Interview with Russell Hearn about PWG (& Suhru Wines, T’Jara Vineyards)
For further background on Premium Wine Group (PWG), please read my earlier post, Oenology in Long Island: Premium Wine Group—John Leo.
NOTE: While Premium Wine Group makes wine for its many outside clients, there are also the wines of three of the employees that work there: John Leo, production winemaker, Russell Hearn, Managing Partner/Director of Winemaking, and Eric Bilka, production winemaker. While this article is, foremost, about Premium, it also includes sections devoted to the wines of these producers. (The winegrowing at Lieb Cellars (owned by partner Mark Lieb) and its wines will be the subject of a separate article, as will be the case with Clovis Point, whose wines are made by John Leo.
It should be noted that a press release issued on March 28, 2013, states, “Lieb Cellars and Premium Wine Group announced a merger of the two companies. Established in 1992 and 2000 respectively as two separate businesses with Mark Lieb as an investor, the combined companies have received substantial funding through their parent company Southport Lane, a private equity firm focused on growing its portfolio businesses. Southport Lane selected Lieb Cellars and PWG in part for their “custom crush” business, which is the production home of many North Fork wineries and the only one east of the Mississippi. There has been talk of the company going public.”
Because I interviewed both John and Russell separately, and the conversations were so extensive, I’ve divided the interviews into two posts: The first was based on my conversation with John, and was published on January 30. I was then away for six weeks on a cross-country trip and another week was recently spent in Northern Virginia (I was exploring vineyards on both occasions), so I have only now published this post based on my interview with Russell, which also includes discussions of T’Jara Vineyards and SuhRu Wines. Jed Beitler, Russell’s partner at T’Jara, contributed, by e-mail, a discussion of how he and Russell work out the blends for their wines–his comments are follow the interview with Russell.
From the bio of Russell Hearn on the Suhru Wines Website:
With 30 years of winemaking experience, in Australia, New Zealand, France and the USA, Russell Hearn has taken his Australian training with him throughout the journey. During the last 20 years on the North Fork of Long Island, Russell has established himself as an industry veteran who has helped forge our region into one known for producing World Class Wines. As winemaker for Pellegrini Vineyards, in Cutchogue, since 1991 Russell garnered five 90-point scores from the Wine Spectator. Russell continued to drive the style and quality of Pellegrini Wines for almost two decades [until August 2012].
He has consulted for a number of wineries on the North Fork of Long Island, in the Finger Lakes, in New England and in Virginia. He has lectured at Industry Technical Conferences in: New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Interview with Russell Hearn:
JM-L: John [Leo] just mentioned that PWG has more than 150 different lots of wine.
RH: Yep. Well, really, we actually have closer to 200 fermentations. Of that 130 are different lots.
JM-L: So of course that means that you are blending some of these fermentations.
RH: That’s right.
JM-L: What brought you to Long Island all the way from Australia?
RH: A girl.
JM-L: It happens so often!
RH: I worked in the industry in Australia, then exchanged for one harvest to Burgundy, and another year exchanged a harvest in New Zealand, and while I was there I took some vacation time, backpacked around New Zealand, and met this American girl at that point. Then she came to visit me in Australia, when I went back to work for Houghton Wines in Australia, and the next year I went on an exchange internship to California, so I went across and visited her in Massachusetts. There’s not much winemaking going on in Massachusetts, but I decided to stay for a while. Then I went back to Australia, then came back then went to Virginia for two years, then Long Island. We’ve been married now for twenty-seven years.
It was either Australia or East Coast; California, Oregon, Washington didn’t really interest me.
JM-L: For what reasons, may I ask?
RH: For a combination of personal reasons and professional ones. California—large chunks of it—has what a winemaker can see in Australia, the climate’s just like it is in Australia; Oregon’s too far from the ocean, Washington State’s too far from the ocean—regions that don’t fit my personal objectives.
JM-L: I see. So you really like the ocean—water life, sailing, surfing, swimming . . . .
RH: Sailing, swimming, surfing that’s right. I want to be close or in the water a lot, and I didn’t know that until we lived in Virginia for two years. And as pretty as the Blue Ridge Mountains are, we were three-and-a-half hours from the water and I realized that it didn’t work.
JM-L: Were you working for a winery there?
RH: Yes, a winery called Dominion Wine Cellars, it’s in Culpeper. It doesn’t go by that name anymore; it was bought by Williamsburg Winery three or four years after I left. And then I came here, consulted for several wineries initially; then for Bob and Joyce Pellegrini in late ’91, when they were looking to design a winery, I worked with local architects as they designed the facility; I designed the production part inside, it was built, I was with them for their first vintage in ’92, and I was there full-time until 2000. Then we I thought of Premium Wine Group, so I was starting this with two other partners, Mark Lieb and Bernie Sussman, I switched to a consultant role at Pellegrini—a very active consultant until the last vintage, 2011—and it’s stopped as of this vintage.
JM-L: I see. So now you’re full-time here.
RH: I finished up, yes. Being full-time here, yes. I was doing that in addition . . . .
JM-L: I don’t know, you people in the wine trade in Long Island seem to have to find more things to do and you’re all working—probably—80-90 hour weeks.
RH: It keeps it interesting . . . .
JM-L: It does. I don’t have that kind of energy, but I certainly enjoy writing about it, drinking it, and I especially enjoy meeting and speaking to people in the trade. They’re very interesting. They’re not just farmers, and they aren’t just chemists . . . .
RH: Yes, it’s a combination of . . . . There aren’t too many industries in which you have to have so many tiers that you must have at least competence in: growing it, making it, marketing it, managing it, so that makes it very challenging and very interesting.
JM-L: Yes. Well, you must have always had a very high organizational sense. You couldn’t possible have conceived of this business—PWG—if you didn’t.
RH: Hm. I think the best thing that one should do in starting in the trade or starting from school is to work at a large winery. The winery at which I started in Australia—Houghton’s—made about 800,000 cases. So it’s not a huge winery—Hardy’s, which owns Houghton’s, makes five and a half million cases. In a huge winery you’re pigeon-holed, in a large winery you’re forced into an organizational necessity . . . because you’re not as big so you have to do everything to make good wine, and that’s critical in winemaking. It’s not only how you do it or where you do it, it’s also when you do that is critical in winemaking. If you start off in a small winery, or only work in a small winery, you don’t get those organizational skills, because they never needed to, that force you to think ahead.
JM-L: Yes, just learning by the seat of your pants . . . learning on the job.
RH: Houghton’s was very organized so I was exposed to a good organizational structure, which as a result allows me to do this relatively comfortably. There are a lot of moving parts in the shuffle, so we need to make sure that people are paying the correct amount of attention and timing things so that they run on schedule, do deliveries. It’s not really so much of an issue: we have several full-time people, we have additional interns at the time of harvest [when the grapes are brought in to PWG]. We have good people who we’ve hired over the last twelve years. John’s been here twelve years, Eric has been here eleven, Rinaldo’s nine, Rosa’s eight, and Andrew started four years ago. Patrick’s been here a couple of years. . . we haven’t had a lot of turnover. We all know what has to be done and we have some smart people here, and so far it’s been turning out well.
JM-L: So everyone’s on salary. How many people are there in all?
RH: Eight full-time people and four additional people during harvest. The winery is working 18 to 20 hours a day, with a lot of automated procedures. So from September through November we get people from different parts of the world in the industry. We have two Australians for this harvest, a girl from Hungary in the industry, and an American. So we go from five days a week for nine months of the year to seven days a week and then in two shifts. So at this stage the night shift will be coming in about ten minutes . . .
JM-L: They work until midnight?
RH: Yep! As the harvest progresses—as we get into the second half—in October they’ll start coming in at 2:00pm or 3:00pm and work until 2:00-3:00am.
JM-L: Are they sleeping by the vats?
RH: Not yet! Not yet.
JM-L: Temperature control has changed that, hasn’t it?
RH: Yes, yes, exactly. We have a lot of technology here that allows us to sleep well. So the winery will be operating 18 to 20 hours a day, seven days a week, from September until about the week of Thanksgiving, after which we start packing it in. We go back to six days a week for a while and then back to five days.
JM-L: And then you go back to having a life of your own again.
RH: Yeah, my wife says that she’s a “harvest widow” for a period of time, so . . . .
JM-L: A “harvest widow”—that’s good! So I just posted, recently, a piece on Raphael, and one of the salient facts about Raphael is that it cost six-million dollars to build that facility. That’s very deep pockets for a great deal of money . . ., but then it’s a showcase. You’re no so concerned with being a showcase, so much, though your facilities are attractive, but of course highly functional. How much did it cost to build this facility?
RH: Well, in today’s dollars it would be north of six-million, but as you can see it’s predominantly equipment. Therefore the saleable value, if you will, is real because it’s all asset. I mean, the building is an asset obviously, and the building cost, in today’s dollars, might be a million, since it’s a metal building, it’s concrete, it’s not aesthetic. It’s practical, functional. Setup prices would have been three-ish million.
JM-L: Yes. Well, Raphael went so far as to design their winery so that it could use gravity feed, which is also a very expensive proposition. Would you someday incorporate that into your facility?
R.H: Ultimately we can use fork lifts and gravity, on that level, so we don’t have a tier setup—everything’s one level. But we have some —I like to think—real quality additions to our equipment that really minimize the effect of not having gravity [feed]. We don’t pump skins—red-grape skins—everything is gravity because we drain the tank and put the skins into bins that are then fork-lifted back to the press. A lot of wineries don’t do that, so they pump the skins to the press. We don’t do that, and we try to be very gentle on the wine. And we have bulldog Waukesha pumps which push nitrogen rather than pump . . . they’re Waukesha twin-lobe pumps that are the gentlest in the industry. But they’re very expensive and for a small winery to have a Waukesha pump would be cost-prohibitive. We have four of them because we’re trying to make an affordable way of making quality wine. We have equipment here that isn’t anywhere else on the North Fork and the only ones on the East Coast, on some levels.
JM-L: Really? So you really are a premium Premium winemaker.
RH: Winemonger [chuckles]. We kicked around the idea of being Premier—being the first—and that didn’t really carry the concept of being Premium, and we have a high number of quality wines that are coming out through this facility. We allow people to do what they want to do so, depending on how high a bar they’re shooting for, I think that they can get that at this facility.
JM-L: Right. Very interesting. I was speaking to John [Leo] about his involvement and how you work with your clients and he said that you are, essentially, the cellar crew for the clients. Obviously, you get your marching orders from the consulting winemaker they hire and there are so many approaches that can be taken to making wine. You have to adapt to so many requests—do it this way, not that way—do that many pumpovers, no pumpovers, and so on . . .
RH: We have to be flexible for their needs. We’re assisting them in making their wine, we’re intimately involved in the quality control, with their practices and their whole organization. But the stylistic choices are 100% driven by the producers.
JM-L: Until recently Duck Walk was selling a magnum of their Chardonnay for $10, which is a terrific price, but they don’t have that anymore. Obviously, it isn’t possible to sell much wine at prices that low. Your costs out here are too high . . .
RH: It wouldn’t be economically viable in the long term. The one thing that we have is quality, which means that we have to sell on quality and we have to be realistic about how much we can ask for those quality products. So, where is that? It’s in the high teens and up.
JM-L: So, do you have special equipment to make sparkling wines?
RH: We do. We have all the equipment that we need for riddling [a fully-programmable 1,000-bottle automatic riddling machine] and disgorging, and bottle washing, and capsule pleating, and so on, so we do offer that service.
JM-L: Do you also provide for aging . . . ?
RH: Once it’s bottled, we do not continue to store wine here; so each producer would warehouse their wine elsewhere. Ours isn’t large enough for it; we can’t keep any volume for any length of time.
JM-L: That wasn’t your intention to begin with.
RH: No, were we to expand into something like that, we could. But we’re already full with tanks and barrels.
JM-L: Have you had to expand with more tanks and so forth as the business grew?
Let’s take a look at the diagram. Locations of tanks, this is the main tank room . . .
. . . and then we have external tanks and additional tanks near the bottling area. So in the original setup these tanks [pointing, above] were not here. These others [pointing to other tanks outlined in red] were not here—these four. In the second year we’ve added all of these and in the fourth year we added some outside. In the fifth year we added a substantial number outside and in the seventh year we added more tanks outside and just last year we put in another eight tanks. So when we started in the first year we had sixty-five tanks and now we have 125, so we’ve nearly doubled our capacity since or first production. We now use about 70% of our total capacity so we have room for more tanks. Do I think we’ll add more? I think it’ll be a few more years before we increase our capacity. We do have some organic growth—we’re adding more people.
JM-L: Exactly. Now, you also have your own label: Suhru.
RH: Two, actually. Suhru, which is Susan Hearn and myself, and we work with growers around the state, mostly in the North Fork and the Finger Lakes, to source the fruit that grows best in those regions, so we bring Riesling from the Finger Lakes and Shiraz and other red fruit from the Island here. So my wife and I and another couple that we’ve known for twenty years, bought a piece of land here in Mattituck in 2000, and planted it in 2000 and 2002. We sold fruit initially, and then in 2007 we started T’Jara Vineyards.
JM-L: Oh, yes, T’Jara. Isn’t that based on an Australian word?
RH: Yes. It’s sort of phonetic. We put a hyphen [apostrophe] between the two words, which mean “where I live/where I grow/where I farm/where I’m from.”
JM-L: I see. Does it sound like that when an Aboriginal pronounces it?
RH: Yes, T-Jara. You know, I guess you could say that it’s the Aboriginal word for terroir, although they don’t grow grapes there; they never have.
JM-L: Yes, though I’m sure that today many Aboriginals work in the wineries.
JM-L: Are there any Aboriginals who actually own their own wineries?
RH: Well, not that I’m aware of. I’m no longer really that connected [to the Australian wine industry] to know about that. But I suppose that there are.
JM-L: I ask because in South Africa there is a program to help get black Africans into the business. This is true of the South African label Indaba . . . .
RH: Oh, yes, of course. They make a very nice Chenin Blanc.
JM-L: Getting back to Suhru and T’Jara, Do you have styles that you wanted to make that would stand out from what everyone else does?
RH: Yeah. Suhru is a little more of a niche in that we are not going with mainstream varietals. We do not make Chardonnay; we don’t make Merlot as a varietal, or Cabernet Franc. We don’t make varietals from these three main varieties that we have out here. We do utilize the red ones in our blend, but the goal of Suhru is to make wines that we enjoy drinking: crisp, vibrant, good-acidity whites, and some quick-to-market, soft, juicy reds. More mainstream in respect of pricing, mid to high teens, and in approachability. T’Jara is sort of aiming for the high end of the market out here. We all have to aim high, shoot for the moon, but we aim to make the best red wine out here: the fullest—but, soft wines that will age because of the quantity of tannins plumper but lusher.
JM-L: So you pick the grapes as late as possible?
JM-L: You want them to go beyond their phenolic ripeness?
RH: Yes. So they’re barrel-aged for a long period of time but they’re not designed to be oaky wines.
JM-L: So you use a lot of used oak?
RH: Well, reasonably so, but everything’s Hungarian, and Hungarian oak is very tight-grained so it doesn’t give up the flavor as much as other—the French—would be. That doesn’t imprint on the wine heavily, so it keeps that soft plumpness. We use old oak barrels—one to seven-years-old ones so as to get the benefit of aging but without the imprint of tannin. Typically we don’t go for that long maceration that, you know, leads to that astringency level that needs time. They’re big wines but their big, soft wines.
JM-L: They’re almost ready to drink by the time that they’re released?
RH: Absolutely. The goal . . . that is goal number one. You do not need to age them—they will benefit if you age them, but you don’t need to do so. Stylistically, for example, Pellegrini’s wines [made by Russell], over the years, have rewarded aging. But that’s a stylistic choice. We looked at that model and Jed Beilter [Russell’s partner at T’Jara], Laurie, and Sue and I decided that that wasn’t what we wanted and we wanted our wine to give pleasure from the beginning.
So from a brand standpoint, there’s a separation in terms of the market segment that each is shooting for. In price separation as well.
Suhru is a brand; at T’Jara we make only as red wines: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot are planted there.
JM-L: So how many cases of wine are you able to produce?
RH: Well, we have seventeen acres under vine out of twenty acres of land, so ultimately we’ll have 3,000 cases; right now we have about a thousand cases.
JM-L: I see. And what’s the density of your plantings?
RH: 7 X 5 and 7 X 4. Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot are 7 X 4 we’re trying to carry as little per vine as possible. Merlot is 7 X 5 and Cab Franc is 7 X 6—Cab Franc is more vigorous . . . .
JM-L: Well, that seems to answer the question of why one chooses a density of 7 X 5 or 7 X 4 or 7 X 6—it has to do with the vigor of the vines. That makes sense. OK, so T’Jara . . . and Suhru?
RH: Suhru is producing fifteen-hundred cases. T’Jara is a thousand cases.
JM-L: So for T’Jara you’re harvesting what? About two-and-a-half tons an acre?
RH: Yes, about two-and-a-half to three tons, depending on the year and the variety. More on the lower end for Cab Sauv, closer to three on the Merlot.
JM-L: Russell, thank you very much for the time you’ve given me. This conversation was a pleasure.
What follows are the T’Jara blending notes by Jed:
The process actually begins much earlier in the vintage year with how the growing season has gone. Depending on the strength of the season, we’ll know which component varietals we’ll have to work with. For example, 2007 was both a long and a very hot year. A spectacular year all around. So all our fruit showed beautifully on the vine. That includes our Cab Franc, our Merlot, our Petit Verdot and our Cab Sauvignon. In 2010, just to compare vintages, it was a hot year, but not as long a year. The Cab Sauvignon didn’t ripen to a state that we felt was good enough to put in our wines. So you won’t see that component fruit in our 2010 releases.
This past year, 2012, was also a very strong growing season and all our component varietals grow to maturity. Each year, however, the fruit shows different characteristics. So you can’t always assume that the Merlot that came out of the barrel in 2012 will be the same as every year preceding that. It’s always a clean slate when it comes to blending a particular year’s components.
The process Russ and I go through is the same every year we’ve worked together. We assemble the component varietals and look to see what possibilities exist. As you can see from the photo, it’s not the most romantic picture of what transpires. Beakers, water baths, pipettes all arrayed on a conference room table.
It also helps that Russ and I learned early on that we had very similar tastes in terms of our palates. When Russ was the winemaker at Pellegrini, he first brought me in to their conference room for a similar exercise. We had three flasks, filled with either Cab Sauvignon, Cab Franc or Merlot. We each had to come up with three blends: a Cab Sauv, a Merlot and a red blend. Blinded from each other’s admixtures, we each came up with three offering and presented them to each other. the three blends were all very close to each other and, as we had previously experienced, cemented the fact that we were of similar minds when it came to what we thought would be best in the bottle.
This year, we are dealing with four or, potentially five component varietals to make our wines. Initially, we didn’t think we would release a red reserve in addition to the Merlot and the Cab Franc. While 2012 was a good growing season, we just weren’t sure that we’d have a reserve that would be good enough to release.
As the process unfolds, we start with one of our wines. As you know, for a wine to be called by its varietal name, it must contain at least 75% of that component fruit. Anything after that is up to the winemaker. Anything less than that has to be called a blend or some other nondescript name.
Russ and I went through the Merlot and the Cab Franc. We started with the minimums and tested a number of different combinations of supporting varietals, each to bring something specific to the blend. Maybe it was more roundness. Maybe it was more length. Sometimes, we are trying to balance the various smells coming from the component fruits: red berry versus darker stone fruit; more chocolaty or tobacco notes versus more jammy qualities. All those ingredients are what we are trying to balance to achieve a wine that, year over year, will have a similar (not necessarily the same) consistency that those who have tried and liked our wines will come to expect as the years roll on.
To our surprise, we not only were able to come up with what we feel are very formidable Merlot and Cab Franc blends, but we also came up with a reserve blend for the 2012 that we are very proud of. From the initial sampling, we went through iteration after iteration of blending options. It kind of surprised us when we focused in on the final option. But we’re very happy with the result.
That whole process, going from large fractions of blending components to the fine-tuning took over three hours. But the process doesn’t stop there. And I’m sure Russ can add further to this discussion here, but he’ll take the blending notes from our session in the conference room and start the process of putting the final blends together in the barrel. He will still tweak a particular blend as it matures in our Hungarian oak barrels before it’s ready for bottling. Maybe a touch more Cab Franc here, a slight addition of Malbec there. That’s all part of Russ’s magic as a top-flight winemaker.
In the end, it’s all part of the joy we have as partners in coming up with wines we are proud to call T’Jara.