Viniculture in LI, Part III: Mudd Vineyards

Based on interviews with Steve Mudd as well as online sources

Steve Mudd is a man whose light-hearted demeanor masks a serious character and a professional viticulturalist of deep knowledge and long experience.  Steve has been involved with wine agriculture since he and his father, David, then an airline pilot, started their vineyard in 1974, in Southold, on the North Fork, planting a single acre to Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc just a year after Hargrave Vineyards was established as the first winery in Long Island.  (In fact, Dave Mudd, who then raised hay, had already been thinking of planting a vinifera plot even before the Hargraves had arrived.)

Steve and his father had planted some ungrafted Cabernet in their new vineyard.  When Nelson Shaulis, the eminent professor of viticulture at Cornell (who developed the Geneva Double-Curtain trellis system used worldwide today), visited to see what was going in the vineyards of Eastern Long Island and when he saw the vines, he argued that own-rooted Cabernet Sauvignon could not survive more than a few years.  (Dr. Shaulis, long an advocate of French-American hybrids and hybridizer of Cornell varieties, had long ago turned a blind eye to vinifera, due in part perhaps to his deep antipathy to Konstantin Frank–who had aggressively advocated for vinifera–and to rip out hybrids.)  After 3 years he came back and saw that the same vines were still doing well.  He announced that within a few years they’d be gone.  Several years later he paid another visit and was astonished to see that the vines were still productive and healthy.  He was so impressed that he decided to take a root cutting back to Cornell to see what there was about it that made it so resistant to Phylloxera—it took him three hours to surgically remove a complete vine.  39 years later the same own-rooted vines are alive and well; sadly, however, Dr. Shaulis is no longer with us to bear witness to it.

The vineyard also has the oldest Merlot vines on the Island, planted over 40 years ago.

David Mudd, by NorthFork Patch

Today, Mudd Vineyards, the business started by David Mudd 42 years ago and now run by his son, Steven, is the leading vineyard management and services company on Long Island and one of the most in demand on the East Coast.  Mudd has since been involved in planting more than 1,500 acres of vineyards (nearly half) in the East End—including Palmer Vineyards and what is now Pellegrini Vineyards—which amounts to almost half of all the vines in Long Island.  Today the business continues to manage numerous farms and sells grapes from its own vineyard to wineries that either have no vineyard of their own, or that use designated parcels of the Mudd vineyards, such as is the case with Channing Daughters, which produces several wines that are identified as coming from Mudd or Mudd West vineyards.  (The Channing Daughters website states that “The soil in the Mudd Vineyard is mostly Haven Loam with some portions being Riverhead Sandy Loam,” with “some of the oldest Sauvignon Blanc vines on Long Island which were planted in 1975,”  while “The Mudd West Vineyard is in Hallockville (Aquebogue) and is a warm, dry site. The soil is predominately Riverhead Sandy Loam. The Mudd West Vineyard was planted in 2005 making the vines 7 years old.”)  The wines, such as the 2007 Mudd illustrated here, are in homage to David Mudd, who was Larry Perrine’s (Channing Daughters’ CEO) first employer in Long Island and who helped expand and plant the Channing Daughters vineyard.

Over the years the Mudds acquired more land and now have a 50-acre vineyard, the grapes of which are sold to other wineries.   They make no wine of their own.  David Mudd once said in an interview that “Wine-making is laboratory work and that’s not for me.”  The same is true of Steve, but it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t understand winemaking, and he certainly understands the importance of delivering quality fruit to a winery.

Together father and son developed the largest vineyard management company in the East that also has its own vinifera vineyard.  Not only did they consult for but even helped establish a number of Long Island vineyards, beginning with Lenz in 1984, as well as Palmer, Paumanok, Peconic Bay, Pellegrini, and Pindar in the North Fork, and Channing Daughters in the Hamptons AVA.  Mudd was deeply involved with the creation of Raphael Winery, including the layout and design of the winery itself, the purchase of equipment, and also helped obtain the expertise of Paul Pontallier, general manager at Châteaux Margaux, one of the great First-Growth wineries of Bordeaux, with the objective of making wines inspired by the style of Bordeaux wines such as those of Margaux.  Today, Steve Mudd continues as the vineyard manager for Raphael and also has a close relationship with other LI wineries, such as Channing Daughters, but he now runs the company alone, as his father died one year ago.  He’s so busy that “the only way I know it’s Sunday is when the church is full.”

Mudd Vineyard Management Company is now a nationally-recognized VMC firm that has consulted in other regions beyond Long Island or even New York State, but along much of the East Coast as well.  Such was the case with the Upper Shore Regional Council in Maryland, where over sixty landowners met with Steve to discuss establishing vineyards in that region of the state.  For them he produced a “Prospective Vineyard Owner’s Handbook:  A Three-Year Estimate For Establishing Your Own Vineyard Utilizing A Vineyard Management Company.”  Included in the document, which can be downloaded from the Web, was a table of projected investment costs and returns for a new vineyard.  In addition, there were recommendations by Steve bearing on such matters as:

  • Maryland tax laws that affect vineyard operations and profitability (they need to be changed to be more favorable to on-site sales of wine to consumers and directly to restaurants)
  • Vineyard worker psychology as affected by the nature of the work expected or demanded, such as reduced performance due to boredom from repeating the same work over and over again.
  • Vineyard row length should be no more than 600’ to 800’—longer rows result in lost time when workers are called in for breaks or reassignment to other locations.
  • Row widths should be adequate to allow for drying of grapes from morning dew—he recommended 10’ width with vines at 6’ (10’ x 6’ = 726 vines per acre).  Greater densities increase costs per acre.
  • To encourage Agricultural Land Preservation a special sales transfer tax could be used to fund the purchase of land to be preserved.
  • Use clean pruning to keep dead cordon spurs from becoming harbors for vine infections and disease.
  • Growers should not push the vines too hard, so balanced pruning is essential to the plants’ health—by neither under- or over-pruning.
  • Vine trunks should be as straight as possible to reduce damage to them by tractors and equipment.
  • Water-retention capabilities of the soil can be enhanced by the addition of organic matter and irrigation when needed is encouraged.
  • To reduce wire tension problems in the rows, Vertical Shoot Positioning (VSP), as used in Long Island, is recommended.  This results in a band of fruit that leads to better sun exposure, spray coverage, and easier harvesting.
  • Leaf-pulling by hand should be done around the fruit zone to improve exposure to the sun.

From his years of experience, Steve can impart all kinds of wisdom for the viticultural neophyte.  For example:

  • “It’s necessary to rotate old vine trunks as they are given to splitting, developing crown gall, and the like.”
  • “The main reason to plant grafted vines is to get higher yields.”
  • “Longer hang time will lead to some dehydration of grapes—Cabernet Sauvignon can be dehydrated by as much as 10-15% before being harvested late in the season.”
  • “Organic inputs require more eradicants than protectants—which can be nasty to human consumption.”

Furthermore, Steve goes on (you can’t stop a good man once he gets going):

  • “There are more recovery sprayers in LI than in the rest of the US.”
  • “Long Island vineyards started with the Umbrella Kniffin trellis system, but converted to VSP after about ten years to create a band of fruit rather than scattered fruit.”
  • “In the 1970s the vines on the East End were sprayed about five times a year, but now it’s necessary to spray as often as fifteen times due to the introduction of inoculum that was the result of the planting of over 3000 acres of vines.”
  • “2010 was a unique vintage in LI, given that there was early bud break and, given the nearly-perfect weather, an early harvest.  It was perhaps the best ever for LI wine.”
  • “2011 had downy mildew all over the vineyards—it was an unbelievable outbreak.”
  • “2012, so far [in mid-June], has had too much rain and too little sun and the plants look like crap.  The disease pressure is phenomenal . . . .  But, at this point [in mid-September] the vintage has the potential to be a really good vintage.”
  • The sun’s arc flattens after August 15.
  • Steve likes to refer to the process of green harvesting as “Fussy Viticulture”—that was the topic of Steve’s talk in Maryland and is now the general practice in Long Island (among many other wine-growing regions).
  • “Ripe rot is a problem especially  in wine-growing regions like Virginia, where the weather is frequently wet and warm”

Plus a touch of viticultural history:  In 1982 it was discovered that vines identified as Pinot Chardonnay were actually Pinot Blanc, but it took a few years for the newly-planted vines to produce fully-developed leaves, which allowed Lucy Morton—a viticulturalist who translated Pierre Galet’s book, A Practical Ampelography: Grapevine Identification, from French to English—to correctly identify the vines as Pinot Blanc by the shape of the vine leaves.  (Incidentally, what was called Pinot Chardonnay—on the assumption that Chardonnay is a member of the Pinot family—is now called just Chardonnay.

Today Mudd Vineyards produces about 100 tons of grapes from its 50 acres of vines–a mere 2 tons an acre, proof of rigorous “fussy viticulture.”  The quality of the fruit is therefore very high, and Mudd supplies its fruit not only to wineries on the East End such as Channing Daughters and Raphael, but also as far away as New Paltz, NY, in the Hudson Valley (Robibero Winery) and even Arrowhead Spring in the Niagara Escarpment AVA.

Long Island with its three AVAs may be one of the newest important wine regions in the United States, but over a period of nearly forty years its vine growers have learned much about growing vinifera grapes in challenging terroir, and people like Steve Mudd  and others from there clearly have a great deal of knowledge and expertise to share and impart to others.  Perhaps the most important thing to bear in mind is how such a young region has gained so much respect in so brief a time.  It is people like Steve and his late father Dave, and the other vineyard managers, the winemakers, and the wines themselves that speak of a major, if small, region that produces premium wines.  Quality fruit is where it all begins.

—13 June & 17 Sept 2012 (update April 2016)

Mudd’s Vineyard Ltd

39005 County Rd 48, Southold, NY

(631) 765-1248

It does not encourage visitors as it only sells fruit to the wine industry.

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