The Wines of Long Island was originally published in 1987 and a second, revised edition was issued in 2000. 19 years later, it remained the best and most complete single volume on the history, geography, viniculture, winemaking, and the wineries of Long Island. It was carefully researched and very well written. It is also seriously out of date.
In the 19 intervening years a very great deal of change has taken place in the wine industry of the region. In 2000 there were 25 wineries and vineyards, about half of which are no longer in business; in 2019 there are 62, including several wine brands that have no winery or vineyard as such and use a crush facility. A handful of the wineries are not even in the East End, but elsewhere in Suffolk County, with two in Brooklyn.
19 years ago the issue of sustainability was scarcely on the radar. Today, sustainable winegrowing is a major issue worldwide, and a new entity, the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers association, is providing independent certification for members.
Long Island wine country has become a major tourist destination, counting about 1.3 million visitors a year, and most wineries provide not only wine-tasting facilities, but also weekend entertainment during the high season. Many of them also host events, dinners, and weddings.
The new edition of The Wines of Long Island provides all this new information as well as updates to the history of the region in a new edition. Every wine producer on Long Island is described in the book, some extensively, often with anecdotes. This edition is intended as the principal reference and guide for the wines of Long Island. It has 274 pages, a foreword by Louisa Hargrave, and an expanded section on terroir, varieties, and vintages. Most of the more than 130 illustrations are in color.
Mark Squires of The Wine Advocate says, “This book’s greatest virtue is its ability to appeal to both geeks and average consumers. It tells you where we are and how we got there.”
Kevin Zraly, wine instructor and author of the popular Windows on the World Wine Course, writes that the book is “a must-read for anyone visiting the wineries of Long Island.”
Carlo DeVito, author, East Coast Wineries , writes: “Though I taste in the region annually, Mr. Moreno-Lacalle’s book is the best tour of Long Island wine I’ve had in years. Thorough, complete, and definitive. The author has done a superlative job.”
Louisa Hargrave, a founder of the Long Island wine trade, wrote in the foreword of the book: “Palmedo and Beltrami revised their own book in 2000. Now, the time is ripe again for revision. How appropriate it is that they handed their project over to José Moreno Lacalle, a man who, like themselves, views the wine business with the perspective of his own successful career outside the industry. With worldliness and sophistication, he brings his profound interest in the topic—twinkle in the eye, and glass in hand.”
I have been writing about winemaking and viniculture in Long Island for my blog, Wine, Seriously, since 2010, and holds Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) Diploma in Wine (a professional certification) and has an MA in Art History as well, which gave me the foundation to use a scholar’s approach to writing the new book.
The book has been published under my own imprint, Rivers Run By Press, since late August 2019, and is already in four bookstores on Long Island: Southampton Books in Sag Harbor, Canios Books, also in Sag Harbor, Burton’s Books in Greenport, and Book Hampton, in East Hampton. As of September, three wineries also carry the book: Bedell Cellars, Castello di Borghese, Channing Daughters, Raphael, Sparkling Pointe, and Wölffer’s. It is also available at the wine shop, Wines By Nature, in Wading River. Copies can also be ordered directly from me on this Website very soon.
For several years there was a winery called Rivendell that called 714 Albany Post Road in New Paltz home. Then, in 2003, Harry Robibero and his wife Carole purchased the 42-acre property with the hope that someday the winery operation would become theirs. As a matter of fact, the owners of Rivendell, Bob Ransom and Susan Wine, gave notice in 2007 and left the property for a new location.
Harry mentioned this over family dinner one night. “Did you hear? Rivendell is leaving. Do you guys want to start your own winery? Should I look for another tenant?” Tiffany replied, “Let’s do it. Let’s start a winery.” Ryan, then her husband, agreed. So they took a chance and quit their jobs.
Very shortly after, Harry and his family were busy refurbishing and renovating the existing building. In May of 2010 Robibero Family Vineyards opened for business.
When I first visited Robibero shortly after they’d opened and tasted some of their wines I was frankly disappointed. The wines that I tasted, made from purchased fruit, were thin, sharp, and unbalanced. I told them so and did not return for a couple of years. But eventually I did go back and each time thereafter it was evident that the wines were improving, so much so that in 2014 Robibero won a Double Gold for their 2012 Cabernet Franc from fruit sourced from Sheldrake Point in the Finger Lakes, which came in at 24 Brix. It was aged for nine months in French oak, 50% of which was new. Once the wine was bottled they entered the wine in the competition before they even had an approved label. A Double Gold.
The change in quality came about in large part due to the winemaker who was hired soon after they started, Cristop Brown. Cristop came to Robibero after a stint in Washington State working for Long Shadows. He’d first worked at Millbrook Winery as the tasting room manager. After a few years he went Benmarl, in Marlborough, which has the oldest working vineyard in the country, and it was there that he learned to make wine from Eric Miller, son of Mark Miller, the owner. In fact, Eric made it clear to Cristop that a condition of his being hired was that he had to take courses in biochemistry so that he could better understand that processes that go on in the ripening of the fruit and in fermentation; making the wine was learned on the job. Soon he was assistant winemaker. In a few years Eric sold the winery to Matt Spaccarelli and moved to Pennsylvania, and Cristop then became the Benmarl winemaker. Now it was his turn to teach Matt the art of winemaking and they worked together for nearly four years before he took off for Washington State to see how wine and grape growing are done outside of New York State.
By the time of his return from Washington, Cristop had become a very accomplished oenologist and had become committed to make clean wine marked by varietal typicity and good balance. In fact, it was Matt Spaccarelli who then directed Cristop to Robibero, which had placed a “help wanted” ad in a wine journal.
Ryan is the winery and vineyard factotum or jack-of-all-trades. Depending on the season and the need he may be outside pruning or inside filtering wine with Cristop or in the tasting room pouring. He also drives the truck making deliveries to the various wine shops that carry their label, or whatever else must be done that no one else would be available to do.
When we stepped out in the vineyard our conversation there went on for a while. We were standing on the east-facing slope of the acre of Vidal and Cab Franc, and discussed viniculture.
Members of the family do all the handwork in the vineyard. They try to use organic sprays to the extent possible. Cornell came and gave them advise on how to plant a vineyard, including the orientation of the vine rows, the density, the recommended varieties for the location, and so on. Spacing is about 8 by 8, with original fescue between the rows. Soil pH was just right so that no input was needed to neutralize the soil. According to Ryan, the Cornell team told them that root stock 101-14 would work best in their soil and then provided a list of the vines and clones that they thought would do well on that stock. [101-14 is a root stock that was developed in France and released in 1882 by hybridizers Millardet and de Grasset. It is the result of an interspecific cross between V. riparia and V. rupestris. It produces moderate vigor in scions—the vine cuttings that are grafted to the stock—and has very good resistance to the devastating root louse Phylloxera, scourge of European-variety vineyards.]
Cornell wasn’t the only source of good advice for Robibero. Another was John Whiteman, from Crop Protection Services in Marlborough. When they were thinking of digging up the soil and mixing shale and other matter, then grading to aerate the soil, Whiteman made an important observation: “You know what? It took nature ten million years to create that soil. Don’t mess with it. Just put in some drainage . . . .” He went on to explain that the colloids in the soil [the chemically most active part of soil] took millions of years to develop. Bringing in topsoil would not improve the vineyard because vines grow well in soil that may be too poor for other plants.
In 2015 it was decided to plant a new block of vines across the road–actually, the driveway–from the original plot. Following Whiteman’s advise, and given that Harry is a construction contractor with a great deal of experience managing building sites and the hydrological issues that need to be dealt with–particularly water drainage and runoff–they first excavated the soil along the length of each row to be planted. The 4-inch thin topsoil lies atop a clay stratum about 4 feet deep, beneath which is a layer of shale. By excavating down to the shale they were then able to install a drainage system so that any water would run out of the vineyard, and the clay, now broken up, then was returned to the excavation trench. Now, when the 1,000 Cab Franc vines were planted the roots would be able to penetrate all the way down to the shale and not be harmed by an excess of water held in by clay. The rows, set 9 feet apart with the vines spaced 5 feet from each other, ran almost exactly north to south, slighted angled askew from a true north-south axis so that surface water would run out of the vineyard onto the road. All had been very carefully thought through, thanks to Ryan’s careful research and Harry excavation skills.
So, Robibero is dealing with the land that it has by providing the drainage needed because there is lots of clay there and vines don’t like wet feet.
The winery’s cellar is very small but adequate for the level of production that they have at present. Cristop and Ryan worked together both in the vineyard and the winery, but since Ryan’s departure, Jonathan H. Lander, the current general manager, lends a hand. With respect to the wines, at present virtually all is made from purchased fruit from the Finger Lakes, Long Island, and the Hudson Region itself. Most are made from vinifera varieties like Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and so on. However, one of their most popular wines, Rabbit’s Foot (non-vintage) has a base of 75% Baco Noir plus Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, of which 453 cases were made last year. They also have Bordeaux-style blend that they call 87 South, made with Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot, of which 210 cases were produced for the 2013 vintage. The 2013 New Yorkie Rosé is also a Bordeaux blend, and it quickly sold out.
Robibero has won a Best in Category White Wine in the 2014 Hudson Valley Wine and Spirits Competition for their 2013 87 North as well as Gold Medals for their 2013 Traminette and New Yorkie Rosé, the last of which I find to be a perfect summer quencher—austere, dry, and delicately flavored. It goes well with anything you wish to serve, as long as it’s not too spicy.
Its newest red wine is called The Stray and was introduced in 2015. It is dominated by Cab Franc and Petit Verdot, with a dollop of Malbec. It’s a dry wine with a solid acidic backbone, mild tannins, and tasty red fruit. The 2015 has sold out, but the 2016 is now on offer. It’s worth laying down.
The tasting room is ample, well-organized, and offers a very good space for parties. A large veranda invites people to sit out-of-doors and enjoy the fresh air and the pleasant view. Because too many visitors seem not to understand that a small operation like Robibero’s depends on the sale of all manner of beverages including wine, a local craft beer, and bottled water, signs are prominently displayed telling visitors not to bring in their own drinks of whatever kind. But this is a problem all small wineries face.
Robibero Family Winery & Vineyards and its wines have arrived and the results are impressive. It is certainly worth a visit and a taste or two or three, or buy a case.
Interview with Ryan Selby & Cristop Brown 1 May 2015
updated 27 January 2019
Robibero Winery, 714 Albany Post Road, New Paltz, NY 12561
Owners: Harry , Carole and Tiffany Robibero
Winemaker: Kristop Brown
Manager: Jonathan Lander
Acreage: 42 in land, 3 planted
Varieties planted: Cabernet Franc, Vidal Blanc
Grape Sources: Estate, North Fork Long Island, Seneca Lake
Production: 3,800 Cases
Jason’s Vineyard is in Jamesport on the North Fork of Long Island, encompassing 20 acres that he planted in 1996. But this was not Jason Damianos’s first vineyard. He had already worked at Pindar for much of his adolescence, so he really knew what it was like to work in one.
Jason, an intense and determined man, spent many of his weekends and summers during high school on Long Island working among the vines, cutting, pruning, suckering, and weeding, under the tutelage of the then winemaker Bob Henn. This is where he got his first exposure to the hard work in the fields that is the essential precursor to successful winemaking.
After studying business at the University of Hartford and obtaining two degrees, Jason found himself wearing a suit and being miserable. On visits to Pindar he would chat with Bob Henn, who advised him, “Jason, why don’t you become a winemaker? You don’t have to wear a suit. Do something you really care about.” The proverbial light bulb brightened and Jason went west and obtained a degree in oenology at California State University in Fresno, where he graduated with honors, followed by several years of training at the University of Bordeaux—a Mecca for wine students; he worked in renowned regions like the Médoc, Premiere Côte de Bordeaux, Loupiac and Cadillac.
Influenced by his experience in Bordeaux, Jason planted his vineyard with very little space between the rows, largely to reduce the number of buds to about 30 instead of 60 on each vine, which should help promote superior fruit. Today the vineyard flourishes with carefully-selected French clones of Chardonnay, Merlot, and both Cabernets. The spacing he chose directly contradicted what the Cornell viticulturists who had come to dispense advice had told the new vineyardists of Long Island, going back to the time of the Hargraves. The Cornell team advocated nine by twelve-foot spacing between the vines. Jason remonstrated with them, saying that the soil here was different—not clay as in Northern New York, but topsoil and sand (not to speak of the difference in climate)—and he refused to take their advice. His experiences in France had convinced him that Long Island needed to look to the maritime province of Bordeaux for inspiration, rather than California, since he is convinced that climatically and topographically there are more similarities between Bordeaux and the Twin Forks than perhaps anywhere else, particularly Northern New York, so Jason planted accordingly; his vines are spaced one meter by two meters apart.
In the spirit of the Golden Fleece, Jason brought a flock of sheep and alpacas to look after the vineyard in the most sustainable way he knew. They keep the weeds down and mow, with no need for mechanical intervention and, as a bonus, they fertilize the vines. The alpaca helps ward off pests.
Jason produces tightly-structured, full-bodied, and age-worthy wines that can, after reposing in a cellar over a span of time, eventually ripen into deeply-rewarding and long-lasting wines. This poses a dilemma for him since he feels the marketplace wants wines that are more immediately accessible. This dilemma is faced by a number of Long Island wineries. A compromise is not always easily obtained except by offering a wide selection of wines, some of which provide immediate and pleasurable consumption while others are for the more patient drinker who is willing to let the wine evolve in bottle for several years before pulling a cork.
The tasting room as the good ship Argo, which took Jason & his Argonauts to their fate.
The tasting room is unique, given its abstracted representation of the ship Argo, which was sailed by Jason and his Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece. It adds a certain rather wacky charm to what would otherwise be just another tasting room. Greek mythology, history, and literature all enjoy a large place in the Damianos panoply of Long Island wineries: Pindar, after all, is named after the great ancient Greek poet, and two of Jason’s wines are named Golden Fleece and Hercules.
Jason & one of his sheep
Tragically, Jason, 49, died after a traffic accident on December 30, 2016. His family, which is very close-knit, is determined to keep his vineyard and winery in business for the foreseeable future. After all, they also run Pindar, Duckwalk, and Duckwalk North, so they know what they are doing. Still, his loss is a significant one for the wine community. He was also director of wine making at Pindar.
In January 2018 it was announced that Jim Waters, of Waters Crest Winery, has closed his tasting room and winemaking facility to become winemaker at Jason’s. Jim has long had a relationship with the Damianos family, and they have agreed that Jim can continue to make his own wine at the facilities as well for his Waters Crest wine-club members. His wine will be made in small batches for a club that he wishes to limit to no more than 500 members; there are already 400.
Wine offerings may vary from this list. 5 whites: ‘Golden Fleece’ (an assemblage of five white grapes: dominated by stainless-steel-fermented Chardonnay plus Seyval Blanc, Cayuga, Vidal Blanc, Riesling), Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, 2 pinks: ‘Andy’s Candy,’ Rosé; 5 reds: ‘Hercules’ (a sweet red blend of Cabernet & Merlot), Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Meritage, Merlot; 1 fortified: a port-style dessert wine.
Brooklyn Oenology Winery (pron. ‘EN-ology’, or simply ‘BOE’), started as a locally-focused winery based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, founded in 2006 by winemaker Alie Shaper. BOE’s intention is to bridge the creative culinary, agricultural, and art worlds by crafting regional wines from New York State grapes, primarily from the Finger Lakes and Long Island, and by displaying the work of New York City artists on the bottle labels.
Alie’s own trajectory into the wine world was rather inadvertent. An engineering student at Cornell University, in her Senior year she enrolled in a course on beverages at the famous Hotel Management School. She thought that this would be an easy, relaxing course, but it led to her becoming hooked on wine. A second course at the School about the wines of New York State was another revelation for her. Nevertheless, she earned an engineering degree and went to work in Silicon Valley. It wasn’t long before she decided this wasn’t the life she wanted to lead so she quit and took some time figuring out what she wanted to do. She answered a help-wanted ad for the tasting room at Rivendell Winery, in New Paltz, NY. While there she developed a database for tracking their wines. When the owners, Robert Ransom and Susan Wine, opened a New York State-only wine store in Manhattan called Vintage NY, she went to work there. It would be the model for BOE.
In 2000 Alie went to live in Long Island and walked into a newly-opened wine bar-cum-restaurant run by Tom Schaudel and offered her services as a wine steward. Well, they hadn’t thought about that and hired her immediately. She became responsible for the wine lists of all three Long Island restaurants. Next she joined Southern Wines and Spirits, the largest wholesaler/distributor in the country. In 2005 she moved to Brooklyn, where “lightning struck” and she realized what she really wanted to do.
However, there was a “small problem.” She had wide experience and a solid education but had never done production work in a winery. In 2006 she sent résumés to wineries out West, but only applied for a position at a single producer in the East: Premium Wine Group. She had long admired Russell Hearn’s winemaking and, fortunately for her, with degrees in science and engineering, she was hired as a technical lab assistant, working with Robin Epperson McCarthy, then the lab head. She took samples of every batch of wine, bring them to the lab, and smell, taste, and analyze all of them. This and work in the cellar gave her the experience she needed.
After two seasons at PWG, she purchased two batches of wine for sale, blended them, and bottled them with the BOE label. Now she had 500 cases of two wines, a Chardonnay and a Merlot, and she decided, given her shoestring budget, to start wholesale, given that she still couldn’t afford a space. This was what she calls “phase one.”
Setting up her new business proved to be more challenging than she expected, particularly because the State Liquor Authority (SLA) suffered from a serious case of the “slows.” She was issued three temporary licenses in a row before she finally got a full permit. As she couldn’t sell wine without an active license, it hampered her work significantly and affected her cash flow.
She got on her feet and moved on to “phase two.” She found a space in a commercial building, opening for business in 2010 as the BOE Tasting Room and Gallery. It featured regular shows of label artists’ works, wine-pairing events, classes, private parties, and more.
Unfortunately, the Brooklyn tasting room was closed at the end of November 2016 due to rising rents. BOE will continue to make wine at PWG from purchased fruit and the line of wines will remain intact, but a new tasting room has now been opened in Peconic. The wines continue to be offered to wine club members as well as on line at the BOE Website. They are also sold in over 150 stores and restaurants around NYC, Washington DC, Virginia, and beyond.
“Phase three,” the last of her long-term plan, was to build her own winemaking facility on whatever new premises she finds. That would require a large capital investment that, for now, is a long way off. Meanwhile, she also serves as consulting winemaker for Croteaux Vineyard and phase three has been put off for the time being. Instead, Alie has entered into a partnership with a long-time friend and former PWG colleague, Robin Epperson-McCarthy, of Saltbird Cellars, to open a shared tasting room, Peconic Bay Cellar Door. All of which is to say that BOE is no longer in Brooklyn, but it had a mighty good run there.
The February 2016 issue of Wine Enthusiast listed BOE as one of the top urban wineries in the country. In the March 2016 issue of WA, BOE’s 2014 As If ‘Serendipity’—a Chardonnay, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc blend—was awarded 90 points, with the comment that it was “beautifully focused.” She worked on this blend until she got it “just right.” The Viognier, a variety she loves, is only 30% of the blend, but it stands out. Wine Enthusiast loved the 2013 Broken Land White (Finger Lakes) made with extended skin contact and awarded 90 points.
There are 13 wines under the BOE label, four wines under the Shindig brand (a collaborative effort with Andrew Stover, who’s in the DC area), as well her new ‘As If’ label, which was launched in June 2016. This is her small-batch, high-end, signature series, a celebration of the success that BOE has enjoyed so far.
From the Website: “We are committed (in the lunatic sense) to making very calculated wines in the rebel way. This label represents the culmination of years of trans-equatorial wine wanderings. We apply learned methods from this and other cool climate regions to make unique wines that honor the distinctive maritime terroir in which they are grown– here in this place, at this time”
It all started in 2003 when Robin Epperson-McCarthy was studying for a future in medicine and the rent was due. So, through word of mouth among the Peconic Bay Sailing circuit she heard of a job that could utilize her science training, was interesting, and paid lots of overtime. That turned into working 6 days a week and 10-hour days in the PWG wine lab in the course of a harvest. That one vintage turned into 12 years of global wine trotting; she never completed her medical studies
In 2007, which was one of Long Island’s standout vintages, there was an abundance of quality fruit and Robin decided to try making just one ton of Chardonnay into wine using skills recently acquired in New Zealand and Tasmania. This stainless-steel Chardonnay was the start of something. Most was sold to a close friend for a superior Chardonnay blend, but before the blend was made a few bottles made their way to the tables of family and friends.
2014 proved to be another outstanding vintage and again Robin decided this would be the year to make just one label sourcing Sauvignon Blanc from some of the best vineyard masters. In the hunt for fruit she found not one but two blocks of vines that encompassed all that North Fork of Long Island Sauvignon Blanc could be. Then she found Chardonnay planted in a unique clay deposit that could not be left without a destiny. Then came a block of inky black Merlot and a block of sensual Cabernet Sauvignon. One original variety has now been accompanied by four others, so it now offers a barrel-fermented Sauv Blanc (Migratus), a rosé (Cabernet Frank/Syrah) and a red blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon called Harbinger.
As the Website says, “Saltbird Cellars collection of wines are bred purely from passion and the freedom to follow your (in)sane ideas.”
As of August 2017 Saltbird and Brooklyn Oenology have teamed up to share a tasting room:
Peconic Cellar Door
Opened in August 2017, this is a joint venture by Alie Shaper of BOE and What If wines, and Robin Epperson-McCarthy of Saltbird Cellars. Both are small producers who purchase their fruit from local vineyards and make their wines at PWG, but each has her own distinctive style, or better put, styles of wine. They joined forces to open a shared tasting room, with both a bar and a table for six.
Cellar Door is the Australian term for tasting room (Alie’s boyfriend is from Australia), and the 600 sq. ft. space is an old storefront with a minimalist décor but inviting ambience.
Peconic Bay Winery, which derives its name from the eponymous body of water by which it is located, was established in 1979 by Ray Blum, making it one of the oldest wineries in Long Island. Owned by Paul and Ursula Lowerre, who live and work in New York City, the winery closed its doors in October of 2013, because, according to Paul, as quoted in the North Fork Patch of October 28, “Our decision to stop production at Peconic Bay Winery was based on simple economics. . . . I’m not going to say we’re finished producing wine – but we’re most likely finished making wine for ourselves.”
In fact, in 2017 an attempt was made to use the winery tasting room to sell a variety of wine, beer, and spirits from producers in New York State, somewhat along the lines of Empire State Cellar, albeit on a small scale. The experiment lasted about a year, but in the end it was shut down.
The account that follows is now primarily of historic and vinicultural interest only:
When it was in full operation, the day-to-day running of the winery was by a very capable team that included Jim Silver, the General Manager, Greg Gove, the winemaker (who now makes wine under his own label, Race Wines), Zander Hargrave, the assistant winemaker (and now winemaker at Pellegrini), and Charlie Hargrave, Peconic Bay’s vineyard manager, not to speak of the vineyard crew.
Indeed, because of its commitment to sustainable viticulture, Peconic Bay is directly involved with the VineBalance program of Cornell University Agricultural Extension. In fact, an entire row of Chardonnay had been turned over to the program by Jim, the GM, so that they could experiment with it as they wish.
Much of the care and nurturing of grapes simply cannot be done by machine. Pruning and tying, shoot positioning, thinning the leaves (also referred to as “opening up the canopy”) is vital to providing proper air circulation and sun exposure to the grape clusters; all these methods require knowledgeable, practiced hands.
The varieties grown at the vineyards included Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Chardonnay, which produced some of their best wines. For example, on the parcel called Sandy Hill the grapes are more subject to drought than elsewhere in the vineyard. Its terroir, however, also grows grapes with sugars that are higher and more concentrated, ultimately resulting in the best Chardonnay grapes of the property.
Charlie also knows the region and its climate better than most on the North Fork, and understands what weather changes can mean to fruit growing in any parcel of the vineyard, so he would quickly grasp what needed to be done through all vagaries of weather, be it excessive rain or periods of drought. For example, Greg Gove, the winemaker, said, “In 1999 we had hurricane Floyd come through. We were picking the grapes around these rain events, and in the midst of it all, the press broke down. We had to borrow a refrigerated truck to load it with as many grapes as we could.”
Jim Silver, Greg Gove, and Charlie conferred throughout the harvest, comparing notes on what affects each aspect of their responsibilities in deciding when to pick. The perfect balance of three factors are vital to deciding when to pick the grapes: pH, sugar levels (measured in Brix), and Total Acidity, or TA. Then they considered issues like short-term weather forecasts, available tank space in the winery, and the ready availability of a machine harvester or a hand-picking crew.
The result of this kind of collaboration and attention wass that Peconic Bay wines won many awards over the years. To mention but a few: La Barrique, an oaked Chardonnay has won multiple awards, including Best Wine Discovery (White) at the 2007 Wine Literary Awards in California, their Riesling was named one of the top ten Rieslings in the United States, a Merlot was designated as Best in New York State, and so on. Quite a track record. And it all began in the vineyard.
In the meantime, the Oregon Road vineyard parcels have been taken over by Premium Wine Acquisitions, and under the supervision of Russell Hearn is being managed by Bill Ackerman, of North Fork Viticultural Services. The vineyards, at least, shall remain in production for the foreseeable future.
Based on interviews with Jim Silver and Charlie Hargrave, 20 April 2011, updated 28 October 2014.
By 2017 Barbara Shinn and her husband, David Page, had worked very hard for twenty years to create a natural ecosystem in their vineyard. In order to achieve this they committed themselves to growing grapes that they hoped would be organically certified by the USDA, as well as being fully certified by Demeter as a Biodynamic vineyard. It didn’t work out, at least not exactly. More about that below.
They did, however, become leaders in the sustainable farming movement in Long Island, so what happened in April 2017 was a complete surprise to the wine community. Interestingly, it was a surprise to Barbara and David as well. They received an unanticipated, solid offer to purchase Shinn Estate, including the winery, vineyard, inn, and windmill, that they could not refuse. The property was sold to Barbara and Randy Frankel, who live in the Hamptons.
When Barbara and David bought their property on the North Fork in 1998, they knew nothing about grape-growing or wine-making. At the time, they already owned a successful restaurant, Home, in New York City, but they were drawn to the North Fork by its excellent produce and seafood, as well as the rural charm and unspoiled villages. Already committed to the idea of using local produce served with local wines, a philosophy that was embedded in the cuisine and wine offerings of their restaurant, the wineries of the area also beckoned, and they finally bought a twenty-two acre plot of what was once a wheat field. They became friends with many vintners, including Joe Macari, Jr., who showed them how to develop a vineyard according to sustainable practices.
At first they only grew grapes for sale to other wineries, but by 2006 had one of their own. In 2007 David and Barbara opened their converted farmhouse into a B&B so that they could continue to pursue their devotion to the locavore movement along with their own wines. They moved from conventional farming to an increasingly organic and then Biodynamic approach slowly and carefully beginning in 2002, then started the transition to organic viticulture in 2005, and to Biodynamic practices by 2008. Unfortunately, they never got there.
The greatest problem facing Shinn Estate—as well as all vineyards in Long Island (and for that matter, all of the East Coast)—is the hot and humid climate, which helps promote all manner of diseases of the vine, including powdery and downy mildew, black rot, and phomopsis viticola, or dead-arm. To control these pests, conventional farmers use a host of industrial pesticides with great success—it is this that has made vinifera grape-growing possible in regions where it would otherwise wither and die. However, there are new weapons for the organic and Biodynamic growers, such as Regalia (according to the manufacturer, “a patented formulation of an extract from the giant knotweed plant (Reynoutria sachalinensis). Its unique mode of action switches on the plant’s natural defense mechanisms to inhibit the development of bacterial spot, bacterial speck, target spot, powdery mildew, [etc].”). Shinn also uses Serenade (which according to its producer, “consistently helps growers win the battle against fungal and bacterial diseases, as it contains a unique, patented strain of Bacillus subtilis . . . to destroy diseases such as Fire Blight, Botrytis, Sour Rot, Rust, Sclerotinia, Powdery Mildew, [etc].”).
Nevertheless, as Barbara Shinn admits, the Achilles Heel for any organic or Biodynamic viticulturalist is downy mildew. By far the most effective control of this blight is copper sulfate, which is an industrial product that is almost unique in being accepted for both USDA Organic as well as Biodynamic farming. While there are usually few limits as to how much copper sulfate can be applied in the course of a growing season, anyone using it is aware that the copper content is inimical to healthy soil. While it may destroy downy mildew, it is also highly toxic to organisms in the soil, and in sufficient quantities it will drive out beneficial ones such as earthworms. Worse, it is a strong irritant to workers and also has long persistence in the soil, to which it bonds strongly, so it accumulates over time. However, Biodynamic farming does allow up to three pounds of copper sulfate per acre to be added in the course of a year. For many farmers, this would not be enough, and double that application would not be unusual, especially in this region. Still, Shinn tried to abide by this strict limit.
Like all Long Island viticulturalists, the Estate uses Vertical Shoot Positioning (VSP) for training their vines. The vines are planted to a 7’×4’ European-type density, which helps to lower yields and leads to more intense wine. Then, shortly after budbreak they select the shoots that each vine will grow to provide canopy, removing the rest. Once the vines bear fruit, they go through each one again, removing about two-thirds of the berries so that the remainder will benefit better from the resultant increased nourishment they receive from the vine. This means that the wines made from this fruit will have more intense flavor and aroma without having to resort to very much intervention in the winery.
One approaches the winery from a narrow country road distinguished only by the sign for the estate and the attractive farmhouse by the entrance. A tall windmill, newly installed to generate electricity for the winery spins its blades in the wind and stands as a testament to Barbara and David’s commitment to self-sufficiency and sustainability. Carefully-tended rows of vines have been planted nearly to the edge of the road. Barbara and David were in the parking area with Anthony Nappa, their winemaker back in 2010, when I arrived. (Anthony is now winemaker at Raphael and Patrick Caserta has taken his place.) Shortly, we went to the warehouse where they age their wines in oak barrels.
Tasting from the barrels is always an interesting challenge, as one is tasting a wine in the process of maturation rather than when it is ready to drink, but quality is evident in each sample of the red wine that we taste . . . much of which is destined for eventual blending. Shinn produces a large variety of wines, red, white, rosé, and even a sparkling wine. Their best wines are made exclusively from estate-grown grapes (the other wines are from grapes bought from local growers). These are the wines that are meant to benefit from the organic and Biodynamic procedures that they follow. We then proceeded to taste their many, distinctive wines in the tasting room. (A full discussion of the wines will come in a separate posting.)
The vineyard tour brought us first to the irrigation system, which is an electrically-controlled mechanism that Shinn uses primarily for its Biodynamic compost tea inoculation, which is administered once a month. The tea is made by taking the Biodynamic preparation that has been aged in cow horns buried in the ground, then mixed with water into a 50-gallon batch that is fed into the twenty-two acre vineyard over a period of an hour. This is but one of several means by which Shinn provides the necessary, natural nutrients to keep the soil healthy. Other organic soil amendments include limestone, potassium, humic acid, kelp, and fish hydrolizate (liquefied fish, which is rich in nitrogen).
Furthermore, the Shinn vineyard uses a full cover crop, which is to say, the crop is not only between the vine rows, but grows right into them. They do not even till the soil. As the Shinn Website explains it:
As a vineyard is a monoculture crop, vegetal diversity is attained by planting various kinds of cover crops between the rows of vines. Thus there are different kinds of grass, clover, and perennials and annuals that grow throughout the vineyard. This cover crop provides habitat for all manner of insect life, enhances the organic mix of the soil, and is a healthy environment for the microorganisms of the soil.
In addition to its diversity, the cover crop also helps reduce the vigor of the vines by forcing them to compete for water with other vegetation when it’s rainy (a good thing when one is growing wine grapes) and at the same time helps the soil retain moisture better when it’s dry.
Like any vineyard that is farmed according to sustainable practices, Shinn Estate employs Integrated Pest Management to deal with insect pests (which means using natural predators to help control them). They also have sought to encourage insectivore bats to live in special habitats built for them in the vineyard—so far, however, the bat houses have no takers.
They planted different clones of each grape variety, with six selections of Merlot, for example, and three each of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. There are also two selections of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon that account for the white varieties. Each block of grapes is hand-harvested separately, with the east and west sides of each row of vines being picked separately as well. In addition, they also lease a small, five-acre plot, Schreiber Vineyards, which is planted with 30-year-old vines of Chardonnay and Riesling, which adds more variety to their portfolio of wines. It lies just a mile up Oregon Road and is farmed identically to the Shinn vineyards.
Given all of this care and attention in the vineyard, the fact remains that weather will inevitably have an impact, and in a region like Long Island—unlike California—weather variability is a given. It is, of course, a major reason for vintage differences. Last year, for example, there were very heavy rains that affected some vineyards much more than others. Where some vineyards only a few miles away lost up to 30 or 40% of their fruit, Shinn only lost about 10 to 15%. The reason was their particular mesoclimate—the heavy rains left their crop thoroughly soaked, and the vines looked as though they were on the verge of collapse, but just after the rain was over, a strong, persistent wind came up that dried the vines quickly, so that even the wild yeasts on which they depend in the winery were restored after only a few day. The berries lost all the water they’d absorbed very quickly too, so the damage was minimal. (Of course, the weather of another summer could produce the reverse of this outcome; there is never a guarantee.)
By 2012 Shinn Estate was one of the founding Vineyards to join the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers certification program (for more about it see the post, LISW). That was the easy part, as it were, since they were already following all the practices set forth in the LISW workbook. The hard part, organic certification, still eluded them in 2017 as downy mildew, in this humid climate, still cannot be tamed by strict adherence to organic grower’s guidelines.
And now they have sold Shinn Estate to a New Jersey financier and his wife, Barbara and Randy Frankel: Shinn Estate Announcement of Sale. Newsday wrote that the sale had “not been part of the plan,” but an unexpected offer changed that. “It came as a surprise to us someone would walk through the door and make us an offer,” he said. He declined to discuss terms of the sale or the new owners.
Randy Frankel is a former managing director at Goldman Sachs, whose various business interests include a minority stake in the Tampa Bay Rays baseball franchise and part-ownership of Windham Mountain Ski Resort in Windham, N.Y., according to an online biography. The Frankels wanted to take a new path in business, and as residents of the Hamptons were well familiar with the wineries of the East End of the Island. They hired Robert Rudko as an advisor. Rudko, who has been in the wine trade for many years, helped find the property, which fit their hopes and expectations exactly.
Rudko is now running the property as both CEO and General Manager; he is working with the new owners, assessing the vineyard, the winery and tasting room, and the B&B. Already, according to him, an expanded tasting room with a real “Wow” design is in the works. The winery is due for some significant equipment upgrades and the B&B is being refurbished. He said that once all the work is completed, it will leave visitors “slack-jawed” by the transformation.
Patrick Certa, who has worked with the Shinns as winemaker for several years now, will continue in that role. The vineyard and the sustainable practices used to work it shall continue as well. However, the new owners are hoping to acquire new vineyard parcels to add to the current acreage in order to expand production.
Barbara and David were apparently mentally ready for this break, as they already had a commitment to running a hydroponic farm that they own in Maine. Nevertheless, they said they will remain connected to the business as consultants for the “foreseeable future.”
The sale represents the closing of a distinguished and dramatic chapter in the story of the wineries of Long Island and the opening of a new one.
Shinn Estate Vineyards and Farmhouse
2000 Oregon Road
Mattituck, NY 11952
Empire State Cellars, once located in the huge Tanger Mall in Riverhead, Long Island, closed its doors on December 27, 2014. It was unique as the only retail outlet to sell wine, brews, and spirits from all of New York State. Not really a store, it was a satellite tasting room of Peconic Bay Winery, in Cutchogue, on the North Fork of Long Island, whose owners, Paul and Ursula Lowerre, fully financed ESC’s creation. However, Peconic Bay closed the winery doors last year, and closing ESC is another cost-cutting move on the part of the Lowerres, who were unwilling to continue to pay the very high and profit-robbing rent.
The story of how ESC came to be, however, is worth preserving.
Jim Silver, who was the general manager of Peconic Bay Winery until it closed its doors in 2013, first conceived of the idea of a satellite tasting room in 2010, when it became clear that the large number of visitors to the tasting room at Peconic Bay Winery was regularly pressing its capacity.
It was not possible to expand the tasting room given current conditions, so Jim pitched his idea to the winery’s owners that a satellite tasting room in the area could draw yet more people and at the same time provide for exposure not only of Peconic Bay’s own wines, but those of other wineries from all the viticultural regions of New York State, include the American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) of the North Fork, the Hamptons, all of Long Island (which includes Queens and Brooklyn), the Hudson Valley, the Finger Lakes, Lake Erie and the Niagara Escarpment. They liked the idea and gave Jim the go-ahead to follow up on it.
Jim negotiated with the Tanger Outlets Mall in Riverhead for a store location and worked with the State Liquor Authority on the licensing of the premise. The lease was dependent on the license. The cooperation from the SLA could not have been better, given that a mandate of the agency is to help promote New York State wine. When the SLA chairman, Dennis Rosen and his counsel came to talk to Jim, Jim told them, “This is what we’re going to do.” Withal, he explained that, as a NY winery, Peconic Bay Winery was allowed by law to open an off-premise retail outlet.
In this case the outlet would offer not only PBW’s own wines, but those of any and all wineries in NY State, provided that they’d be willing to sell their wines to a competing winery at a fair discount from their on-premise retail prices. (One must understand that most of NY State’s wineries have a very small production, so it behooves them to sale from the winery tasting room, where they can sell at full price with no discount for retailers. On the other hand, a presence at other outlets, including restaurants, gets them a broader exposure to the public.) Furthermore, as a retail outlet of a winery, ESC could also sell wine to restaurants at wholesale prices. The SLA counsel immediately grasped the scope of the idea and observed that this was the three-tier distribution system rolled into one. Indeed, across the United States, wine is typically distributed as follows:
Wineries can sell to customers directly at their premises or distribute them to retailers by selling at a considerable discount to wholesalers or distributors.
Wholesalers provide the wine to duly-licensed retailers and restaurants at a price that allows them to sell the wine profitably.
Retailers then sell the wine to the public with whatever markup they choose to make.
New York, as a leading producer of table wine, has enacted fairly liberal laws on behalf of its wineries, so its laws permitted exactly the kind of retail outlet that Jim had conceived. Ergo, Empire State Cellars. Roughly a third to a half of the wines offered come from Long Island, with the balance coming from the rest of the state. ESC then broadened its offerings to include New York State craft brews and spirits. There are NY Vermouth and Absinthe makers, Bourbon and Single Malt Whiskeys, liqueurs, rums, vodkas, and so on. All craft and all of high quality. Craft brews of all manner are made in New York as well, garnering a great deal of attention and respect. One could have it all by confining oneself to just the products of our State.