Whisper Vineyard is well off the beaten track in Long Island, given that it’s located in St. James, which is near Stony Brook, close to the middle of the Island and miles from the North and South Forks that comprise the East End. Owned and operated by Steve & Laura Gallagher and Barbara Perrotta of Borella’s Farms. They believe that by continuing the agricultural use of their land, they can help to retain the farming history of Long Island and preserve their family’s farming roots dating back to 1945.
In 1950, Joseph Borella purchased the properties known today as Borella’s Farmstand. In 1954 he married Theresa Scarcella, founder of Scarcella’s Florist in Cold Spring Harbor. Together they raised their two daughters, Barbara and Laura – instilling in their children a passion for the land and a strong work ethic. Farming was a family way of life.
In 1967, Joseph diversified from potatoes and cabbage to a larger venue of vegetables along with floriculture and horticulture, spearheaded by his wife Theresa. He farmed every single day until his death in 2008 at the age of 89.
Their son-in-law Stephen Gallagher joined the family business in 1986. Steve developed a great passion for the land and deep appreciation for farming. Looking to keep their agriculture roots intact and to keep the family farm viable, Steve began extensive research into vineyards, wine and winery production. Studying geological climate, soil conditions and which clones would be most compatible with the terroir, the family planted their first clones in 2004.
It all began when Steve thought to use a patch of ground that was lying fallow as a vineyard. He spoke to his father-in-law and asked if he could use that land for a few years. Joseph replied, “Fine, go ahead. I can plow it up any time.” What can one say, it was a father-in-law/son-in-law relationship. Thus were vines planted on 14 acres of an 18-acre plot. The vineyard is currently maintained by Michael Kontokosta, who in addition to being an owner and the vineyardist at Kontokosta, is also a vinicultural consultant.
The varieties planted included three Dijon clones of Chardonnay, three clones of Merlot, Napa clones of Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as a small patch of Malbec, some Albariño, Cabernet Franc, and Pinot Gris. The Albariño was planted by accident when it came mixed in with an order of Cab Sauv. They use the small amount of Albariño they have to blend in with the Chardonnay to give it greater depth and definition with a touch of lemon zest. All the wine is made on contract by Eric Fry at Lenz, and the wines are made to reflect the soil and climate of the vineyard’s area of Long Island. Well, there is one exception: Whisper buys Sauvignon Blanc fruit from Raphael and has the wine made by Anthony Nappa. With respect to the wines made from estate fruit by Eric, there is little question of the winemaker’s hand at work, but it enjoys the character of its distinctive terroir. All the wines sampled were of very high quality, which is to be expected, given the winemakers.
The vines are grown sustainably in what Whisper Vineyards’ owners feel reflects a deep respect for the land. Although not members of the LISW program, they were thinking about sustainability from the very beginning. For example, they purchased a tunnel sprayer to contain the sprays and prevent drift. After all, they have a school nearby and neighbors living in the area. Thus, Whisper Vineyards wines are crafted with grapes that are sustainably-farmed and hand-harvested – just like the vegetables at Borellas Farm have been for over half a century. In fact, there is no mechanical harvesting at all, and picking and sorting with care by hand are crucial to the quality of the wine that’s made.
According to Steve Gallagher, an important advantage enjoyed by the farm and the vineyard is its isolation from the vineyards on the East End, particularly those of the North Fork. In his view, having so many vineyards cheek by jowl means that disease, spray drift, and so on are too easily shared across properties. To him, this isolation has meant that when problems, such as fungus and mold, are encountered at the vineyards to the east, they have little or no effect on Whisper’s vines.
Another point he made is that having taken six years to research viniculture meant that he was able to select the best clones and rootstocks for his vines—something that earlier vineyards had to learn by trial and error. Before he planted anything he examined the soil in the fallow field and determined that it had an organically-rich topsoil four feet deep with two feet of clay beneath that. Indeed, Steve told of how his father-in-law, an experienced farmer, was looking for property to buy for a farm in 1950, and coming to this property, took a handful of soil in his hand and compressed it, thereupon making an offer to the then owner. That’s how good the soil is.
They opened the Saint James Tasting room/Wine Boutique in November 2013 for tastings, wine sales, wine gift-related items & small events. Open Fridays and weekends, they offer music every weekend. They have a wine club as well, with a nice selection of wines: Sparkling, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Dry Rosé, Sauvignon Blanc, Off-Dry Riesling, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. They also offer reserve wines: 2007 Chardonnay, 2007 Merlot, and a 2007 Red Cape Blend.
Whisper has a big secret as well: plans to build an impressive new tasting room, as seen in the elevation plan at left. Perhaps a winery could be installed as well, but all of this is well down the road, as at present the only impediment is money. After all, they do not have the deep pockets of a Wölffer, Raphael, or Kontokosta, but they have the passion.
based on an interview with Steve Gallagher, March 30, 2015
Castello Borghese started as Hargrave Vineyard in 1973, the very first vineyard and winery in Eastern Long Island. By 1999 the Hargraves, Louisa and Alex had established not only that vinifera grapevines could be grown in Long Island, they had also proven that fine wine could be made from the fruit of those vines. It was a remarkable achievement and it gave rise to an industry that as of this writing includes over 60 vineyards, 24 wineries, one crush facility, and 53 tasting rooms serving a total of over 70 brands of wine. But time and the stress of raising a family and running a winery and vineyard had taken its toll on the Hargraves and in 1999 the property was put up for sale. (A few years later Louisa would write a book, The Vineyard: The Pleasures and Perils of Creating an American Family Winery, based on the experience.)
The winery and its land in Cutchogue were put up for sale. That was when Marco Borghese and his wife Ann Marie were visiting friends in the Hamptons who suggested that they pay a visit to the North Fork and taste some wines. (At the time they were living in New York City and had a wine shop which carried fine wine from around the world. It was there, as Marco said, “that the palate was born” for fine wines.) They twice visited Hargrave Vineyard, tasted the wines, were impressed by everything there. Jane Starwood, in her book, Long Island Wine Country, provides this anecdote about the purchase of the winery:
“[Marco] was impressed by the quality of the wine and the beauty of the North Fork, so when he heard that Hargrave Vineyard was up for sale, being between business opportunities, Marco was intrigued. One thing led to another and, as Ann Marie likes to tell it, ‘He said he’d bought it. I thought he meant the bottle; he meant the vineyard!’
“Marco laughs when his wife offers her abbreviated version. ‘Believe it or not,’ he asserts, ‘I did discuss it with my darling wife.'”
For a while after the purchase the property was designated the Hargrave/Borghese Vineyard and Louisa Hargrave was a consultant, but once they parted ways the name was changed to what it is today, with the designation, “The Founding Vineyard.” It is readily identifiable from County Road 48 (aka the North Road) not only by the sign but also the old truck with weathered barrels displaying the name of one of the varieties that is grown in the vineyard.
Marco Borghese, of the great noble family that began its prominence in Siena in the 14th Century, and included a 17th-Century Pope, Paul V, and a Cardinal, Scipione Borghese, who established the great art collection with works by Bernini, Caravaggio, Raphael, and others now held in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, was himself entitled to refer to himself as Prince, but sensibly did not, though royalty-besotted Americans insisted on the title for both him and his American wife, Ann Marie. Marco was in fact an unpretentious man of aristocratic mien, according to all accounts, and worked as a businessman living in Philadelphia, he in the leather business and Ann Marie in jewelry. They were also raising two young children, Giovanni and Allegra. Marco had a son, Fernando, by an earlier marriage, who lives and works in Philadelphia.
Marco soon found himself working in the vineyard and in the cellar, and Ann Marie was an events manager at their new property who also hosted weekend vineyard walks. Again, Anne Marie’s wit led to this remark, “Marco thought he was going to be a gentleman farmer. Instead he became a gentleman farming.” Like many other small wineries, they held parties, events, and weddings. They were determined to create a unique place on the North Fork: Old World charm and New World accomplishment.
I contacted Marco months in advance of an appointment to interview him and he was warm and full of good cheer when I spoke to him. When I next spoke to him in June 2014 his demeanor over the phone was very different: somber and distracted. I arrived for the appointment on June 18 only to learn that he had left abruptly on a “family matter.” Two days later Ann Marie, who had been fighting cancer for months, died at a hospital in New Mexico where she was being treated. She was only 56. A week later Marco was killed in an automobile accident in Long Island. He was 71. The entire wine community in Long Island was devastated by the double tragedy, not to speak of the family, and the question of the continuation or even the survival of Castello Borghese hung over the region for a while.
But there are the children: Fernando, Marco’s son by a previous marriage, and Giovanni and Allegra. Each of them had careers or planned on careers that had nothing to do with the winery. Each of them had careers or planned on careers that had nothing to do with the winery. All three decided that Castello Borghese had to survive and prosper, at the very least to honor their parents, but also because they felt a responsibility to the community and the people who had loyally worked at the winery for years. This was especially true for Allegra and Giovanni, who chose to set their careers aside in order to honor their parents by keeping the winery in business.
When I first went to Castello Borghese to interview the two offspring of Marco and Ann Marie, both Giovanni and Allegra greeted me very courteously. It was November 2014 and barely five months had passed since the death of both their parents. Neither had expected nor planned to be running their parents’ winery and vineyard and they were proceeding very cautiously to take over the running of the enterprise. They had the support of their older brother, Fernando, but he was already committed to his own career and could not attend to the day-to-day operations of the winery.
At least Giovanni and Allegra had had the good fortune to grow up in Cutchogue, as they were 14 and 12 respectively when their family moved there from Philadelphia after purchasing the winery. Both had gone to high school there as well. The two now lived in the house that had been their parents’. Fortunately they had the support of the community, which is pretty tightly knit. They also have the commitment and dedication to carry on from the employees, especially Bernard Ramis, the vineyard manager, Erik Bilka, the winemaker who is on contract though he also has a full-time position at Premium Wine Group, and the tasting-room manager, Evie Kahn.
As Giovanni explained, “I feel like we owe it to our parents to really give it a shot. Could we sell? Sure, maybe, like if the time and the number is right, like we’re not destined to be vineyard owners and aren’t really attached to running this kind of business and lifestyle. But I think that in the year here that there is so much still, [of] their energy, it feels like part of the process to really just be here and see this little baby of theirs survive and do okay. Just because it’s not necessarily what our plan was doesn’t mean we’re going to jump ship and say, peace. I didn’t have plans for that.”
Then there was this exchange:
Giovanni: “There are employees here who . . .”
Allegra: “Are like our family.”
Giovanni: “Depend on this job . . .”
Allegra: “And love it here. So I think we owe them leadership.”
Clearly, they speak with one voice.
Allegra went on to explain: “It was in our background. It’s kind of like when you’re a kid and you don’t know how to talk yet and you’re hearing language and then you’re going to need to learn to use it to talk. It’s like that. All the nuts and bolts were there but actually putting it into the practical application of it is new. And you make mistakes or it’s not perfect right at the initial stage. But I feel like we are slowly learning to speak this language and do this role in a more sustainable and professional and natural way.”
In fact, employees have volunteered that they’ve found Marco and Anne Marie’s offspring to be just as thoughtful, kind, and considerate as were the parents. They have a strong commitment to Castello Borghese and the loyalty is clearly strong in both directions.
On a second visit to Castello Borghese some months later both Allegra and Giovanni had clearly gotten past the wariness and somewhat tentative attitude about keeping and running the winery. For one thing, they had taken it off the market and it is no longer for sale. They are definitely in it for the long haul.
In fact, though they want to follow in their parents’ way and they listen to the advice of the long-time winery team, they are also open to innovation. Consequently, they are offering local beer by Greenport Harbor in the tasting room because they recognize that some visitors come along with their wine-loving friends but don’t necessarily like wine themselves. Indeed, were there no local beer they probably wouldn’t offer it, because they really are most interested in supporting local businesses.
On the other hand, Allegra, who recently earned her graduate degree in counseling and art therapy from Southwestern College in Santa Fe, is continuing a project that was very dear to Ann Marie: art exhibitions at the winery, but with an important difference. In March 2015 there was a display of paintings by persons with Down’s Syndrome. The competence and beauty of the works was impressive indeed. Here is a happy marriage of Allegra’s special interest in art therapy with her involvement in the winery.
For example, the works illustrated at right were all painted by Lupita Cano: (top) “Me Being Happy” 2007; (middle) “Los Magos” 2010; (bottom) “Upbeat Series #1” 2007. Various works by other artists were included in the exhibition as well.
Allegra herself seems to be on her way to becoming a label designer for Borghese’s wines. The love of art runs deep in the family.
In speaking to Bernard Ramis, the vineyard manager, it was immediately apparent that this was a man with deep roots in the French countryside who spoke with real passion of working the land and growing vines. Actually, his parents were from Spain though he was born in southern France in 1962 after they settled there. He likes to point out that he was born in the kitchen so he likes to cook. He began working in vineyards after he quit school when he was 14. By the time he was in his late 20s he had become a vineyard manager, unusual in France where one usually reaches that position at a much later age. Then he met an American woman who’d come to study winemaking and eventually they married. He came to this country in 1995 to join his wife, who’d returned to get a job in New York. He worked at a couple of prominent vineyards in Long Island before he joined Borghese Vineyards in 2004, and now has nearly 40 years of experience.
When Bernard arrived there had been no full-time vineyard manager and Mark Terry, then the winemaker, was doing double-duty in running the vineyard as well. Terry quit after about a year and an interim winemaker was hired who didn’t work out. So Marco and Bernard discussed his becoming the winemaker as well. Bernard had already worked in wine cellars and knew something about making wine, but he suggested that Borghese take on a consultant winemaker to work with them part-time, and as of 2010 that person has been Erik Bilka, a full-time production winemaker at Premium Wine Group. Bernard likes working with Erik because he finds him open-minded and ready to try new ideas. It is also, thanks to Erik’s gifts as a winemaker, that with Marco and Bernard they have the quality Borghese wines of today. Indeed, their 2013 Estate Chardonnay won a blue ribbon at the 2015 Eastern International Wine Competition.
With respect to the winemaking, Marco and Ann Marie both knew that they wanted their wine to be of a very high order of quality. Marco was very involved in the process but left the technique and skill to his oenologists, beginning with Mark Terry and then with Erik. Working with him, Marco sought to have quality over quantity, meaning low yields in the vineyards and prices fitting to the quality of the wines. As Allegra said of her father, “He had a lot of integrity.”
Indeed, Marco had deep discussions with both Erik and Bernard Ramis, his vineyard manager, to be sure that they had a clear idea of what he expected. Today, it’s Allegra and Giovanni who are having those conversations, and they deeply rely on the knowledge and experience of both men, particularly given that they well understood the standards that had been inculcated by Marco over the years. Though they’re trying to retain that approach they both know, in Allegra’s words, “that everything is an evolution when things change hands.”
For Bernard it is important that Erik trusts him to make decisions in the vineyard such as when the fruit is ready to be picked. They work well together which is important as the relationship between the vineyard manager and the winemaker is vital to the quality of the wines and the success of the winery. Bernard regards the two of them as accomplices together. For Erik the relationship is interesting in part because it involves a role reversal for him. As a production winemaker at Premium, his clients explain what they want their wines to be, usually with very precise directions about how they want them made. As a consulting winemaker, it is he who provides the instructions for how the wines at Borghese are to be made, and it is Bernard who then carries them out. All this is done with the active involvement of Giovanni and Allegra.
In the vineyard, Bernard is working with the very oldest grapevines on the Island, three acres of Sauvignon Blanc planted in 1973 and still thriving. Indeed, wine made from these vines is labelled “Founder’s Field.” 42-year-old vines tend to be shy bearers but the fruit is richer in flavor as a result. They have lived this long thanks to the quality of the soil, which despite a tendency to acidity is very amenable to the plant, and the care taken of the vineyard. As long as old vines bear enough they should, generally speaking, be kept and not pulled.
On the other hand, there is no Cabernet Sauvignon, for although the Hargraves planted it along with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the Cabernet vines died, though at the time of our interview Bernard was not sure of the cause. He had heard a story that a soil virus had attacked the vines and killed them. Bernard didn’t give much credence to that theory.
Louisa Hargrave provided this explanation in an e-mail:
“We did plant Cabernet Sauvignon the first year we came to the North Fork, in 1973:”
“The plant material we had access to was originally from Paul Masson vineyard in California but grafted at Bully Hill Vineyard in the Finger Lakes using the French-American hybrid Baco Noir as a rootstock. These plants thrived but were so vigorous that it was difficult to ripen the crop with such a massive forest of leaves. At some point, I think in the early 90s, we decided to pull out our original plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir because they were so vigorous and also because by then we were leasing Manor Hill Vineyard and so had another source of these varieties. We did not pull out the Sauvignon Blanc because it was planted on its own roots and therefore not vigorous.
“There was no soil virus. I think that idea may have come from the fact that the certified virus-free plants we bought from California in 1974 did have viruses, and were also pulled out eventually. I wrote about that particular debacle in my book [The Vineyard].”
Such were the travails of the pioneers of the Long Island wine industry.
Nevertheless, apart from the original plantings of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, and new plantings of Riesling, all the rest of the vines were pulled by Marco in 2000. Pinot Noir was then replanted that year as well as Cabernet Franc. Bernard would like to try Chenin Blanc in the vineyard as he thinks it would do well. For now, however, it is a proposal and not yet a plan.
When Bernard arrived there had been no full-time vineyard manager and Mark Terry, then the winemaker, was doing double-duty in running the vineyard as well. Terry quit after about a year and an interim winemaker was hired but he didn’t work out. So Marco and Bernard discussed his becoming the winemaker as well. Bernard had already worked in wine cellars and knew something about making wine, but he suggested that Borghese take on a consultant winemaker to work with them part-time, and as of 2010 that person has been Erik Bilka, a full-time production winemaker at Premium Wine Group. Bernard likes working with Erik because he finds him open-minded and ready to try new ideas. It is also, thanks to Erik’s gifts as a winemaker, that with Marco and Bernard they have the quality Borghese wines of today. Indeed, their 2013 Estate Chardonnay won a blue ribbon at the 2015 Eastern International Wine Competition.
With respect to the winemaking, Marco and Ann Marie both knew that they wanted their wine to be of a very high order of quality. Marco was very involved in the process but left the technique and skill to his oenologists, beginning with Mark Terry and then with Erik. Working with him, Marco sought to have quality over quantity, meaning low yields in the vineyards and prices fitting to the quality of the wines. As Allegra said of her father, “He had a lot of integrity.”
Indeed, Marco had deep discussions with both Erik and Bernard to be sure that they had a clear idea of what he expected. Today, it’s Allegra and Giovanni who are having those conversations, and they deeply rely on the knowledge and experience of both men, particularly given that they well understood the standards that had been inculcated by Marco over the years. Though they’re trying to retain that approach they both know, in Allegra’s words, “that everything is an evolution when things change hands.”
For Bernard it is important that Erik trusts him to make decisions in the vineyard such as when the fruit is ready to be picked. They work well together which is important as the relationship between the vineyard manager and the winemaker is vital to the quality of the wines and the success of the winery. Bernard regards the two of them as accomplices together. For Erik the relationship is interesting in part because it involves a role reversal for him. As a production winemaker at Premium, his clients explain what they want their wines to be, usually with very precise directions about how they want them made. As a consulting winemaker, it is he who provides the instructions for how the wines at Borghese are to be made, and it is Bernard who then carries them out. All this is done with the active involvement of Giovanni and Allegra.
From Giovanni’s point of view, while he and Allegra participate in the tasting of the batches of wine and the blends made from them, he feels that he still has much to learn but he trusts both men’s judgment and defers to them on many decisions. Largely, though, he feels that what they do decide to do is based on sound judgment and is happy to go along. After all, the most important thing is that the wines turn out well.
The basic line is the Estate wines, which include Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Reserve wines are Founder’s Field Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir. Reserve wines are made only from grapes of the highest quality, but that doesn’t happen every year. Borghese also has a Select category for wines that don’t quite make it to the Reserve level. The line of inexpensive wines is of exceptionally good value, including a red Petite Château and a white Chardonette, at $14 and $12 respectively. They also offer two Rosés: an off-dry one called Fleurette and a dry version, Rosé of Merlot.
Castello di Borghese’s signature wines are the Barrel Fermented Pinot Noir and the Founder’s Field Sauvignon Blanc, and they have a string of award winners including Cabernet Franc, Meritage, Riesling, the Chardonnay mentioned above, and Bianco di Pinot Noir.
That Chardonnay earned its blue ribbon for its excellent balance of acidity, alcohol, and flavor. Cold-fermented in stainless-steel tanks, it underwent no malolactic fermentation so it has a purity of fruit that makes it stand out in the crowd. A delicious, refreshing wine with medium body and an agreeable mouthfeel that cries out for partnership with seafood. All this for only $18. The Founder’s Field Sauvignon is another wine that cries out for seafood; say, Peconic Bay scallops. It is grassy but lacks that intense aroma of some New Zealand versions that has been compared to “cat’s pee.” On the palate grapefruit flavors are prominent, and a bracing acidity and good balance make it a very good wine for summer drinking, even as an aperitif on its own. The tasting room staff compared it to a Sancerre, which is an apt comparison.
High-quality Italian olive oil from the family estate in Calabria can also be purchased in the tasting room.
Giovanni and Allegra have developed a natural division of labor at the winery, each doing what is most comfortable for one or the other. So Allegra has committed herself, for example, to working in the back office, designing the labels for the new wines, and so on, while Giovanni likes working up front helping to sell the wine, interacting with customers, dealing with the farm markets and things of that nature. Aware that each may have individual conversations with other persons, they make a point of bringing one another up to date so that neither is left unaware of what has been going on with the other. Together they share in all the major decisions about the direction the winery is taking.
Changes are already apparent on the Website, which has improved and offers more coverage of the winery’s events and offerings. The wines on offer are, happily, in the same style and of the same quality as before, given, of course, vintage variations. Some labels are new and some remain the same. The newest wine in the portfolio is an interesting white blend, New Moon, which is dominated by white Pinot Noir, in addition to 30% Riesling, and 20% Chardonnay. It is a distinctive blend with an unusual finish, for a white wine, of tart cherry. That, of course, comes from the Pinot Noir, which typically has a cherry nose and flavor when it is made as a red wine. The cherry, in other words, comes from the fruit and not the skins which impart red color to the red version and are not used in the making of the white: a distinctive wine with a distinctive label designed by Allegra.
So, the latest accolade for the Borghese Winery: 2015 Platinum Winner for Best Winery on Long Island from Dan’s Papers Best of the Best awards, which are based on readers’ votes.
“I’m only concerned about two things here: land preservation and the quality of the wine. I want people to come here in 1000 years and see the same thing.” – Russ McCall
With Long Island’s largest vineyard of Pinot Noir, and an equally-sized vineyard of Merlot, McCall focuses on crafting low-yield, quality-driven wines. The original vineyard (planted in 1996) and surrounding farm are in the town of Cutchogue, which the McCall family has called home for generations. The home of McCall Wines is an old potato barn previously used as a horse stable. The rustic tasting room is there, with its collection of old tools decorating the barn walls and the concrete buttresses reinforcing the walls a constant reminder of the North Fork’s agricultural past. There it sits on the property, surrounded by an expanse of lawn and a charming, pastoral feel to it, with Charolais cattle grazing in the adjacent pasture.
Until roughly three hundred years ago, Downs Woods and the adjacent McCall vineyards were the cultural center of an Algonquin Indian tribe. Known as Fort Corchaug, these natives long ago selected this unique maritime area along the estuary as their home. About two hundred years later, in 1902, Russell Simeon Walker, president of the Dime Savings Bank in Brooklyn, rode his horse and buggy out to the North Fork to find a summer home. From the Walkers to the Munkenbecks down to the McCalls, the property has remained in the family for generations.
For years Russell McCall worked as a distributor for high-end wines in Atlanta, Georgia, but an offer too good to turn down led him to sell the business and return to Long Island. Hence his interest in fine wine found a home for making his own. And he knows what he wants.
At the farm, a commitment to the preservation of local wild and agricultural land and to the environment is an important part of McCall’s mission. In 1996 Russell McCall allied himself with the Peconic Land Trust to save Down’s Woods, Fort Corchaug, and the farmland adjacent to his family’s property (over 200 acres in total) from the threat of a proposed development of condominiums, after which he replanted the corn and potato fields with 21 acres of vineyards. By selling the development rights, he has guaranteed that it will remain in a wild, natural state or be devoted to agriculture in perpetuity. (The Trust is funded by a 2% land transfer tax whenever land is sold. The tax goes to the township and accumulates 100s of $1,000s, which then allocates the money to the Trust and decide which property to purchase the rights from.)
The tasting room is in an old barn, of which Martha Steward said, “In the charmingly rustic tasting room, I got to sample some of the wines and I was so impressed that I bought a mixed case, which I enjoyed immensely.”
The addition of a wind turbine in 2010—the first for a farm in Long Island—has provided the clean wind energy; enough that it also supplies clean power to the Long Island Power Association.
In the same year, McCall began ranching organically grass-fed Charolais cattle, which graze in the fields by his vineyards. There are 50 head of cattle, of which 10 to 15 are sent to an abattoir each year and the meat is then sold to high-end restaurants as well as at the farm store. The animal feed on grasses that have not been chemically treated for 15 years, so effectively organic.
With the use of innovative techniques such as recapturing spray, they manage to limit the use of pesticides and herbicides and ensure that they don’t dissipate from the vineyard or affect either the neighboring preserve or the Charolais cattle, not to speak of the native wildlife, so that on any given day one may see foxes, pheasant, deer, hawks, turtles, wildflowers and more.
Committed to quality and sustainability, McCall released his first wines in 2007. Since then, they have found critical acclaim. They can be found on the wine lists of a handful of upscale restaurants in New York City and on the East End.
Corchaug Estate Vineyard
The original vineyard that Russell McCall planted in 1997 is referred to as Corchaug Estate. This vineyard was established on land rescued from development that borders the historic Fort Corchaug site and Down’s Woods preserve. The estate also includes our tasting room, an existing barn reclaimed as a place for visitors.
The southern end of the vineyard is planted with 11 acres of Pinot Noir, comprised by four clones selected from the best French clonal varieties grown in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, comprised by four clones: Pommard 4, and Dijon 667, 777, and 115. This is to date the largest successful Pinot Noir vineyard on Long Island.
Based on the French tradition, the vines are spaced closer than most in the region. On the north end of the farm the soil is rich with clay much like the best vineyards of Bordeaux, especially Pomerol, where there are ten acres planted with three clones of Merlot.
Just north of Corchaug Estate, across Route 25, lies a 16-acre vineyard planted by Dr. Peter Gristina in 1983. The neglected old vine Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay plantings were taken over by the McCalls in 2010, who first leased it for three years to assure the quality of the fruit, as the vines were not all in good shape. While rejuvenating them they found that the vines produce excellent fruit, and expanded the vineyard by adding a block of Sauvignon Blanc once the property was purchased in 2013. The land is unique in its hilly relief and the inclusion of a large kettle hole nestled in a parcel of protected forest. The glacial terrain, mostly sandy loam, has a positive effect not just on the drainage of the vines, but also the characteristics of the fruit.
Hence, the two vineyards reflect French influence from two of its greatest regions, Burgundy and Bordeaux. Russell’s approach to making quality wine is focused on the vineyards, because as far as he’s concerned, the fruit determines what the wine will be come. In other words, there is no “winemaking agenda, just a farming agenda.”
McCall is quite candid in saying that He doesn’t always produce Pinot Noir successfully. A major reason for that is the unpredictable weather from year to year, a problem that is common for a maritime, cold-climate region. It is a difficult grape to cultivate because it is so sensitive the vagaries of clime and weather so that both yields and quality can be highly variable. These are reasons that it’s called the “heartbreak grape,” but what makes it worthwhile is how splendid a wine it can make in a good year. The McCall Pinots have received high praise from the NY Times, Wine Advocate, and Wine Enthusiast.
He predicts that the 2014 vintage has potential for greatness. The weather was sunny and there was nearly no rainfall for July, August, and September, creating dust-bowl conditions, bad for grass but terrific for grapes like Pinot Noir. By September the fruit was fully ripe and was all harvested; indeed, the Pinot is always picked between the 10th and 20th of September from the time that the vineyard was planted in ’97 with over 22,000 vines.
For example, in a humid climate such as Long Island’s, it’s necessary to start leaf-pulling early to expose the fruit to the sun and air so as to keep disease at bay. If needed McCall will have as many as 20 workers out in the vineyards pulling leaves. Indeed, at harvest all the grapes are picked by hand, for he doesn’t believe that mechanical harvesting has been perfectly sufficiently to be used for harvesting high-quality fruit. Furthermore, very much in the French tradition the vines were planted just three feet apart, which makes it even more difficult for machines to work in the fields. In other words, the vine density is about 2050 plants an acre given a 3×7 spacing. An important advantage of such close spacing is that it forces the vines to compete for water and rather than spread roots more or less horizontally they are forced to dig down into the soil—one of Helen Turley’s many axioms about winegrowing (in Russell’s eyes she is a genius). The result is that about two tons of grapes are taken from each acre, resulting in a total production of just under 5000 cases a year, depending on the vintage.
As for the future, Russell has three children, of whom but one may be interested in taking over, but it’s not yet his time.
In 2013 McCall was rated “Best Winery in New York” by the NYWGF. And in 2015 three of its wines were rate 90 or more in The Wine Advocate.
McCall’s makes two whites, a Chardonnay and a Sauvignon Blanc, that are quite good, especially as food accompaniment, but the winery’s real claim to fame is its reds, particularly the Pinots.
The 2010 Ben’s Bordeaux Blend is a wine that is only possible to craft in a great vintage like 2010. It’s produced from the best estate Merlot, plus three other varieties: Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc in roughly equal proportions. The blend of these Bordeaux grapes, often known as a meritage, is named for McCall’s late vineyard manager Ben Sisson. Drinking well now, it will continue to age well as a collector’s wine. The 2010 Merlot was highly praised by Wine Advocate (90 points) as an excellent food wine, given its somewhat understate though beautifully balanced style.
All the wines except for the Pinots are made by Gilles Martin, a highly-regarded consultant winemaker, at PWG.
The 2010 Reserve Pinot Noir is made from 100% estate-grown and hand-selected fruit from the very best grapes in the Corchaugh vineyard, the 2010 reserve shows intense fruit and subtle earthy and mineral notes with a hint of the sweetness of French oak. Extremely low yield, due to green harvesting, the 11-acre vineyard has intensified the deep essence of the variety. A wine like this is only possible once in a five to eight-year weather cycle. It is best to decant and drink now or to save it until 2017 or after. It was named “Best Pinot Noir in NY” at the 2013 NY Wine & Food Classic. The New York Times’ Howard Goldberg had this to say: “The star was the sophisticated 2010 Corchaug Estate reserve from McCall Wines in Cutchogue, which specializes in the grape; its combined breadth, depth and length was world-class (as its price might suggest). McCall’s regular 2010 Corchaug Estate ($39), almost as serious, was round and plummy.” Both are made at Millbrook Winery in the Hudson Valley for McCall by John Graziano (winemaker) and Bob Cabral (consultant).
Louisa Hargrave, doyenne of the Long Island wine industry, said of Russ, “Honesty is a mantra for McCall. ” But let Russ have the last work about himself: “You can sum me up simply. I’m not going to put our label on it unless it’s above average.”
However, none other than Jane Anson of Decanter Magazine had this appreciation of McCall’s wines: Decanter, Nov. 18, 2016
Christian Wölffer, a real estate entrepreneur, bought the 14 acres of potato fields known as Sagpond Farms in 1978. Enchanted by the idea of a vineyard of his own after tasting a Chardonnay planted by a Sagaponack neighbor, in 1988 he asked David Mudd to plant fifteen acres of vines. It has since grown to 55 acres, with ten parcels of vines with sub-parcels. The vine rows were planted running North to South and East to West, depending on the best orientation to the sun based on the terrain. By 1996 he had assembled 168 acres, which he devoted mostly to grazing land for his horses. His first release, a Chardonnay, was in 1991.
Roman Roth and Richard Pisacano are the team that together produces some of the finest wine made in Long Island. Roman, of course, is the winemaker (and now partner) at Wölffer, and Richie—as he’s known to his friends and colleagues—is the winegrower. One is, as it were, the right hand and the other the left. So close are they that Richie’s own wine brand, Roanoke Vineyards, is made by Roman. Roman himself has his own label, Grapes of Roth, which, since he became partner this year, will be sold in Wölffer’s tasting room.
Roman has been with Wölffer Estate as winemaker since 1992, Richie came to the Estate in 1997. Both of them had years of experience in the wine trade before coming to Wölffer’s.
Roman & full-time vineyard crew at lunch
Roman comes from southern Germany and learned about vineyards, varieties, and vinification there, as his was a winemaking family. He travelled and worked at wineries in California and Australia before returning home. In 1992 Roman received his Master Winemaker and Cellar Master degrees from the College for Oenology and Viticulture in Weinsberg. Soon after, he accepted the position of winemaker at Sagpond Vineyards, a new winery in the Hamptons. This was a winemaker’s dream—to be part of a new and growing wine region with the chance to create something new, to leave a footprint at the foundational level.
Over the next several years, Roth managed the expansion of Sagpond Vineyards into “Wölffer Estate,” now a 55-acre vineyard with a state-of-the-art winery producing a wide range of award-winning wines, all nestled in a 175-acre property with horses, paddocks, stables, and riding trails. Under Roth’s meticulous direction, Wölffer has become a Hampton’s destination, producing wines of excellent caliber and reputation.
In April 2003, Roman received the award of “Winemaker of the Year” presented by the East End Food & Wine Awards (judged by the American Sommelier Society). This reflected the excellence of the wines he produced as winemaker and as a consultant, and was recognition of his contribution to quality winemaking on Long Island as a whole. After Christian Wölffer’s untimely death in a swimming accident, the Estate was in the hands of his children, Joey and Marc. At that time Roman was made a partner in the firm and basically runs it. In December 2015 he was elected as President of the Long Island Wine Council to serve for two years.
Rich started his career with greenhouse plant propagation, then worked for Mudd Vineyards (the first Vineyard Consulting Management firm in Long Island) in 1977, while still in high school. He went on the design and maintain vineyards for Cutchogue Vineyards (now Macari South), Pindar, Palmer, Island (now Pellegrini), Jamesport, and others before he came to Wölffer. He was invited by Roman to come to Wölffer to help “rescue” the vineyard, to help bring the Estate to the next level and further improve the quality and reputation. When he arrived he brought along with him the ideas of sustainable viticulture and in fact followed the precepts of Cornell’s VineBalance program for the last ten years.
The first fifteen acres of Wölffer vines were planted by David Mudd in 1988, and it has since grown to 50 acres, with ten parcels of vines with sub-parcels. The vine rows were planted running North to South and East to West.
Wölffer’s terroir, given its location on a hill, varies considerably, much more so than the vineyards on the North Fork. The Estate has two types of soil, Bridgehampton loam and Haven.The Bridgehampton soils are mostly the flatter ground and the hillside soils, which are lighter, are mostly Haven. [i] Where the two converge one overlaps the other with interesting effects on the micro-terroir of individual vines. Both soils offer good drainage and the way that the vineyard slopes allows the cold air to flow out of the vineyard across to the Montauk Highway. With its undulating topography and overlapping soils, it makes for an especially interesting terroir, particularly so for Long Island. Rich refers to it as a “unique setting.”
Both Richie and Roman agree that “The vineyard comes first,” and “we focus on what we can do in the vineyard, then we can make wine from that.”
The California model is not a good one to follow in LI; Wölffer has healthy low vigor/well balanced vineyards. With respect to viticulture, Rich’s is a balanced approach, with individual attention to the vines. Indeed, given his 30-years of experience, they call him “the grape-whisperer.” As Rich pointed out, in his straightforward but modest way, “given time, one develops an intuition.”
For Rich, rule number one for a vineyard manager is to throw out the personal calendar and appointment book—the vineyard has precedence over all matters personal. The Manager is like a doctor on call, always ready to respond to an emergency. Or, as Rich puts it, “Sometimes I’m not a vineyard manager as much as I am vineyard-managed.”
For example, in 2011, despite the terrible weather, including Hurricane Irene’s contribution, Wölffer had no crop loss whatsoever thanks to the adequate manpower that was available to manage the problems engendered by the weather. Wölffer managed to harvest 2.79 tons per acre, which was right at the 20-year average for their harvests. The biggest challenge of the season was the sudden changes in the weather, and that requires a very nimble and highly attentive manager.
The symbiotic relationship between vineyard manager and vintner was demonstrated in the 2005 vintage, which had been a very good season until 20 inches of rain were dumped on LI in the space of a week just at harvest time, with the result that grapes were so swollen with water that the sugar levels were diluted to as low as 16 degrees Brix. Some growers went ahead and picked the swollen grapes immediately after the rain, others abandoned entire parcels of fruit. Roman, however, saw the potential for patience rewarded and had Rich leave the grapes alone for a few days. Three days of dry weather led to the grapes shrinking back to normal size and reaching 23 Brix, and by the fifth day the sugar level had reached 25 Brix, which was unheard of in terms of sugar levels that increased so dramatically in so brief a time. At that point some of the crop began to shrivel and raisin, so a 35-person crew was sent out to pick what were now very ripe grapes. Some other vineyards had been watching what was going on at Wölffer Estate and held off as well, but none had the resources that the Estate enjoyed, so as soon as the grapes were brought in the crew was sent out to help harvest the grapes at the other vineyards as well. As a result, some very good wine was made that year, although at much smaller yields than usual. This is part of what Rich calls Roman’s “wine-rescue program.”
The fact of the matter is that Richie and Roman “get energy from one another.”
Wölffer now has seven varieties planted, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Trebbiano and Vignoles—of which there is a half-acre. Chardonnay needs to be picked at full ripeness. In the mid-1990s the significance of proper clonal selection became better appreciated, so that optimal results can be obtained in the vineyard. Presently there are three Chardonnay clones planted: Davis 3+4 Dijon 76, and Clone 96. Dijon, which is a Burgundy clone, tends to offer comparatively low acidity by comparison with Davis 3+4, which was developed for the warmer climate of California. Merlot clones include 181 (from France), 3 (from U. of C. at Davis), and 6 (from Argentina).
Wölffer planted Trebbiano Toscano [aka Ugni Blanc] in 2010, the only Long Island vineyard to do so. The vines were productive by the 2nd year, yielding 3.5 tons / acre and by the 3rd year, 8 tons of good fruit. Given the large and experienced vineyard crew that the Estate can call on at harvest time, it was possible to harvest by hand 6 to 8 tons per hour, or about 40 tons at the end of a 7-hour day. In fact, many of the crew are people with other jobs but who have helped harvest the crop by hand for as long as ten years or more. They know what they are doing and are very efficient. According to Rich, the best of all the pickers are invariably women, who are more careful and attentive than are most of the men.
Vines’ vigor affects wine character. For that reason, there are rows of Cabernet Franc and Merlot that are reserved for making rosé that run down a slope, with Bridgehampton Loam eight feet thick at the top that is overlaid with Bridgehampton Loam as one goes down the slope, until the Haven is only eight inches thick. The Bridgehampton soils are mostly the flatter ground and the hillside soils, which are lighter, are mostly Haven. This represents ever-changing terror, which is to say that each vine in a row has a micro-terroir of its own. Indeed, thanks to drainage and soil changes along the rows, the vigor of the vines changes along the length of the slope. Consequently, in order to “harmonize” that vineyard parcel, Rich has leaf-pulling and green harvesting done along the rows at graduated intervals, with the vines furthest downslope getting the most attention, and those at the top less. Thus, the vines mature and are ready for harvest at nearly the same time. This is the work of a ‘grape-whisperer.’
Roman & crew at soccer. Goal!
Wölffer always has an adequate vineyard crew—for one thing, the Estate make harvesting fun and treats the harvest as a celebration. They feed the workers very well, with much coffee and snacks available throughout the workday. Because of so much attention in the vineyard throughout the season, there is mostly clean fruit at harvest time, which makes it easier and faster to hand-pick. In fact, a good crew can pick [clean fruit] by hand faster than a mechanical harvester is able to do. Naturally, by harvest time there are an abundance of workers available due to the fact that the tourist season has come to an end and many of the workers had been in the hospitality industry for the summer season.
Wölffer has already joined the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers program, which leads to certification in sustainable farming. They had, as mentioned above, been growing their vines responsibly since the mid-90s, so the transition to the LISW program was actually very easy, as they’d been following the VineBalance guidelines that are the basis for the LISW ones, but modified to better fit the conditions of Long Island, rather than for the whole state of New York. For example, they do not use pre-emergent herbicides or added nitrogen to the soil—the use of nitrogen-fixing cover crops takes care of that. Periodically, given the high acidity of the Long Island soil, about 1½ tons of lime per acre is added to raise the pH level of the soil to make it more amenable for the vines. By May of 2013, the vineyard had succeeded in meeting all 200 requirements of the LISW and obtained its certification for sustainable winegrowing.
The winery is large and sophisticated, enjoying excess capacity such that not only does Wölffer buy grapes from five other vineyards, including Mudd’s vineyard, Dick Pfeiffer’s, and Surry Lane’s to make Long-Island appellation wines under the Wölffer label. Roman gets to use the winery facilities to make his own Grapes of Roth and Richie’s own Roanoke Vineyards wines. He also uses the facilities to make wine for clients Scarola Vineyards and Gramercy Vineyards as well. Indeed, in 2009 an extremely selective picking of botrytised Riesling grapes took place in Jamesport Vineyards, allowing Roman to make a TBA under his Grapes of Roth label. Not too many TBAs are made anywhere in the US of A; the very first one was a feat of the late, great Konstantin Frank, in 1965, of Finger Lakes fruit, of course, not LI. That one made headlines—in 2015 Roman’s two latest efforts with botrytised wines have earned him the highest scores ever awarded for Long Island wines.
In fact, given that Roman makes three rosés, eight whites, thirteen different reds, three award-wining dessert wines, two sparkling wines, and two apple ciders (a total of 29 different wines alone for Wölffer’s, not to speak of the wines he makes for Roanoke Vineyards), the question arises. How does he do it? Well, as he explained, working at the Karlschüle in South Germany he dealt with a wide variety of reds and whites. There he learned that close attention to detail mattered: every tank had to be topped up, every bung properly place, etc. He also gave credit to the excellent wine-growing climate of Long Island, which shares the same latitude and Madrid and Naples and gets the most sun of all of New York State. So, in early August they begin picking the grapes for sparkling wine, when they’re not fully ripe, then grapes for the rosés, which also don’t need full ripeness, and on to the whites, then the reds, which need more ripeness, and at the end of October, the late-harvest grapes. It means he has time to deal with the winemaking over a period of as much as three months. He gives as much attention to a basic white as he does to a Christian Cuvée red, because he can, all because of the enabling climate and soil.
For Roman, to make good wine demands a very scrupulous attention to detail. Not only are the grapes all hand-picked at the proper time, but when the fruit arrives at the winery they have as many as 56 hands at work at the sorting table, so no bad fruit goes into the must. Few wineries have the resources to bring more than a dozen hands to that task. When the must is fermenting in the tanks they do pumpovers three times a day, where most wineries do it only twice or even once. Of course, it helps to be able to afford a cellar team that can give this kind of time to such matters. It also helps to have had one fabulous vintage after another since 2010—2011 being the exception—and it may be true for 2015 as well.
To Roman, the great untold story about Long Island wines is their longevity: a 20-year-old Chardonnay still drinking well, for instance, and red wines that can mature and hold up for 25 to 30 years. The word has not yet gotten out to collectors that the wines of the region can be laid down and over time they will increase in value—not yet like great Bordeaux, perhaps, but as rarity and demand increase, even that is a possibility.
Roman introduced a dry rosé to the Long Island wine repertoire in 1992, within a year of his arrival at the winery—he was quite bullish in his pursuit to make Wölffer rosé a respected and fashionable wine. The 2011 is made with 54% Merlot and 21% Chardonnay, 9% Pinot Noir, 8% Cabernet Franc, 8%Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2012 consists of 69% Merlot, 16.5% Chardonnay, 5% Pinot Noir, 4.5% Cabernet Franc and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. The blend, as one can see, varies considerably from year to year, depending on the results of the harvest. Whatever the blend, Wölffer calls it “Summer in a Bottle.”
Along with its wide range of varietal wines, including Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Trebbiano, and so on, Roman also makes a non-alcoholic verjus that is a low-acid alternative to vinegar (used in a salad make the salad much more wine-friendly), but it is also an eminently quaffable beverage that is its own “Summer in a glass.” Perfect for those friends who can’t or don’t drink wine, yet almost as enjoyable.
And I cannot omit mention of the time that I stopped by at Wölffer’s tasting room to try a glass of the 2000 Merlot, which at a $100 a bottle had caused a sensation. The glass of wine cost only $25, and I sipped it slowly for over an hour, observing how it evolved with time and exposure to air. Slightly closed at first, it wasn’t long before it was offering notes of plum and black berries, and then hints of cedar and clove, becoming brighter and deeper in bouquet and flavor, and lingering long on the palate. An extraordinary wine. I knew then that Long Island wine had arrived on the world stage. I had become hooked.
More recently, an article on the North Forker website of July 6, 2015, “Long Island wines receive record-breaking reviews in The Wine Advocate” stated that the critic, Mark Squires, of the Advocate had awarded two Wölffer Estate Vineyard wines — the Descencia Botrytis Chardonnay and Diosa Late Harvest — the highest scores ever received in the region, each earning 94 points.
“If I had to name a ‘short list’ of top wineries in the region, this would have to be on it, without requiring any thought,” Squires wrote in his review. “Under winemaker/partner Roman Roth and Vineyard Manager Rich Pisacano (who also owns Roanoke, at which Roth is also the winemaker), this winery excels in making age-worthy, structured wines.”
Further to that, in the Nov. 16 issue of Wine Spectator Wölffer’s Grapes of Roth 2010 Merlot one of the top 100 wines of the year 2015. No other Long Island winery has ever achieved that accolade. Tom Matthews wrote: “A polished texture carries balanced flavors of tart cherry, pomegranate, toasted hazelnut and espresso in this expressive red. Features firm, well-integrated tannins and lively acidity. Elegant. Drink now through 2022. 2,592 cases made.”
139 Sagg Road, PO Box 900. Sagaponack, NY 11962. Phone 631-537-5106
[i] According to the LISW Climate & Soil Web page, “Bridgehampton-Haven Association: These soils are deep and excessively drained and have a medium texture. It is its depth, good drainage and moderate to high available water-holding capacity that make this soil well-suited to farming.”
Corwith Vineyards, in Watermill on the South Fork of Long Island, is a very new wine operation that was started with idea that it would be run as a sustainable operation from the beginning, and it became the first vineyard to begin operation as an already-certified member of the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing organization.
Dave Corwith, its owner and vineyard manager, has proven to be an iconoclast in his field from the outset, beginning with his choices of wine grape varieties to plant. He’d been a farmer for years, so I asked him, “Well, what motivated you to start a vineyard?”
He replied, “I’d done some nursery stock. I just didn’t have the interest in it. My heart wasn’t in it, and I started looking. . . . I’ve always wanted to do grapes. I wanted to do them with my brother twenty years ago and he said, ‘No. You can’t do it, Dave. Our season’s two weeks shorter than the season on the North Shore. It won’t work,’ and I sort of took his word for it [then], but I’ve always had it in the back of my mind and I said, ‘I’m going to give it a go.’ We went to Channing Daughters and Wölffer [Estate], [and if they] can do it, why can’t I?”
Dave started with a first planting of 300 vines on about half an acre three years ago. So far, he says, they’re doing well, promising to provide a small yield at this point. He deliberately began with varieties that are a bit easier to grow and have earlier seasons: Austrian varieties such as Lemberger, Blaufränkisch, and 100 vines of Dornfelder, a pretty popular red variety: it produces a light red wine, and the vine is very vigorous. Dornfelder was planted at Channing Daughters, where it does very well, and Dave says there’s also some on the North Fork, and that they’re pleased with it there too.
Though these are hardly run-of-the-mill varieties, so far only Channing Daughters has planted them in Long Island, along with a number of other German and Italian vines rarely seen in other vineyards in New York. However, over the years the viability of these varieties has been proven by Channing, and the popularity of the varietals made from them is proof enough.
Dave went on to explain, “I’m starting out. I was advised, and this is what I want to do, I want to start small . . . . Then again, there’s a learning curve, José. So I’ve got to learn how everything works. I’m not new to farming because I’ve been doing that since I was a kid. I’m new to grapes and all the idiosyncrasies that come along with it.”
“I’m about, I don’t know, three or four miles [west] from Channing Daughters. Channing Daughters probably [has] about the closest profile to what mine is as far as weather conditions, microclimates, etcetera. They’ve got thirty acres of good grapes over there and they really do the later varieties I was advised to stay away from, such as Cab Sauvignon and the fluffy Pinot Noir. So I’m not taking those on. You can grow Cab Sauv on the South Shore, but it’s going to be a little bit on the green side when it comes up and it will make a rosé, but you’re not going to make a first quality Cab Sauv that you can put away for a while. You will one in ten seasons, okay? But those other nine seasons you’re going to be making rosé, which is okay . . . . I chose not to go after the later [ripening] varieties, at least not until I get to know everything.
“I have two acres [planted] now. Lemberger, Dornfelder, those are two reds. Grüner Veltliner (‘green velvet’ in German). One Woman Vineyards has it on the North Shore. [Claudia Purita and her daughter] Gabrielle are the only ones I know of that have it. I was just over there last weekend and we got a couple of bottles. So I put in 300 plants of the variety . . . .
“Then last year, José, I was up at the Rochester Convention. Once every three years they do a viticulture convention in the Northeast, and they named two grapes that Cornell’s been working on for probably 15 years plus, called Arandell and Aromella. Arandell is the red variety, which is highly disease resistant and it makes a really good grape. It has a Pinot Noir parentage and a complex parentage with it, as well as the interbreeding there; they made it a disease-resistant variety that still makes a good fruit. So I was very pleased with what I saw and I ordered a couple hundred plants of Arandell. ([Arándano] means ‘blueberry’ in Spanish, and Ell is [for] Cornell.) They had a naming contest last year in Rochester, and that’s the name that won for this grape. It has a blueberry nose to it, apparently. They gave us some at the conference. It was pretty good, so I put in 200 plants of that last year, and I’m excited, really eager to see how that’s going to play out.”
There is more information about Arandell and Aromella in Cornell’s Issue 13, March 2013, of the Viticulture and Enology Newsletter. They’re referred to as the 55th and 56th grape varieties named by the Agriculture Experiments Station in Geneva run by Cornell. Dave’s information was particularly interesting, even newsworthy, because hybrid varieties have barely made a dent in LI viniculture, except for at Pindar. This is probably the first time that a new hybrid, Arandell, has been introduced to the LI wine region in years. Furthermore, Dave is one of the early adopters of Arandell and unique in planting a hybrid variety in Long Island when hybrids have mostly been eschewed entirely by other growers.
Dave went on to say: “I have 300 plants [of Arandell] this year. I’m very pleased with the growth and the disease resistance. It’s noticeably better disease resistant, and I’m just an amateur at this, and I can tell. Huge difference. So from a sustainable standpoint, . . . I’m very much involved with Long Island Sustainable Wine Council. Everyone [else who joined was already] established. I’m . . . the first guy to kind of take the Long Island Sustainable program from scratch. So one of the things that we don’t really talk too much about because everybody’s got theirs planted already is new planting. A good approach is to put in a disease-resistant variety that still makes a good wine. Those are hard to come by. This is where I’m sort of hedging my bet a little bit with the Arandell.
“What I’m learning in my research is that when you go either upstate, mid-west, Minnesota, and you get into these slightly colder climates, they really look hard at the cold hardiness of a specific variety as one of their key things that they have to pay attention to. We are not so much that way. We don’t pull up our grapes here on Long Island. It’s mild enough … I don’t even really worry about that at all when I’m trying to decide on a variety. But they have to. Vinifera, the European grapes, don’t do so well with the colder climates.
I replied that while his remark about vinifera varieties is largely true, there is considerable success in the Finger Lakes with Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and, of course, Riesling, which is most definitely a cool-climate grape. To which Dave said: “Right. So they made it work. They figured out how to make it work up there and I applaud them for being able to do that. Down here, on Long Island, I’ve had people tell me, ‘You can pretty much grow any variety you want.’ I’m sort of taking that advice, but carefully.
I pointed out that it’s absolutely astonishing how many varieties there are growing on Long Island. In a database about Long Island vineyards that I maintain I have listed so far thirty-seven: twenty whites and seventeen reds; add Arandell into the mix and that would make it eighteen red varieties.
Dave then popped another German variety to me: “Well, here’s another one for you that I’m working with too. You probably have this on your list: Zweigelt.”
I replied, “Well, I think Zweigelt is being grown at Channing Daughters right now.”
He remarked, “They may have some. I don’t know. I know that Research Station has a little bit. I got a couple hundred plants of Zweigelt too. They’re babies. Here’s a story for you. Zweigelt and Lemberger, Blaufränkisch, are cousins. They have the same parentage. Zweigelt is just a little bit spicier and it’s a little bit earlier maturing variety than Lemberger. So that’s another reason why in my research in trying to find a variety of grapes, when I came across Zweigelt I jumped on that. I think that would be a really cool one to have out here.”
To which I said, “Well, it looks like you’re trying to make your mark with varieties that are not typically grown in Long Island other than somebody like Channing Daughters, which loves to experiment.”
Dave replied, “Right. Part of my approach was, there’s fifteen hundred acres of Merlot on the north shore. Why am I going to put in more Merlot and compete? It’s a little bit of a ‘I’m a new kid on the block approach.’ I’m sort of going after some of the varieties that are not as commonly grown. That’s the marketing technique, the approach that I’m using. Because . . . initially I won’t have the high volume.”
At this point I asked him if he was growing grapes with the intention of selling them to other producers or have them made for you by another winery or a crush facility like Premier Wine.
Dave pointed out that “Actually, I’m a do-it-yourself. I’m making the wine myself right now. The last two years I got some fruit from the north shore, Merlot and some Chardonnay, and we made up a nice batch last year. We made a rose, an orange, a Chardonnay, and a Merlot. You learn exponentially when you get your hands dirty and get in there and do it. I’m working out a garage right now . . . and I’m making small batches, okay? I have 100 to 150 gallons of wine. That’s all I have. A couple [of] barrels.”
I told Dave that it struck me that he was another garagiste, like Le Pin, the great, small winery in Pomerol. He must be farming other crops in the meantime to derive some cash flow.
He said, “Yes. I put in about an acre or so of vegetables right now. I just put my tomatoes in today, this morning. I’m doing that and I take the organic approach to the maximum extent that I can, within reason. Without the onerous oversight of the federal government, which is difficult to sustain.”
This led to a discussion of organic farming in Long Island. At this point I feel that quoting the interview verbatim is useful, as the exchange between us was especially interesting (I should, however, point out that I don’t exactly agree with Dave about some of his ideas about the genealogy of some grape varieties, but they’re interesting in their own right):
JM-L: Well, you know, Rex Farr, of course.
DC: I know Rex. Yep. He’s taking the organic approach. He’s the only game in town, I think, [though] Barbara [Shinn’s] pretty close.
JM-L: Barbara’s close, but not quite there. Rex, of course, has been farming other crops organically for years. I think he only started growing grapes in 2005. The fruit is excellent from what I understand and this other startup in the North Fork, Southold Farm and Cellar, is buying its fruit from Rex Farr.
DC: Where my farm is there’s a forty-acre parcel that I share. I can expand if necessary, and I have farmland on another piece that I can work with. That’s not as good for potatoes; it would be better for grapes. So I got to look at that, but it’s presenting some challenges when I split the operation a mile away and you’ve got to have the earth cracks, you’ve got to have water, and you have to be able to get over there. When I retire from my full-time job and this becomes my full-time job, down the road, I’ll put in five or ten acres over there of something else I really like.
JM-L: Of course. So tell me something. To whom did you turn for advice on how to prepare your fields and plant your vines?
DC: Okay. A couple of things. I started with learning extensively about organic farming in general via dynamic approach, as well as the Soil Foodweb approach, which is Dr. Elaine Ingham. Look her up or Google Soil Foodweb. She’s the mother of compost teas. So I’ve been working a lot with compost teas the last several years for all of my crops.
Not just the grapes. I’ve had good results with it, but it’s something I would really like to see more testing done with. Compost teas are really good … They’re, basically if you take compost and you mix it with water and you mix it all up and you bubble it or you fish bubble it for 24 hours, you can culture the bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes. Then once you culture that and you grow those, remember from your science class bacteria splits every four hours, so same thing. If you can grow the fungi and the bacteria, that’s really what we’re after. Then you spray that on the plants as a foliar spray. The theory is you will push out [the good] from the bad guys. If you cover the leaf with beneficial bacteria and fungi, when the bad guys try to show up to eat the leaf, they get kicked out.
JM-L: So this is Biodynamics?
DC: Well, it’s a cousin to Biodynamics, [which] is taking compost, particularly what they call barrel compost, that’s been buried in the ground over the winter, put it in cow horns and it’s a dairy-based, or cow-based, manure compost, which is excellent. Then they spray that on. With compost tea, you take, particularly, a fungal dominated compost that you have made from a real thick compost pile. So you have to make compost correctly. You can’t just make dirt. You get a good quality compost, particularly one that has worm cavities in it, which is about as good as it gets, and then you put that in a teabag and you boil it … Well, you don’t boil it. You just bubble it in a barrel of water for 24 hours and you can take that and spray it out around your plants as a foliar nutrient spray, if you will. So I’ve been working with that, and that’s very, very similar to what the Biodynamics people are doing. Biodynamics takes it to the next level and they add a celestial component to it. What’s the phase of the moon when we’re doing all this?
JM-L: Well, this, of course, is where Biodynamics becomes controversial.
DC: I guess when people are . . . . When I try to explain Biodynamics to people, the simplest way, as I said, ‘Well, does the full moon change the tides on the Earth,’ and most of us know the answer is yes. Sure. It changes the high tide, low tide effect. So if the moon can change the high and low tides, why can’t the moon change the effect of way the plant is growing on a full or new moon. Then add that in and now Biodynamics goes five levels more than that, you know? Get in all the planets as well. That’s where it gets, like you said, controversial.
So I started with biodynamic and compost teas, learning how to work with those . . . . when it came time to look at grapes, I went over to talk to Alice Wise, kind of got to feel her out, and I went over and talked to Steve Mudd who’s put in probably half the grapes on the north shore. Talked to Steve about things and he was very helpful. Then I sort of got involved with the Long Island Sustainable program last year, and that’s been a tremendous benefit for me, a new guy learning how all this stuff works because they’re really promoting the educational side. Some of the speakers they brought [in] are really, really good.
The workbook that we use is excellent. It’s based on the Vine Balance Workbook, which is excellent with regard to how we’re farming it and … It looks at the big picture, which is good.
JM-L: Actually, what’s interesting is that when the Vine Balance program was first developed by Cornell up in Geneva. They developed it for use statewide but they never took into consideration the proliferation of Vinifera grapes and, of course, at the time that they first came out with Vine Balance, there were no grapes being grown on Long Island. They had to modify it for the Long Island growers.
DC: Okay. Well, then that sort of became the Long Island Sustainable [program], which they just started and that’s done very, very well. So that’s sort of how I got into it, and I very carefully researched for a couple of years different varieties and decided to go with earlier[-ripening] varieties. I ran them by some of the vineyard managers and they said, ‘Yeah. Those will all work for you.’
JM-L: That’s fabulous. Now what, by the way, is your vine spacing?
DC: I’m using nine by four and a half to five; nine feet on the rows and then five on the plants, four and a half to five. The first group I put in, I actually put them in about eight by three but that was too tight. It was too close.
JM-L: Okay. Are you using machinery in the rows?
DC: I use a mechanical weeder. I don’t use any herbicides. José, one of the things that came about with the Soil Foodweb model … I’m going to back up just a little bit here. The Soil Foodweb model talks about the fungi in the soil. It’s really … Dr. Ingham, for 30 years, she studied, “Well, what does the plant look like underground? What’s going on in the root system of the plant?” That’s what she studied. Okay? One of the things that she talks a lot about is what’s called mycorrhizal fungi. It’s a type of fungi that … I don’t know if you’re familiar or not, but I’ll give it to you. It’s root extensions. If you add extensions on the spiderweb of fungi that go out and get the nutrients for the plant. Dr. Ingham talks about this fungi going down, not feet, but higher than feet, they can connect. You can have fungi in the soil that can connect for even up to miles, distances. So it’s this fascinating web of fungi underground. With herbicides we kill the mycorrhizal fungi, so when I put my plants in, I gave them a shot of mycorrhizal fungi in with the soil mantis that I was using with the roots. I gave them a shot of that. Now they say you get another 20/25 percent growth if you put in mycorrhizal fungi. I talked to Larry [Perrine of Channing Daughters] a little bit about it. Richie Pisacano over at Wölffer’s has been very helpful too.
JM-L: Rich is fabulous. Rich is called the Grape Whisperer, you know?
DC: I talked to him about Pinot Noir the other day. I said, “Richie, can I grow Pinot Noir here?” and he goes, “It’s a tough grape to grow.” It’s really tough. Although I talked to a guy that I order my grapes from upstate, and he has a clone that he said would work for me, what I’m trying to do. Pinot Noir 19, I think it is. That’s not what Ritchie’s got over at Wölffer. They put in Pinot 20 years ago and they make a rosé out of it, or they make a champagne out of it. They don’t make a [red wine].
Again, Dave began talking about other alternative wine-grape varieties, some of which have not been seen in Long Island before this:
I got a couple of out-of-the-box ideas for you for varieties that I’m sort of researching. I’ve got mixed emotions about all of them. Cabernet Sauvignon can’t do it. What about its sister grape? There’s Cabernet Dorsa, which is a cross of Cab Sauvignon and Dornfelder, earlier, that you can’t plant. You’ve got Franc, which is its own variety. Then there’s another one, Cabernet Mitos, which is a cross of Cab Sauvignon and Lemberger. These are varieties that I’m growing now, so I thought, ‘Well, okay. Maybe that’s how I can bring a Cabernet into the picture.’ Cabernet Mitos, I wasn’t able to find it . . . . I haven’t even tried it yet. There’s only 750 hectares worldwide, and it’s all in Germany. It’s a German-developed variety, so I’ve got to see what it can do. I’m looking at those and then the other ones that I think Chris and Larry are doing is Tempranillo, [which] is a sister to Grenache. Yes, and Grenache, they think, was originated in Sardinia and they called it Cannonau. At least that’s what they say, but it’s only grown in Sardinia. And a sister to that is Tempranillo. I think Tempranillo would be a cool grape to try to grow around here. A good blender, you know what I mean? Also, Albariño.
JM-L: Albariño! Well, you know, there are two people who are growing Albariño now. One is Miguel Martin at Palmer and Rich Olsen-Harbich has planted some at Bedell.
DC: I put in 200 plants; that’s an experiment too. I got mine from upstate, The Grapevine, which is up by Geneva. They, I’m almost sure, grafted it for me. They put it on 3309 and Sl4 [rootstocks].
JM-L: Miguel has been making a splendid Albariño himself. You should try it if you haven’t.
DC: Yeah. I have. I’ve been over there. Miguel helped us make our Chardonnay this year. He is . . . terrific. Good people. You know, I want to say something, José. I kind of got into the grape thing, predominant over on the North Shore, but as I get to know people over these last three or four years, what I’ve discovered is it’s a small fraternity of wonderful people that all want to help each other out, and a rising tide lifts all boats. So I haven’t found anyone who has not been willing to help as I, have gone along the way. They’ve been very, very nice.
JM-L: Well, Dave, thank you very much. I think we’ve had a very interesting and instructive interview. What you’re doing is exciting, and I want to continue to follow your progress.
This interview took place on May 20, 2014; a visit followed on November 17, 2015.
A trip to the Hamptons to visit my daughter was an opportune time to also see Dave at his farm. The result was a delightful time in his garage winery and seeing the handmade and used equipment that he was using for his winemaking. It’s pretty basic, and some would be familiar to any home winemaker. Here are some pictures of the equipment, rudimentary and inventively-designed as it is:
The basket wine press was purchased used and needed extensive repairs, which were done by Dave’s father. It is very small–it has barely 50 gallons capacity–and not at all efficient, but it adequate for the small batches of wine that he’s currently producing. This is a far cry from the much more advanced pneumatic presses that are used in most of the LI wineries, which have much larger capacity and press fruit with greater precision and control.
This is a handmade crusher-destemmer, again of very small capacity, so it requires considerable patience to work with it, but it works just as well as the much larger industrial versions and, after all, it is only being used for very small batches of fruit. The crusher is at the upper left, and the fruit then drops into the perforated basket below, where the rotating wooden destemmer (with plastic tips removed from the posts) separates the stems, which are pushed out of the basket and fall on the ground while the crushed grapes pour through the perforations into a trough that flows the juice into a bin.
The must to be fermented is then placed in a metal or oak barrel, which in Corwith’s case are small and few in number. Dave buys his oak barrels from a cooperage, East Coast Wine Barrels in Medford, a Long Island town.Their barrels are meticulously made from Romanian oak. Dave has them medium-toasted to somewhat abate the oakiness that could be imparted to the wine.
When the wine is ready to be bottled, the bottles themselves first need to be properly sterilized by a dose of sulfur gas followed by a whiff of nitrogen to expel the sulfur so that it will not add flavor to the wine. This is an entirely handmade device which has perforated wood bars allowing up to 12 bottles at a time to be treated. Beneath the inverted bottle necks are nozzles that inject the gases into the bottles. Rough-hewn as it is, it works perfectly well, even if it’s no match for industrial sterilizers that can handle far more bottles at a time with much less manual labor per bottle.
The final stage, of course, is filling the bottles with wine. Yet another hand-crafted gizmo is brought to bear on this all-important function. In this case only four bottles at a time can be filled, but it goes fairly quickly, especially if there are only small batches of wine. However, each label has to be affixed to each bottle by hand and for now the contents are written by hand as well. A completely automated device to do everything from filling the bottles to inserting the corks and adding the neck capsule, and finally applying the pre-printed labels costs many thousands of dollars and Corwith may never be able to afford one, but a larger rig like the one in the picture would certainly be called for once Corwith goes into commercial production.
Of course a barrel-tasting was in order, and Dave very happily obliged.
The first wine was a “poor man’s” Bordeaux-style blend made of equal parts Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cab Sauvignon 2014 from North Fork vineyards, aged in Romanian oak. It will continue aging in barrel for some more months, but it already is showing promise, with good fruit, lively acidity, and form tannins.
A Chardonnay from Lenz Vineyards fruit of 2015 is just weeks in stainless steel but the wine is from good, clean fruit and also shows good promise.
Also in steel is a Grüner Veltliner from 2015 grapes of Corwith’s own vineyards. Promising as well, but still too young to say much more.
An Arandell wine comes across as a tad foxy, but then it is a Cornell hybrid. Dave plans to treat it like a Syrah or Petit Verdot but it will certainly have to be blended with a red vinifera to bring the foxiness under control.
All of this is the achievement of a “newbie garagiste.” Not bad, not at all bad.
Corwith Vineyards LLC
851 Head of Pond Rd
Water Mill, NY 11976
Anyone who has been enjoying wines from Long Island over the years knows that the quality of the wine has been improving to the point that most of the last several vintages have resulted in many superb wines. Occasionally a few wines here and there have received excellent review and high scores, such as from Wine Enthusiast, Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator. Oz Clarke has long been a fan. Still, the mainstream press has largely ignored the breadth of the achievement.
Finally, there is a level of recognition of the quality of Long Island wine that should leave no one in doubt, given two sets of tasting notes published this past June and October. In the June 30, 2015 issue of the Wine Advocate eMag, Mark Squires has rated the wines of 26 producers and given scores of 90 to 94 points to 78 of nearly 200 that were tasted, along with some detailed tasting notes. In the October 30 issue, he reviewed some 2013 new releases that weren’t available at the time of his prior review, and six producers not included earlier: Brooklyn Oenology, Suhru, Mattebella, Pindar, Duck Walk, and Diliberto. In all, 26 wines out of 78 scored 90 to 93 points, while Paumanok had the best results with 10 of its 12 wines scoring over 90. What this means that of nearly 280 wines that have been tasted for the two reviews, over 100 had high scores, but as usual, read the tasting notes to understand the scores.
90-plus scores are what catch the attention of readers, but the details are in the notes, which should be read carefully to better understand the reason for the points that have been awarded. These reviews are the opinion of one man, but he is a seasoned wine professional and really knows his stuff. His essay about the Long Island wine industry is well worth reading, but one needs a subscription to the Wine Advocate in order to do so. (I obtained the article by subscribing for a month–$20).
Some salient points made by him:
“There is plenty of evidence that the region has arrived and is on the cusp of maturity, no longer an outlier, but increasingly reliable in good vintage years. More improvements are likely, to be sure, but overall there is a lot to admire.”
“They also care about making wines to age. The top wines here typically demand cellaring and reward it.”
“The array of sauvignon blancs that I saw fit in well here and they were extremely successful. This region may be underrated for its sauvignons right now.”
What is particularly notable about Squires’ reviews is that none of the wines scored less than 82 points and that so many (nearly 36%) scored 90 points or higher. Until now, no wines from the region had ever received more than 92 points, but this time 24 wines had that score or more. But again, it must be emphasized that the tasting notes are the thing to read. The scores should be used as pointers.
32 producers reviewed out of 53 that make commercial wines is just two-thirds of the total in Long Island (including two in Brooklyn). Squires points out that he will be returning to the region from time to time so it is to be hoped that he’ll get around to reviewing the rest, for there are some significant brands that have been left out of the first two sets of reviews, such as Castello di Borghese, Laurel Lake, Palmer, and T’Jara.
Squires’ article has also been thoughtfully commented on by Eileen Duffy in her byline on Edible East End. Notably, she has also provided links to the tasting notes for each winery. Furthermore, for those who do not subscribe to Wine Advocate, she’s done a great service by making these notes available to all.
The Terra Alta DO in Catalonia barely was mentioned as a source of quality wine by John Radford in his book, The New Spain: A Complete Guide to Contemporary Spanish Wine (revised edition, 2004). Perhaps it’s time for a new edition, because in the intervening years much has happened in Terra Alta. Indeed, in the 7th edition (2013) of The World Atlas of Wine, by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, had this to say about Terra Alta: “imported red varieties have been replacing the region’s Garnacha Blanca . . . . Vinos Piñol . . . make refined red Garnacha and Cariñena.” Remarkably, Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book 2016, doesn’t even mention Terra Alta at all, much less Vinos Piñol. However, José Peñín, the authoritative Spanish writer on the wines of that country had, in his Atlas de los vinos de España (2000), quite a bit more to say about the region and its wines and was rather upbeat about its prospects for making quality wine.
How can this be? Well, the region is a relatively new DO or Denominación de Origen as of 1982. It is very small, its winters cold and its summers hot, and its average rainfall is between 14 to 20 inches annually. The soil is mostly limestone interspersed with some clay, very similar to that of the better-known terroir of Priorat. The winds of the region, particularly the southerly cierzo and the garbí that blows from the northeast, help to keep the grapes dry and healthy, as does the wide diurnal temperature variation. Terra Alta is a rather tiny part of the province of Tarragona, situated in the high mountains of the Southwest of the province (see the pink area of the map). It was settled before the ancient Romans colonized Spain; indeed, there is evidence that winemaking preceded their arrival.
Originally known for its white wines, particularly an oxidized type called “amber blanc” or rancio, the inevitable arrival of the Phylloxera louse in the late 1800s forced the replanting of the vineyards. In 2000 it had but 8500 hectares (21,590 acres) planted to vines and by 2010 that area had grown but little, to 22,793 acres. However, it has undergone a major transformation in the last 20 years. Once dominated by winery cooperatives, a few indigenous varieties such as Garnatxa, both red and white (Grenache in Catalan) and some imported varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, it has been transformed by the rise of small wineries with big ambitions. Today, Terra Alta’s top white varieties are Garnacha Blanca, Macabeo, Parellada, Moscatel, and Chardonnay. Garnacha Tinta and Cariñena (locally called Samsó) are the most-planted red grape varieties; Garnacha Peluda, the rare Morenillo, along with the imports, Tempranillo, Syrah, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon are also in the vineyards. There are also experimental plantings of Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Marselan (a Cab Sauv × Grenache crossing).
Among the most notable of the newer wineries is Vinos Piñol, also known as Celler Piñol. This winery has been held in the Piñol family since 1945 for four generations. Their wines are made from entirely indigenous varieties that in many cases came from 85-year-old vines. The vineyard, located at an altitude of roughly 500 meters (over 1,600 feet), has been farmed organically since 2000. Most of the vines are trained to single-Guyot trellises and head-pruned. Juanjo Garcela Piñol, trained as a chemical engineer, was called to the winery in 1998 by his aging parents, who needed his help in maintaining the vineyard and making the wine. Though he had no oenological training, his chemistry background was very helpful and over time he read heavily and took some courses in winemaking. Today he runs the winery and shares winemaking responsibilities with Toni Coca, along with María Mendoza, who also helps out in the winery and in the vineyard; his mother Josefa maintains the cellar.
His first bottling was the 1995 Avi Arrufi Blanco, of which there were 2,000 bottles. Nevertheless, apart from its appeal within Terra Alta, it turned out to be a very hard sell outside the region, itself barely known and the winery utterly unknown. However, today Piñol exports 85% of its production abroad and has received rave reviews and 90+ points many times since then. The US importer is Olé, which brings in a select number of each of nine different Piñol wines.
He currently produces wines made from four white varieties (Garnacha Blanca, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, and Macabeo) and six red ones (Cabernet Sauvignon, Garnatxa, Merlot, Syrah, Tempranillo, and Morenillo). He has also introduced three new varieties (Petit Verdot, Marselan, and Verdejo). From these he makes a total of 11 wines, most of which are blends. For the interview with him, the following wines were tasted: L’Avi Arrufi Blanca, Portal Tinto, Sa Natura Tinto, and Mather Teresina. All of these wines have received both critical praise from Jancis Robinson among others, and high scores of 90 to 95 from José Peñín, Robert Parker, and Stephen Tanzer of IWC.
The overall style of the wines is decidedly nuanced, but with clear and distinctive character. This is due to the fact that the focus of the winemaking is on expressing the unique terroir of the vineyards. Whereas many Spanish wineries are increasingly turning to imported varieties, Piñol prefers to emphasize the local, autochthonous varieties, though in the case of the red wines some Syrah is added to deepen the color of the wines, especially given that the dominant red variety, Garnacha, though rich in aromas and flavors, tends to make slightly pale wines. Three-quarters of the wines produced are reds, the rest are whites made from Garnatxa Blanca. (This variety is a specialty of the region, and 35% of the global production of that grape is in Terra Alta.) About 85% of all the grapes they use come from their own vines and the rest are purchased from other organic vineyards in the DO.
L’Avi Arrufí White
The 2010 L’Avi Arrufi Blanca is made entirely of Garnatxa Blanca from 50-year-old vines. It spent eight months in French oak and yielded an alcohol level of 14.8%. The quality of the wine comes in good part from the fact that the vines have very deep roots that tap into the minerality of the soil, according to Piñol. The result is a wine of high minerality and flavors of stone fruit like peaches and apricots, with spiciness and smoky notes derived from the oak. Its mouthfeel is unctuous and rich, giving a long aftertaste that reminds of a fine white Burgundy. This is why Piñol has increased the production of its white varieties from 10% of its wines five years ago to 25% today. Only 300 six-packs have been imported by Olé, as it is now in high demand worldwide. 92 points from Robert Parker, 90 Points from José Peñín. Sa Natura Tinto
At only $20 this red wine drinks more like a wine costing twice as much yet is made with organic, estate-grown grapes, comprised by 50% Cariñena, 20% Garnacha, 15% Syrah, 15% Merlot varieties. The vines grow in clay and limestone soil at 356 m (1,168 ft) elevation. There are earthy tones, as well as pepper, blackcurrant and cherry fruit, with a medium to full body, balanced acidity, and lush tannins. 3,000 cases were produced. Drink it over the next 4-6 years.
Each variety was hand-harvested when optimum ripeness occurred for a given grape. After selecting the best grapes from each bunch, the grapes macerate with their juice for 4 days at 6ºC (43°F) for greater fruit expression. After that fermentation is carried out at a temperature of 27ºC (81°F). Maceration and skin contact lasts for 25 days. Malolactic fermentation then takes place, half in oak barrels and half in stainless steel tanks; after which the wine is aged for 13 months in 85% French and 15% American oak. It contains 14% alcohol.
Pairing suggestions include a rare beef cheddar burger, but the wine’s fresh black and blue fruits will pair even better with a lamb or turkey burger with a slice of Jarlsberg. If grilling sausages, go toward sweet pork and veal rather than spicy beef dishes. White meat also pairs well with Sa Natura due to its inherently sweeter character and also is a good match for meat dishes in mushroom sauce.
The 2011 earned 92 points from Wine Enthusiast & was an Editor’s Choice; prior vintages all earned 90+ points from Robert Parker and others.
Portal Tinto This wine is made from certified organically-grown grapes, from which 3,050 cases were produced for the 2012 vintage. The vines are head-pruned, dry-farmed (no irrigation), and grow in limestone and clay soil. The vineyards are located within Batea, a town at an elevation of 450 m (1,476 ft). The wine is comprised by 50% Garnacha, 20% Carignan, 10% Merlot, 10% Syrah, and 10% Tempranillo.
According to the Olé Website, “the grapes are brought to the winery in the early morning hours before being de-stemmed and crushed. Prior to fermentation, the must is macerated at a cool temperature (43°F) for four days in large tanks of 5,000-10,000 liter capacity. Fermentation starts [by] utilizing neutral yeasts from Levuline (used mostly in Champagne) and the skins mix with the juice for 22-28 days. Malolactic fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks. The wine is aged for twelve months in 300-liter French and American oak barrels.”
Portal Red is dark ruby-colored, while the aroma reveals minerality, cedar, tobacco, cassis, and black fruit. Ripe and fruit-sweet on the palate, with licorice, dried herbs and mineral notes, ending with a long, fruity finish. It should remain enjoyable for a few more years.
This wine’s ripe, juicy character is very easy to pair with foods like casual American fare (burgers, wrap sandwiches, burritos), spicy Latino dishes, as well as aged hard cheeses.
Mather Teresina Red A vineyard from which the Mather Terisina wines are sourced.
This is Piñol’s premiere wine, made from a selection of the best barrels of Garnatxa (50%), Cariñena (30%) and Morenillo (20%) of the 2008 vintage, resulting in a limited production of 7,750 bottles, of which over 1,400 were imported by Olé to the United States. The vines, by the way, are anywhere from 35 to 60 years old. The wines spent 20 – 24 months in 85% French and 15% in new American oak barrels and fined with no animal products, so it can be considered a vegan wine. Its alcohol content is 14.85%.
This wine has high-pitched aromas of red fruits, wet stones and spices. With acidity that lends a “nervous” character to the fruit in the mouth, the wine’s tannins are substantial but fine grained. This is a wine of roundness, volume, depth and great length and should be enjoyed with dishes like pheasant, duck, venison, fois gras, roast pork, and aged hard cheeses.
Among the awards won by Mather Teresina, Vinum Magazine (Germany) has lauded it as one of the best wines in Spain, alongside the prestigious Vega Sicilia. Robert Parker gave Mather Teresina 92 points in his Wine Advocate magazine.
The Olé Website tells us that “the vineyards are located a few miles southwest of Priorat, within the Terra Alta DO (Zone 5) in Catalunya’s Tarragona province in northeastern Spain. In this remote region, the winemaking tradition dates back to the Romans, around the 2nd or 3rd Century. The winery and vineyards are in the town of Batea, situated at 400 meters (1,312 ft.) elevation. The soils are composed of 95% limestone and 5% clay. Yields are low (24.5 hectoliters per hectare, or 3,500 kilograms per hectare), which enhances the concentration and complexity in the grapes. The vineyards are organically farmed and certified by CCPAE. For climate, the average temperature from April-October is 67.3ºF. The hot day and warm-to-moderate night temperatures make Terra Alta a drier and warmer region than Montsant or Priorat. These conditions produce bright purplish-garnet hued wines with greater weight and ripeness than wines from other areas within Zone 5. The low average yearly rainfall of 16.3 inches is less than neighboring regions.”
The wine offers aromas of spice and red berries, as well as notes of licorice and coffee, along with vanilla and mineral nuances in the background. It has a precision on the palate, with both sour cherry and sweet raspberry flavors that amplify with time. It is full-bodied and well-developed, though promising a long life ahead, given its well-knit tannins and good acid backbone. The finish is long and lingering. A wine for contemplation as well as food, especially beef or game in rich sauces.
A wine that was not tasted for this interview is the Finca Morenillo, based 100% on a rare, local variety that had almost vanished. It is of very limited production at 500 cases or 3,000 bottles and is unique in the wine world. A small amount has been imported into the USA by Olé. Once this writer finds it and has tasted it shall be added to this review.
With the publication of Grapes of the Hudson Valley and Other Cool Climate Regions of the United States and Canada, Stephen Casscles joins a small group of writers who have concentrated on winegrowing in the Eastern United States, including such august figures as Lucie Morton and Hudson Cattell as well as, most recently, Richard Fiegel. This book is a significant contribution to that literature and in important ways it is unique.
First of all, it is organized in an unusual but sensible way. It begins as such books should by providing his interesting “A Short History” of winegrowing in the Hudson Valley, with a focus on the region’s hybridizers. It then proceeds to discuss the benefits of wine-grape hybridization, and then explores the basics of cool-climate viniculture. There is some excellent information and advice to be found in Chapter Three: “Basic Principles of Cool Climate Pruning and Vineyard Management,” including “10 Points to Consider When Cold-Weather Pruning,” an illustrated section on pruning methods and training systems, controlling disease in the vineyard, and a concluding section, “Additional Thoughts on Vineyard Management,” bearing on sod and sod management, mowing, under-canopy management, fertilizers, and earthworms. It pretty well covers the field.
It is at Chapter Six, “Selected American Grape Species Used for Breeding,” that the organization then differs from all other such books of which I am aware. The following chapter is about Labrusca hybrids, followed by chapters on the Hudson Valley hybridizers, then the Early French hybridizers, the Late French ones, Geneva hybrids, Minnesota hybrids, Central European Vinifera and hybrid varieties, and closes with a chapter devoted to selected classic Vinifera varieties suitable for growing in the Hudson Region. Within each such chapter is a brief historical background followed by short biographies of each of the important hybridizers and then a detailed description of each significant grape of the related developer.
“Selected American Grape Species” is an important contribution as it describes the leading native vines used for wine production (six species out of more than 70 that grow here): Vitis aestivalis and some of its vinous varieties; V. berlandieri (Texas and northern Mexico), V. cinerea (which favors rich soil along streams), V. labrusca (its varieties are among the best know, including Concord, Catawba, Niagara, and Delaware), and V. riparia (sometimes call River, Riverside, or Riverbank). Also included, partly by way of comparison, partly because it is now so widely planted in America, is the European species, V. vinifera. It then compares and explains the differences between the species, including their dominant habitats, geographical range, winter hardiness, and wine quality. This section is especially useful in helping understand the different varieties and hybrid that emanate from these species.
For each variety of whatever provenance, the author provides a capsule statement, identifies the parentage, the typical harvest date (a range), and then displays five symbols: one for winter hardiness, another for disease resistance, a third for vine vigor, yet another for productivity, and the fifth for wine quality. Each is grade A to D. For example, Concord has a parentage of labrusca, should be harvested “mid-season to early late season” and its hardiness is A+, resistance is A, vigor is B, productivity is A+, and quality is rated B-. He does this for most of the 171 varieties listed in the index, though clones may be given more cursory treatment. Interestingly, Pinot Noir, that elusive Holy Grail of a variety, gets these ratings: hardiness is C-, resistance is D, vigor is C, productivity C+, and quality A+. But then, Concord is a Northeast native and Pinot Noir is from Burgundy, France.
All this is explained in a section of the Introduction, How to Use This Book (pp. xviii-xix), which defines just what the capsule descriptions mean:
for Harvest Dates in the Hudson Valley “mid-season” means (Sept. 20 to 30);
for Winter Hardiness “medium hardy” describes a variety that “Will sustain some cold damage in harsh winters . . . .” (a grade of B);
for Fungal Disease Resistance, “Slightly susceptible” is a grade of A;
for Vigorousness, “Moderately vigorous means a grade of C;
for Productivity, “Very productive” is represented as an A+;
for Wine Quality, “Medium” receives a B, so the Concord’s B- means less than of medium quality.
Discussion of the various grapes can be as long as two whole pages for Concord, as an example, though most get a far briefer treatment of a few hundred words. The vinifera grapes like Pinot Noir are extensively discussed. These variety notes focus largely on the viability of the vines in a region like that of the Hudson River and similar ones in Canada and the Northeast of the United States and other states like Wisconsin and Minnesota. For Casscles, winter hardiness and disease resistance are primary concerns, along with wine quality.
Another very important subject of the book is the history and biographies of the major hybridizers, beginning with those of the Hudson Valley in the 19th Century. A.J. Downing and his brother Charles feature, along with Andrew Jackson Caywood (1819-89), who developed Dutchess, Nectar, Poughkeepsie, Ulster, and Walter, with capsule mentions of his minor varieties. Dr. William A.M. Culbert (1822-90) is also given respectful space, as is Dr. Charles William Grant (1810-81), who bequeathed Eumelan, the important Iona, and other minor varieties. James H. Ricketts (1818 or 1830-1915) gave growers Black Hamburg, Clinton, Bacchus, Downing, Empire State, and Jefferson, and many minor varieties. And so it goes for other Hudson Valley breeders. Each biography is followed by careful descriptions of the respective varieties that each one bred. (It turns out that there are two different varieties named Bacchus: the Hudson Valley riparia/labrusca hybrid given to Ricketts as the breeder, and the German Bacchus (GF 33-29-133), an all-vinifera crossing of (Sylvaner × Riesling) × Müller-Thurgau.)
Then the author explores the Early French Hybridizers (1875-1925) in a following chapter, including Bertille Seyve, Jr. (1895-1959) who created Seyval Blanc. Yet another chapter is given over to the Later French Hybridizers (1925-1955), of whom Ravat gave us the now widely-planted Vignoles and Jean-Louis Vidal provided Vidal Blanc, a mainstay of the East Coast wine industry. Next are the Geneva (NY) hybrids from the NY Agricultural Experiment Station located there, which bred Chardonel, Melody, and Traminette (one of this reviewer’s favorites). After that come the Minnesota hybrids, with Elmer Swenson (1913-2004) featured, along with his own interspecific crossings such as the excellent La Crescent, La Crosse, and St. Pepin. Casscles remarks on the attitude of Swenson, who had “a very generous policy of sharing breeding material and grape variety selections . . . to anyone who requested them.” This generosity is seen as a great benefit to growers, and in Casscles view, “This should be a lesson to many of our current university-based grape-breeding programs, which seem to want to control the products developed, but in doing so they limit the scope of the field research that can be done by not widely disseminating their plant material for comment.” An important point and one well-taken.
In his thoroughness, Casscles also cover Central European Vinifera and Hybrid Grapes on pages 207-217, listing the German, Austrian, and Hungarian varieties that are suitable for planting in cold-climate regions. The final chapter is devoted to the leading vinifera varieties that can, despite disease pressure and severe winters, more or less thrive in the climates of the Hudson Valley and similar regions, including Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Gamay Noir, and Pinot Noir, including the latter’s many clones.
Thus Casscles approaches his main theme, which is about hybrid grapes and the how and why of their development over the course of two centuries in both the United States and Europe. The book is also about a personal voyage by the author and members of his extended family, the history of which goes back to the Eighteenth Century in the Hudson Valley.
This reviewer does have a grape of contention over a statement by the author that seems a bit misleading: “Running counter to the generally held belief of the Viniferists—especially those purists who would like limit production to a few “pure” classic vinifera grape varieties, such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, or Pinot Noir—all grapes are hybrids. Even the mighty purebred vinifera Chardonnay is a naturally occurring hybrid of Pinot Noir and the bulk grape Gouais Blanc.” -p.20.
However, this insistence that even intra-specific genetic mixing, whether occurring in nature or manmade, runs counter to the widely-accepted definition of Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc is a cross, not a hybrid. Karen McNeil’s The Wine Bible defines a cross as “A grape created by fertilizing one variety with another variety of the same species. While a cross may result from breeding, most crosses occur spontaneously in nature. . . . A cross is not the same as a hybrid.” To wit, “As distinguished from a cross, a hybrid is a new grape variety developed by breeding two or more varieties from different species or subgenera. The most common hybrids are part European species (Vitis vinifera) and part any one of several American species.” However, Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine (3rd edition) does cut Casscles some slack: “cross or crossing, the result of breeding a new variety by crossing two vine varieties of the same species, usually the European vinifera species. Thus Müller-Thurgau, for example is a cross. Crosses are different from hybrids, sometimes called interspecific crosses, which contain the genes of more than one species of the Vitis species.” –p. 197.
On the other hand, Casscles finds a couple of entries in Jancis Robinson, et al., Wine Grapes, regarding hybrid varieties are at times a tad off the mark. In his very extensive endnotes to each chapter he frequently cites Wine Grapes and where needed carefully provides corrections of that version.
The book is well-illustrated with many black-and-white photos, drawings, and diagrams as well as a set of color plates of 27 different varieties. It has but two maps, one of fruit-growing areas of the Hudson Valley, and another of the hardiness zones of NY State, showing the zones from 3a to 6b, but without explanation of what the zones actually mean. The map is based on the USDA Agriculture Research Service NY Plant Hardiness Zone Map, but if one were to go online to the USDA Website a far more detailed Zone map shows the entire range of the zone system, which is based on the minimum temperature range for each zone. Thus, zone 3b has a minimum range of -35 to -30° F., while zone 6b ranges down to -5 to 0° F. Indeed, the online map doesn’t even refer to zone 3a, which would have a range below -35° F.
But these are mere quibbles when one considers the overall quality and detail of the information provided in Casscles’ book. It is a real accomplishment and deserves respectful attention, particular from growers, winemakers, and anyone who is determined to cultivate cold-weather varieties and make wine from them, not to speak of serious oenophiles of any persuasion. Apart from the excellent and extensive endnotes to each chapter there is also a substantial bibliography as well as an index to the individual varieties covered in the text as well as a general index.
J. Stephen Casscles, Grapes of the Hudson Valley and Other Cool Climate Regions of the United States and Canada. Forward by Kevin Zraly, Preface by Eric Miller. Coxsackie, NY: Flint Mine Press, 2015. 266 pages, including the Introduction and Indices. Paperback, $29.99.
Casscles has been a government attorney for the NY State Senate for the past 28 years, and has drafted at least 22 laws bearing on the wine and spirits industry, working with six State Senators over that period. He has been growing wine grapes at his farm in Athens, NY, since 1990. He is also the winemaker for the Hudson-Chatham Winery.
Interview at Bosco Falconeria with Natalia and Tonino Simeti
My wife, Vals, a friend, Bosa Raditsa, and I went to Sicily in February 2015 for a three-week holiday. Vals and I first flew to Naples, where we had an utterly splendid time visiting its great museums and dining exceedingly well before taking the ferry to Palermo, where we met Bosa, who had come from Genoa by ferry with her car. We spent a few days in Palermo visiting extraordinary sites such as its gold-mosaic- encrusted Norman churches before finally departing to drive around the island to see as much as we could in the time that we had left. Our very first stop after leaving the city was the vineyard and winery Bosco Falconeria en route to the medieval hilltop town of Erice.
Prior to our departure for Sicily Vals and I had read several books about the island and one of our favorites was OnPersephone’s Island: A Sicilian Journal, by Mary Taylor Simeti. Mary Taylor had just graduated from college in 1962 and had decided to spend a year in Sicily before returning to the States to go to graduate school. Manhattan-born, she had gone to Radcliffe, where she majored in medieval history, but was unsure of what to do once she had earned her degree. Instead, after working as an intern for nearly year while there, she fell in love with and married Antonio Simeti, a professor of agronomics in Palermo. She has lived in Sicily ever since, raising two children, Natalia and Francesco, writing several books on food, history, and Sicily, and helping run a farm and vineyard.
By the late 1980s Mary’s On Persephone’s Island (1986) was enjoying good reviews and a receptive readership in the United States. It was on her visits back to New York to visit family and promote her book that she learned about organic agriculture and brought information about it back to the farm. It was decided that organic viniculture would be the path that they would pursue in their quest to make quality wine at a reasonable price. By 1989 the entire farm had been fully converted to organic growing and three years later it became officially certified. It was registered as Bosco Falconeria azienda biologica Simeti-Taylor, and was one of the earliest adopters of organic agriculture in all of Sicily.
Even before the trip I had read online that the farm, Bosco Falconeria, was a producer of organic grapes for wine, a special interest of mine, so I decided to visit them as it was only 60 km. from Palermo, in Partinico, en route to the west coast of the island. I also learned that Bosco Falconeria has also been seeking wider distribution of their wines in the United States. In that case, there was all the more reason to taste the wines and write about them. So I wrote to Mary Taylor Simeti, who responded very graciously to say that we were welcome to come though she would be in the States when we arrived. Besides, she now has little to do with the care of the vineyard or the making of the wine at a nearby azienda. It is her daughter Natalia who, with her husband, now runs the farm and attends to the wine.
So, in mid-February we set out for the farm, having punched the address into our Garmin GPS. Alas, the GPS took us very close to the farm, but on the wrong road. GPSs have a flair for doing that from time to time, especially in rural areas that are not well mapped. ( Had we had the farm’s coordinates we’d doubtless have done much better.) We eventually arrived there, an hour late, to our dismay and Natalia’s, for it was terribly close to their lunchtime. Nevertheless, she and her father, called Tonino by his family and friends, gave generously of their time for the interview and the tasting. Indeed, they were very charming and the conversation was most informative.
The farm has been in the Simeti family’s hands since 1933. At that time it was a 25-acre farm mostly dedicated to vineyards and the winery was in the barn. It came into Tonino’s possession in 1966 after his older brother died suddenly. Tonino and Mary then converted the farmhouse into a vacation home, living most of the year in Palermo while spending holidays and weekends there. The devastating Benice earthquake of 1968 in western Sicily, with its epicenter not far from the location of the farm, did considerable damage to the property and required extensive repairs and reconstruction.
At one time there were several palmenti, or stone crushpads where traditionally the grapes were stomped by barefoot workers, the juice running into tubs that were then poured into vats in the barn, where the winery was situated. However, all but one palmento is left, partly because of the difficulty of removing it and partly, perhaps, because it is a chunk of nostalgia good for conversation. It’s in the farmhouse, covered by a desk.
The farm is located in the province of Palermo, near Partinico, in the region of the D.O.C. of Alcamo, which was best known for its white wines when it was created in 1972, but now has a much more diverse range of varieties, including Grillo, Catarratto, Inzolia, Grecanino and the non-native Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay among the whites. Nero d’Avola, as well as the non-native Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah are among the reds permitted in the zone. However, it should be pointed out that Bosco’s wines do not bear the Alcamo imprimatur of origin but rather the more general I.G.P. Terre Siciliani, which allows for a much wider range of varieties and styles than that of the D.O.C. It’s a small azienda of 17 hectares (42 acres) and 7 hectares (about 17 acres) are planted to vines.
Natalia describes it thus: “ Our soil is red, rich in iron, grass-green in winter, sunburnt in summer. Our hills overlook the sea and the distant mountains: a patchwork of vineyards and olives, of fields and orchards.”
Tonino and Mary’s son Francesco eventually moved to the United States and lives in Brooklyn as a successful artist. Natalia went to university in Rome, where she earned a degree in Art History. Eventually that took her to the United States, where she worked as a museum administrator. However, Natalia returned to Sicily in 2005 and took a museological job in Palermo. She then met the man who would become her husband, Ramo Sali, from Finland, and now they two have children. After a while, as she was not that happy in her new job, and given that they spent every weekend at the farm, the lifelong connection to it proved to be too strong to resist. After three years passed she and Ramo took over running the farm and vineyard. Well before that the winery on the property had been closed down and the grapes were being sent to a small, local winery, Azienda Cossentino, which also makes organic wine of its own.
Natalia’s passion is not only the vineyard but the farm and its other products as well. There are olive groves and orchards with various species of fruit trees. The produce is sold in Palermo along with fresh and dried legumes as well. All are grown organically.
The varietals that they make are two of Catarratto and one of Nero d’Avola. Catarratto is a white grape and it is the most widely planted variety in Sicily and the fourth in all of Italy. While it has been used for the production of sweet, fortified Masala, but it has moved up in the world to offers, at its best, a citrusy nose, nutty taste, or can even, resemble Viognier when fully ripe. The Nero d’Avola is a red-wine grape that is the most planted—at nearly 50,000 acres—on the island. Once used primarily as a tenturier in the making of wines on the mainland that needed more color, it too has found its place, producing varietal wines with black fruit aromas and high acidity. The best will age well. It is sometimes blended with Cabernet Franc, Syrah, or other such varieties, and in Cerasuolo da Vittoria, Sicily’s only DOCG, it is blended with Frappato to make a distinctive light red wine. The important thing is that the two varieties thrive in the black soils of this DOC.
At Bosco, there are two subtypes or clones of the Catarratto grape planted: Comune and Extralucido. The comune is, as the name implies, the more common of the two, and when ripened, has the highest sugar content and lowest acidity, with dusky grape skins, whereas the extralucido has the lowest sugar and highest acidity, with a rather bright skin (i.e., little or no bloom on it). The latter is also the one that has the most aroma. (In between these two subtypes is a third, lucido, but it does not feature in Bosco’s wines.) Today plantings of Catarratto of all three subtypes dominate in the provinces of Palermo, Agrigento, and particularly Trapani, mostly at elevations of 250 m. (820 ft. or more) which is almost exactly the altitude of Bosco Falconeria, located as it is in the hills in the west of Palermo province.
Bosco’s Catarratto come in two styles. One is designated as a varietal, with the name of the grape on the label. It is steel-fermented and the 2012 version has 13% alcohol. The second is called Falco Peregrino, which is fermented on the skins, using wild yeasts. Also steel-fermented, it has but 11% alcohol. It has more character, with a citrusy aroma and slightly tannic astringency derived from the skins, and a mildly bitter aftertaste that is typical of the variety. No sulphites are added to the second version. Both styles benefit from some age and should be served chilled. At present, only the rather austere Catarratto is available in the United States, the Falco Peregrino not yet, perhaps because it is less stable for travel given the lack of added sulphites.
According to Natalia, Catarratto, as a varietal, “gets better with time.” We tasted both a 2012 and a 2013, and vintage differences aside, the 2012 had the advantage of an additional year which made the wine a bit more rounded and somewhat less austere, but she pointed out that a recently-tasted 2007 was very nicely developed, but we didn’t have that for our tasting. How long these Catarratto will age obviously depends on the vintage, but clearly some age is recommended for the wine to express itself fully and well.
The vines are either pruned to a Guyot trellis or pruned in the Alberello alcamese manner, which is to say, in the form of a small tree kept low to the ground with a short cane carrying three or four buds tied to a spur on another branch, thus forming an arc. This kind of pruning is ideal in areas of strong and persistent winds, so that though the fruit may be splayed on the ground, it is kept dry and free of disease by the breezes. A great advantage of this kind of pruning is that all the fruit is close to the trunk and tends to ripen at the same time. The disadvantage of the Albarello form is that it cannot be harvested mechanically and the labor is backbreaking.
However, when I pointed out to Natalia that harvesting Alberello-trained vines was so difficult, her response was to say that there’s a great deal of work that goes into installing a trellis system like the Guyot, it’s just that much of the work is at the beginning of the season rather than at harvest. Furthermore, she likes the fact that she doesn’t have to walk in a straight line to get to the end of a row and in fact can circle the vine and reach it and work on it easily. Indeed, it occurs to me that those advantages help explain why alberello has been in use since Roman times and until about the 1950s was almost the exclusive form of pruning in all of Sicily. Once modern vinicultural practices began to make headway in Sicily its use began to diminish precipitously. Today only about eight percent of all vines on the island are so trained.
Nero d’Avola, Bosco’s other variety, is known for its tendency to grow radially rather than upright, which is what most vinifera varieties do. It therefore lends itself well to alberello training. Not long ago it was grown mostly in the southeastern part of the island, but it is more widely distributed now. It is an early ripener and its wine can be quite dark, with dark fruit notes on the nose, especially blackberry. It can be made with medium to high alcohol, depending on the site and so on, but it is typically high in acidity that in a well-made version will help balance the rather soft fruit.
At Bosco the variety is fermented and stored in stainless steel, so it never has contact with wood, for the idea is to have a pure expression of the fruit. Thus the wine is fermented on the skins and aged in steel for nine months and then refined in the bottle for about four months. The 2012 that I tasted offered a medium body with just 12% alcohol, but black fruit was evident on both the nose and palate, and it had a strong acid backbone.
All the wines are made to be sold at affordable price points and in that respect they offer decent value. The Catarratto that I purchased in New York City costs $20 a bottle. The total of all the wines produced is but 8,000 bottles, which is barely 660 cases.
It is only in the last several years that the Simetis have become more aggressive in promoting and selling the wine in new markets in Italy and abroad. Before that the wine produced had been sold locally and in Palermo, but today some of it is imported to the United States by Jenny & François Selections, who specialize in natural wines.
According to Jenny & François, most of the wines are sold to on-premise accounts so there are only a few retailers that carry them in New York State. These are:
Back Label Wine Merchants, New York City
Foragers City Wines, New York City
Grape Expectations in Tarrytown, NY
Bosco is also a B&B as well as a Tai Chi center, as Ramo is an instructor in that art of exercise.
Richard Figiel established the Silver Thread Vineyard in 1982, planting 10 acres near Lodi, NY to vinifera varieties and growing them organically to make natural wines. He sold the property in 2011 and currently writes a column on NY wines for Wines & Spirits Magazine. He had previously published Culture in a Glass: Reflections on the Rich Heritage of Finger Lakes Wine in 1995.
Happily for the reader he writes well and where appropriate turns to literary allusion or leavens the text with touches of dry wit. Most important of all, he reveals the history of wine in New York State by means of a sensibly-organized account that starts with the movements of the glaciers of the last Ice Age on through to the diaspora of the late Twentieth and early Twenty-First Centuries, when wineries, vineyards, and winemaking had spread throughout the state after a small and inconspicuous beginning in the Seventeenth.
In the Preface, Figiel mentions that after he purchased an abandoned Catawba vineyard he began “pulling out the past to plant the future . . . . One day as I was lining up end-posts for the rows of my new vineyard (it was a matter of pride to get them perfectly aligned, row to row) my eye wandered beyond the last post into scrubby woods . . . and there among the junipers and brambles was a fitful row of weather-beaten posts, ghosts of a vineyard on that hillside that predated the vineyard I’d pulled out . . . . I was looking back into the nineteenth century, and my posts happened to line up arrow-straight with that bleached, overgrown line of ghosts.”
Which leads to this book and the far from arrow-straight history of New York wine, which instead ambles along from one wandering post to another in time and geography.
Chapter 1 covers prehistory, from the time of the last advance and final retreat of the mile-thick ice sheet that covered the Northeast and nearly all of New York until about 10,000 years ago. It traces the movement of soil and terrain carried by the massive bulldozer of ice that left chunks of granite from the Berkshires in the bluffs of the north coast of Long Island, among other shifts across the region. This is all depicted in the sole map to be found in the book:
Chapter 2, “Beginnings in the Hudson Valley,” recounts the earliest attempts at growing wine grapes in the region, including the many failures planting vinifera varieties. Determined growers then set about planting native varieties like Isabella and Catawba while some began experimenting with hybrids—that is to say, interspecies crossings, resulting in some of the most successful hybrids for commercial vineyards, starting with the Iona. The history is complex but Figiel successfully manages to thread all the different paths that winegrowing took in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries into a coherent whole.
The following chapter, “Settling in the Finger Lakes,” is an exploration of the very complicated story of wine in what is today the premier region for Riesling in the country. When first explored in the early 17th century, large amounts of native grapes were found and it is possible that the earliest record of winemaking may date to before 1668, but this is an inference from a text by a missionary who writes about “vines, which bear tolerably good grapes from which our fathers formerly made wine for the mass.” Rev. William Botwick of Hammondsport in the 1830s may have been the first to plant grapes in the Finger Lakes for making wine and disseminate grapes for winemaking to his neighbors, and it was found that Isabella, as an earlier-ripener than Catawba, took best to the climate of the lake region. It took a long time for vinifera to catch on in the Finger Lakes, and that was, of course, thanks to the hard work of Dr. Konstantin Frank in the 1950s.
Chapter 4 is devoted to “Western New York,” which in this case means not only what would become the Lake Erie Region AVA but also the area from Rochester to Niagara, including the Genesee Valley, where a winery was established by Samuel Warren in 1834, 5 years before the Jaques winery was opened in Washingtonville in the Hudson Valley. The Irondequoit winery was established on its eponymous Bay on Lake Ontario near Rochester in 1841. A winery cooperative was formed on the Niagara Escarpment near Lockport in the 1860s. Much of the wine that was made for sacramental use. But where are these places, some of which are very little known? A map would be helpful.
“Collision of Cultures” (Chapter 5) covers one of the most interesting and fractious periods in American wine history—the rise of the anti-alcohol movement that led to Prohibition and the struggle of the producers of alcoholic beverages to resist that movement. As early as 1808 there was a reaction against the excessive consumption of spirits in particular, when a doctor near Glen Falls despaired of healing hard drinkers and founded the Moreau Temperance Association, which was aimed at spirits and brews, but not wine. By 1833 the American Temperance Union was established and the question became one of “which alcohols” to ban outright. Those who joined the Union and swore to totally abstain from the imbibing of any alcohol had a “T” placed by their names, hence the term ‘Teetotaler.’ Long before Prohibition, in fact, Rutherford B. Hayes, a teetotaler, was elected President in 1877. Figiel writes that “he drained the nation’s first household Dry . . . . Visiting dignitaries were confounded: ‘Oh, it was very gay,” one European ambassador said of a state dinner with the President, ‘the water flowed like Champagne.’ Individual towns and counties throughout the country and in New York began passing laws banning the sale of alcohol; indeed, the New York legislature passed a law restricting the sale of alcohol in 1845. That law was rescinded two years later, but the battle lines were drawn and the fight was on. The history of Prohibition is well-known and often told, and Figiel tells it with well-selected anecdotes to enliven the tale.
The sixth chapter, “Restart,” is about the hardscrabble road to recovery from Prohibition.
Chapter 7 is devoted to the Revolutionaries, those who changed the attitude and approach to grape growing and wine making in the State and withal most of the Eastern United States. There are capsule accounts of the work and accomplishment of five key figures who helped bring about significant change in the wine industry: Everett S. Crosby, Frederick S. Johnson, Konstantin Frank, Walter S. Taylor, and Mark Miller. Crosby was introduced to wine “in the rumble seat of a roadster after high school basketball games” during Prohibition and went on in 1950 to found High Tor Vineyard in the Hudson Valley. It was the first vineyard planted exclusively to French hybrids and the wines found a positive reception in wine shops and restaurants in New York City. In 1960 Johnson would establish his vineyard and winery on the Lake Erie escarpment and plant mostly hybrid grapes, bringing the region into the wine world after years of producing table grapes and grape juice. Frank, a difficult, determined, and uncompromising man is the father of vinifera wine in New York. Over a dozen years, starting in 1953, he planted a quarter of a million vines of a dozen vinifera varieties grafted to selected American rootstock and proved definitively that European vines could grow and thrive in the extreme cold of the Finger Lakes. Walter S. Taylor has to have been one of the most colorful characters on the wine industry stage: a rebel with a cause in opposition to big business and its overreaching attempts at control, particularly over the issue of the Taylor family name. Once Coca Cola had acquired the Taylor Wine Company it had an injunction issued against Walter S. using his surname on his own wines at Bully Hill. His irrepressible humor and anti-establishment outlook had him take on a goat as a mascot and quipped, “You can’t get my goat.” But read the story. And there was Mark Miller, owner of Benmarl Vineyards, who helped bring about a transformative law, the Farm Winery Act of 1976 that changed the New York wine industry forever.
“Transformation” is a chapter about the growth of large corporations like Coca Cola and Seagram’s that dominated the wine industry in the ‘60s and ‘70s until the passage of the Farm Winery Act of 1976 that was signed in to law by Governor Carey. Some of the winemaking practices in the larger wineries including “blending old American varieties like Catawba, Concord, and Delaware with bulk wine from California and new inputs from French hybrids. Water and cane sugar were routinely part of the mix. It was not uncommon for final blends to be up to one-third water and one-quarter Californian wine.” In some cases a small and profitable miracle was produced with “large quantities of bulk wine from small quantities of fruit.”
This is followed by a chapter devoted to Long Island, the last major wine region to be planted to wine grapes, unique among all the State AVAs in growing vinifera varieties only, with a tiny exception. Its history is comparatively brief, with the first vinifera vines planted in 1973 by Louisa and Alex Hargrave. Amateurs in Long Island, they showed that European varieties could produce excellent wine there and today Long Island has the most extensive plantings of Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, and Cabernet Franc in the State, not to speak of nearly twenty others as well, including Pinot Noir, Chenin Blanc, Dornfelder, and Albariño as well.
The final chapter is about the “Diaspora” of the wine industry throughout the State, encompassing new wine regions—though not new AVAs—in places like the Thousand Islands on the St. Lawrence River and Lake Champlain, as well as further developments in the established AVAs of the Finger Lakes, the Hudson River Region, Lake Erie, Long Island, and New York City. In other words, “New York wine became more diverse, more promising, more impressive, more inconsistent, and more confusing.”
Circle of Vines bears comparison with Hudson Cattell’s Wines of Eastern North American, previously reviewed in a post on this blog. However, while there is some overlapping history, Catell’s book touches on the period From Prohibition to the Present (i.e., 2013). It is meant as a “History and Desk Reference,” and is a far more scholarly approach than Figiel’s, replete as it is with endnotes, an extensive bibliography, and seven appendices with tables and charts. This is not to denigrate what Figiel has done, but his is a less formal approach, and he does list his sources and include an index; his book is 169 pages devoted to just New York, while Chattell’s 235 pages cover the entire gamut of Eastern wineries from Maine to Florida and all the way to the Mississippi River. Both are informative and very useful resources. A reader would be glad to have them both.
Regrettably, the book has very poor-quality illustrations—given their half-tone newsprint reproduction—and there are no maps to support the text, apart from the one that shows the movement of the ice sheet that covered the state over 10,000 years ago. One can only hope that if there is a second edition there will be a map for each chapter as well as higher-quality images.Circle of Vines, The Story of New York State Wines, by Richard Figiel, 2014. Excelsior Editions imprint of SUNY Press, Albany. 194 pages with appendices and index. 31 monochrome half-tone illustrations, including one map.