Tag Archives: Sustainable Viticulture

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.

Viniculture in the Niagara Escarpment: Arrowhead Spring Vineyards

First, a story.

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

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

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

The Niagara Escarpment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 The Interview:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cab Fran grapes at the beginning of veraison.

Cab Franc grapes at the beginning of veraison.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arrowhead Spring Vineyards

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roman & full-time vineyard crew at lunch

Roman & full-time vineyard crew at lunch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roman & crew at soccer. Goal!

Roman & crew at soccer. Goal!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wölffer Estate

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

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


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

 

Viniculture in LI, Part III: The Lenz Winery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lenz logo38355 Route NY 25, Peconic, NY 11958    631.734.6010

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

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

Viniculture in LI, Part III: Macari Estate

Based on interviews with Alex and Joe Macari, Jr on 9 July 2009 & 17 June 2010; updated 21 November 2014

Macari sign, 2014, 0Macari Vineyards is on the North Fork of Eastern Long Island (aka the East End) in Mattituck, and owned and operated by the Macari Family.  Joseph Macari Jr., now runs the winery with his wife, Alexandra (called Alex by those who know her—but actually Alejandra, for she’s originally from Argentina).  Though Macari Vineyards was established in 1995, the Macari Family has owned the 500-acre estate—bounded by the south shore of Long Island Sound—for nearly 50 years [though in 2009 they sold 60 acres of non-vineyard land, so it is now down to 440 acres].  What were once potato fields and farmland now includes a vineyard of 200 acres of vines with additional fields of compost, farmland, and a home to long-horn cattle, goats, Sicilian donkeys and ducks.

Macari sees itself as on the cutting edge of viticulture and has long been committed to as natural an approach to winemaking as is possible. Since 2005 Joseph Macari, Jr. has been considered as a pioneer in the movement towards natural and sustainable farming on Long Island, employing principles of biodynamic farming beginning with the vineyard’s first crops.  By giving consideration to the health of the environment as a whole and moving away from the noxious effects of industrial pesticides towards a more natural and meticulous caretaking of the soil and plants, Macari believes that it has found a more promising way to yield premium wines (recalling the old French axiom, that wine begins in the vineyard).  This does not mean that Macari claims to be producing organic grapes, nor organic wines—that, in Joe’s view, is not possible for a vineyard of its size in Long Island, given the climate, with its high humidity and much rain during the growing season, both of which tend to encourage the ravages of fungal and bacterial infections of the vines, as well as attacks by a range of insects.

My first visit was in July of last year, and my follow-up visit was this June.  We started in the new and modern Tasting Room at the Winery.  Alex, as Joe’s wife is called) began with a tasting of a range of Macari wines, all of which were well-made and at the least, quite good, with some of very fine quality, well-balanced, with good acidity and fruit.  The winery produces both barrel-fermented and steel-fermented whites as well as barrel-fermented reds and a couple of cryo-ice wines (“fake” ice wine, as Alex teased, but Joe is an enthusiast, and the wine is actually delicious and has won awards).  In fact, the winery employs two winemakers, one of whom is Austrian and makes the steel-fermented whites as well as the ice wines.  (I’ll review the wines when I write about wine-making at Macari in a separate post.)

The vineyard tour in a 4-wheel-drive pickup truck began with an exploration of the composting area, where manure from the farm animals is gathered (cows—including long-horn steers—horses, and chickens) as well as the vine detritus (which is charred in order to render any infection or harmful residue neutral), and 35 tons of fish waste that is delivered once a week by a Fulton Fish Market purveyor (Joe says that the fish guts & bones provide excellent nitrogen & DNA for the compost, so it is highly nutritive for the vines).  At the time of my visit the compost heaps—some of which were from six to eight feet high—were covered in weeds, which will be removed before the compost is applied as fertilizer.

In order to save time and space—two valuable commodities in growing wine grapes—vineyards sometimes graft new vines onto a mature rootstock, rather than starting an entirely new plant.  According to the Macari Website, theirs is the first vineyard on Long Island to successfully grow over-grafted vines.  With over-grafting, a new variety can be grown from the rootstock of a different plant, which is a much faster way of growing vines than planting new ones.  The future of every vineyard depends on the carefully executed process of planting new vines.  Macari’s vision of the future is constantly evolving as the owners, vineyard manager and winemaker learn more about their vines, and the microclimates found in the fields.

The vineyard proper is very well-tended, the various varieties separated into blocks, using Vertical Shoot Positioning (VSP), and in many parcels irrigation tubes were carefully aligned along the bottom wires of the rows to provide drip irrigation if necessary, though the high humidity and rainfall of the region reduces the likelihood of needing its use.  In fact, the 2009 season thus far has had such an excess of rainfall—often very heavy—that in many parts of the vineyard there was blossom damage and many of the developing bunches of grapes were, in effect, incomplete due to fruit loss.

Joe has been using, to the extent possible, both organic and Biodynamic® methods of viticulture, but due to the highly-humid conditions in the vineyard, he must still resort to conventional sprays from time to time, so he refuses to claim to be organic or biodynamic, though he finds that to the extent that it is possible to use these viticultural methods, it is worthwhile.  For one thing, Joe worships Mother Earth, and believes in the Rudolf Steiner principle that there ought to be a harmony between earth, sky, and water, and in consequence has resorted in the past to planting cow horns at the ends of rows, with the requisite composting “teas” that are recommended by the biodynamic movement.  He plans to return to this practice again in coming years.  Though Alex appears to be skeptical of the remedy, the special attention and care demanded by organic and biodynamic practice are evident in the vineyard, as can be seen in the picture above, which shows the cover crop extending from between the rows right into the vines themselves, weeds and all, in order to allow the greatest amount of vegetative variety and expand the quantity of beneficial insects and other fauna to find their natural habitat.

Another reason that Macari does not seek Organic Certification is economical.  It is one thing to apply expensive organic sprays on, say a 20-acre field, quite another to do so on 200.  The sprays cost twice as much as the industrial alternatives and the spraying would involve higher labor costs, as the number of times that the spray needs to be applied would be higher than for conventional applications.  Furthermore, the fact that you can practice organic and/or biodynamic farming without going for 100% organic—being pragmatic about using industrial sprays when absolutely needed, but otherwise being committed to organic ones when it is suitable—means that you can have a sustainable, healthy vineyard in almost all respects.

In other words, as Joe sees it, Organic Certification may be economically viable for a small vineyard, but is much less so for large ones.

One additional bit of evidence regarding the exceptional care given the Macari vineyards is the employment of a team of specialized grafters from California, who travel around the country—and the world—grafting new shoots to old roots, so that, for example, a field of Chardonnay can be quickly converted to Sauvignon Blanc.  The process is highly meticulous, requiring special knowledge of the condition of the roots.  For example, in the case of a root with splitting bark, one type of graft and wrapping may be applied as opposed to another for a root that doesn’t suffer from the problem.  This team of five men can graft about 500 roots a day at a cost of $2.00 per root—a highly efficient rate that is cost-effective for the vineyard.  (This team had earlier been working in Hawaii, and has also done grafting for Château Margaux—yes, that one in Bordeaux of 1855 Classification fame—and at the same time was working at Peconic Bay Vineyards nearby.)

As a further example of the globalization of viticultural practices, Joe also has a French specialist in tying vines to the trellising system come from Southern France with his own team in order to train his Guatemalan workers in how to properly tie vines to the wires, for it must be done properly if the vines are to be held to the wires for the duration of the growing season.

To the extent that one can achieve balance with nature in viticulture (or in agriculture as whole), Joe Macari has certainly shown that he in the vanguard of that search.  It is not for the sake of certification, either organic or biodynamic, that he does this, but out of respect for his vineyard’s terroir, which is to say, the land, the soil, the vines, the climate.  But all viticultural work involves experimentation, and Joe is always experimenting, as new ideas and information become available to him.  There is always a better way.  The pursuit is endless, and the story therefore never ends.

PS–For another recent appreciation of Joe Macari’s work, see the informed and thoughtful account by Louisa Hargrave in the January 14, 2010 issue of the Suffolk News at   https://www.macariwines.com/macari.ihtml?page=awards&awardid=184

B'klyn Uncorked, Kelly UrbanikLouisa also wrote a very nice profile of Kelly Urbanik Koch, Macari’s resident winemaker, in the Winter 2014 issue of Long Island Winepress:  Meet your winemaker Kelly Urbanik Koch of Macari Vineyards/

In fact, a favorite wine of ours offered at the New York Uncorked wine tasting was a really sublime 2013 Sauvignon Blanc by Kelly—deeply perfumed with floral aromas and the typical Sauvignon flavor profile beautifully tamed with a fine balance of citrus fruit and floral notes against a firm acidic backbone. The best American SB that I can remember, frankly. Kelly was so happy with the result that she said that she wished that she could “swim in it”–in a tank, to be sure.

In the summer of 2014, Macari was named New York State Winery of the Year at the NY Wine & Food Classic, a tasting competition of over 800 wines from across the state’s viticultural areas.  Macari’s 2010 Cabernet Franc was named by the competition’s judges as the Best Red Wine of the show.

Mattituck Winery

150 Bergen Avenue, Mattituck, NY 11952
(631) 298-0100

Cutchogue Tasting Room

24385 Route 25, Cutchogue, NY 11935
(631) 734-7070

http://www.macariwines.com/

This article was first published on June 30, 2010

Viniculture in LI, Part III: Jamesport Vineyards

Jamesport Vineyards board

 Interview with Ron Goerler, Jr.

 Walk into the tasting room, go up to the bar, and you are confronted not by a list of wines on the board in front of you, but instead an indication of the seriousness about wine that prevails at Jamesport Vineyards: a diagram of the vineyards and the varieties planted. Here the focus is clearly on what matters first: the vineyards where it all begins.

Right behind the winery and tasting room, are two lots planted with Syrah and Cabernet Franc. Further east, at Mattituck, are six lots planted with Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Syrah. The largest vineyards are in Cutchogue, where there are fourteen lots in all. The Cabernet Sauvignon is there, as well as Merlot Block E, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Merlot; eight different varieties in all, in twenty-two separate lots on three plots. It all adds up to sixty acres that are cultivated sustainably.

Our conversation began, not with or about Long Island wines, winemaking, or winegrowing, but with the devastating effects of this past winter up North, in the Niagara Escarpment of both Canada and New York, and Michigan, where the temperatures dropped to minus forty below—so cold that the Great Lakes froze over. What that meant was that there was no moderating “lake effect” to protect the vines. It also meant that there was no heavy snowfall in Syracuse, for example, due to the freezing of Lake Erie. Most importantly, it meant that there was severe crop damage in the vineyards, with as much as 65 to 75% of the vines killed by the cold. Yet, in Long Island, thanks to the surrounding salt-water bodies of the Sound, Peconic Bay, and the Atlantic, the temperatures were effectively moderated by the “maritime effect”, which is to say that large, deep bodies of water that have not frozen over mitigate the cold that prevails in the region as a whole so that the vines—especially vinifera vines—can get through the winter unscathed by the cold, which, when severe, can cause the woody trunks to split open, causing the vines to die.  (It did happen in Long Island in 1984, which Ron called a “massacre” of the vines. The Sound was frozen, the Bay was too, resulting in no protection for the vines; it was the worst winter on record.)  This year was not as bad, but there was some creek freezing in January, when the lowest recorded temperature was minus five Fahrenheit.

In discussing terroir, that wonderfully untranslatable French word, Ron talked about the nature of Long Island’s climate in relation to the vintages. Climate and place are what pretty much define the kind of weather that will prevail in a particular region. Long Island enjoys a maritime climate, which along with the warmer waters that the Gulf Stream brings past, also is prey to some dramatic changes in weather. In 2005, ’07, and ’10, the summers were very warm and the grapes developed beautifully.  On the other hand, late rain in 2011 lead to a terrible vintage, which led Eric Fry, winemaker at Lenz, to say of the reds that they “were only good for blending.” Ron agreed and added that at Jamesport the fruit was so poor that they decided to cut down 85 tons rather than make bad wine that would sully the winery’s reputation.   It was a costly decision, but Jamesport’s reputation–as well as that of the Long Island wine industry–was at stake as well. After all, whereas California has had over 150 years to establish its reputation, and European regions have had centuries, Long Island, at barely forty years, still has to be careful about its good name. Ron did make the point that others that chose to make wine in that year may have enjoyed different circumstances in their vineyards.

Ron Goerler, JrRon is the second generation in the family to take over Jamesport Vineyards, which was founded by his father, Ron Goerler, Sr., in 1980. He had studied to be a soil scientist but realized that he loved working out-of-doors and decided to return to the winery to do exactly that. The challenge now will be for him to be able to pass the operation over to one or more of his four sons, the oldest of which is twenty. Will any of them be interested in making the commitment? After all, he has five brothers and one sister and none of them have any interest at all. With respect to the commitment, “It’s very much like having a head of cows—whether you’re raising them, feeding them, selling them–whether it’s retail or wholesale–and most important of all, growing them—you have to be there all the time.” Even in the wintertime, when things are quiet at the winery, the vineyard needs pruning and sixty acres of vines can take a long time.

The spacing in the vineyard varies. Originally the first vines were planted 9 by 8 feet thanks to the recommendations at the time by Cornell, but all that was later pulled out. Later vines were separated by 7 x 5 or 8 x 5; they just planted seven acres of Sauvignon Blanc 2 years ago at 7 x 5.  The winery is the biggest producer of Sauvignon Blanc in LI, which Ron considers his signature wine because the variety does so well here  Originally he and his father started Sauv Blanc with just a single clone: Clone 1. The problem with it was that it was a “big, fat clone” from California, very vigorous and wanting to produce big clusters, but it didn’t do that well in a maritime climate like Long Island’s, because it was too susceptible to rot. As Ron pointed out, Sauvignon means “savage.”  Now, with less vigorous rootstocks like 10114 or Perrier, they get smaller vines.  The new clones come from Bordeaux, such as 316, 317, and the Musqué clone, which was planted ten years ago and is very aromatic; and a clone from Italy; they all produce small clusters.  (For a comparison of clonal differences, see “How do Sauvignon Blanc Clones Differ?”— but this is only about the taste of wine made from the clones, not the vegetative differences.) This is similar in effect to the Dijon clones (76 and 95) that they put in to replace the original Chardonnay vines (Wente clones from UC Davis).

30 years ago, one didn’t think about all these clones and their differences—the knowledge wasn’t there and the technology wasn’t either. Many of these clones were only released to the public about 20 years ago, although they had been working on developing these back in the 70s and 80s. In fact, it was just over 30 years ago that Ron and his father, Ron Goerler, Sr., went on a trip to Germany and saw what they were doing in the vineyards there, then came to the realization that training vinifera to high-cordon trellises didn’t make any sense. Top wire, recommended by Cornell, was meant for droopy American and hybrid vines, and not only was unsuited for the vertical growth of the European vines, but it made the work of pruning and harvesting more difficult, given that one had to work at eye-level or above—very tiring on the worker’s arms. It was in 1985 that a very hard winter struck and the trunks of the vines split. It forced the issue of replanting the vines and training them vertically to what is called VSP (Vertical Shoot Positioning), on a trellis with a low cordon at about 35” high.

For Ron, the level of the low cordon is perfect for the vineyard workers, all of whom come from Latin America—they tend not to be as tall as Americans and are more comfortable with the height for pruning the vines and picking the grapes. The Latinos are prepared to do work that American workers disdain because it’s too hard. They have a strong family values—there’s a network of them—and a very sound work ethic. As Ron pointed out, one of the biggest issues this country faces is immigration. (The immigrants from south of the border are an important labor pool for American agriculture; stop them from coming and agriculture would face a huge crisis.)

Ron is not only the vineyard manager but also the winemaker—a hat he claimed when his last winemaker departed. I asked him how he’s been affected by being “chief cook and bottle washer” and his quick reply was, “I’ve lost a lot of weight.” While he was president of the LIWC (Long Island Wine Council) he was so busy with issues that he couldn’t effectively focus on his business at the winery, but now that he’s left the position he has the time he needs to really think about it.  He travels to in search of new blood and new ideas. In his opinion, if one doesn’t keep on the lookout, not just for ideas but also the people to implement them, one isn’t going to be successful.

He said, “For example, some years ago a vineyard specialist was here from California and he taught me one thing, it’s all about balance. The fruit will tell you when it’s exactly where it should be (i.e., sugars, acidity, phenolic ripeness), because that’s the kind of fruit that will then yield balanced wines. It’s the work done in the vineyard that does that.” That’s Ron’s philosophy—it’s “balance here and balance there.”

Ron tends to pick the grapes when they’re on the ripe side—something that Eric Fry taught him years ago. Back when they began in Long Island they all picked early because of the birds, no netting to protect the vines, the then-prevailing technology, and so on. Ron went on to say that, “It was Eric who watched us as we were picking in September instead of October, and he pointed out to me that it was better to wait for the acidity to come around, the fruit, the phenolic ripeness. Years ago most LI grapes were picked early and the wines were green. There was a joke then that one knew when the grapes had reached 18 Brix because Alex Hargrave would be picking and the birds would be eating. Alex didn’t believe in netting.”

With respect to sustainable winegrowing, while Jamesport has not yet joined the LI Sustainable Winegrowing Council, it will do so this year. Ron was unable to join when it was first established in 2010 given how busy he was as President of the LI Wine Council. Ron had worked with Alice Wise of the Cornell NYAES (New York Agriculture Extension Station) in Riverhead 15 years ago to help revise the NY State VineBalance guidelines for sustainable growing to more closely reflect viticulture in Long Island. At present Jamesport uses IPM (Integrated Pest Management), grows cover crops, does not employ herbicides, and has set up weather stations in the vineyard to better monitor issues like growing disease pressure, “anything that we can do to minimize impact in the field we do, to protect the quality of the product.”

“We never can be an organic-producing region here in LI, there’s too much humidity here,” he pointed out. Even though Rex Farr is growing certified organic produce, including wine grapes, the question remains, how consistently can organics be produced year after year? That’s the challenge, because the disease pressures are so high. In fact, Ron doesn’t even like the word “organic,” given how much it is abused and misused. “Sustainable is a great word because it means that you’re trying to be profitable, you’re trying to minimize the impacts in the field, having respect for the land. When we bought this land it had been orchards and row crops; the soil had to be replenished and that takes years to make the land [viable for sustainable production].”

Holding on to wine inventory is another serious issue for small wineries (every single winery in Long Island is small—even Pindar, which is the largest producer at about 70,000 cases (840,000 bottles). Ideally, a wine is released when it’s ready to be consumed, which is easy enough for whites, most of which aren’t destined for aging but are meant to be drunk young. Red wines are another matter. Again, most reds are also meant to be enjoyed early on after being bottled, but a small percentage are deliberately made for aging, which means that these wines age in oak barrels for a long time and then need further aging in bottle. It is best if such wines can stay on premises at the winery until they are ready for release, say in two or three years, when they are more ready to drink. The problem is that it ties up money because there is no income from wines in inventory. In other words, it costs the winery cash flow. What peeves Ron is that the average tasting room visitor cannot understand that, which can matter if the price has to be set at a point that returns that cost back to the winery’s coffers. So most aged wine has to be more costly to the consumer for that reason along with other important ones, such as highly-selected quality fruit, careful attention in the winery, and time in costly oak barrels. Given the costs involved and the resulting quality, the prices for fine red wines are well justified.

Among the challenges that LI wineries have to face is their relationship to the community. For example, while Ron was President of the LIWC, the council “has been doing battle with the town of Southold for three years; they’re trying to define what agriculture is out here, what a farm winery represents, by writing laws that [the State] already on the books which define what a farm winery is, what the [winery] license should be. It’s when you have a group of individuals and they have “power control” and they look out the window and they see the landscape change and it’s all changed and they don’t like it because they don’t see us as farmers but think of us as winery owners—they don’t even call us farmers—who don’t work the land and they think that we’re all rich. And all the old farmers that sit on the board there say ‘you’re never going to make it.’ It’s a known fact that you’re never going to make money growing grapes, that’s true all over the world now (unless you’re a Grand Cru that someone wants to pay a thousand dollars for a pound of grapes), the reality is that you have to turn it into wine. And that means developing infrastructure: tasting rooms, sell it wholesale, develop markets, and that’s basically what the last forty years have been—developing a market in Long Island. There are [State] laws that regulate what you can do as a grower, a producer, there are all kinds of laws. The problem is that the town wants to have its own laws.”

“We had a problem with Vineyard 48, which did something that really blew up and got the neighbors really upset. We have a next-door neighbor who used to work this land way back when, and he sits out on his veranda smoking his cigar and we do work here all the time and whenever I see him I go over and see him and ask him how things are and given him a bottle of wine, and he’s cool about [the work that we do in the vineyard or when people come to our tasting room].  But when his kids come home they’re not so cool about it because they just come up for the weekend. Unfortunately, when do we make money out here? On the weekends. The thing that the town wrestles with is the traffic. We have a single road for the traffic that comes in and out of here. So the question becomes, are they behind the region or not? And many of them want to keep it just the way it [was], just a Peyton Place, sleepy, quiet . . . .  The idea is to make it so difficult for us to conduct business that we’ll be forced out in the long run.”

The reality is that many of the small businesses in the towns are dependent on the tourist traffic that comes here. When it was just potato farms the season lasted from Memorial Day to Labor Day and that was it. Back in the 80s, when interest rates were up to 19% farmers couldn’t get the loans they needed to keep going and they turned belly up because they had already taken loans before this and couldn’t continue to make the payments. They’d been hoping that the next crop would get them back in the black. But it’s the same with grapes: you have to have a good crop, but you have a year like 2011 and suddenly you have a lot of empty bottles that you can’t fill.

Another reason the potato farmers went bust was that they couldn’t see how to convert potatoes to another more profitable product. (It’s only recently that one farmer, on the advice of his children, turned his spuds into chips—which are selling really well all over the Island—while others are having the potatoes turned into spirits at a new distillery, Long Island Spirits, as LiV Vodka. In fact, if a wine doesn’t turn out as it should, it can be taken there and made into a grape brandy.

Indeed, Ron has been experimenting with making brandy from his grapes and at present he has a barrel of 180 proof spirit—that’s 90% abv—which he’s thinking of making into schnapps, adding different kinds of different local fruit such as strawberries, raspberries, apple, and so on.

There are other issues of concern to Ron. Just a week before our interview, he had returned to LI from a trip to Champagne with Steve Bate, Executive Director of the LI Wine Council , and winemaker Jim Waters, under the auspices of Protect Place (see Edible East End), an organization founded in Napa with the signing of The Joint Declaration to Protect Wine Place & Origin in 2005, which LIWC signed and joined in 2010. Protect Place, the signatories of which also include Rioja, Jerez/Xeres/Sherry, Oporto, Chianti Classico, Bordeaux, and Tokaj among others, is primarily devoted to ensuring that participants do not use terms like Sherry, Chablis, Port, Champagne, etc. as terms for wines not originating in those regions. In fact, Ron said, there remain a few producers on Long Island that still use terms like Champagne (or Méthode Champenoise) and Port. That has to change, but people are resistant to doing that, as they’ve been using such terms for many years. Another issue that is being addressed by Protect Place and many of its members is that of the new .vin and .wine domain names that have been proposed by ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names & Numbers). Protect Place is firmly opposed to their implementation, on the grounds that these new domains will confuse the public and allow widespread abuse. The 48 member wineries of the LIWC are united in that opposition.

Jamesport currently makes six reds and six whites, plus a rosé and a late harvest dessert wine. They offer two ranks of wine, the “crowd-pleasing” East End wines, which include Cinq (a blend of five red varieties) Cinq Blanc (a blend of five white varieties), Chardonnay, and Rosé. The Estate wines include four whites: a Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling “Trocken” and Riesling Late Harvest; the Estate reds include Cabernet Franc, Mélange de Trois ( a blend of three varieties dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon), Jubilant Reserve (a blend that is primarily Cab Franc), Sidor Reserve (a Syrah-dominated blend), and a Petit Verdot Reserve. Plus a verjus—a non-alcoholic kind of vinegar here made with unripe Riesling grapes. (Old Jamesport Cab Sauvs may still be found, and some Pinot Noir is still around).

Cabernet Franc, which Jamestown makes in three styles, is its premier red wine, while Cab Sauv can only be made on warm years because it ripens late, such as in ‘05, ‘07, and ’10.  The earlier two vintages which are nearly all sold out, but the’10 is just now on the market.  However, Ron wants, in the end, to focus on just three wines: Sauv Blanc, Cab Franc, and Merlot—the most widely planted grape in the region.  (They pulled all their Pinot Noir because after twenty years of effort they just weren’t getting the return in quality fruit.   In fact, it was costing about $15,000 to work the plot of Pinot, but too often disease would ruin the crop; in the end there was no alternative.)  The reason that he currently produces twenty different wines at two different price ranges is to please the crowds that come to the tasting room as well as figure out what they want.

The Cab Franc Estate wine typically is aged for 18 months. The 2007 spent nearly two years in oak, and that was the one we tasted. It has about 5% Merlot in the blend. It made me think of a Right Bank Bordeaux—specifically, St. Emilion. The 2007 Jubillant blend was tasting beautifully, made of 68% Cab Franc, 18% Cab Sauv, 18% Merlot, 2.5% Syrah, and 2.5% Petit Verdot—a kind of Bordeaux blend in the 19th-Century style, with the addition of some Syrah. It was softer, with well-knit tannins—a very flavorful, well-balanced wine.

We also tasted a 2012 Sauvignon Blanc from a cool vintage, which gave it a grassy flavor and herbal notes, with firm acidity; as Ron says, “a real crowd-pleaser.”  He likes to ferment his Sauv Blancs in puncheons so that they get some wood flavoring but not as much as would be imparted by barrels.  The 2012, however, was not done in puncheons because of the conditions of that year, so it was done in barrels.  The 2013 reserve is sitting in puncheons right now, and will take that classic fumé style that comes from the wood. Ron likes using the puncheons because they don’t impart so much oak, instead allowing the maturing wine to absorb the complexing tones of the wood.

A Riesling was poured, and it had a firm acid backbone, bone-dry with plenty of mineral and slate tones to it. This is a wine that is not traditionally seen in Long Island, but there are four acres of it in the vineyard. Ron sees the acidity as holding the wine together as well as balancing it to pair with food.  With respect to high-acid wines, Ron said that he’s experimenting with Albariño, of which he as an acre planted that will be ready for next year. This was inspired by Miguel Martín, who was the first to plant the variety in Long Island at Palmer Vineyards, where he’s now had several years of success with it.  Ron likes it because it also is an aromatic grape, somewhere between Riesling and Sauv Blanc.  A bonus of this variety is that if the crop doesn’t result in a quality varietal wine it can also be used for blending.

The point is clear.  Jamesport Vineyards is serious about making quality wine and, as a top-rated winery in Long Island it succeeds in doing exactly that.  The wines are as honest as the winemaker, Ron Goerler, Jr.  That’s very honest indeed.

Since the interview in April 2014 Ron has hired a new winemaker, Dean Barbiar, a very talented oenologist who earned his wine education at the University of Maryland and has experience making wine in many corners of the world.  Ron is now free to work in the vineyard more given that it’s his true passion.  He has also been succeeded as President of the LIWC by Sal Diliberto.  Now he can really focus on the business of running a winery.

Main Road (Route 25)
Jamesport, NY 11947
Ph: 631-722-5256

Jamesport Vineyards Website

 Interviewed on 17 April 2014

 

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 II: background.

In exploring vinicultural practices in Long Island, I intend to particularly examine the practice of sustainable farming, which includes organic and Biodynamic® agriculture.  My original, first posting on 15 June 2010, Can 100% Organic Grapes be Grown in Long Island?, provoked some interesting and even useful responses.  I have since renamed it The Challenge of Growing Certified Organic Grapes in Long Island,  given the developments at Shinn Estate and The Farrm that have taken place since that 2010 posting.  The series now continues with this posting (now updated to April 2015 to include new developments and information, particularly with the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing [LISW] program established in 2012). 

This Part II post serves as an introduction to the Part III articles devoted to the individual vineyards and wineries of Long Island.

NY Wine Regions Map 1To put things in perspective, one should bear in mind that New York State is the 3rd-largest producer of grapes by volume in the United States, after California and Washington.  Admittedly, most NY vineyards grow table grapes, but as of 2014 there were, according to the NY Wine & Grape Foundation (NYWGF), 373 wineries in the State, of which of which one in six are in Long Island.  Of all the wine regions of the State, Long Island is the one that is most committed to growing Vitis vinifera varieties, with very little planting of French-American hybrid vines and no Native American grapes at all.

I want to point out some factors that I believe appertain to most of the vineyards that I’ll be writing about—which is to say, all of the ones in Long Island, of which there are sixty-six bonded wineries, all but a handful of which are on the North Fork, as well as seven vineyards that sell their fruit to others.  They comprise, by my own calculation, about 2,565 acres of planted vines (the NYGWF calculates 2,041 acres.)

Geology & Soils

Geologically, Long Island is extensively formed by two glacial moraine spines, with a large, sandy outwash plain extending south to the Atlantic Ocean.  These moraines consist largely of gravel and loose rock that would become part of the island’s soils during the two most recent extensions of Wisconsin glaciation during the Ice Age some 21,000 years ago (19,000 BCE).  The northern, or Harbor Hill, moraine, directly runs along the North Shore of Long Island at points.  The more southerly moraine, called the Ronkonkoma moraine, forms the “backbone” of Long Island; it runs primarily through the very center of Long Island.  The land to the south of the Ronkonkoma, running to the South Shore, is the outwash plain of the last glacier. When the glaciers melted and receded northward around 11,000 BCE, their moraines and outwash produced the differences between the North Shore and the South Shore soils and beaches.

A General Soil Map (below), devised by the USDA Soil Conservation Service and the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station in 1972, shows the different kinds of soils that dominate the East End of Suffolk County, the part of Long Island that is home to most of the vineyards there.

East End, General Soil Map

The soil associations (or types) for Suffolk County as listed in the General Soil Map (and relevant to viniculture) are as follows:

  1. “Carver-Plymouth-Riverhead association [N. shore of the North Fork, extending across the Fork at Mattituck and then running East along the S. shore of Great Peconic Bay to Southold]:  Deep, rolling, excessively drained and well-drained, coarse-textured and moderately coarse-textured soils on moraines
  2. “Haven-Riverhead association [running from Brookhaven along the southern edge of 1 (above).  With an interruption at Mattituck, then extending as far as Orient Point; this is the dominant soil of the North Fork]:  Deep, nearly level to gently sloping, well-drained, medium-textured and moderately coarse-textured soils on outwash plains
  3. “Plymouth-Carver association [runs across the middle of the West-East axis of the county, encompassing Riverhead just south of 2.  It then extends into the Hamptons or South Fork as far as East Hampton but at no point touches the south shore.]  rolling and hilly:  Deep, excessively-drained, coarse-textured soils on moraines [the Ronkonkoma Moraine].
  4. “Bridgehampton-Haven association [actually runs immediately adjacent to, and south of, 3.]: Deep, nearly level to gently sloping, well-drained to moderately well-drained, medium-textured soils on outwash plains”

“Textures refer to surface layer in major soils of each association.”  [A caveat regarding the use of the map says,] “The map is . . . meant for general planning rather than a basis for decisions on the use of specific tracts.”

(There are ten soil types shown on the map, but we list only the four that form part of the terroir of the vineyards of the East End.)

With respect to the soil types in the North Fork and Hamptons AVAs, Louisa Thomas Hargrave wrote an article, “The Dirt Below Our Feet,” in the Spring 2011 issue of Edible East End, in which she made some important observations:

Every discussion of a wine region’s quality begins with the soil.  Going back to ancient Roman times, around ad 50, Lucius Columella advised, in his treatise on viticulture, De Re Rustica (“On Agriculture”), “Before you plant a piece of ground with vines, you should examine what sort of flavor it has; for it will give the wine a similar taste. The flavor can be ascertained…if you soak the earth in water and taste the water when the earth has [g]one to the bottom.  Sandy soil under which there is sweet moisture is the most suitable for vines…any soil which is split during the summer is useless for vines and trees.”

The “useless” soil that splits is clay, a colloidal suspension of particles similar to Jell-O. Clay retains too much moisture when it rains, making the tender roots of wine grapevines rot; it withholds nutrients from the vine when the weather is dry.

There is little clay on the East End of Long Island, except in specific and easily identified veins. We have remarkably uniform sandy soils here that vary in available topsoil (loamy organic matter), but all contain the same fundamental yet complex mixture of minerals.  These soils are ranked by the U.S. Soils Conservation Service as “1-1,” the most auspicious rating for agriculture. Any single handful of Long Island soil will show the reflective glint of mica; the dull gray of granite; the mellow pink, salmon and white of quartz; the red and ochre of sandstone; and black bits of volcanic matter. To describe them simply as “sandy loam” fails to acknowledge the profound effect that having this mixture of minerals must have on the vibrancy and dynamic quality of Long Island’s wines.

Richard Olsen-Harbich, the author of the two AVA applications for the Hamptons and the North Fork, published a two-part series on the soils of Long Island for Bedell Cellars, where he is winemaker:  the first, The Soil of Long Island. Part 1 – Ice Age: The Meltdown, published on April 12, 2011, and the second, more recent piece, The Soil of Long Island. Part 2 – There’s No Place Like Loam, published Sept. 6, 2013, which are useful and lucid explanations of how the glaciers of the Ice Age left Long Island with the soils that grow the vines today.

It should also be pointed out that Long Island soil, regardless of its composition, tends to have a rather low pH, which is to say too acidic for Vitis vinifera vines to grow well as it weakens the vines’ ability to assimilate nutrients from the soil.  The vines need the addition of lime to balance the pH and is something that nearly every vineyard must do to get itself established for vinifera.  It can take years—Paumanok Vineyards was adding lime to its vineyards every year for twenty years before it was able to relax the practice.  It nevertheless has to be done again every few years when the pH gets too low again, as it appears that the added lime may get leached out of the soil over time.

Climate

Overall, Long Island displays a cool maritime climate.  The brutal summer heat seen in the Iberian Peninsula, which is at the same latitude, is tempered in the Hamptons AVA by the Labrador Current which moves up the eastern Atlantic Ocean.  Summer temperatures are also moderated by Little Peconic Bay to its north.  The North Fork enjoys the moderating influences of Long Island Sound.  These same bodies of water help to temper the effects of the Canadian air masses that move in during the winter.  The influence of these waters helps prevent late spring frosts which can kill young grape buds.  The cumulative effect is a lengthening of the growing season to approximately 210-220 days.  Wine-grape varieties can thrive here, as they can grow better and ripen further than just about anywhere in the U.S. outside of California.  The North Fork is such a narrow band of farmland, situated between the bay and the sound that virtually all of the vineyards or near or on the water.  According to the Appellation American Website:

Despite being next door to each other, there are notable differences between the South Fork and the warmer North Fork. The South Fork is more exposed to onshore Atlantic breezes, delaying bud-break by as much as three weeks. Even after bud-break, the area is frequently foggy, keeping early season temperatures and sunshine hours lower than on the North Fork. By the end of the growing season, the seemingly subtle weather differences between the Forks add up to quite different overall climates. The Hamptons are generally very cold to moderately cool, while the North Fork is moderately cool to relatively warm. The damper silt and loam soils of The Hamptons, along with climactic differences, create a unique style, with wines from The Hamptons generally being more restrained and less fruit-forward than wines from the North Fork.

Wineries & Vineyards

By my own count, as of March 2015, there are a total of 76 wine production entities in Long Island, of which:

  • 21 are wineries with vineyards, though they may also buy fruit from others
  • 3 are wineries without vineyards that buy their fruit from growers
  • 11 are wine producers that have neither a winery nor a vineyard, but outsource their production, having their wine made to their specifications from purchased grapes
  • 33 are vineyards without a winery, but use an outside facility to make wine to their specifications  from their grapes
  • 1 is a crush facility that makes wine from fruit, provided by others, to the providers’ specifications
  • 7 are vineyards that sell their fruit to wine producers
  • In all, there are 58 tasting rooms in Long Island

Vinicultural Practices

Regardless of the different terroirs of either Fork, the first point that I’d like to make is that, based on my visits, so far–to Wölffer Estate and Channing Daughters in the Hamptons AVA, and to Bedell Cellars, Castello Borghese, Diliberty, Gramercy, Jamesport, Lieb, Lenz, Macari, Martha Clara, McCalls, Mudd Vineyard, The Old Field Vineyards, Osprey’s Dominion, Palmer, Paumanok, Peconic Bay, Raphael, Kontakosta Winery, Sherwood House, and Shinn Estate in the North Fork AVA–the standards of vineyard management are of a very high order.  The neatness of the rows of vines, their careful pruning and training (most, if not all, are using Double Cordon trained on two wires with Vertical Shoot Positioning, or VSP, and cane pruning), the use of cover crops between rows, and much else besides, attest to the high standards and sustainable practices to which the vineyard managers aspire. 

A handful of vineyards are endeavoring to farm organically and/or Biodynamically, though only a single vineyard, Shinn Estate, is actually working to obtain actual certification for both.  Then there is The Farrm, in Calverton, run by fruit and vegetable grower Rex Farr, who obtained full organic certification in 1990 and planted vinifera vines in 2005–thus harvesting the first certified-organic grapes on LI in 2012.  It is expected that the first wine to be made from its fruit will be produced in 2013 by a newly-established winery on the North Fork.  None of this is to say that a vineyard that does not seek to grow organic or Biodynamic grapes is the lesser for it, though all should seek to farm sustainably.  Excellent, even great wines have been and shall continue to be produced whether farmed organically or not.  Indeed, as I pointed out at the beginning of my first post, there is no proven correlation of quality of a wine because it is made with organic or Biodynamic grapes.  (A case in point is the famous and incredibly expensive wine of the Domaine de la Romanée Conti, in Burgundy.  It has been long acknowledged as the source of some of the greatest red and white wines of all of France, and this was the case before it was converted to Biodynamic farming, and continues to be the case today.)  Part of what makes it so difficult to quantify the quality of a wine made by either method is that fact that there is vintage variation every year, due primarily to factors of weather and climate.  Thus, there is no objective way of being sure that viticultural practice was the dominant reason for the quality of a particular vintage, rather than the weather of a particular season.  Nevertheless, those who practice organic/Biodynamic viniculture do aver that it is reflected in the wine and there are consumers who do think that they can detect the difference.

By now virtually all of the vineyards on the two forks are attempting some form of sustainable farming, though the kind of sustainable work can vary considerably across the gamut of over sixty vineyards.   Along these lines, an important development took place when a new accreditation authority was created in May 2012:  Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing, Inc., with the intent of setting out the guidelines for sustainable viticultural practices for all wineries in the region.  Membership is voluntary, but already, as of April 2015, there are sixteen vineyards that have joined, with thirteen already certified and three in transition.  Others are giving membership serious consideration.  A post devoted to the LI Sustainable Winegrowing authority was published on this blog in April 2012 (since updated as of 21 June 2013).

Another important factor to keep in mind is the role of clone selection for the vineyards.  A very useful article about the significance of clones was posted by Richard Olsen-Harbich of Bedell Cellars on March 19, 2013:  Revenge of the Clones.  The piece is well worth reading in its entirety, but there are two salient paragraphs that are worth quoting:

Over the past 10 years, grapevine clones have shown themselves to be of increasing importance in our vineyards. Simply put, clones are a genetic variant of a particular variety. The Chardonnay grown on Long Island decades ago is not the same vine we have today. Plantings since that time – especially in the past 10-15 years, have benefited from a wider selection of available plant material. Back in 1990, if you wanted to plant Chardonnay, you had one choice. Today there are more than 70 registered clones of this noble white grape being grown throughout the world and they all have their particular nuances and characteristics. Many of these clones are already in existence in Long Island vineyards – from the tropical and aromatic Musqué to the classic and alluring Dijon clones from Burgundy. Although these are all Chardonnays, each exhibits their own distinctive character.

This fact is also true of grapes like Merlot and Cabernet Franc, where profound differences in wine quality can be seen between clones grown in the same vineyard, on the same soils. Over 50 clones of Merlot have been identified in Bordeaux. Pomerol alone has over 35 clones of Cabernet Franc. Newer French clones, long kept overseas as tightly held trade secrets, are finding their way into the United States. In most cases these new clones are better suited to our maritime climate. Often these clones will ripen earlier than the older selections we used to have. Some are more resistant to disease. The ultimate result is higher quality wines. I’ve seen clones so different from each other that you would think the wines were made from another variety entirely.

In other words, when the first vinifera vines were planted in the 70s and 80s most of the clones came from California.  Many of these clones had been developed at the University of California at Davis (UCD) but of course were created with California vineyards in mind.  This meant that the clones were less suitable for the very different, maritime climate of Long Island.  For example, the Sauvignon Blanc clone 1 (the ‘Wente clone’) was very vigorous and produced large clusters but it was also very susceptible to rot in LI.  Only in the 90s were new clones planted to replace clone 1, and all of these came not from California but France (primarily from Bordeaux, in the case of the Sauvignon Blanc.)  This process was true for several other varieties.  In other words, the new clones are part of what makes Long Island the most ‘European’ of the wine-growing regions of the United States.

As a matter of fact, the Long Island Wine Region, which includes both the North Fork and the Hamptons AVAs, in 2010 became signatory to the Declaration to Protect Wine Place and Origin that was first enacted in 2005 in Napa (it is also known as the Napa Declaration on Place).  The original signers included not only the Napa AVA but also Washington and Oregon State AVAs, and Champagne, Jerez/Sherry, and Oporto/Port in the EU, among others. (The point of this, of course, is to control the use of place names and prevent the misuse of the name ‘Champagne’ for example, on any sparkling wine that is not from there.  Chablis, Port, and Burgundy were also place names that were widely abused around the world.)

There is no intention whatsoever in my series to judge a vineyard because it does or does not grow or intend to grow organically or Biodynamically.  (Indeed, wineries that are technically organic can still choose not to be certified.  Among the many reasons for this, for example, are that a winery may not want the added costs and the bureaucracy entailed in registering, or a winery may disagree with the government standards.  Whatever the case, such wineries are not allowed to use the term organic on their labels.)

In any event, the point of this series is to understand the reasons for choosing a particular approach to grape production over another.  We want to understand why Long Island vineyards do what they do before we go on to explore their methods of vinification, for between what is done in the vineyard and what happens in the winery is what determines the quality of the wine that is produced.  The wines from Long Island have long been improving since those first, tentative years going back to 1973 (when the Hargraves planted the first vinifera vines in LI) and in recent years are receiving their due recognition in the form of positive reviews, awards, and high scores for individual bottlings.

Important Terms Defined

  • AVA or American Viticultural Area: An area defined by a unique geology and climate that is distinctive from other vine-growing areas and hence that produces wines of a distinctive overall character.  There are none of the restrictions as to varieties planted, vine density, allowable harvest per acre, or any of the other limitations that exist in European appellations, such as the French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC).  Long Island has three AVAs, all applied for to the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) which administers the program, in the mid-1980s: The Hamptons (South Fork), the North Fork AVA, and the Long Island AVA.
  • Biodynamic®, or Demeter USA, certification; also, Demeter USA, FAQ, Biodynamic wine (PDF file).  Also, see an excellent discussion in a 5-part series beginning with New York Cork Report, Biodynamics, Part I, by Tom Mansell, along with the ensuing debate in the comments that follow each of the postings.  There is also a controversial series against Biodynamics by Stuart Smith, a winemaker in California, called Biodynamics is a Hoax, a polemic that is worth reading, along with the comments in response.
  • Bordeaux Mix:  A widely-used type of fungicide that mixes copper sulfate and lime, first used in Bordeaux in the 1880s; see Univ. of Calif., Davis, Pesticide notes
  • Compost Tea:  A type of natural compost mixed with water for distribution in liquid form (it may be seen as agricultural homeopathy); see National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, Compost Tea Notes
  • Copper Sulfate:  A widely-used industrial pesticide, allowed in both organic and Biodynamic farming within specified limits: see  Cornell Extension Toxicology Network (ExToxNet), Pesticide Information Profile, copper sulfate
  • Cover crops: Vegetation that is either deliberately planted between vineyard rows (e.g., clover, to replenish nitrogen in the soil) or weeds that are naturally allowed to grow between and into rows (the Biodynamic approach); see UC Davis, Cover Crop Selection and Management for Vineyards
  • Integrated Pest Management (IPM):  A major component of sustainable agriculture, it is labor-intensive but effectively reduces the need for certain kinds of pesticides; pheronome ties are a typical method of disrupting the reproduction cycle of some insect; see EPA, Factsheet on IPM
  • Macroclimate:  The climate of a large area or region, such as that of all of Long Island, or perhaps just the East End of LI.
  • Mesoclimate:  The distinct climate of a smaller area, such as that of a single vineyard or a parcel thereof.
  • Microclimate:  The climate of a very small area; it could be as small as a single vine or a distinctive climate of a tiny part of a vineyard, such as a depression in a row of vines.  (NOTE:  These terms are often used interchangeably, but most often microclimate may be used to refer to the mesoclimate of a vineyard.)
  • Organic CertificationUSDA, National Organic Program, Organic Certification
  • Regalia:  A biologically-based pesticide; see Marrone Bio-Innovations, Products, Regalia
  • Serenade: A biologically-based pesticide; see PAN Pesticide Database, Products–Serenade
  • Stylet oil:  defined in the industry as a Technical Grade White Mineral Oil, it is used as a biodegradable fungicide and insecticide in integrated pest management programs.  It also serves as as a substitute for sulfur, reducing or eliminating the need for that application, according to Steve Mudd, a LI vineyard owner and consultant.
  • Sustainable agriculture:  according to Mary V. Gold, on the USDA Website, “Some terms defy definition. ‘Sustainable agriculture’ has become one of them. In such a quickly changing world, can anything be sustainable? What do we want to sustain? How can we implement such a nebulous goal? . . . If nothing else, the term ‘sustainable agriculture’ has provided talking points, a sense of direction, and an urgency, that has sparked much excitement and innovative thinking in the agricultural world.”  Follow this interesting, full explanation of the term at USDA, Sustainable Agriculture definition.  Another excellent source for information about sustainable agriculture is to be found on the NY State VineBalance Program website, which is dedicated to sustainable practices in NY State vineyards, and as mentioned above, the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing certification program, with sixteen vineyards already committed to its regulations and guidelines.
  • Variety vs. Varietal:  not to be pedantic (though I can be), Variety is the term applied to a particular kind of vine and its grape; e.g., Cabernet Franc or Riesling; Varietal is the wine made from a variety or a blend of different varieties.  The terms are often used interchangeably but shouldn’t be.
  • Vertical Shoot Positioning:  is a training system used with single or double Guyot, cane-pruned training, or with a Cordon, spur-pruned system.  VSP is very common in cool and/or humid climate regions with low to moderate vigorous growth, as it encourages better air flow through the vine.  This is accomplished by making all the shoots grow vertically, with no vegetative vine growth allowed below the cordon/cane.  The increase in air flow helps prevent problems associated with disease and also allows the fruit to dry out more quickly after it rains.

      Both cluster thinning and harvesting are generally made easier using VSP, given that there is better access to the fruit.  The objective is to train the shoots so as to create a narrow layer that provides good sunlight exposure and air flow in the fruiting zone of the canopy.  Each shoot is thus trained to grow vertically by attaching it to movable catch wires.  The shoot’s length can easily be controlled by pruning any growth above the top catch wire.  The fruiting zone is generally kept at waist height, which makes it more convenient for the vineyard workers, given that the vineyard rows are worked throughout the season.)

For a full explanation of VSP, see Cornell Univ. Agriculture Extension, Training, and Trellising Vinifera Vines.

Viticulture vs. Viniculture:  again my pedantic side will out–Viticulture is the general term for the growing of any kind of grape vine, whether intended for the table or for wine; Viniculture refers to the raising of wine grapes in particular.

_________________________

The vineyards that I intend to write about are listed below in alphabetical order (those wineries that have no vineyard but purchase their grapes from others will not be part of the vinicultural survey– these are shown in gray; the ones that have already had articles posted on this blog are shown in purple; those that have been ‘indirectly interviewed’ are shown in light purple.  If the vineyard has been certified by the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing Group (LISW), that is indicated:

  • Ackerly Ponds, North Fork AVA (85 acres) is now part of Sannino’s Bella Vita Vineyards (which see)
  • Anthony Nappa (no vineyard) posted 6/14
  • Baiting Hollow Farm Vineyard, North Fork AVA (11 acres)
  • Bedell Cellars, North Fork AVA (78 acres, LISW sustainable-certified); Rich Olsen-Harbich interviewed on May 12, 2011; posted June 2, 2011
  • Bouké Wines (no vineyard)
  • Castello di Borghese Vineyard & Winery [formerly Hargrave Vineyard], North Fork AVA (85 acres); Giovanni & Allegra Borghese interviewed on Nov. 18, 2014 and Mar. 27, 2015, to be posted
  • Channing Daughters Winery, Hamptons AVA (25 acres, LISW sustainable-certified); Larry Perrine interviewed on April 30 & May 21, 2012; posted January 22, 2013
  • Clovis Point, North Fork AVA (20 acres); see Bill Ackerman interview
  • Coffee Pot Cellars (no vineyard)
  • Corey Creek Vineyards, North Fork AVA (30 acres, LISW sustainable-certified), owned by Bedell Cellars; posted June 2, 2011
  • Corwith Vineyards, Hamptons AVA (3 acres; LISW sustainable-certified); Dave Corwith interviewed May 20, 2014 and Nov. 16, 2015; posted Oct. 15, 2014, updated Nov. 19, 2015.
  • Croteaux Vineyards, North Fork AVA (10.5 acres); see Steve Mudd interview
  • Deseo de Michael, North Fork AVA (.3 acres)
  • Diliberto Winery, North Fork AVA (4 acres); Sal Diliberto interviewed Mar. 28, 2015, to be posted
  • Duck Walk Vineyards, Hamptons AVA, and Duck Walk Vineyards North, North Fork AVA (130 acres; LISW candidate); Ed Lovaas, winemaker, on Nov. 16, 2015.  to be posted.
  • Gramercy Vineyards, North Fork AVA (3.5 acres); Carol Sullivan, owner, interviewed October 2, 2012; posted; as of June 2015 the vineyard is leased out; no longer making wine
  • The Grapes of Roth (no vineyard)
  • Harbes Family Farm & Vineyard, North Fork AVA (5 acres, LISW sustainable-certified)
  • Harmony Vineyards, LI AVA (7 acres); see Steve Mudd interview
  • Influence Wines (no vineyard); Erik Bilka interviewed 6/15; to be posted
  • Jamesport Vineyards, North Fork AVA (60 acres); Ron Goerler, Jr. interviewed on April 14, 2014; posted Sept. 9, 2014.
  • Jason’s Vineyard, North Fork AVA (20 acres)
  • Kings Mile, North Fork AVA (leased vineyard); Rob Hansult interviewed on Sept. 26, 2013; posted same day
  • Kontokosta Winery (23 acres, LISW sustainable-in transition); Michael K. interviewed Nov. 18, 2014, Gilles Martin interviewed Mar. 28, 2015; to be posted
  • Laurel Lake Vineyards, North Fork AVA (21 acres); Juan Sepúlveda interviewed Sep. 26, 2015
  • Lenz Winery, North Fork AVA (65 acres); Sam McCullough interviewed April 20 & 27, 2011; posted May 16, 2011; Eric Fry interviewed Mar. 27, 2015, to be added to original Lenz post
  • Leo Family Wines; John Leo interviewed for PWG on October 3, 2012; posted February 11, 2013
  • Lieb Family Cellars, North Fork AVA (50 acres, LISW sustainable-in transition); Logan Kingston, Sarah Kane, & Jildo Vázquez interviewed June 6, 2013; posted October 4, 2013
  • Loughlin Vineyards, Long Island AVA (6 acres)
  • Macari Vineyards & Winery, North Fork AVA (200 acres); Joe Macari, Jr. interviewed July 9, 2009 & June 17 2010; posted June 30, 2010
  • Martha Clara Vineyards, North Fork AVA  (101 acres, LISW sustainable-certified); Jim Thompson & Juan Micieli-Diaz interviewed Feb. 3 & March 27, 2012; posted May 3, 2012
  • Mattebella Vineyards, North Fork AVA (22 acres, LISW sustainable-in transition)
  • McCall Vineyards, North Fork AVA (22 acres); see Steve Mudd interview
  • Mudd Vineyards, North Fork AVA (50 acres, LISW sustainable-certified); Steve Mudd interviewed; posted September 18, 2012
  • The Old Field Vineyards, North Fork AVA (12 acres); Ros & Christian Baiz & Perry Weiss interviewed on May 12, 2011; posted on June 7, 2011
  • Onabay Vineyard, North Fork AVA (180 acres total, not all with vines): see Bill Ackerman interview
  • One Woman Vineyards, North Fork AVA (12 acres, LISW sustainable-certified)
  • Osprey’s Dominion Vineyards, North Fork AVA (90 acres); Adam Suprenant interviewed April 23 & May 8, 2012; posted February 3, 2013
  • Palmer Vineyards, North Fork AVA (100 acres, LISW sustainable-certified); Miguel Martín interviewed October 12 & 22, 2010; posted November 13, 2010
  • Paumanok Vineyards, North Fork AVA (72 acres planted, LISW sustanble-certified); Kareem Massoud interviewed May 3, 2011; posted May 23, 2011
  • Peconic Bay Winery, North Fork AVA (58 acres); Jim Silver & Charles Hargrave interviewed; posted May 9, 2011;  winery is now closed but see interviews with Steve Mudd & Bill Ackerman, since Peconic Bay’s vineyards have been turned over to Lieb Cellars as of January 2013
  • Pellegrini Vineyards, North Fork AVA (72 acres); see Steve Mudd interview
  • Pindar Vineyards, North Fork AVA (500 acres; LISW candidate); Pindar Damianos interviewed Sept. 26, Ed Lovaas on Nov. 16, 2015.  to be posted.
  • Pugliese Vineyards, North Fork AVA (45 acres); Pat Pugliese interviewed Jan. 19, 2015
  • Raphael, North Fork AVA (55 acres, LISW sustainable-certified); Leslie Howard & Steve Mudd interviewed May 21 & June 13; posted September 17, 2012; Anthony Nappa interviewed
  • Roanoke Vineyards, North Fork AVA (10 acres, LISW sustainable-certified); interviewed Richard Pisacano, owner; posted July 10, 2013
  • Sannino’s Bella Vita Vineyard (5.25 acres, LISW sustainable-certified); interviewed Jan. 30, 2015; to be posted
  • Sherwood House Vineyards, North Fork AVA (36 acres); interviewed Bill Ackerman on September 26, 2012; posted
  • Shinn Estate Vineyard, North Fork AVA (20 acres, LISW sustainable-certified); Barbara Shinn & David Paige interviewed June 18, 2010; posted July 12, 2010
  • Southold Farm+Cellar, North Fork AVA (9 acres; as of Sept. 2014 just entering production); Regan Meador interviewed Jan. 30 & Nov. 16, 2015; to be posted
  • Sparkling Pointe (29 acres, LISW sustainable-certified)
  • Suhru Wines (no vineyard); Russell Hearn, owner, interviewed for PWG on October 3, 2012
  • Surrey Lane Vineyards, North Fork AVA (25 acres, LISW sustainable-in transition); see Steve Mudd interview
  • T’Jara Vineyard, North Fork AVA (14 acres); Russell Hearn , owner, interviewed for PWG
  • Vineyard 48, North Fork AVA (28 acres planted)
  • Waters Crest Winery (no vineyard); interviewed Nov. 17, 2014, to be posted
  • Whisper Vineyards, Long Island AVA (17 acres); interviewed Steve Gallagher on Mar. 27, 2015, to be posted.
  • Wölffer Estate, Hamptons AVA (174 acres, LISW sustainable-certified); interviewed Roman Roth & Rich Pisacano on April 30, 2012 & June 20, 2013, updated and posted on July 10, 2013

Three very useful links that serve as portals to most of these vineyards are 1) Long Island Wine Country which lists only those wineries and vineyards that are members of the LI Wine Council; 2) Uncork New York! (aka the New York Wine and Grape Foundation) which provides links to all wineries and wine vineyards in New York State.  Also indispensable for New York State wines is the New York Cork Report by Lenn Thompson, with its many interviews, coverage of wine tastings, reviews, and more.

A framable 24 by 36-inch map of the wineries and vineyards of the East End of Long Island, by Steve De Long, can be purchased on Amazon:

LI Wine Map

 

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

Viniculture in LI, Part III: Bill Ackerman & North Fork Viticultural Services

Bill Ackerman interview at Sherwood House

 From the Sherwood House Web site:

Established in 1996, Sherwood House Vineyards is committed to the production of world-class wines using only estate-grown vinifera grapes. Owners Dr. Charles Smithen and wife Barbara believe that producing fine wine is a combination of passion and patience, handcrafting their wines using traditional methods combined with the latest scientific techniques. “There’s very little nature and man can do in true harmony,” says Dr. Smithen. “A vineyard is one of those things. Making wine requires both science and art to excel. Anyone can learn the science. But it’s the art, the near-intuitive understanding, the smell, sense, and feel, that makes the difference.”

On their 38-acre farm, the Smithens initially planted Chardonnay vines from Burgundian clones, but after careful research and planning, have since added Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. Sherwood House currently produces a Stainless Steel Fermented (un-oaked) Chardonnay, Barrel Fermented (oaked) Chardonnay, Blanc de Blanc (sparkling), White Merlot, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and a Bordeaux-style red blend, using the facilities of Premium Wine Group, as Sherwood House has no winery of its own [author’s emendation].

The team at Sherwood is led by two veterans.  Winemaker Gilles Martin received his Master of Oenology from France’s prestigious Université Montpellier and directed production at more than a dozen prominent wineries in France, South America, and California, before settling on Long Island.  Viticulturist Bill Ackerman has 15 years of experience growing grapes on Long Island and a reputation for meticulousness, outstanding grape quality and viticultural innovation.  In 2012, the New York International Wine Competition held in New York City named Sherwood House the “North Fork Winery of the Year.”

Bill Ackerman Interview

Bill Ackerman, owner of North Fork Viticultural Services, originally came to the North NFVS, Bill Ackerman, 01Fork for both the land and the proximity to the sea, as he likes sports fishing.  He went on to start his own vineyard, Manor Hill Vineyard, in 1995.  He started NFVS in 2009 and the first harvest he worked was in 2010, so that was the operational beginning of his business.  I caught up to him in the middle of the 2012 grape harvest at Sherwood House.

At present he has five full-time employees, including Irwin, who’d been with him since when he had Manor Hill.  Of Irwin, he says, “I’m eternally grateful to him because he’s the only one who speaks Spanish and English.”

NFVS already has six clients, including Onabay, Sherwood House, Clovis Point, Lieb, Sargon, and, as of 2013, one of the two vineyard parcels of Peconic Bay (the other is looked after by Steve Mudd).

Sargon vineyard, located in Orient, on the North Fork, is owned by a retired neurosurgeon out of NYC—about 12.5 acres planted to grapes planted around 2002 by Steve Mudd.  The vineyard is about five-eighths red-grape vines, the rest is Chardonnay (Dijon clones 76 & 96).  The reds include Merlot (clones 1 & 314), Cabernet Franc clones (1, 332 & 327); Cabernet Sauvignon (clone 327).

Sherwood House’s 12.5 acres of vinifera vines were also planted by Steve Mudd.  Nevertheless, Bill states that he is not an active competition with Steve nor does he go out of his way to compete.  Rather, he says, he spends his time trying to grow the best grapes he can for making wine.  “It makes a difference if you grow grapes just for the sake of growing grapes versus knowing that the grapes are going to be used to make a varietal.”

He’s largely self-taught, based on the work he’d done at Manor Hill, from roughly 1995 to 2006 and reading is a big part of his knowledge.  He points out that, “I use empirical evidence; based on what I’ve read I’ll ask myself, does this make sense for this environment, this climate, will it work?  Certain parts of what I read will make sense, certain parts probably will not make sense, because of the environment.  I take a look at how plants react to what it is we’re doing, and that’s the empirical side. When I had Manor Hill, that’s I made a lot of changes to then current growing practices.”

With regard to organic practices, Bill says that it’s a good objective, but given the Long Island climate, which is humid and wet, one is really hard-pressed to adhere to pure organic practices.  It’s a noble cause, but he likes sustainable winegrowing, because it offers degrees of freedom that are needed here.  When I asked him about Biodynamics, he replied, “Biodynamics, as in, taking compost material and turning it into energy sources?”  And he laughed and went on to say that the closest he gets to it is in orienting a vineyard so that its rows run directly north to south, the he can take advantage of the sun, or for that matter east to west, depending.  Actually, he acknowledges having heard the term but never paid it much attention.

With respect to the LI Sustainable Winegrowers program, Bill has attended a majority of the meetings that have been held before the program was incorporated.  Given the newness of the program, on behalf of his clients he wants to know more about the standards that will have to be met:  for example, the inputs or sprays that will be allowed, the spraying schedule, things that we have to get comfortable with.  The irony of it is that his clients are already doing sustainable practices.  As he says, “I didn’t even know the word ‘sustainable,’ I just did what I thought was appropriate, based on what I read and what I knew about other areas of the world that grew grapes for wine.  While I was in California writing software I visited tons and tons (no pun intended) of grape areas, if you will.”

To the question, “What do you do for the Sherwood House vineyard that is different from what was being done before you came on?” Bill answered:

“Well, we did what I call ‘renewal pruning.’  What I noticed, as far as I could see, was that when they pruned the vines they weren’t anticipating what would happen in subsequent years.  So what happens is, if you don’t pay attention to how you are pruning for subsequent years . . . it isn’t just a question of this harvest year or that harvest year; you end up getting a fruit zone—or actually a ball or a knot right at the apex of the vine, and all these little shoots come out of it, and you have little or no real new growth coming out of it, which means it’s not strong enough to accommodate a healthy crop.  And if you do get a shoot out of it, it tends to create a much thicker cane—which they call ‘bull canes’—so, long story short, what we did is to try to bring the down the head of the vine–down lower—in order to promote the growth of younger shoots down below so that we could train them to come up.  Ideally what I want to see is a ‘Y’, a single trunk and then a left and a right cane each year.

“One of the things that I did when first I got out here and started my own vineyard—which is, again, Manor Hill—everybody was growing two trunks per plant, and nobody ever said ‘do it’ or ‘don’t do it.’  The reason that they did it out here at the time was that they were concerned about frost killing the plant and they’d have one trunk left.  And I was, like, if the frost killed the plant, which had two trunks coming out of one rootstock, you’re going to kill the plant, period.   And I spoke of ‘empirical’ before—I went around my vineyard and saw that naturally there was one trunk, and the vines, canes, the vertical shoots, all seemed to be much more balanced to me.  And I saw several vines that way and so I said to my guys, ‘We’re cutting off that second trunk, period, end of story.’  And that’s what we did.  And I never told anyone to do it elsewhere, I just wanted to do it in my vineyard—I guess because they saw the quality that we generated, that gave them the impetus to cut off the second trunk in their vineyards.

“Part of that renewal pruning that we do is first to push down what I call the fruit zone of the vines so that we can renew the canes so that they’ll have the vertical shoots.  And the other thing to do where appropriate is to cut off the second trunk; if it’s giving healthy growth you leave it alone, but if it’s aged and not giving that growth you cut it off.

“From my reading and experience I’ve come to understand that the trunk is nothing more than a highway or conduit for the nutrients.  And the other side of the coin is that if the plant is putting too much of its effort into growing trunks and canes, it’s not going to put in as much effort to grow healthy and flavorful fruit.  We [also] fruit-thin for two reasons: a) in order to improve ripening, and b) if you have too many clusters bunched close together that makes them more prone to disease—so we also thin in that regard.  The more I learn about trunks and canes, again, if you have too much cane growth, that detracts from the quality of the fruit.  I didn’t know this when I was doing this eons ago, I just saw a more balanced plant, and that was enough for me.  Again, you can read all you want, but you have to check and see what’s going on in the field to make sure that what you’re reading and trying to implement field, you need to check to be sure so that what you’re doing is beneficial to the plant, the region, etc.”

Bill tells me that he uses the same practices in all the vineyards in which he works.  He pointed to the Sherwood House vineyards and mentioned that they use dry farming—there is no drip irrigation.  His view of irrigation is that it is:

“ . . . strictly an insurance policy, and you don’t use irrigation [for vines] as you would for tomatoes, for instance.  You know, vines, specifically vinifera, do not enjoy a wet environment.  The more you irrigate it the less flavor you’re going to have in general.  The more canopy you’re going to have, so that’s going to detract from the flavor.  There’s a huge balance between having the right, healthy canopy and the right degree of cane growth—we literally go about cutting, but there are places where we just let the canes grow laterally, and you’re not hedging them.  So when you hedge them you’re not going to catch every single cane, so when I see lateral canes that the hedger didn’t catch then I send my guys in to cut them off.  To me there are three key things:  balance, uniformity, and the right amount of dryness—you don’t want to stress the plant so much that it’s going to die.  In dry periods obviously I use irrigation to keep the plant healthy, but there’s another reason, especially around here, and that is because . . . we know that it’s going to rain here and when it does rain we don’t want the vines to soak it up immediately and then crack and then that induces disease.”

Upon my remarking that the area has a very high water table, He went on to say:

“The thing is, the soil is not that deep . . . maybe six inches in some shallow places and as deep as it goes is twenty-four–maybe—the average being about twelve to eighteen, so I could dig anywhere from twelve to twenty-four inches down here and I’ll hit gravel and then sand.”  (Sherwood House’s vineyards lie on sandy loam with a good amount of clay.)

Another thing that Bill pointed out, with respect to sustainable practices, is the use of minimal herbicides underneath and he cultivates under the vine, which is very difficult to do without [specialized and] expensive machinery and it’s difficult to train the crew to use it.  According to Bill, it’s valuable for two reasons:  1) it takes off the suckers from the root zone which prevents it from sucking up unnecessary water; 2) when it does rain it acts like a sponge and sucks it up and lets it drain quicker to the ground, through the soil [meaning unclear].  And if there is any herbicide material it’s less likely to go into the plant because it’s taken the suckers off.  The fundamental reason is for dryness and then the residual reason is to help with minimal use of herbicides.

I made the observation that there was a lot of disease pressure in 2011, due to the bad weather, to which Bill remarked that there was a lot of Downy Mildew in 2012 as well.   It was so humid and there was so much rain that it was ideal conditions for growing things that want to be green, like grass, for example.  “You get a lot of water and then you get a lot of sun; well, the vine doesn’t really want that.  What grows in that environment on a vine is fungus.”  Vines, after all, are unique in their own needs and that they can thrive where other plants don’t.

In fact, many vineyards in Long Island, including Sherwood House, are planted on what were once potato fields.  Potatoes, as Bill explained, want an acidic environment whereas grape vines need a more neutral soil environment, with the result that many vineyards need to add lime to the soil to help bring the pH to that neutral level.  Many people have been putting Dolomitic lime, which contains a lot of magnesium [calcium magnesium carbonate CaMg(CO3)2] to the vineyards, which is a positive.  But the thing about magnesium is that it binds up the aluminum, which is what potatoes want; so NFVS uses lime that has no magnesium, but rather a high-calcium lime, which is CCE [Calcium Carbonate Equivalent] rated.  Another kind of lime that he uses is a pelletized version that is more soluble, so it breaks down more evenly.  He also does a certain amount of foliar sprays to help where there might not be enough nutrients in the soil.  Furthermore, he pointed out, adding too much fertilizer puts more nitrogen in the soil, and vines don’t tolerate an excess of that either.  Whatever inputs NFVS uses, incremental nitrogen is avoided to the extent possible.

As Bill says, “everything’s a balance.  What do I think that I need to get the best flavor, to get the best health out of the vine.  Flavor first, then health; you don’t want a diseased vine, because then you don’t get the flavors; it’s that combination.”

For foliar inputs Bill uses a recyclable sprayer.  He applies the foliars in conjunction with whatever other sprays are needed at the time, but he points out that one has to be very careful not to mix a highly alkaline component with a highly acidic one.

With respect to cover crops—if he could change the cover in all the vineyards he works—his preference is fescue or a [indistinct word]; rye, for example, has an effect on certain soil enzymes that encourages denitrification, as do some flowering plants.

Bill meditated about winegrowing in France:

“In France they grow some of the best fruit and make some of the best wines on some of the least fertile soil in the world.  And what they have that we don’t have here naturally is the natural limestone.  I think that they tend to forget about that.  I was talking to someone from France not long ago, [and he pointed out] that their topsoil is barely soil—it’s just dirt.  They don’t irrigate or anything, but was it a foot, two feet, three feet—how far under the ground?—they have limestone, and it sweat and wept a little bit of moisture—like condensation on a glass—that was just all that the plants needed.  But it’s also a calcium-rich environment . . . .  If I was going to do anything artificial, I’d try to bring in some crushed limestone and let it dissolve in the soil naturally.”

As our interview drew to a conclusion, he went on to tell me that Sherwood House is going to plant the remaining acreage—about seven—to vines, and he’d like to see a little bit of that put in there, as that plot has been fallow and hasn’t had potatoes and hasn’t had any chemicals on it—so for Bill it’s a kind of virgin environment, perfect for sustainable farming.

North Fork Vineyard Services doesn’t have a Website of its own, but there is an interview with Bill posted on Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=10150271354530247.

Other than that, NFVS doesn’t advertise nor provide contact information.  Why should it?  Those who need him will know how to reach him.

NFVS, license plate

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Based on an interview done on 26 September 2012, updated 28 September 2013