Viniculture in LI, Part III: Paumanok Vineyards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further IPM control is managed by:

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

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

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

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

Kareem has one last thought:

As Paumanok continues to experiment in the vineyard and improve on our 28 years of viticultural experience on Long Island, we will pursue whatever methodology allows us to achieve our goal of growing the healthiest, ripest grapes possible regardless of whether that method is known as organic, practicing-organic, biodynamic, IPM, sustainable, etc.  There is only one dogma to which we will adhere:

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

Consequently, given all the above, Paumanok has joined the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers group, becoming the twentieth member as of November 2015.  As of January 2016 they are awaiting inspection so that they can be certified as sustainable growers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

title_tastingsBased on an interview with Kareem and Nabeel Massoud on 3 May 2011 with additions from “Sustainable Viticulture at Paumanok Vineyards,” an essay by Kareem; last updated November 16, 2015

Paumanok GPS Coordinates

40°56’54.38″ N
72°36’12.18″ W

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

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

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