Viniculture in LI, Part III: Osprey’s Dominion

Osprey's Dominion sign

From the Osprey’s Dominion website:

Bud Koehler was among the first vintners to settle on the North Fork.

After retiring from a job in construction in 1983, the Farmingdale native headed out east with his wife and 11 children and purchased a 24-acre plot of land in Peconic.  He planted grapes and founded a vineyard that would be in the company of just three others: Hargrave Vineyard, Pindar Vineyards and Paumanok.

“I’ve always been building and making,” he said. “I wanted to make something with my hands.”

He called the vineyard Osprey’s Dominion Vineyards after the brown and grey bird ubiquitous in the North Fork’s skies.  The osprey is a “great, courageous bird,” he said, explaining that it dives into waters to snatch fish to eat even though it can’t swim. He likes to think the large raptors watch over his many rows of vines.

In the early years, Mr. Koehler only grew grapes and sold them to surrounding wineries. His entire family, 11 kids and all, hit the grapevines each October, forming their own harvesting crew.  He soon expanded the operation by purchasing 16 additional acres near Locust Avenue in Mattituck and teaming up with a good friend, Bill Tyree. Mr. Koehler and Mr. Tyree together purchased 50 more acres in Peconic and decided that adding a winery would make for a more prosperous business.

They had a production facility installed in a building on the newest Peconic property and bottled their first wine in 1991. They restored a farmhouse on Main Road in Peconic, just in front of the largest vineyard, into a tasting room.

Osprey's Dominion

Interviews with Adam Suprenant,Winemaker, 23 April & 8 May 2012,  updated on 2 February 2013

Adam Suprenant, ex-FB

photo by Wonny Lervisit

Adam Suprenant, winemaker for Osprey’s Dominion, in Peconic, NY, met with me for an interview near Union Square, in New York City, having just been in the company of Peter M.F. Sichel—the influential and well-known wine executive who, among his many achievements, created the popular Blue Nun wine brand—and whom Adam regards as his mentor in the wine world, having known him for many years.

Adam describes himself as a “champion of what goes into the bottle.”

He had earned a BS degree in Agriculture, from Cornell in 1985.  At the time, there was but a single one-semester course on viticulture. His first job as a viticulturalist, in 1986, was with the Banfi vineyard operation in Old Brookville, NY, where he worked under Fred Frank.  During the Holiday Season of that year he worked as a salesman for Sherry-Lehmann.  For the next two years Adam worked for the wine distributor Joseph Victori (now JV Wines) wearing a Brooks Brothers suit while canvassing the liquor stores in the South Bronx, where the product and the clerks worked behind thick bullet-proof Plexiglas.  How it was that he was never mugged and robbed he thinks may be explained by the fact that as a man who was apparently Irish, wearing such mufti, must have suggested to the street thugs that he was a plain-clothes policeman or perhaps a Mafioso.  They didn’t dare touch him.

After he left Victori, Adam needed time to work out what direction his career would take next, so he worked as a waiter at well-known New York City restaurants such as La Petite Ferme, Tavern on the Green, and Bruxelles.  However, by 1992 he realized that he really wanted to make a career in the production end of the wine trade, so he went to California and earned an MS in Enology with a concentration in sensory science from UC Davis in 1996.  His Master’s Thesis was a cork quality-control manual.*

While studying for his MS, he applied for an internship to work at the Château Lafite, the great Premier Cru vineyard and winery in Bordeaux.  At the time, Lafite had an agreement with the Agricultural School at Davis to take on one intern a year to work for the harvest season.  To get in he went on a “charm offensive, in which I overcame myself.”

While there for the ’95 harvest, he was assigned to perform the task of pumpovers (or remontage) in Frenchin the fermentation vats.  (As that kind of work wasn’t deemed suitable for women, female interns were assigned to the lab.)  Thirty-five days of this work, without a break, left his hands became so deeply stained that months later the stains still showed, for they couldn’t just be washed away.  He also served as an intern at Trefethen Winery, a comparatively small enterprise, where he got to do everything—a real hands-on experience.

Post-graduation, Adam then spent two years working for Franciscan Estate in Napa.  It was a very large operation, and in such an operation winemakers don’t exactly get to work hands-on.  Rather, it is a large-scale commercial, computerized affair, a kind of agricultural factory.  The labor costs for such a vast operation would simply be too high and it can be a challenge to maintain consistent quality, though it’s possible to be managed even when the production is greater than 100,000 cases a year.  Given all that, Adam says, “My point isn’t that they can’t make high quality wines, which Franciscan did and still does, rather that there is less of a connection between the winemaker, vineyard and the winery cellar than there is in a hands-on small winery like Osprey’s Dominion.”

He returned East in ’98 and worked as winemaker at Gristina Vineyards, in Long Island until 2001.  As he explained, “At Gristina I felt it necessary to deconstruct California winemaking because in New York State full grape maturity happens at lower sugar levels due to climatic factors.”

When he arrived in Long Island it was just in time to see the great transition in viticulture that was taking place.  As he puts it:  “Old School practices were:  no irrigation, no deer fence, no leaf removal, no crop thinning, no spray after the nets went on, earlier harvest, widespread virus and trunk disease in some plantings and inadequate vine maintenance due to cost cutting.”  Furthermore, they often harvested before the grapes were fully mature.

It took a realignment of the industry that began “in the early aughts”, as the vineyard owners came to understand the need to bring about the changes that had to take place in standard practice:  Leaf removal, green harvesting to thin the crop, reduced use of inputs—especially the high-impact versions—ending their use weeks before the harvest to eliminate toxicity on the fruit before harvest, and allowing longer hang time for the fruit to achieve full mature if possible,  weather and climate permitting.  (This meant that sometimes the fruit would hang in temperatures as low as 51°F, the point at which ripening would slow down and nearly stop.)

Again, in Adam’s words, “The philosophy is to do the ‘right thing’ vis-a-vis the environment, to be a steward of the land in order to perpetuate its use for generations to come.”  However, he goes on to say, “The New School [of viticulture] is the opposite of Old School plus widespread planting or replanting of vineyards with better grape clonal selections/varieties, and higher density plantings.  [In other words,] the New School means higher inputs because of more hand labor to remove leaves to thin the crop; more vines per acre equals more rows to spray per acre, more deer fence, etc.  The irony is that the Old School was actually more sustainable than now because there were less inputs because of lower planting density, less frequent sprays, etc.  Now there is an industry-wide focus on high quality, which can only be achieved with more inputs, not less.”

Weather and climate have always been a challenge along the Eastern seaboard, what with storms and hurricanes, high humidity, and a general unpredictability of weather.  (Indeed, Adam points out that the hardest climate for viticulture in America is East of the Mississippi.)  In October of 2005, for example, the Merlot was just ripe and ready to be picked.  Fortunately, there was just enough warning from weather reports to call in crews to take in the grapes, and they managed to pick 80% of the fruit before one week straight of rain arrived, dropping over 15 inches. After the rain we lost between 30-60 percent of the grapes not picked such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.   In 2011, a hurricane hit LI in late August, again resulting in very difficult conditions, such that some vineyards lost a great deal of fruit—California certainly doesn’t have this problem.

With respect to sustainable farming, Adam wrote this in an e-mail:

“Osprey has been a pioneer since 2002 in incorporating green practices into our farm and winery operations. These include:

  1. Biodiesel – We began using 100% Biodiesel in 2004 or 2005 and continue to use it but as a blend of 20% Biodiesel with 80% diesel.
  2. Wind Energy – We were approved for a LIPA pilot wind project in 2003 but could not get zoning approval. Eventually the politics and the zoning regulations at the Town changed and we erected a wind generator in 2011.
  3. Nitrogen Fertilizer – We began using pelletized chicken manure in 2005 to supplement our conventional fertilizers. We also produce nitrogen from our cover crop rotation of clover which captures nitrogen from the air and turn it into plant-available nitrogen. This reduces our total need for nitrogen fertilizer.
  4. Pesticides – Our spray program utilizes between 35-45 percent organic materials. The remainder are classified as “reduced risk” or are not “restricted use” pesticides
  5. Alternative Transportation – I am an avid cyclist and regularly bike commute to work 2-3 times a week.”

As indicated in Adam’s list, true sustainability is more than just the reduction of toxic inputs to the vineyard.  The carbon footprint of the machinery used in the field is of major concern, so Osprey’s Dominion was an early adopter of bio-diesel fuel (1. above), which is made from vegetative matter.  It turned out, however, that the fuel was rather gummy and began clogging the fuel lines, leading to expensive maintenance of the equipment.  They now use B20 fuel, which has a 20% biological component—not as ecologically friendly, but a necessary compromise if the equipment was to function effectively.

According to Adam, from a holistic point of view, “True sustainability is where we need to go.”  But for him, the term “sustainable” is terribly plastic and can be used to mean almost anything. As he says, “Sustainable is too broadly defined; for example, the use of fossil fuel is not sustainable, yet is allowed under the program.”  Hence a certain skepticism on his part about the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing program, so he isn’t yet ready to commit to involvement in the LISW.  But, he points out,  “I have not read the LISW plan so I am not directly commenting on their manifesto but my knowledge of sustainable programs in other wine regions.”  For him, what is lacking in other programs includes:

  • Requiring suppliers to be sustainable as well
  • Employees/owners incorporating sustainability into their lifestyles
  • Paying a sustainable living wage to all farm employees

With respect to participation in the LISW project, Adam is taking a wait-and-see position.  As far as he’s concerned Osprey’s already qualifies as a sustainable operation given its long commitment to sustainable and organic practices.  He’s not sure that the certification will mean that much or be worth the trouble.

Apart from the issue of the meaning of “sustainability”, also troubling to him is the overzealous use of the term “organic.”  Given that even factory farms claim that their produce is “organic” it raises the question of just what it means when they use it.

However, the reality is that one of the most effective controls for some infestations, such as mildew, is copper, a toxic metal to which eventual resistance is not possible.  Less toxic to the general environment is mined copper as opposed to the industrial product.  However, it should be borne in mind that organic copper has same toxicity as non-organic.  Its use is allowed in sustainable, organic, and even biodynamic agriculture and it is nearly impossible to avoid applying it in all aspects of agriculture, including home gardening, given its irreplaceable long-term effectiveness.

Osprey’s vines are typically planted in rows 9 feet apart with 4 to 10-foot spacing between the vines.  They rotate cover crops every three to five years, alternating between fescue and clover.  Since 2004 they’ve also been using pelletized chicken manure from Maryland.  They prefer to use organic inputs but when necessary will resort to industrial ones.

When he joined Osprey’s Dominion as winemaker in 2001, he at first worked with Tom Stevenson, whom he regards as one of the finest vineyard managers he’d ever known.  When Tom retired so that he could spend more time with his family, Wojtek Majeski took over the vineyard, and the two of them now have an excellent, even symbiotic relationship, for Adam walks the vineyard nearly as much as does Wojtek, conferring with him on when to spray, when to green harvest, how much the foliage should be cut back, and especially, as harvest time nears, when to pick the fruit.  It was during Adam’s walks in the vineyard that, over time, he discovered that one of the worst pests is the common raccoon, which comes into the vineyard as the grapes are ripening. The animals don’t just go after the low-hanging fruit, for they are capable of climbing the vines.  Bird nets, to ward off avian grape predators, are no impediment to the raccoon, which can easily rip them open to get at the grapes.  These creatures can only be control by the use of traps.

Adam and Tom Stevenson worked to incorporate greener growing practices. Wojtek has continued on the path that Tom and he started.  From the beginning of Adam and Wojtek’s relationship they worked closely together to maintain the sustainability standards of the vineyard.

For example, Osprey’s was among the very first vineyards to use pheromone ties to help control one of the scourges of a vineyard, the Grape Berry Moth (GBM).  (Adam explains that “pheromones are mating disruptors, which can only be effective if there is industry-wide application in the vineyard as part of an IPM program supported by the Cornell Extension Program.)  But these are expensive, especially given the amount of labor needed to tie the bait in the vicinity of the vines.  However, it eliminates spraying insecticide and is therefore a truly sustainable practice.  A less costly alternative to the ties is the use of BT, or Bacillus thuringiensis, a rudimentary neurotoxin that is an effective biological pest control, but the moth can and will eventually develop resistance to it.  Thus, “We currently control Grape Berry Moth using organic insecticides. An industry-wide program to use pheromone disruption could theoretically negate the need for any insecticide use.”

GBM have been a growing problem since 2007, and the only way to effectively control them is with pheromone ties, which are expensive.  The vines need continual scouting since the moths produce several generations in the span of a growing season.  In other words, calendric spraying doesn’t work under these circumstances.  One consequence of the moth problem has been an increase in botrytis due to the nature of the damage made by them.

What is further needed, then, is a trapping and monitoring system with support and help from the Cornell Agricultural Program.  Vineyards can’t afford to deal with this on their own.

So Adam sees himself as an “extra set of eyes and knowledge base; Wjotek and I confer on important vineyard decisions to utilize our over 50 years of combined experience growing grapes. [We] are continuing the work that was largely implemented by Tom Stevenson (who retired from Osprey’s and now owns and operates a no-spray, naturally-grown berry farm in Orient, NY, called Oysterponds Farm).”

Osprey's Dominion, 04Some of Osprey’s property was originally part of Alan Barr’s Le Rêve vineyard.  When it was first planted with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the 1980s, the rows were 9 feet apart and the vines were at 8-foot intervals in the rows, with posts set 6 feet high.  However, in terms of solar exposure the ideal height should be equal to the width of the rows, or a one-to-one ratio.  Consequently, in 2000, trellis extenders were added (see picture above) so that the post heights are now 7 ½ feet, and hedging the foliage at the top wire means that the vine heights are now 8 ½ feet, nearly the ideal ratio and means that the more northerly rows are still not shaded until the late summer sunsets.  In other words, the height was increased to maximize sunlight capture by the vines, theoretically leading to better quality.  The difference may not huge but it might be enough to capture that elusive last 5-10% of maximum quality potential.

100% of the original La Rêve vines were replanted by us between 2003-2007.

The Le Rêve Chardonnay vines were not clonally selected, or as Adam put it, they were the “give me anything” clones.  Since Osprey’s purchased the property additional Chardonnay plantings were done using Davis clone 4 and Dijon 95.  Although most of the original Pinot Noir vines were pulled to make way for other red varieties, there are still 1 ¾ acres left, made up of four different clones, but the winery only makes red wine in warm years.  If, by the third week in September the Pinot has reached 22º Brix then it is made as a red wine; if it only reaches 19º, then it will become a sparkling wine.

There are three acres of Gewürztraminer and an additional three of Carmenere, the latter having been made into a varietal for the first time on Long Island.  There is also some Petite Verdot, as well as one hundred vines of Tannat (a red variety native to SW France and widely planted in Uruguay) that are being grown as an experiment.

Adam also has his own wine label, Coffee Pot Cellars, which he started in 2008, since, he said, “I thrive on challenge.”  He buys the fruit from Osprey’s, while his Chardonnay comes from Sam McCullough’s vineyard; the wine is made at Osprey’s.  Coffee Pot is an “in-the-know” kind of brand.  About 750 cases per year are currently being produced and are divided among four wines, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, and a Meritage blend.  Regardless of whatever comes in the future, as far as Adam is concerned, he will always have a relationship with Osprey’s Dominion.

Bud Koehler, Bill Tyree, owners, and Adam.  Photo from Adam's FB page

Bud Koehler, Bill Tyree, owners, and Adam. Photo from Adam’s FB page

Indeed, according to the Osprey’s website, Bud “praises his winemaker, Adam Suprenant, and vineyard manager, Wojtek Majewski, for producing quality wines. A recent success was the 2007 Reserve Merlot, which was named best Merlot at the 2011 New York Wine and Food Classic.”  As a matter of fact, in 2010 Wine Spectator gave the 2007 Merlot a high mark, 90 and described it thus:

This red is balanced and dense, with ripe plum and black cherry framed by smoke and mineral notes. Sleek, focused and expressive.

Also, the 2009 Pinot Noir was named  the “Best Pinot Noir” at the 2012 New York Food and Wine Classic competition.  In fact, the awards list is a pretty long one.  After all, they grow thirteen varieties and make twenty-three different wines.  Visit the website and see for yourself.

Osprey's logo

44075 Main Rd. • Peconic Long Island, NY 11958 • Toll Free: (888) 295-6188 • Local: (631) 765-6188 • Fax: (631) 765-1903

http://www.ospreysdominion.com/

One thought on “Viniculture in LI, Part III: Osprey’s Dominion

  1. Nancy Lee Nickerson

    Was thinking as I read this most interesting piece that a road trip through the LI Wine Country may be in order…

    Reply

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