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

2 thoughts on “Viniculture in LI, Part III: Bill Ackerman & North Fork Viticultural Services

    1. JoseM-L Post author

      Bruce, I’m so glad that you are using and enjoying Wine,Seriously. It’s always good to have a fan or two. Speaking for myself, I very much look forward to reading your book on the people of the LI wine business. It should make for really interesting reading, given how truly interesting and diverse are the people who grow the grapes and make the wine.

      Reply

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