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

2 thoughts on “Viniculture in LI, Part III: Bedell Cellars

  1. Rich Olsen-Harbich

    Jose – I love it! Thank you again for writing about us and I look forward to seeing you again!

    Reply

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