above.”  In other words, at Paumanok they have naturally achieved the symbiotic diversity that is essential to sustainable viticulture.

Though Paumanok practices sustainable viticulture, Kareem thinks that organic farming, at least as understood by the general public, is a myth, insofar as organic farming allows the use of both copper and sulfur; nevertheless, some organic producers will claim that they are not “spraying chemicals” (but what are copper or sulfur if not chemicals?).  Such farmers are therefore using the term “organic more as a marketing tool” than acknowledging the actuality of what organic farming entails.  It is, in other words, a matter of the use , or misuse, of language.  To him, it is more important to be “selecting more benign synthetic pesticides relative to more toxic organic (not an oxymoron) controls.  The best example of a toxic organic control is copper.  Copper does a great job at controlling downy mildew, but it is a heavy metal which is something we would rather not spray as it will destroy our soils as it accumulates in the soil over time.   The sulfur used in [both conventional and organic] farming is made as a byproduct of petroleum production.  There are numerous synthetic pesticides which are far more benign that we may opt to use instead.”  Indeed, for Paumanok, organic is incidental to the outcome at the vineyard; however, he remains open-minded about aspects of biodynamics, as he thinks the compost tea preparations may be of value, but he remains skeptical of the ‘hocus-pocus’ associated with it, such as following astrological signs or stirring the compost teas in two different directions (the ‘biodynamic’ part of biodynamics).  On the other hand, if the mystical aspects of biodynamics could be scientifically proven to be efficacious, he’d use it if it meant growing better fruit.

As Kareem points out, “at Paumanok, we manage our vineyard as sustainably as possible. . . . we do not use any more inputs (crop protectants, micro nutrients and fertilizers) than necessary to grow the ripest fruit possible.”  For example, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is driven by self-seeded ground cover, mostly rye grass and sorghum.  The cover is allowed to grow into the vine rows and is kept under control by a special vineyard mower that is towed by a tractor.  This machine, the Fischer GL4K, is described on the manufacturer’s Web site as “the world’s first hinged mid row and undervine slasher, offering total chemical free weed control solutions for growers with delved, ‘V’ shaped or uneven grounds.”  It does, however, have some drawbacks, one of which is that it is capable of damaging or even cutting off the vine from its roots, as can be seen in the photograph to the right.  Kareem explains that the vineyard crew is still learning how to use the machine without causing damage to the vines.  The point is that it should allow control of weed growth in the vineyard without the need to use herbicides at all.  (There is a video of the machine in action on Paumanok’s Facebook page.)

Further IPM control is managed by:

. . . employing] various IPM (Integrated Pest Management) tactics to reduce our reliance on pesticides.  For example, we perform the following activities on the entire vineyard: manual-shoot positioning with catch wires and clips to hold the shoots up straight, suckering, shoot-thinning, fruit-thinning or “green-harvesting”, hedging and leaf removal in the fruit zone.  All of these practices increase the vines’ natural ability to resist disease (such as powdery mildew or downy mildew) by allowing UV rays from sunlight to burn off the inoculum [material that introduces disease to a previously healthy plant] and generally make conditions less favorable for mildew and other pathogens by creating a microclimate within the vine that minimizes moisture and allows it to dry quickly after a rain event by allowing better ventilation.  In any vineyard, but particularly on Long Island [emphasis mine], these activities are essential to give the vine its best chance of naturally fending off pests such as powdery mildew which would take hold much more easily and rapidly – and require more spraying – had we not done these activities.  We carry out these practices as diligently, meticulously and thoroughly as possible.  What does that mean?  For example, when we drop fruit, i.e., green-harvest, we don’t do it just once but repeatedly until harvest.  Some vines may have been visited four, five, six or more times (for green-harvesting alone) to ensure that only the cleanest, most desirable fruit remains hanging on the vine upon harvest.

In addition, “Several of the pesticides we use would qualify for an organic program, however, there are some grape pests for which we feel there is no satisfactory organic control [my emphasis] that we know of at this time, such as black rot, phomopsis and botrytis.  Given that grapevines must be sprayed (if you know of a grower that never sprays their vines, please let me know), our belief from day one has been to use the most effective, least toxic material available regardless of whether that product is labeled for organic or biodynamic use or not.” Paumanok has therefore invested in state-of-the-art spraying technology.  Kareem says that “we use a recycling tunnel sprayer to spray our vineyard.  This sprayer greatly reduces drift, and, as the name implies, recycles much of what would have otherwise been lost as drift.  This results in a reduced environmental impact and improved profitability, two key pillars of sustainability.”

With respect to the Cornell University Agricultural Extension VineBalance program, Paumanok is very involved; it has the book and follows it.  Indeed, Ursula Massoud is on the Cornell Cooperative Extension Advisory Committee for viticulture.  VineBalance is working towards a certification program for New York grape growers, but there are politics involved that inhibit its advancement, which has to do with growers and producers of juice grapes by corporations like Welch’s.  They do not want third-party certification versus the wine-grape growers who do want it.  So the certification program is still in development. Another way in which Paumanok shows its commitment to sustainability is by the installation of the first solar panels at any vineyard.  As Kareem points out, the family lives on the property and drinks water from their own well, so they have one more reason to be responsible custodians of the lands they farm.  Theirs is a “terroirist” stewardship that respects the land and its produce.

In the vineyard they make sure that at harvest the vines are all clean before the machines go through.  (Their machinery uses synthetic food-grade hydraulic fluid (costing $20-25/gallon) in order to minimize the amount of industrial fluid that can find its way into the environment.  Nevertheless, they prefer hand-picking, but to ensure that boxes of picked grapes never touch the ground, an empty one is used underneath the box with grapes to keep the fruit clean.  The goal always is to pick clean as well as healthy grapes.

Kareem has one last thought:

As Paumanok continues to experiment in the vineyard and improve on our [30+] years of viticultural experience on Long Island, we will pursue whatever methodology allows us to achieve our goal of growing the healthiest, ripest grapes possible regardless of whether that method is known as organic, practicing-organic, biodynamic, IPM, sustainable, etc.  There is only one dogma to which we will adhere:

GREAT WINE IS MADE WITH THE HEALTHIEST, RIPEST GRAPES OBTAINABLE.

Consequently, given all the above, Paumanok joined the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers group, becoming the twentieth member as of November 2015.

And the results show in the wine that Kareem, as winemaker, produces at Paumanok.  For me the proof is in one of the finest Sauvignon Blanc wines made in this country that I’ve tasted, and an excellent Chenin Blanc that is unique in Long Island. Paumanok also sells:  steel-fermented Chardonnay, barrel-fermented Chardonnay, two Chenin Blancs, Cabernet Franc, three different Merlots, two Cabernet Sauvignons, a late-harvest Riesling, a late-harvest Sauvignon Blanc, two Rosés, and several blends, all made by what Kareem calls “minimalist” wine making (he dislikes the term “natural wine making,” which implies something that it really is not).

The July 6, 2015 issue of the NorthForker has an article, “Long Island wines receive record-breaking reviews in The Wine Advocate” which reports:

Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue also earned some impressive numbers, with four scores of 93 and three scores of 92.

“In the world of wine, Robert Parker has been recognized as possibly the world’s most influential wine critic,” said Paumanok winemaker Kareem Massoud. “We think of [wine ratings] as a necessary evil. Like it or not, people are going to evaluate your wine and give your wine a score. In spite of all of the limitations of relying on a number, it still feels good to end up with a highly rated wine.”

Massoud said Mark Squires of WA visited the winery in March of 2015 and later requested a second set of samples of the wines he tasted, a common practice for wine critics.

“Even the best critics will get palate fatigue,” Massoud explained.

One of the Paumanok standouts for Squires was its 93-point 2007 Merlot Tuthill’s Lane.

“Here, [Paumanok] makes a wonderful Merlot,” Squires wrote. “Full-bodied and caressing on the palate, this shows very fine depth, but it retains its elegance all the while.”

All in all, 23 of Kareem’s wines earned a score of 90 or more.  That is more than any other winery on the Island and a remarkable achievement.

Most recently, Paumanok was named NY Winery of the Year 2015 by the NY Wine and Food Classic held in August at Watkins Glen in the Finger Lakes.  This is the second time that the winery has been so honored.  Its 2014 Medium-Sweet Riesling was declared best white wine in the competition.  See Edible East End’s article.

title_tastingsBased on an interview with Kareem and Nabeel Massoud on 3 May 2011 with additions from “Sustainable Viticulture at Paumanok Vineyards,” an essay by Kareem; last updated September 15, 2018

Paumanok GPS Coordinates

40°56’54.38″ N
72°36’12.18″ W

PAUMANOK Vineyards
North Fork of Long Island
1074 Main Road (Route 25)
P.O. Box 741
Aquebogue, NY 11931

Phone: (631) 722-8800
Fax: (631) 722-5110
Email: info@paumanok.com

Viniculture in LI, Part III: Palmer Vineyards

Based on interviews with Miguel Martin & Josh Karp in October 2010; updated May & August 2018

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. He  built what was then the most modern winery on the island and planted a vineyard. Before long, using his marketing savvy and traveling 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 larger and more modern. Yet Palmer still has 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.

Until 2018, Palmer’s winemaker was Miguel Martín, who was hired by Mr. Palmer in 2006 to succeed Tom Drozd as winemaker. Miguel an experienced and highly knowledgeable vintner had previously worked at, among 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, and Viognier. He was also the first to plant Albariño–a Spanish variety from Galicia– in the region in 2010. Its wine is aromatic, with a touch of spice, yet dry, and it became an immediate hit.

Over the years, Miguel continued to introduce a new range of wines. The latest, released in 2018, is Reposo, a dessert wine made from raisined, botritised Gewürztraminer grapes left on the vine for weeks after harvest. The grapes were then fermented in used brandy casks and allowed to age for eight years before being bottled and released. A fine account of the production of this wine can be found at Edible Long Island: Palmer Reposo wine.

I’d visited Palmer Vineyards a few times before, but in mid-October, 2010, I arrived at the time of the harvest. I observed 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 4-inch 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 viticulturist 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 the winemaker and vineyard manager 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.

What all this has meant is that Palmer Vineyards was very ready to join the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing group some years ago, and in May 2018 was again recertified as complying with the standards of LISW, the Vinebalance Workbook, and international standards of sustainability.

Bob Palmer died in January of 2009, and though the winery continues as he had envisioned it, his family had put the property up for sale.  In July 2018 it was purchased by Paumanok Vineyards, owned by the Massoud family. Paumanok had been seeking to expand and Palmer fit it plans very well. Unfortunately, while they held on to most of the Palmer staff, they could not justify having two winemakers and had to let Miguel go. Kareem Massoud, the very gifted winemaker at Paumanok, will handle winemaking at both wineries. The story was published in the Wine Spectator: Paumanok Vineyards buys Palmer

Miguel is held in such high esteem that when it was reported that he was now unemployed, Wölffer Estate immediately contacted him and offered him the position of Assistant Winemaker to Roman Roth. But then, they’d known Miguel for years, and he also makes the white wines for Roanoke Vineyards, owned by Richie Pisacano, who is the vineyard manager at Wolffer. That story is told in an article in Edible East End: Miguel Martin moves to Wölffer Estate

Palmer Vineyards

Aquebogue, Long Island, New York 11931

631.722.9436

A Conversation with Louisa Thomas Hargrave

Louisa Thomas Hargrave is the doyenne of the Long Island wine business, having established the very first wine vineyard, Hargrave Vineyard, in 1973 with her (then) husband, Alex Hargrave.  They were true pioneers, determined to plant vinifera grapes where they had never successfully grown before, even in the face of well-meant advice against taking on such a risky venture.  Neither of them had ever farmed until they planted the vineyard.

At the time she was a recent college graduate, having gone to Harvard, earning her BA in Government at Smith, and thence to Simmons College to earn a MAT (Masters of Arts in Teaching).  But she and Alex had caught the wine bug, and became seriously interested in starting a vineyard and winery of their own, with the idea of producing quality wine from V. vinifera grapes in the styles of Bordeaux and Burgundy.  Consequently, Louisa next went to the University of Rochester to study Calculus and Chemistry, and further studied the latter at Stony Brook University with the idea that she could apply what she had learned to the making of wine.

Louisa & Alex Hargrave, 1975

Louisa & Alex Hargrave, 1975

After planting vines of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc in the original 17-acre field of the old potato farm that had become Hargrave Vineyard, Louisa went to the Cornell Cooperative Extension program to earn a Certificate in Land Use Planning in 1974, an ongoing interest of hers as Suffolk County and New York State developed new laws and regulations that had an impact on her ability to farm.  By 1998 Louisa had been awarded a Doctor of Science, honoris causa, from Dowling College, in recognition of her contributions to viticulture in Long Island.

Between the very solid academic credentials that Louisa has earned over the years and the deep and long experience of establishing and maintaining a vineyard for twenty-six years, as well as making wine and running a successful winery, Louisa has perhaps the most sound credentials of anyone in the Long Island wine world.  Furthermore, after selling Hargrave Vineyard in 1999, when she and her husband agreed to separate, she went on to establish Winewise LLC, a consulting firm for the wine industry. She was director of the Stony Brook University Center for Wine, Food, and Culture from 2004 to 2009, and is continuing to work as a writer on the subject of wine, viticulture, and winemaking for various publications, including her own blog, www.vinglorious.com.

Louisa has also written a well-received memoir, The Vineyard: The Pleasures and Perils of Creating an American Family Winery (Viking/Penguin, 2003), about the joys and challenges of running a family winery and vineyard.  Earlier, in 1986, she had contributed an essay, “The History of Wine Grapes on Long Island,” to the Long Island Historical Journal.  Most recently she wrote about the terroir of Long Island in an article for Edible East End, “The Dirt Below our Feet.”

Louisa with wineGiven those credentials and that experience, I cannot think of a better-qualified person to speak to about some of the issues bearing on the viniculture of Long Island.  To meet Louisa is to encounter someone who is direct, forthcoming, very well-informed, and definitely opinionated.  She is petite, bespectacled, and wears her silver hair long.  She has no pretensions or airs, but she does not suffer fools.  Given her high profile in Long Island, she frequently has requests from schoolchildren or their parents for an interview so that they can write a paper for school.  Her response is simple:  “When you’ve read my book, The Vineyard, get back to me and we can talk.”  So far there have been no takers.

Fortunately for me, I had read The Vineyard, so that made getting my interview with Louisa that much easier.

Louisa initiated the conversation by making the point that there are two types of wineries in Long Island:  those that cater to the tourist trade and those that focus on making quality wines.  (Several do both, but most emphasize one or the other). Of the top quality wineries, she cited Bedell Cellars, Channing Daughters, Lenz Winery, Paumanok Vineyards, and Peconic Bay Vineyards.  Given that all of the Long Island wineries depend on retail sales for a major part of their income and nearly all have tasting rooms for the wine tourists who are a significant part of their business, I inferred from what she said that some of these wineries seek to attract tourists and tourist groups with large tasting rooms, provide access for buses, and offer space for parties, weddings, and so on.  While some of these are serious about their wines, such as McCall, The Old Field Vineyards, and Pellegrini, a handful is really focused on the tourist trade, perhaps to the detriment of the wines they make—good enough for the tourists, but certainly not world-class.

One way to judge a winery is by looking at their containers—the smaller the container, such as an oak cask (typically of 225 liters, the size of Bordeaux casks) the more serious is the winemaking, as it costs more time and work to manage.  Large containers tend to be used for large-scale production and do not allow for the blending of batches for refining the way the wine tastes and smells the way that small ones do.

She also made clear that there is a fundamental difference between vineyards that seek to grow the highest quality fruit possible by practicing ‘green harvesting,’ which means removing bunches of fruit in the middle of the growing season—sometimes as much as third to a half of the developing crop, in order to improve the quality of the fruit that remains.  The result, of course, is a smaller crop, but wines made from such fruit will be richer, more flavorful, more interesting.  This will not be true of vineyards that primarily grow and sell their wine grapes to wineries.  These vineyards seek to maximize their grape production, as they sell grapes by the ton and they would receive nearly the same price regardless of whether or not they practiced ‘green’ harvesting.  In this case, quantity trumps quality.

I had a few prepared questions for Louisa, to wit:

  • When you started your vineyard there was no concept of ‘sustainable’ viticulture, although ‘organic’ and Biodynamic agriculture was already being practiced in some places.  Was there a point at which you and Alex decided to move towards sustainable viniculture, and if so, how did you go about it?

“Ecology was very much a part of the vocabulary when we planted our vineyard, and we had stayed at an organic farm some years before.  Still, it was fungicides that made it possible for us to plant V. vinifera vines in our vineyard. Historically, those who had attempted to grow these European wine grapes had failed because they had no tools to combat the fungi and other pests indigenous to North America. We recognized that techniques like grafting and amendments like copper sulfate and other fungicides developed after 1870 now made it possible to successfully grow these plants that previously had not survived here. We also perceived that cold-sensitive vinifera might survive on the North Fork of Long Island, due to the moderating effects of the Gulf Stream and Peconic Bay, when they had failed to survive in the more continental climates of other parts of the east coast.

“We even planted some Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc on their own roots, because the sandy soils of Long Island made it difficult for root pests (like Phylloxera) to establish themselves.  Nevertheless, we really didn’t want to use sprays except to the extent necessary.  Although we did use herbicides at times, when weeds became excessive, we always tried to control them mechanically (which usually meant hand-hoeing and weed pulling in areas that the side-hoe on the tractor could not reach). Late sprays before harvest can affect fermentation, so we did not use fungicides after mid-August.  The fact of the matter is that wrestling wine to the ground is very, very complex.

“We embraced the estate approach from the very beginning—in other words, our wines would be made only from the grapes that came from our vineyard, as is the case with Bordeaux chateau. In later years, we did purchase some fruit for our second label, Chardonette, in order to be able to offer a less-expensive, entry-level wine.

“Our wines were made with no residual sugars; malolactic fermentation was complete in all our wines, and we applied minimum sulfites—none at crush time—because we did not want to destroy the indigenous microflora.  The natural acid in wine, at a pH lower than 4.0, makes it impossible for bacteria harmful to people to survive, but some sulfites were needed during aging to protect the wines from yeast or bacteria that harm wine by creating vinegar or off-odors, especially after the malolactic fermentation, when the pH would rise to a less protective level, as high as 3.7 in Pinot Noir especially.

“I am interested in biodynamic techniques but have never practiced them. There are pros and cons to every agricultural practice. Recently, I visited a biodynamically-farmed vineyard in Champagne that was using horses to work the fields.  The idea was to avoid the hardpan that can develop after running a tractor over the vineyards many times and compacting the soil, as the hardpan that results is virtually impenetrable and can harm the nourishment of the vines.  However, the vintner who showed me the horses commented that, while using horses was good for the soil, it was not good for the horses—the soils were so dry that the horse could go lame. That, then, is not really a good option for sustainability.

“With respect to Biodynamic sprays I should point out that these need DEC [Department of Environmental Conservation] approval, as does anything that is applied to crops.  All must have a seal of approval and licensing from the DEC. DEC guidelines are not always clear and are subject to change without notice.  Because the DEC is funded by fines levied against farmers in violation of their guidelines, it behooves its inspectors to find violations and levy what can be very heavy fines.  It’s a real problem, and it has to be fixed by providing financing for it by New York State. In my memoir, I describe an untoward incident we had with the DEC that illustrates how this agency has, in the course of implementing laws intended to protect the environment, veered off course in a way that persecutes unwitting and well-intentioned farmers like ourselves.”

  • Looking back on how you went about establishing Hargrave Vineyards in 1973, how would you start up differently as a pioneer, given what you know now?  For example, would you plant Pinot Noir again, or something else?  What about preparation of the soil?

First, Louisa said, “I’d start with a south-facing slope, and then I’d use compost with biodynamic elements to maintain the vineyard.”  “You said ‘biodynamic’ but did you mean ‘organic?’”  “No, I said ‘biodynamic,’ meaning that the soil amendments would reflect the concept of the farm as a unified system of life forces, cycling between times of birth, growth, fruition, decay, and rebirth.”

We had discussed Biodynamics at some length, and Louisa said that she agreed with other viniculturalists, like Sam McCullough and Kareem Massoud, who think that some aspects of Biodynamics may actually work, though it may not need all the mystical components to be effective.  While she does believe that there can be something that could be called “energy” in wine, perhaps due to the level of acidity—it has to do with what makes the wine appealing, or exciting, or perhaps there’s something else to which people respond when they drink it.  Whether or not there is some kind of cosmic energy that comes from the planets and the stars, or that has to do with affinities between horns and earth or anything like that.  It may very well be that the biota that is in the compost teas is really healthy for the vines.  [As an aside, I would like to note that that this has not been borne out in any scientific tests that I know of, but it’s clear that even viticulturalists who would not seek to enter the Demeter program for Biodynamic Certification are open to the possibility that the compost teas have some efficacious attributes.]

Louisa further remarked that, “although growing and making wine from Pinot Noir proved to be most challenging, I would do it again.  I learned more from my efforts to ripen this “heartbreak grape” and to tame its hard tannins than from any other variety. Success with it is not assured, but when it comes, it makes extraordinarily wonderful wine on Long Island.

  • Do you think that the Cornell VineBalance program has made a real difference in the vinicultural practices in LI?  It doesn’t have many actual members—about six, I believe.

“The VineBalance program only has a few members because participation requires detailed record-keeping and a lot of paperwork, which are time-consuming and costly.  This doesn’t mean that VineBalance isn’t important to the rest of the vineyards.  It provides all kinds of guidance. Vineyard managers can and do take courses on sustainable viniculture, including pesticide use, which requires certification.  Cornell provides many seminars and brings experts from other regions here to discuss many aspects of viticulture, including organic interventions and sustainable practices.  So VineBalance, under the direction of Alice Wise at the Cornell Agricultural Extension station in Riverhead, does play a significant role in the viniculture of Long Island.”

Louisa concluded our conversation by saying, “Agriculture in Long Island must be kept alive, even if eventually grapes may have to give way to cabbages.  That’s fine, as long as the farms remain.”

With that remark, Louisa speaks in a way that is characteristic of her and her deep commitment not only to growing wine, but sustaining agriculture.  The East End is a beautiful area, and the North Fork still retains a quality of the bucolic and rural thanks to its working farms and vineyards.  The Hargraves sold development rights to their vineyard to the Suffolk County Land Trust years ago.  That is also part of her commitment.  Long Island owes her many thanks for all that she’s done and continues to do.