The Wines of Long Island was originally published in 1987 and a second, revised edition was issued in 2000. 19 years later, it remained the best and most complete single volume on the history, geography, viniculture, winemaking, and the wineries of Long Island. It was carefully researched and very well-written. It was also seriously out of date.
In the 19 intervening years a very great deal of change has taken place in the wine industry of the region. In 2000 there were 25 wineries and vineyards, about half of which are no longer in business; in 2019 there are 62, including several wine brands that have no winery or vineyard as such and use a crush facility. A handful of the wineries are not even in the East End, but elsewhere in Suffolk County, with two in Brooklyn.
19 years ago the issue of sustainability was scarcely on the radar. Today, sustainable winegrowing is a major issue worldwide, and a new entity, the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers association, is providing independent certification for members.
The new edition of The Wines of Long Island provides all this new information as well as updates to the history of the region in a new edition. Every wine producer on Long Island is described in the book, some extensively, often with anecdotes. This edition is intended as the principal reference and guide for the wines of Long Island. It has 274 pages, a foreword by Louisa Hargrave, and an expanded section on terroir, varieties, and vintages. Most of the more than 130 illustrations are in color and were taken by the author.
Mark Squires of The Wine Advocate says, “This book’s greatest virtue is its ability to appeal to both geeks and average consumers. It tells you where we are and how we got there.”
Kevin Zraly, wine instructor and author of the popular Windows on the World Wine Course, writes that the book is “a must-read for anyone visiting the wineries of Long Island.”
Carlo DeVito, author, East Coast Wineries , writes: “Though I taste in the region annually, Mr. Moreno-Lacalle’s book is the best tour of Long Island wine I’ve had in years. Thorough, complete, and definitive. The author has done a superlative job.” He also wrote a review of the book on his own blog Website, East Coast Wineries.
Louisa Hargrave, a founder of the Long Island wine trade, wrote in the foreword of the book: “Palmedo and Beltrami revised their own book in 2000. Now, the time is ripe again for revision. How appropriate it is that they handed their project over to José Moreno Lacalle, a man who, like themselves, views the wine business with the perspective of his own successful career outside the industry. With worldliness and sophistication, he brings his profound interest in the topic—twinkle in the eye, and glass in hand.”
My favorite review by a non-wine person is the editor of the Gardiner Gazette (Winter 2020), which starts: “The mark of good writing, I believe, is writing that makes us interested in something we’re not interested in.” She went on to say that she expected to “skim a few pages and write something brief. . . I’m interested in wine only to the extent necessary to get a glass in my hand on a Friday night. . . By page five I realized that I was actually reading. By page 19, I was getting impatient to start skimming. By page 30 I surrendered and settled in for a long read.” The review then goes on for several paragraphs, but you get the picture! (Disclosure: I write for the Gazette, but the editor does no favors.)
The book has been published under my own imprint, Rivers Run By Press, since late August 2019, and is already in four bookstores on Long Island: Southampton Books in Sag Harbor, Canios Books, also in Sag Harbor, Burton’s Books in Greenport, and Book Hampton, in East Hampton. Kitchen Arts & Letters in Manhattan is also selling the book. As of October, eleven wineries also carry the book: Baiting Hollow Vineyards, Bedell Cellars, Castello di Borghese, Channing Daughters, Laurel Lake Vineyards, Osprey’s Dominion, Raphael, Roanoke Vineyards, Sannino Vineyards, Sparkling Pointe, and Wölffer’s. It is also available at the wine shop, Wines By Nature, in Wading River. Copies can also be ordered directly from me on this Website (see the top of the page), and soon from Amazon.
In the meantime, I’m hoping that Wine Spectator will review the book, but it will be a few months before that happens.
NOTE: For errata and updates to the book, see the post below.
I have been writing about winemaking and viniculture in Long Island for my blog, Wine, Seriously, since 2010, when I earned the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) Diploma in Wine (a professional certification). I also have an MA in Art History as well, which gave me the foundation to use a scholar’s approach to writing the new book.
Peconic Bay Winery, which derives its name from the eponymous body of water by which it is located, was established in 1979 by Ray Blum, making it one of the oldest wineries in Long Island. Owned by Paul and Ursula Lowerre, who live and work in New York City, the winery closed its doors in October of 2013, because, according to Paul, as quoted in the North Fork Patch of October 28, “Our decision to stop production at Peconic Bay Winery was based on simple economics. . . . I’m not going to say we’re finished producing wine – but we’re most likely finished making wine for ourselves.”
In fact, in 2017 an attempt was made to use the winery tasting room to sell a variety of wine, beer, and spirits from producers in New York State, somewhat along the lines of Empire State Cellar, albeit on a small scale. The experiment lasted about a year, but in the end it was shut down. However, in October 2019, Peconic Bay Winery was sold to Stefan Soloviev, a real estate investor who owns other agricultural properties in Long Island. His former wife, Stacey Soloviev, will run the estate once it reopens in late Spring or early Summer. It is probable that the vineyards will be tended by Bill Ackerman, who looks after the vineyards of other wineries on the North Fork. More details about this story are to be found in this Newsday article: Soloviev buys Peconic Bay Winery
When it was in full operation under the ownership of Paul and Ursula Lowerre, the day-to-day running of the winery was by a very capable team that included Jim Silver, the General Manager, Greg Gove, the winemaker (who now makes wine under his own label, Race Wines), Zander Hargrave, the assistant winemaker (and now winemaker at Pellegrini), and Charlie Hargrave, Peconic Bay’s vineyard manager (now retired).
The varieties grown at the vineyards included Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Chardonnay, which produced some of their best wines. For example, on the parcel called Sandy Hill the grapes are more subject to drought than elsewhere in the vineyard. Its terroir, however, also grows grapes with sugars that are higher and more concentrated, ultimately resulting in the best Chardonnay grapes of the property.
Until the purchase of Peconic Bay by Stefan Soloviev, the Oregon Road vineyard parcels had been taken over by Premium Wine Acquisitions, and under the supervision of Russell Hearn was being managed by Bill Ackerman, of North Fork Viticultural Services. How this evolves under the new ownership remains to be seen. A critical decision will also be the choice of a winemaker and a vineyard manager. Perhaps by May or June of 2020 all of this will be resolved and there will be more to the story.
According to the winery’s Website, it was sometime in the 1980s that Sam Rubin ventured to eastern Long Island and acquired what has since become Baiting Hollow Farm Vineyard (BHFV). A lifelong farmer and naturalist, he began to till the soil, the basis for all great wines, using only organic compost and other natural inputs.
On his first 3.5 acres, Sam planted fine French vines and more were added after he purchased 13.5 adjoining acres. By then, his son Richard, a successful business entrepreneur, saw that his father needed help, so he stepped in with a sound business plan and a talented team to oversee and supervise wine production and vineyard management. Their approach has been successful in the context of the rather temperate and conducive climate of the region. The aforementioned, along with their hard work and high standards, remain the foundation for BHFV’s wines. The fact that they use no chemical fertilizers or herbicides (they merely turn weeds right back into the soil to enrich it) are key ingredients in their not-so-secret estate grape-growing recipe.
Sam died in 2014 at the age of 87, but the family has continued on with Richard at the helm. Steve Levine, who married Sam’s daughter Sharon, is the General Manager.
Tom Drozd, the winemaker, is a Riverhead native. Farming is in his blood, for as a child he would visit his grandfather’s farm in Jamesport and help with the picking of vegetables that grew there. Years later that farm was sold and is now part of Jamesport Vineyards. He has had long experience making wine in the region, going back to 1998, starting at Palmer Vineyards, where he worked until 2006 and then at Pellegrini Vineyards until 2014. Tom has been the consulting winemaker for Baiting Hollow since 2003. Richard Rubin and he work together on the blending of the wines, which are made at PWG. Bill Ackermann is the vineyard manager.
BHFV consists of 17 acres with 11 acres that are planted. Their estate fruit is supplemented with grapes from quality growers when needed to fill the demand for their wine offerings. They purchase Chardonnay grapes locally and until 2015, bought Riesling exclusively from the Finger Lakes. A more recently planted three-acre block of Riesling in their own vineyard allows them to claim that this varietal is from their own harvested fruit.
Tom is a firm believer in the idea that “it all starts in the vineyard.” For him, knowing the vineyard means walking it and carefully observing how the fruit is developing, for that tells him the direction that he’ll take once the actual winemaking commences. He sees himself as a caretaker of the fruit, working along with Bill Ackerman. What makes it particularly interesting is that Tom is still able to accomplish this even after having moved to Florida a couple of years ago. He communicates by phone and over the Internet (a method that permits him to view the crop between trips back to Long Island). He flies up regularly to be more hands-on, especially as harvest approaches. He makes the wines at Premium Wine Group’s custom crush facilities in Mattituck.
BHFV had, since 2007, maintained a horse-rescue sanctuary, which got started when they learned that countless numbers of American horses were being shipped to meet horrible deaths in both Canada and Mexico to satisfy an International market for horse meat in parts of Europe and Asia. They knew that we do not slaughter horses or eat them in the U.S. since they are revered and loved in our culture and so they were deeply disturbed. Further, they had discovered that the vast majority were young and healthy and this caused them to take action!
BHFV saved many horses over the years and have thankfully adopted out those they have rescued to loving homes by way of Sharon’s efforts and how caring, particular, and discerning she is. What remains is their ongoing effort to continue to raise funds for this cause. For this purpose, there is a wine-label series named after four of their former sanctuary’s most beloved residents. Wonderful individual wines offerings are available; ‘Mirage’ (a red blend), ‘Angel’ (Chardonnay), ‘Savannah’ (Rose) and ‘Isis’ (Dessert). A percentage of the proceeds from the sale of this horse rescue wine series go to support other reputable horse sanctuaries.
Its Website provides much insight about the goings on at BHFV, and while wines can be purchased online with free shipping and special offers, there seems to be limited technical information about them. However, this may be found by both email and phone inquiry.
When visiting wine country along Sound Avenue on the North Fork, BHFV is the west-most vineyard, located just east of Edwards Avenue. The tasting house, in the style of an English pub, is located in the carefully-restored 1861 farmhouse seen above.
Food & Wine Magazine, in its November 2015 issue, listed BHFV as one of the 20 “Best Long Island Wineries to Visit,” while Travel and Leisure selected it as a top wine destination for the Riverhead-Suffolk County region in 2018.
Why? Because the Rubins devoted nearly all of the first floor of a carefully-restored farmhouse and rustic rear courtyard to a tasting area. A visit is rewarded by a sense of history as well as comfort in which to relax, taste, and enjoy the food & entertainment.
Many of their wines have won awards in competitions. The 2011 Sweet Isis, a Riesling dessert wine, won Double Gold at the 2014 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition; the 2013 Riesling, just off-dry, won Double Gold at the 2015 Competition; the 2014 Cheval Bleu, a dessert wine based on Cabernet Franc, won Double Gold at the 2017 NY Wine & Food Classic; the 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon won Double Gold at the 2017 Finger Lakes IWC and; the 2015 Riesling won Double Gold at the 2019 Finger Lakes IWC. That’s not to mention all the gold and silver medals that their other wines have been awarded just since 2012.
Following is a highly selective list of books that I’ve read or consulted that I consider particularly worthwhile. If I haven’t read or consulted a book, I do not recommend it. Alas, there are more that I’ve not read than have—I’ve only 140 books on wine in my library, and some are still waiting to be read, though nearly all have served as references.
Grapes, Wine, Wineries, and Vineyards
There are seven general wine books that one should own in order to be truly well- and completely informed:
1. Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine, 4th ed. (2015) is just indispensable, with a comprehensive coverage of just about every topic bearing on wine that one can think of, a true Abbocatto to Zymase encyclopedia. All articles are signed, all cited references noted. Robinson was both the editor and a contributor. The 4th edition adds 300 additional, new terms, though many will only be of interest to wine professionals. For a full review on this blog, see the post: The Three Indispensable Wine Books.
2. Equally indispensable is Hugh Johnson & Jancis Robinson’s The World Atlas of Wine, 8th ed. (2019). How else could one find the way around the vinicultural regions of the world, including NY State? The maps are in full color, ranging in scale from street-level for the Champagne towns and the lodges in Oporto, to 1:45,000 and larger for wine regions. The text for the many regions is the very model of pithy, clear writing. For a full review on this blog, see the post: The Three Indispensable Wine Books.
3. In 2013, two new, serious reference books on wine—sure to become indispensable and classic are: Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy’s American Wine: The Ultimate Companion to the Wines and Wineries of the United States (a very useful feature is its summary of each AVA, including the best grapes grown, and listing the top wineries by category); the other must-have is Jancis’s encyclopedic Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including their Origins and Flavours, written in collaboration with Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz. See my post, The Three Indispensable Wine Books, for a complete review of Wine Grapes.
4. Emile Peynaud’s vital and perennial The Taste of Wine: The Art and Science of Wine Appreciation (trans. Michael Schuster, 1987). Originally written in French as La Goût du Vin in 1983), it is considered definitive by many in the field.
But then, there is always Jancis Robinson’s How to Taste (2000), which is both a how-to for tasting and a guide to the aromatic and gustatory sensations of the different varieties and how they can differ from place to place (i.e., from terroir to terroir). Robinson’s is certainly the more approachable for most readers.
5. WSET students and graduates, anyone interested in wine certification, and indeed, even winemakers can benefit from David Bird’s Understanding Wine Technology: The Science of Wine Explained, 3rd ed., which has been required reading for all WSET students, is a very clear and lucid explanation—in laymen’s terms—of what goes on right down to the molecular level of yeasts, viruses, and chemistry generally. It’s also a very good read.
6. I very much enjoyed and admired Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop’s Authentic Wine: toward natural and sustainable winemaking (2011), which has many really interesting insights into what really goes on in a vineyard, a winery, and what it takes to be a sustainable winegrower and producer. Much food for thought, though some may cavil about a few of the authors’ conclusions.
7. If one wanted to carry as much information about wine in a portable package, there’s one that I cannot live without: Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book 2020. It is pithy, witty, thicker than ever, and claims to be the Number One Bestselling Wine Guide, which it deserves to be. I’ve bought every edition since the very first one, published in 1977 (it was rather slim then). Also available as a Kindle Book from Amazon.
8. A book not to be overlooked is Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course,Revised, Updated & Expanded Edition (2018). Zraly is a truly gifted instructor and virtually anyone can benefit from his guidance. His approach is original and his book is the most popular wine book of its kind, with over three million copies sold worldwide.
New York and East Coast Wine
Long Island Wine Country: Award-Winning Vineyards of the North Fork and the Hamptons, is an useful guide to visiting Long Island vineyards and wineries. Written by Jane Taylor Starwood, editor-in-chief of Long Island Wine Press, she gives us an insider’s track on the owners, the winemakers, and the wineries themselves. In a conversational tone (and amply illustrated), the book leads the reader from East to West on the North Fork, and then down to the Hamptons, as though it would be followed geographically. It’s a bit frustrating an approach if one wants to do research and would prefer an alphabetical organization, but it’s a quibble given the overall quality and usefulness of the book, although it’s now rather out-of-date, given that it was published in 2009.
Louisa Thomas Hargrave wrote a gracious memoir, The Vineyard: The Pleasures and Perils of Creating an American Family Winery. One cannot begin to understand what was involved in creating the Long Island wine industry without reading this charming and touching account of the establishment of Long Island’s first winery, Hargrave Vineyard, in 1973, when there were only small farms and potato fields. It is charming in its modesty, touching in its honesty, and a remarkable tale of what it takes to start a vineyard from scratch when you don’t even know what you’re doing! And look at what it started–a whole industry that is one of the dominant features of the East End of Long Island, begun with passion, commitment, and hard work, but ultimately at the cost of heartbreak and renewal. Now out of print, it may be available, used, on Amazon or AbeBooks.
In Marguerite Thomas’s Touring East Coast Wine Country: A Guide to the Finest Wineries (1996) we have the first important guide to the wines and wineries of the East Coast, from Maine to Virginia, replete with useful insights and a good background on the history of the viniculture of each state. It also provides biography capsules of some of the most important or interesting winemakers. Given that the book was first published in 1996, a good deal of its information is now more of historical interest, and it needs, and deserves, a new edition.
More recent is Carlo DeVito’s East Coast Wineries: A Complete Guide from Maine to Virginia, published in 2004. Still, even this needs to be brought up-to-date, but its value lies in its own take on East Coast wineries, with listings of the wines offered by each estate with brief descriptions, recommendations and excerpted tasting reviews of the wines. Let’s hope that, like Thomas’s guide, DeVito’s will also receive a new, updated edition soon. For the serious wine tourist, one guide complements the other, so why not buy both?
An interesting and somewhat chatty book is The Story of North Fork Wine: Historical Profiles and Wine Country Recipes (2009), John Ross’s up-close-and-personal look at the people who work in and run the wineries. A chef who owned Ross’s North Fork Restaurant, he became close to many in the wine trade, especially given that he was interested in devising recipes and menus that would best accompany the wines of the region.
Vital–thanks to its clear, lucid writing and very useful history of LI viticulture and winemaking–is the excellent Wines of Long Island, 3rd edition (2019) by José Moreno-Lacalle, based on the 2nd edition by Edward Beltrami & Philip E. Palmedo. It includes profiles of the most important personalities in the LI wine world as well as all the producers, with descriptions and reviews of wineries and their wines–both past and present–and a generally judicious insight into the trends and achievements of the region. Definitely worthwhile owning, if you love LI wines. (Is this called self-promotion?)
Organic and Biodynamic Viniculture
Rudolf Steiner’s Agriculture Course: The Birth of the Biodynamic Method, is the foundation text of the biodynamic movement. A compilation of eight lectures delivered in Germany in 1924 provides, in Steiner’s own words, the basis for what he called a new science based on the natural rhythms of the world and the cosmos, as recovered from the traditional practices of the peasant farmers of yore. It is meant as a healthy antidote to the rise of farming methods based on industrial chemicals and fertilizers. Many leading vineyards are farmed by this method, from the Domaine de la Romanée Conti in Burgundy to Shinn Estate in Long Island. You owe it to yourself to read the lectures if you wish to really understand what Biodynamics is about.
Nicolas Joly is a leading proponent of Biodynamic viticulture, and he practices his preaching at one of the greatest vineyards of the Loire, the Coulée de Serrant. Joly’s Wine from Sky to Earth: Growing and Appreciating Biodynamic Wine, is a true believer’s panegyric to Biodynamics. His ideas and those of the founder of Biodynamics®, Rudolf Steiner, are put into practice at two vineyards that I know of: Macari Vineyards and Shinn Estate.
Lon Rombough’s The Grape Grower: A Guide to Organic Viticulture, is an excellent introduction to how to grow grapes organically. It’s also very practical, as the guide is really intended for the novice who wants to start a backyard vineyard or even a commercial one. It takes the reader step-by-step on establishing an organic vineyard, imparting along the way a good deal of knowledge and savvy advice.
Other Wine Books of More than Passing Interest (or Not)
Tyler Colman, Wine Politics: How Governments, Environmentalists, Mobsters, and Critics Influence the Wines We Drink (UCal Press, 2008). I highly recommend this book for its clarity and scholarship. The subject of politics in the wine world proves to be fascinating, and the author chose to approach it by comparing, for example, the AOC laws of France (and by extension, much of the EU) with the AVA regulations promulgated by the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau). There are surprising insights into how and why wine is grown and made in different countries, why labels look the way they do on each side of the Atlantic, and the effects of custom, religion, crime, regionalism, nationalism, and so forth on the wine trade. Eminently worthwhile for the serious wine-lover.
John Hailman, Thomas Jefferson on Wine (UMiss Press, 2006). Another book that is based on sound scholarship and research, also well-written, but one may wish to skip all the tables and lists, which are difficult to grasp at times simply because the wines of Jefferson’s period (1743-1826) varied so much in name, currency, weights and volumes, that clear comparisons with our own period are so difficult to make. Still, if one has the patience, there is reward in seeing how all-encompassing were the interests and tastes of the first great oenophile of the United States of America.
Thomas Pellechia, Wine: The 8,000 Year-Old Story of the Wine Trade (Thunder’s Mouth Press, NY, 2006) A work with great potential written by someone who has long been in the wine trade but whose sense of history is lacking in scholarship and critical acuity. Some of what he writes is couched in such vague or confused historical terms as to be virtually useless, especially when dealing with antiquity and the Middle Ages. The writing style is breezy and casual, but it lacks polish and lucidity. Such a shame.
A far better foray into wine history would be the classic Gods, Men, and Wine, (1966) by William Younger, or the more recent Story of Wine (1989)—or the New Illustrated Edition (2004)—by Hugh Johnson, both of which are better-written and historically more reliable. Neither of the latter books is available in Kindle versions, but they do enjoy the virtue of been on real, durable paper bound in hardcover.
A History of the World in 6 Glasses, by Tom Standage (2005), is more than just about wine. It tells its story by means of six beverages: beer (Mesopotamia & Egypt), wine (Ancient Greece & Rome), spirits (Colonial America), Coffee (Europe in the Age of Enlightenment), Tea (the British Empire), and Coca-Cola (Modern America and the Age of Globalization). It’s both amusing and informative, but I’d put the emphasis on the amusement. Unless you’ve utterly uninformed about wine or the other beverages, this is really History 001, rather lightweight.
Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine, edited by Barry C. Smith (2007), with essays by experts such as Paul Draper, Jamie Goode, Andrew Jefford, and others, with an enthusiastic Foreword by Jancis Robinson. The contributors also include a couple of philosophers and a linguist. The language of wine as presented in this book is clearly academic. A worthwhile but challenging book, well worth the time to read.
Wine Wars, by Mike Veseth (2011), which, with chapter headings like “The Curse of the Blue Nun,” “The Miracle of Two-Buck Chuck,” and “The Revenge of the Terroirists,” is an interesting and amusing way of treating the effects of globalization on the modern world of wine. It is also rather informative, and occasionally provides some surprising nuggets of information (such as the fact that Trader Joe’s is actually a German company).
In the words of Carol Sullivan, Gramercy “is a very pretty, pretty farm.” Gramercy Vineyards was originally a chicken farm, still with many of its original buildings, including a hen house that once kept about 50,000 chickens and a hatchery (shown above) in a separate structure. Both sweet corn and corn for feed were planted out back, as well as a hay field. The woman who later bought the chicken farm then built greenhouses and hoped to turn it into a nursery, but it never happened.
The main house is essentially original, 167 years old (about 1857); the property is just shy of fifteen acres, with other structures as well as other houses. A tenant burnt one house to the ground so she had to rebuild. To her dismay, Insurance only paid for part of the loss. As she pointed out, “One quickly learns the difference between insured value and replacement value.”
Carol said that at the time the hay field was replanted with it was replanted with three-and-a-half acres of Merlot vines in 2003, she “had no idea what I was getting into. None whatsoever.” Just two clones of Merlot were selected by Erik Fry, winemaker at Lenz Winery. Merlot was chosen because Carol and Erich Moenius—her then-partner—loved the Right-Bank wines of Bordeaux, which are made predominantly of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, resulting in complex and focused wines, such as those of Pomerol and St-Emilion. Besides, Merlot had already established itself as a premium variety of the East End.
According to Carol (on the Gramercy Website), “A year of living in Florence, Italy during college, being around vineyards and learning to love wine, had a profound effect on me. Planting and tending a vineyard has had a greater impact on my life than I ever imagined. Becoming a steward of the land is an immensely satisfying experience.”
“My partner, Erich, was incessantly saying ‘I want a vineyard, I want a vineyard, I want a vineyard.’ as we asked for a clearing and we found that this farm was for sale. “ , She went on to explain that “We got married, two years later we got divorced, but we’d been together for twelve years.” Erich is now back in Germany.
When the vineyard was first planted, they hired a manager who just wasn’t doing a good job of it. “In 2007 we hired Peter Gristina and bought the farm equipment and started doing it more hands-on. Erich lasted barely a year doing that. It was more work than he was willing to do.” Once on she was on her own, Peter taught her good habits about spraying vines; Carol is meticulous about it and now handles the spray chemicals herself.
Laurel Lake Preserve is adjacent to the Gramercy property—870 acres of woods so it gets a lot of animal pressure from all the woods—while the nets are for birds, they are primarily to help protect the vines from raccoons, but these are undeterred by ties, clip, and they’ll even untie string. They also rip the nets. In the 2012 season raccoons may have devoured as much as a third of the crop, just feeding from the lower bunches of grapes. On the other hand, deer aren’t much of a problem because the vineyard is fully fenced.
To help bring the animal pressure under control, Carol bought a dog from a Mississippi breeder. Cutie, is half-Jack terrier and half-Jack Russell, and is about three years old. Cutie got her name before she Carol acquired her, and at three years of age you just don’t change a dog’s name (but I dubbed her “Jumping Jack,” for she couldn’t keep still).
Cutie keeps the raccoons under control. She’s up all night, and cruises the vineyard during the day looking for woodchucks–there aren’t any anymore. At night she’s looking for raccoons and she gets one or two a night. But her face shows the scars of her fights with the ‘coons; she was blemish-free when she arrived on Labor Day. One night Carol had just come home from dinner and heard screams. She knew something was wrong, so she got her flashlight and went to a section of the vineyard back near the woods where the shrieks were coming from. Cutie had cornered a raccoon (about 20 pounds—twice her size) on a pole.
Roman Roth, the winemaker, refers to the vineyard as a “little oven” because of the way both cold air and water just drain away from the sight, which means that the grapes have more warmth to help them ripen. Carol does irrigate when necessary—had to in 2012, and that involves a lot of work and a lot of expense. That’s why she has worked more than full-time over the years—among other things, Carol has managed several construction projects as a residential and interior designer as well as a realtor.
It’s a very, very pretty farm producing quality fruit that made very good wine by Roman Roth, one of the master winemakers of Long Island. Indeed, in his skilled hands, Gramercy produced some really lovely wines, of which I have several. The winemaker’s notes follow, and my own afterwards:
“Merlot Reserve: After a spectacular growing season [2007 was an outstanding vintage in Long Island] we selected this special section of the vineyard. The grapes were carefully hand-picked and sorted then cold soaked for 5 days before the fermentation started. The maximum temperature reached was 86F and the wine was pumped over up to 3 times a day during the peak of fermentation.
“The wine was dry after 2.5 weeks and was gently pressed and racked into barrels.
Malolactic fermentation was finished 100% and the wine received a total of 6 rackings.
It was bottled on the 28th of April 2009.
There are three wines: a rosé made from Merlot, an Estate Merlot, and a Reserve Merlot.
In January 2013 we shared this wine for lunch with friends. These were our impressions: Ruby in color with a narrow, clear meniscus. Pronounced aromas of ripe, black fruit, with notes of leather, cigar box, and toast. In the mouth it is balanced and rich, the fruit quite forward with nicely-knit tannins and a fairly long finish. At seven years it is clear that this wine has some years ahead of it, but it is ready now.
We learned in 2015 that Gramercy was no longer making wine, but Carol explained that she had turned over the use of the vineyard to Sal Diliberto, who also has his own vineyard and winery. Indeed, Diliberto had already field-grafted 600 vines to Cabernet Franc from Merlot, but his health kept him from carrying on with further plans. However, as of April 2019 Carol has granted a 10-year lease of the vineyard to new neighbors, Michael and Monika Harkin. Monika’s family is from Hungary and own a vineyard there. When they married they went to live in Hungary for four years, and Michael got the bug for farming from his experience there. He has hired Robert Hansen, a vineyardist of many years experience on the island to help him. At the moment, they haven’t yet selected a new winemaker, but it’s still months until the harvest, after all.
Regarding the wines that are in her cellar, Carol said that “. . . the reds are aging well and still available. The 2010 Claret, a mix of Merlot and Reilly Cellars Cab Franc, is exceptional as is the Merlot of that year. She has Merlots from the 2007 through 2011 and all “are maturing superbly too.” Indeed, a 2008 that we had in April 2019 was very much alive and well, a mature wine that was beautifully balanced, with well-knit tannins and deep red-fruit flavors. Those wines can be tasted and purchased at the winery by appointment only, seven days a week.
Bedell Cellars was established by Kip Bedell in 1980, making it one of the oldest vineyards on the East End and only one of ten that have vines that are 30 years old or more. Bedell was eventually sold in 2000 to Michael Lynne, executive producer of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and a former head of New Line Cinema. Lynne, who already had just purchased Corey Creek Vineyards, brought both great enthusiasm and deep pockets to Bedell, has turned the winery and its tasting room into an elegant and modern space to make and display some of the most distinctive wines on the North Fork, as well as a collection of fine Contemporary Art. Unfortunately, Lynne died in March 2019 after a struggle with cancer.
Bedell’s winemaker, Richard Olsen-Harbich, is himself a long-time veteran of the wine trade in Long Island, both as a vineyard manager and winemaker, first working at Mudd Vineyards, and then worked at Bridgehampton Winery in both capacities. It was while he was at Bridgehampton that he drew up the applications for the Hamptons AVA and then one for the North Fork, and finally one for Long Island. It was at there that Rich saw the effects of bad vineyard siting, when the vines collapsed during a hard winter, due to cold spots and poor drainage. Nevertheless, he managed to produce a number of award-winning wines at Bridgehampton, in the end working with purchased fruit. He then went on to work at Hargrave Vineyard—the pioneer vineyard that had started viticulture on the island—and later helped establish Raphael with Steve Mudd, a well-known grower and vineyard consultant. He remained at Raphael until 2010, when he moved to Bedell. With a degree in agronomy from Cornell and his years of experience in the business, Rich has among the strongest credentials of anyone in the East End wine business. As pointed out by Jay McInerney, wine writer for the Wall Stret Journal, in his wine column of Sept. 6, 2013, “The Other Bordeaux Lies Closer to Home,” “The arrival of Richard Olsen-Harbich in 2010 seems to have marked a turning point. . . . [and he] has taken Bedell Cellars to new heights since he arrived at the winery.”
David Thompson, Bedell’s former vineyard manager, was responsible for, among other things, helping to write the Long Island sustainability guidelines for Cornell University’s Vine Balance Initiative, a ‘best practices’ handbook for sustainable grape growing in New York State. Rich, who has a complete grasp of what goes on in the Bedell vineyards, worked closely with vineyard Thompson, who had been there with Kip since its inception, until he retired in June 2016 and Donna Rudolph filled his shoes. Donna came to Bedell in 1996, having worked at Ressler Vineyards for 13 years before that. At Bedell, she oversees sustainably-grown grapes on three vineyard sites spanning 75 acres on the North Fork.
With respect to the vineyards and the cultivation of the vines, he says that:
“When we plant a new field we start a liming program early on; our aim is to bring the pH up to 6.2 to 6.4. Thereafter we only need to replenish the soil with lime once or twice in every ten years. We use a water tank to irrigate new vines when there’s a dry spell.
“Our preferred vine spacing varies, according to the plot of vines: it can range from 9’ by 7’ or 8’, 8’ by 3’ for Syrah vines, and even 8’ by 4’. I’d say that the average spacing works out to about 9’ by 5’. We typically harvest about two tons an acre and we prefer to pick the grapes manually.”
“Practicing sustainable agriculture means that you have to have a system that pays attention to both ecology and economy. You need low-impact strategies because, after all, our vineyards are near towns and we have an obligation to be good neighbors. So, we hire local people, do not foul our own nests, and we have social obligations as well. For example, in order to preserve the vineyards as farmland forever, we have sold our development rights to the Peconic Land Trust. “We make our own compost, using the natural by-products of grape pressing and fermentation and returning these to the vineyard soil. In my opinion, using fish fertilizer is not sustainable, as it means devastating wild fish populations, so I consider that to be ‘dirty’; it’s better and cleaner to use commercial nitrogen fertilizer made from peanut byproducts.” The Website adds that “We avoid or minimize the use of synthetic fertilizers, instead encouraging responsible natural stewardship of soil health, fertility, and stability.”
Bedell participated in the Cornell University VineBalance program for years, and the winery is also a founding member of the North Fork Sustainable Winegrowing certification program, itself an outgrowth of VineBalance.
With respect to organic farming, Rich says that he believes that the science of organics is flawed and that much more work needs to be done before we can say that we really understand what organics add to sustainability. In this respect he points out that both copper and sulfur of the kind that is used in farming are industrial products, so neither can be considered ‘natural’ or ‘organic,’ and copper, while highly toxic and with long persistence in the soil, is permitted in organic agriculture. Both sulfur and copper are insuperable fungicides and are difficult to replace when humid conditions may prevail, as is often the case in Long Island.
Bedell’s excellent Website adds the following information:
There are several other ways we have worked for the public interest through a sustainability-minded vineyard program:
We participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service Environmental Quality Incentive Program and Conservation Security Program, which rewards good land stewardship through nutrient, pest and cropland management, natural windbreaks, and non-planted wildlife buffer areas.
We established a dense cover crop of grasses, fescues, and clovers between the rows of grapevines to maintain high biological species diversity in the vineyard. These row-middle cover crops also reduce soil erosion and promote symbiotic relationships between plants and beneficial insects.
We minimize off-farm inputs such as agricultural chemicals to protect the farmer, the environment, and society at large.
If we have to spray a fungicide to control a specific grapevine pathogen such as powdery mildew, we use one with the lowest possible environmental impact.
We avoid or minimize agricultural chemicals that do not biodegrade and might build-up in the soil over time.
We scout the vineyard for insects using Integrated Pest Management principles and economic threshold evaluation to eliminate or minimize insecticide use.
We encourage a natural flow of ecosystem elements through the presence of Bluebird houses, honey bee hives, and deer migration corridors. At Bedell, we employ sustainable, ecological viticulture to ensure the highest quality fruit without unnecessary, high-risk practices. We grow grapes for our own unique environmental conditions – the first step toward a pure expression of local terroir in our wines.
Bedell’s conviction about terroir is found, vividly expressed, in the cave of the winery, where a plexiglass box hanging on the wall displays a cross-section of vineyard soil (though compressed vertically many times over) showing how loam, sand, clay, and gravel are layered. (The image also holds the reflection of wine barrels, appropriately perhaps.) It helps explain how stratification can account for such factors as drainage and/or retention of water in the soil—which is important in understanding how vines respond to the terroir in which they grow, along with the effects of slope, aspect to the sun, etc. (See “Olson-Harbich’s Obsession with Soil . . . ” on the New York Cork Report blog, June 2, 2011.)
Furthermore, it goes on to say, “We maintain viticultural practices that produce the highest quality fruit possible, while also being sensitive to the environment and financially viable over time. . . . Each of our three unique vineyard sites is a holistic ecological system,” and together total approximately 80 planted acres: Bedell Home Vineyard on the Main Road in Cutchogue, behind the winery and tasting room; Corey Creek Vineyards on Main Road in Southold, adjacent to the Corey Creek tasting room; and Wells Road Vineyard on Main Road in Peconic. According to Rich, there are five sections planted to Merlot, its most important variety, for a total of 32 acres in 50 separate plots, as can be seen on the maps below. The other varieties planted at the sites include Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Syrah.
Bedell’s viticultural philosophy is presented very clearly on its Website (about the vineyards); indeed, I find it is the fullest, yet pithiest exposition of its viticultural practices of any of the Island vineyards, and the only one to offer plot maps. Rich’s blog posts on the Website are especially worth reading-for example, his assessment of the 2013 vintage: Lucky 13.
As a vintner dedicated to making ‘natural’ or ‘minimalist’ wines, he points out, first of all, that “we try to stay away from late season fungicide applications in order to preserve the wild yeasts that are used for fermentation.” Indeed, one of Bedell’s hallmark’s is its commitment to the use of indigenous yeasts, thanks to Rich, who, in fact has inaugurated what has become a new ritual at Bedell–the care and feeding of the yeast in preparation for the fermentation of the new harvest. It’s a bit of a witch’s brew, minus the eye of newt and leg of toad–perhaps it should be called a ‘fairies’ brew,’ given the addition of wildflowers, freshly-picked local fruit, including apple, pear, and a white peach. (A post on Facebook about this provoked an article in October 2013 by Louisa Hargrave, The Yeasty Beasties, which is well-worth reading.) In fact, Eric Fry has an amusing anecdote about Rich’s commitment to wild yeast:
That’s his thing and he does it… he’s been doing it for years and he seems to have it figured out, and cool, that’s good fine, yeah, good for him, good for him. It’s really funny because when Rich moved from Raphael to Bedell, he showed up at Bedell and he’s looking around, he’s rummaging around, and seeing what’s there and everything like that, and he came over [to see me at Lenz] and said “I’ve got like six or eight boxes of yeast here, do you want them?”
I said “OK, I’ll take them.” Because [Rich] says “I don’t want them.”
As with all of the top vineyards that I’ve visited on the East End, Bedell’s wines begin in the vineyard and the results are telling. For example, it’s Bordeaux-style blend (with some Syrah), Musée, was awarded 91 points by Wine Spectator for the 2007 vintage—one of the highest scores by that publication for a red wine from the East End. The sample I tasted was already rich in flavor, with good acidity and tannins to give it backbone, but it was still a bit closed. Clearly, it needs to be laid down for a few years. Bedell claims that it can keep for up to 15-20 years. Any wine that can develop for that long has to be exceptional, so to drink it now would be to commit infanticide. I also bought a few bottles of Corey Creek’s Gewürztraminer, which I found to be among the best of that variety of any North American ones that I’ve tasted. Irresistible.
In April 2016 the 2014 Sauvignon Blanc earned 90 points from WA while the 2014 Chardonnay also got a score of 90 with the remark: “ beautifully balanced . . . all about the finesse.” The 2010 ‘Taste Red’ earned 90 points from WA. In April 2017 WE awarded the Bedell 2014 Cabernet Franc 90 points and others are rated in the high 80s. In January 2019’s Cork Report, Lenn Thompson rated the Taste Rosé as 90 points, given its “nice fruit flavors.” These are very good to excellent scores indeed. There is also a zippy, straightforward quaffing wine, known as ‘Main Road Red’ that is always reliable.
The 2014 Taste Red (a blend of Merlot, Syrah, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc) is a real favorite of ours and is meant for serious oenophiles. Rich and full-bodied, it offers a bouquet of cherry, plum, and toast, and is complex in the mouth, offering cherry, plum, chocolate, and herbs. It can be laid down for several years.
This is a vineyard and winery that commands high respect and praise. I recommend visiting winery and its elegant tasting room, festooned with a collection of contemporary art including works by Barbara Kruger, Chuck Close, and others. If you cannot get there soon, at least visit the Bedell Website.
Due to Lynne’s death, the winery is now for sale. The asking price is $17.8 million.
Based on an interview with Richard Olsen-Harbich on 12 May 2011, with additions from the Bedell Website updated 4 April 2019
In 2014 Robibero Family Vineyards won a competition double gold for their 2012 Cabernet Franc. That was quite an achievement for a Hudson Valley winery, but it was made with Finger Lake fruit. There’s nothing wrong with that; many wineries purchase fruit from other regions, depending on the varieties that they need which may not grow in their own region. And a double gold is a double gold, period. It certainly spoke to the skills of the winemaker, Cristop Brown.
Also in 2014, an important article by Steve Kolpan was published in The Valley Table vol. 65, March-May issue: “A Signature Grape for the Hudson Valley?” In it he pointed out that the Finger Lakes had established the Riesling grape as its signature variety, and Long Island has its Merlot. Both of these are true vinifera varieties, European in origin and widely known and accepted throughout the wine world as fine-wine fruit. The issue for the Hudson Valley, with its harsh and variable climate, was that many of its most successful varieties have been hybrids, which is to say, crosses of a vinifera vine with an American one. The idea was to produce a hardy, cold-resistant variety that also offered a palatable wine. Indeed, Baco Noir is a very successful hybrid that produces very red nice wines, and Seyval Blanc makes some truly nice whites. But neither offers the cachet of a Riesling or Merlot. They’re just not on the radar of serious wine drinkers. It’s a shame, but that’s the reality.
Mr. Kolpan suggested that there was indeed a successful European variety that actually could and did thrive in the Valley, if properly tended to in the vineyard. He suggested that it should be Cabernet Franc.
Historically, Cabernet Franc (aka Cab Franc) has often been seen as a lesser variety than Cabernet Sauvignon, so is often not given the respect it deserves. In fact, DNA analysis has shown that Cabernet Sauvignon is in fact a descendant of Cabernet Franc—in a cross with Sauvignon Blanc—so Cabernet Franc has lost all sense of inferiority. Cabernet Sauvignon enjoys its renown because it is more assertive and bold (it has more acidity and tannin) but Cabernet Franc has some exceptional qualities of its own. It is softer, spicier, and more delicately perfumed. When young it is much more approachable. When blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, the result is often a wine than is more complex than either variety alone.
Like Merlot, it is used to soften the hard edges of Cabernet Sauvignon, and contributes its own complexity and floral bouquet. There is sometimes a spicy or briary flavor to Cabernet Franc wines; Robert Parker detects a “weedy, olive-like aroma,” while Jancis Robinson is reminded of the aroma of pencil shavings. This is sounding less and less like something one would be inclined to drink, but to the world of fine wine, these apparently negative qualities can give the wine an intriguing complexity.
It is an important part of many of the great blended wines of Bordeaux, and is a signature red variety of the Loire Valley. One of the reasons that Cab Franc can do so well in the Hudson region is that it is a much earlier ripener than Cab Sauvignon or even Merlot.
Established in 2016, the Coalition set out to define the criteria that had to be met in order to be a member. Choosing a hawk as its symbol (they are ubiquitous in the Valley), the hawk sticker on a bottle guarantees the wine in it is at least 75% Cabernet Franc and that 85% of the fruit was grown in the Hudson Valley. Furthermore, all these wines are to be aged for 12 months in oak barrels before being released for sale.
This is not to say that other Valley wineries don’t also produce Cab Francs: among them are Bashakill, Brimstone Hill, Cereghino-Smith, Hudson-Chatham, Palaia, Stoutridge, and Warwick Valley. They have not yet joined the Coalition for any variety of reasons.
In 2018 Whitecliff was awarded a coveted Double Gold Medal from the prestigious San Francisco International Wine Competition (SFIWC) for its 2016 Cabernet Franc. This makes 2018 a great year for Whitecliff: it marks the beginning of its twentieth year in business, and it began with yet another international Double Gold—for Whitecliff’s Gamay Noir at the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition. With two international awards for Hudson Valley reds this year, Whitecliff is chipping away at the outdated assumption that New York doesn’t produce great red wines. Furthermore, it confirms the idea that Cabernet Franc is indeed the red variety of the Hudson Valley.
To really enjoy the wine, it should be decanted or at least poured into glasses for about an hour before drinking it, so that the exposure to air will soften the high acidity—typical for so young a wine. Already it offers aromas of dark red fruit, delicate herbal notes, and a hint of oak. It has good body and the flavors confirm what the nose tells you. I late January I had a bottle which I decanted, following my own advice, and consumed about half the bottle with dinner. I didn’t drink the balance until two days later. That longer period of oxygenation had transformed the wine. It had become more balanced as the acidity had become better integrated and the fruit flavors were enhanced. It was, quite simply, an excellent Cab Franc, as good as any that I’ve had from an East Coast producer.
Enjoyable now, I think that it would benefit from being laid down for a few years. Buy a case and open a bottle every few months. You’ll find that it will evolve over time. It really is good, and will get even better. But then, a Double-Gold Cabernet Franc should do exactly that!
This high level of achievement for Whitecliff’s Cabernet Franc, which was made from estate-grown grapes at their home vineyard in Gardiner, will no doubt contribute to recognition of the Valley as a significant producer of this variety. This time Whitecliff’s winemaker, Brad Martz has bragging rights!
Oh, yes, and Robibero has now planted an acre of its own Cabernet Franc. That’s why they were able to join the Coalition. We await their next wine.
You can read more about Whitecliff here and about Robibero here, as they both have posts on this blog.
The Hudson River Region has three wine trails, of which two are on the East side of the river and one on the West. The western one is the Shawangunk, of which Whitecliff Vineyards is one of the wineries on the trail, which has the oldest continually-operating winery in the United States, now known as Brotherhood Winery. Located in Gardiner, NY, Whitecliff is easy to get to from the New York Thruway at exit 18, at New Paltz, where the earliest vinifera vines in the valley were planted in 1673—unsuccessfully—as they knew nothing then about pests like the devastating root louse, Phylloxera. Today winegrowers know plenty about vine pests and diseases, and the Valley now has dozens of successful wine-grape vineyards planted to both hybrid and vinifera varieties.
Whitecliff is a family-owned, award-winning winery and vineyard with 20 varieties currently planted. Many are experimental, but the production wines include both vinifera varieties such as Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and Riesling, and hybrids like Seyval, Marquette, and Vignoles. Red, white, pink, and sparkling wines are made from these and other grapes. The owners are Michael Migliore and Yancey Stanforth-Migliore.
As of 2018 Whitecliff has one of the largest vineyards in the Hudson River region. Its 32 acres are primarily in Gardiner, with six additional acres now established on the eastern bank of the river in Hudson. Focused on Gamay Noir, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Seyval Blanc, their vineyards serve as the foundation for a 6,500-case annual wine production. Of the varieties on the 32 acres of vineyard in Gardiner there is a roughly a fifty-fifty balance of vinifera and hybrids. The experimental varieties may have just a row or two of vines. All the varieties are Vertical Shoot Positioning (VSP) trained, which is a standard system for vinifera vines. Other vineyards in the Valley may use high wire for their hybrids, but at the time of harvest it’s really difficult, as one has to “fight through this jungle of leaves and tendrils and shoots” in order to get at the grapes. Using VSP with the hybrid varieties doesn’t really have much of a downside, given that the ones grown here are all pretty tame, like Traminette, Noiret, and so on. They have pretty restrictive soil, so there isn’t too much vigor and VSP helps manages it well. The soil is composed of clay of three different types: Churchville soil, which is a heavy clay, Castile, and Cayuga. The latter two have more sand and are sandy loams, more like the soils in Long Island. Cayuga soil has larger stones, small gravel, and affords good drainage and runs down from the top of the hill, where the Castile and Cayuga soils appear on either side of the winery at the base. This was once a flood plain for the Wisconsin Era glacial melting. There’s visible evidence of washout and conglomerate rock from the glacial action. The acidity is naturally at about 5.6 pH so every other year lime has to be added to the soil so that the acidity is kept at about 6.5-6.6, which is pretty basic. Also typical of the soils of the Hudson Valley is a deficiency of phosphorus. That’s another reason that one has to get into the soil and really work it, because added phosphorus is not mobile. It can’t just be spread it on the ground in the expectation that it will get down to the roots on its own.
Michael is an organic chemist by both degree and experience; he spent years at IBM working on projects involving optical lithography among other things. He planted the vineyard one year after he started working at IBM in 1978, so it took a long time to grow it to what it is today. They originally purchased eighteen acres of land and later on added another fifty acres. The vineyard was started by planting a one-and-a-half acre plot and another three-acre plot. They now have twenty-six acres under vines. It is now one of the largest vineyards in the Valley. He and his wife Yancey opened the winery when he was still working for IBM in 1999, offering wines from the 1998 harvest. For years before that they had sold their fruit to other wineries until they finally had their own facility.
Michael’s prowess in both the cellar and in the vineyard is such that he not only has won awards but is also the role model for other wineries in the region. Indeed, he is also the current president of the Hudson Valley Wine and Grape Association.
The Vineyard plots sit in clear proximity of the Shawangunk Cliffs–the most important rock-climbing site on the East Coast–hence the name of the vineyards. The vines are planted about 4’ 6” to 5’ apart, and about 6’ for the Seyval–even that could be brought down to 5 feet. As Michael says, “If there’s anything that I’ve learned in thirty-six years of growing grapes, it’s that closer planting is better.” The rows are 9 feet apart but with replanting that may change over time.
Among red varieties Whitecliff has about an acre and a quarter of Pinot Noir, some of which is used for the sparkling wine, which has a cuvée that is 40% Pinot and 60% Chardonnay. Some goes into the sparkling rosé, which is 100% Pinot Noir. The rest goes into the still wine. It does well on the site, planted on a south-facing hillside with good drainage that seems ideally suited for the variety. They also grow Cabernet Franc and Merlot as well as some hybrids such as Noiret and Marquette.
There are roughly an acre-and-a-half each of the Pinot Noir and Cab Franc at 4’ 6” spacing, which is good for the soil in which they are planted. The other big red-wine grape here is Gamay Noir—in fact, Whitecliff is one of only two vineyards in the state that grow that grape. In fact, Michael thinks that this is more of a Burgundian than a Bordeaux-like climate in that Pinot Noir, Gamay, Cab Franc, and Chardonnay all do well here. There is also a small plot of Merlot but no Cabernet Sauvignon, which just doesn’t do well here due to the short growing season.
On the other hand, Riesling thrives at the vineyard. With respect to Rieslings from the Finger Lakes or Long Island, Michael finds that when they bring them in they lack acidity, so they have to add Whitecliff Riesling to give it some backbone, then it’s really good. There is one acre of Riesling as well as three acres of Traminette, Another three acres are planted with Chardonnay.
The Gewürztraminer x Joannes Seyvel 23.416 hybrid, Traminette, was released by Cornell, but it had been developed in Illinois by the hybridizer Herb Barrett in 1965. For Michael, Traminette is a great success story. Though he has both the Traminette and Gewürz planted in his vineyard, he finds the former easier to grow. It’s yields are higher, it’s less prone to disease, it’s more cold hardy. It has the core of the Gewürztraminer characteristics: lychee and rose aromas and flavors. Gewürz is more of a challenge to the winegrower in order to get the full range of flavors that it can offer. It needs to hang longer for fuller ripeness, but the more time it spends on the vine, the more prone it is to rot, for example. Now the Migliores have embarked on a new 75% Traminette-25% Gewürz blend called White Rose. The reason that Whitecliff doesn’t produce a Gewürz varietal is that the quantity grown presently doesn’t yield enough to reach a hundred cases, which is the minimum that they want for any of their wines. In truth, White Rose is a field blend—something that they’ve never done before. The Gewürz is added to the Traminette to bring up the blend’s flavor profile.
While they do use machinery for spraying, all the other field work is done by hand. They don’t need to use a curtain or recycling sprayer here because drip is not a problem with the neighbors so far away. The tower sprayer is more than adequate for the work that has to be done in the vineyard. At Whitecliff they try to follow an Integrated Pest Management Program (IPM), but they are not organic or Biodynamic. They deeply care about the environment and use as much of the organic inputs as possible, including copper and lime and phosphoric acid (about which there is a debate about whether or not it can be considered part of a certified organic program. They try to use minimal spray inputs and are constantly monitoring what they use. If a sprayer is fully loaded and taken into the field it can be worked all day, but the cost comes to about $500 to $600 each time, so obviously there’s no incentive to spray too much. The idea is to spray before any fungi or insects can take hold of a field, a kind of prophylactic treatment. Once anything takes hold, it is far more difficult and expensive to get it under control. Besides that, the winery needs to keep a lookout for new pesticides that might be more effective than what it currently is using. (One reason for this is that organisms that survive a toxic application will beget resistant offspring. This is now a big problem in New York due to so much overuse.) Basically, the spray schedule for the season is from ten to fourteen days of spraying. They’ve done well so far, as they’ve not had any major breakouts in the vineyard.
Another problem with spraying is that many vineyard managers think that sprays contain systemic chemicals, which is to say that they remain in the plants and do not wash away in the rain, and they’re wrong. There are only a couple of them that are systemic, the rest need to be resprayed after a rain. Furthermore, as Michael says, “once or twice in every ten years you are going to have to use non-organic sprays because this isn’t the Napa Valley, it isn’t a desert; this is where it’s cold and damp.” All of which adds to the disease pressure. Last summer there was a great deal of rain. When a New York vineyard is hit by a lot of rain, it must be put on a seven-day spray schedule to save the crop and one doesn’t have much choice in terms of what must be sprayed. Copper, which is approved for organic farming, is an important input that gives excellent results, but over time it accumulates in the soil and is toxic, so one may have an organic farm but under these circumstances, but ironically, not be sustainable.
About disease pressure, Michael says that “Among the diseases that most press on the vineyard is Downy Mildew, which rears its ugly head every July. The next is Powdery Mildew, and then there’s Botrytis, which comes in at the end of the season. Black rot is another disease to reckon with, so it needs to be sprayed assiduously, and that includes the mummies that may be clinging to the canopy, where they can sporelate.”
The thing that Michael stresses about spraying is that the vineyard needs constant vigilance to always be ready to spray when needed.
It is because of Michael’s background as a chemist and years of experience with the high tech of IBM that he eventually invested in a state-of-the-art winery: a large, open structure built in 2011—the building could, in his words, also be called “an above-ground cellar.” It uses geothermal heating and cooling, costing about one-third of what it would be if doing it any other way. There are also supplemental heat exchangers that can also cool it off or heat it up. The heating comes up through the floor. This takes care of a space that is forty by eighty, or thirty-two hundred square feet. In addition, they have a fifteen by eighty-foot covered pad in the back, which though it has a roof, remains exposed to the outside.
Another way in which the winery is efficient is in using the glycol for the air conditioning for the cooling jackets for the fermentation tanks. When using the air conditioning for cooling the building, they use the extracted heat for their hot water. The winery is already oriented to the south so that if they install solar panels the energy use will be a net-neutral system. (Perhaps at that point Whitecliff will even have a surplus that can be sold back to the grid.)
According to Michael, the system that’s in place cost about 30% more than one using a standard energy system, but because so much energy is saved the RTO is about seven years.
With respect to Michael’s philosophy about winegrowing, he sums it up in one word: “Quality.” In his case this means that the first thing he looks for is quality in the grapes that they’re going to harvest. For Whitecliff, when they bring good fruit into the winery the winemaker’s first obligation is to “not screw it up. Work with what is given and the rest is very simple.” They look for a balanced wine, so if necessary they will chaptalize if the Brix isn’t high enough. If a wine is too thin or too acidic, they will take the necessary measures to bring the wine into balance. Given that this is not Napa Valley, and it’s a cold climate, and no two vintages are the same, adjustments of this kind will have to be made from time to time. Because of this, it is very challenging for the winemaker, and as far as Michael is concerned, if a winemaker can make good wine in the East, he or she will certainly succeed in Australia or California and have a much easier time of it.
When it comes time to harvest the crop, they typically bring in about ten people to help out. They also handle the fruit in other vineyards, so the crew can be kept busy for a number of days. In some cases they will work in a vineyard from which Whitecliff buys fruit—the owner may have a small crew and they supply the rest of the pickers. It’s all done by agreement.
In the winters of 2013 and 2014 deep freezes seriously damaged the Gamay Noir vines so Whitecliff has now purchased a six-acre plot on the East side of the Hudson near the foot of the Rip Van Winkle Bridge and just below the hills of Olana, Frederick Church’s legendary home. Records indicate that this particular plot does not freeze, in good part because it enjoys the “river effect” where large bodies of water ameliorate the climate. The vines are being planted and should be productive in a couple of years or so.
When they harvest, they drop the grapes into lugs that they then bring to the crush pad and deposit them in macro-bins capable of holding about 1,200 pounds, and then do as much gravity-fed processing as possible. The crusher sits directly over the press so that there’s no need for pumping the white grapes. One thing that they do at Whitecliff that is different from what is done by most other East Coast wineries, is not to use gravity settling for its whites, but instead use flotation clearing. This began with their 2009 Riesling, which subsequently won a Double-Gold medal in the San Francisco International Wine Competition. (More about this below.)
In Germany this floation process, called Floatclear, is widely used. After crushing winemakers add enzymes to the juice, then run it through a centrifugal pump and bleed in nitrogen at a 6-bar pressure at a rate of four liters a minute. This results in nitrogen bubbles in the juice adhering to the particulate matter in it, which floats up to the top of the tank instead of letting the particles settle to the bottom. It greatly speeds up the process of clearing the wine prior to fermentation, because they can clarify about 3,000 liters an hour: in an hour-and-a-half they can finish a whole tank of juice to be ready for the yeast to be added, instead of having to wait about 24 hours or so for the settling to take place on its own. Also, the normal loss [of juice] is about five to ten percent when using gravity for clearing the juice as opposed to about three percent with this process.
As Michael said, “The result is so much cleaner, much better–we’re so glad that we’ve gone down this path that they can’t believe that not everybody is using it. Not only that, but just think of the energy that’s involved in cooling the tank for twenty-four hours, then bringing it back up to a temperature where you can get the fermentation started. It’s a brilliant tool. We’re one of the first in the state to adopt it. I know that some up in the Finger Lakes are doing it but I don’t know of anyone out in Long Island that’s doing it right now.”
Whitecliff has recently undergone several changes to its processing. For one, they’ve gone to synthetic corks for the whites. Screw caps, the other alternative to natural corks, require a capital investment of about $15,000 in machinery. Synthetic corks demand no changes in the equipment used for natural corks. Furthermore, synthetics cost less than natural, on the order of 16 cents versus 26 cents. Screw caps cost about 6 to 7 cents, but the investment up front is very high so that it takes a long time to get back your return on investment. They’re really more suited to larger operations than Whitecliff.
Natural corks allow an ingress of oxygen of about 30 parts per million, whereas synthetic ones allow only five parts. Screw caps had a problem with the barriers that were used for a long time; even today they aren’t recommended for keeping white wine for longer than about two years. Instead, Whitecliff uses a top-of-the-line Nomacorc product that is especially designed to control and limit the transfer of oxygen.
Production this year is about the same as last year—about 7,000 cases. And they want to rebalance their production. That is, “We over-produced on some and under-produced on others.”
Whitecliff’s number-one selling wine is Awosting White, a Vignoles-Seyval Blanc blend. They had hugely boosted production of it, so they overproduced it, so they’ve got to cut back on it. Michael says that, “It’s probably our signature wine. It’s held up well. The production of Traminette is growing, but it’s a problem where it is in that field, which is shielded so doesn’t get any wind. So it tends to get Botrytis and sour rot, too. This is something we’re still trying to figure out.” But this year they decided to harvest it early as a result of an experimental program over the last couple of years, and they’re going to move it into the sparkling wine program.
The winemaker is Brad Martz. He came to Michael after tasting some wines and he asked if they needed any volunteer help. So he helped out in the cellar, and worked with them in the sparkling wine processing. After a couple of years he came on as assistant winemaker. He learned much of what he knows about winemaking on the job at Whitecliff. He also did self-study as well as earning a degree from UC Davis. “We worked together and he learned as we worked,” Michael said of Brad, “The thing about him is that he’s committed, he’s mature, and he has a good intellect and excellent palate.”. Brad joined the firm as winemaker in 2014; he is critical to the final decision of what goes into the bottle of every wine. He believes that it’s better to learn on the job at the winery than to go spend that time earning a degree in winemaking, after which the graduate knows the concepts but not the practice.
So to the extent possible, they try to make natural wines, but they won’t touch ambient yeasts for the most part, so they use yeasts that are commercially available. In Michael’s view, companies have done very well with their yeasts, and he can decide, for example, to cold-ferment Riesling for eight weeks and there will be a yeast to do that. With natural yeasts that cannot be done; one may get the desired result sometimes but at other times one can end up with a stuck fermentation. In fact, once a winery has used a particular yeast for many fermentations, and the pomace is thrown into the fields, then that strain will become the dominant yeast out there, even if it’s not native.
They use gravity feed instead of pumps because if the must goes through a pump connected to a hose at high pressure there is the possibility that there could be sheared seeds that release green tannins. When running the red grapes through the destemmer they remove the rollers because they don’t want to macerate the fruit, so the grapes go into the fermenter as whole berries. The grapes will then initiate an internal carbonic fermentation on their own, and that will release more subtle fruits, which is part of what Whitecliff is after.
On the other hand, it makes punchdown in the tank much more difficult, which is why the winery uses pumpovers. To make sure that seeds are not in the pumpover must the tanks have mesh filters that catch the seeds as they sink to the bottom, so the filter can be removed and the seeds discarded. Thus, if harvest had to take place before there was phenolic maturation, then the green seeds can be removed before they can add a green, harsh character to the wine.
Generally they look for balance and do not seek to make sweet wines, but they make many bench tests, primarily to balance out the acidity, which tends to be high with the sugar on the low side, as the grapes are usually brought in at 20 to 21 Brix. That often means that they have to chaptalize the must. The resulting Riesling then comes in at 1.3% RS.
As an example of Michael’s scrupulous care and attention, before Whitecliff even made a sparkling wine to sell, bench tests were made for six years. The result is North River (a historical name for the Hudson, not just long ago, but even today, when boatmen may refer to the North River along certain spots of the waterway), Whitecliff’s second label for its sparkling wine, which is made in the traditional method, where the second fermentation takes place in the bottle in which the wine will be released. They make a cuvée, a rosé, and a Blanc de Blanc. The cuvée is made up of 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir. Both varieties are estate grown, but from two vineyards, The Pinot is grown here, while the Chardonnay comes from a vineyard on the Hudson in Middle Hope, that Michael owns with a partner, John Hudelson, who’s a professor of oenology and viticulture at Central Washington State University on the West Coast. The New Hope vineyard sits on limestone at the warmest spot on the entire river, so that it never freezes. They do everything at the winery including the second fermentation, the autolysis, riddling, adding the final dosage, and bottling. Whitecliff also getting ready to create another line—“it’s really expanding, and we’re committed.”
One thing that they lack and need is a sorting table. Michael observed that if he had to spend money on new equipment, the $15,000 that a screw-cap bottler would cost could instead go to buy a $10,000 sorting table. That will raise the quality of the wine, whereas a screw-cap will not affect it at all.
Michael went on to point out that “We’re a whole team here, not just Brad and myself. There’s also Santiago—the vineyard manager-cum-factotum—and Paco, who are key parts of the winery. You need people for processing the grapes, help in the vineyard, the cellar . . . cleaning out barrels, all sorts of things. The great thing about Santiago is that I can just tell him, ‘Go do this.’ And he goes and does it, I don’t have to watch to make sure that he does it right.” And it is a family business that involves two other members, Michael’s wife, Yancey, and their son Tristan. Yancey handles marketing and wholesale, keep the books, answers the phones, and so on. They also have a Tasting Room manager, Matt Student. The tasting room is a popular destination for tourists, but, he says, they have little curiosity or interest about what’s going on when they arrive at the winery. Work can be going on at the crush pad and they’ll just walk by without so much as a glance. Michael has had people ask, “When do you harvest the grapes?” Yancey recalls one visitor who saw a bin full of fermenting grapes and asked if they were cranberries.
In other words, visitors don’t see or care about the business side of a winery–the hard work in both vineyard and winery, the technology, etc.–but they clearly love the wine. After all, as one can see, they win prizes. I’d certainly give them a prize for their 2013 Pinot Noir–a light-bodied, red-berries and cherries on the nose and in the mouth, a touch of minerality, light tannins and ready to drink right now. A perfect summer wine and terrific with fowl or fish, as well as roast lamb–a versatile wine indeed! So too the Gamay Noir–it reminds one of Beaujolais (same grape variety) but with earthier flavors. The Traminette is excellent, and though made from a hybrid variety, it has much of the aroma and flavor of Gewürztraminer (one of the parents), albeit toned down a bit. The Riesling is just off-dry but extremely well made. All of their wines, in fact, are honest ones that reflect their terroir and varietal character. In fact, the 2012 Reserve Gamay Noir earned 90 points from the March 2017 issue of Wine Enthusiast Magazine for its tasty, elegant, sprightly character.
Another thing that is remarkable about their wines was pointed out by a rival winery not far away. That is the fact that their standard wines, Awosting White and and Red Trail are remarkably consistent blends from year to year, a very difficult thing to achieve in a small winery, particularly given the fact that the Hudson Valley is so challenging for winegrowing.
In March 2015 the New York State Wine and Grape Foundation’s Grower of the Year award was given to Michael, which is especially notable given that the preponderance of the state’s wine grapes are grown in the Finger Lakes and Long Island. Last December his Gamay won 90 points from Wine Spectator. Out of over a 4,000 entries in the 2010 San Francisco International Wine Competition (the largest, most influential international wine competition in America, judged blind by a prestigious panel of nationally recognized wine experts). Whitecliff’s 2009 Riesling won a Double Gold and Best White in Show and other awards have been given for the Reserve Chardonnay and Awosting White. Its 2013 Traminette won a double gold in the 2015 SF International Wine Competition.
In 2018 Whitecliff was awarded a coveted Double Gold Medal from the prestigious San Francisco International Wine Competition (SFIWC) for its 2016 Cabernet Franc. This makes 2018 a great year for Whitecliff: it marks the beginning of its twentieth year in business, and it began with yet another international Double Gold–for Whitecliff’s Gamay Noir at the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition. With two international awards for Hudson Valley reds this year, Whitecliff is chipping away at the outdated assumption that New York doesn’t produce great red wines.
This high level of achievement for Whitecliff’s Cabernet Franc, which was made from estate-grown grapes in their home vineyard in Gardiner, will no doubt contribute to recognition of the Valley as a significant producer of this variety. In fact, there is now a Hudson Valley Cabernet Franc Coalition, which has proclaimed the variety to be the signature red-wine grape of the Valley. Whitecliff, of course, has joined the Coalition.
If there are any doubts about whether Hudson Valley wines can age, we can report that Whitecliff’s 2010 Cab Franc, which was opened in 2019, had developed beautifully, with acidity and tannins subdued and well-integrated and aromas and flavors of red and dark fruit dominating. Their Gamay Noir, made from the grape of Beaujolais, was five years old when it was opened and it, too, had developed beautifully. Naturally low in acidity and tannin, it nevertheless offered strawberry and dark cherry aromas and flavors. We paired it with salmon, and it was a happy marriage.
Their Vidal Blanc earned a Double Gold at the Hudson Valley Wine Competition recently. Furthermore, In my own opinion, its barrel-aged Seyval Blanc defies all expectations of what a hybrid varietal should taste like. It tastes like a vinifera, close to Sauvignon Blanc in character. Then Whitecliff wins a Gold for its 2015 Merlot-Malbec blend at the International Eastern Wine Competition. What a track record. It seems that when it come to wine, Whitecliff can do no wrong. Perhaps they should invest in gold stocks, at this rate!
For several years there was a winery called Rivendell that called 714 Albany Post Road in New Paltz home. Then, in 2003, Harry Robibero and his wife Carole purchased the 42-acre property with the hope that someday the winery operation would become theirs. As a matter of fact, the owners of Rivendell, Bob Ransom and Susan Wine, gave notice in 2007 and left the property for a new location.
Harry mentioned this over family dinner one night. “Did you hear? Rivendell is leaving. Do you guys want to start your own winery? Should I look for another tenant?” Tiffany replied, “Let’s do it. Let’s start a winery.” Ryan, then her husband, agreed. So they took a chance and quit their jobs.
Very shortly after, Harry and his family were busy refurbishing and renovating the existing building. In May of 2010 Robibero Family Vineyards opened for business.
When I first visited Robibero shortly after they’d opened and tasted some of their wines I was frankly disappointed. The wines that I tasted, made from purchased fruit, were thin, sharp, and unbalanced. I told them so and did not return for a couple of years. But eventually I did go back and each time thereafter it was evident that the wines were improving, so much so that in 2014 Robibero won a Double Gold for their 2012 Cabernet Franc from fruit sourced from Sheldrake Point in the Finger Lakes, which came in at 24 Brix. It was aged for nine months in French oak, 50% of which was new. Once the wine was bottled they entered the wine in the competition before they even had an approved label. A Double Gold.
The change in quality came about in large part due to the winemaker who was hired soon after they started, Cristop Brown. Cristop came to Robibero after a stint in Washington State working for Long Shadows. He’d first worked at Millbrook Winery as the tasting room manager. After a few years he went Benmarl, in Marlborough, which has the oldest working vineyard in the country, and it was there that he learned to make wine from Eric Miller, son of Mark Miller, the owner. In fact, Eric made it clear to Cristop that a condition of his being hired was that he had to take courses in biochemistry so that he could better understand that processes that go on in the ripening of the fruit and in fermentation; making the wine was learned on the job. Soon he was assistant winemaker. In a few years Eric sold the winery to Matt Spaccarelli and moved to Pennsylvania, and Cristop then became the Benmarl winemaker. Now it was his turn to teach Matt the art of winemaking and they worked together for nearly four years before he took off for Washington State to see how wine and grape growing are done outside of New York State.
By the time of his return from Washington, Cristop had become a very accomplished oenologist and had become committed to make clean wine marked by varietal typicity and good balance. In fact, it was Matt Spaccarelli who then directed Cristop to Robibero, which had placed a “help wanted” ad in a wine journal.
Ryan is the winery and vineyard factotum or jack-of-all-trades. Depending on the season and the need he may be outside pruning or inside filtering wine with Cristop or in the tasting room pouring. He also drives the truck making deliveries to the various wine shops that carry their label, or whatever else must be done that no one else would be available to do.
When we stepped out in the vineyard our conversation there went on for a while. We were standing on the east-facing slope of the acre of Vidal and Cab Franc, and discussed viniculture.
Members of the family do all the handwork in the vineyard. They try to use organic sprays to the extent possible. Cornell came and gave them advise on how to plant a vineyard, including the orientation of the vine rows, the density, the recommended varieties for the location, and so on. Spacing is about 8 by 8, with original fescue between the rows. Soil pH was just right so that no input was needed to neutralize the soil. According to Ryan, the Cornell team told them that root stock 101-14 would work best in their soil and then provided a list of the vines and clones that they thought would do well on that stock. [101-14 is a root stock that was developed in France and released in 1882 by hybridizers Millardet and de Grasset. It is the result of an interspecific cross between V. riparia and V. rupestris. It produces moderate vigor in scions—the vine cuttings that are grafted to the stock—and has very good resistance to the devastating root louse Phylloxera, scourge of European-variety vineyards.]
Cornell wasn’t the only source of good advice for Robibero. Another was John Whiteman, from Crop Protection Services in Marlborough. When they were thinking of digging up the soil and mixing shale and other matter, then grading to aerate the soil, Whiteman made an important observation: “You know what? It took nature ten million years to create that soil. Don’t mess with it. Just put in some drainage . . . .” He went on to explain that the colloids in the soil [the chemically most active part of soil] took millions of years to develop. Bringing in topsoil would not improve the vineyard because vines grow well in soil that may be too poor for other plants.
In 2015 it was decided to plant a new block of vines across the road–actually, the driveway–from the original plot. Following Whiteman’s advise, and given that Harry is a construction contractor with a great deal of experience managing building sites and the hydrological issues that need to be dealt with–particularly water drainage and runoff–they first excavated the soil along the length of each row to be planted. The 4-inch thin topsoil lies atop a clay stratum about 4 feet deep, beneath which is a layer of shale. By excavating down to the shale they were then able to install a drainage system so that any water would run out of the vineyard, and the clay, now broken up, then was returned to the excavation trench. Now, when the 1,000 Cab Franc vines were planted the roots would be able to penetrate all the way down to the shale and not be harmed by an excess of water held in by clay. The rows, set 9 feet apart with the vines spaced 5 feet from each other, ran almost exactly north to south, slighted angled askew from a true north-south axis so that surface water would run out of the vineyard onto the road. All had been very carefully thought through, thanks to Ryan’s careful research and Harry excavation skills.
So, Robibero is dealing with the land that it has by providing the drainage needed because there is lots of clay there and vines don’t like wet feet.
The winery’s cellar is very small but adequate for the level of production that they have at present. Cristop and Ryan worked together both in the vineyard and the winery, but since Ryan’s departure, Jonathan H. Lander, the current general manager, lends a hand. With respect to the wines, at present virtually all is made from purchased fruit from the Finger Lakes, Long Island, and the Hudson Region itself. Most are made from vinifera varieties like Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and so on. However, one of their most popular wines, Rabbit’s Foot (non-vintage) has a base of 75% Baco Noir plus Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, of which 453 cases were made last year. They also have Bordeaux-style blend that they call 87 South, made with Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot, of which 210 cases were produced for the 2013 vintage. The 2013 New Yorkie Rosé is also a Bordeaux blend, and it quickly sold out.
Robibero has won a Best in Category White Wine in the 2014 Hudson Valley Wine and Spirits Competition for their 2013 87 North as well as Gold Medals for their 2013 Traminette and New Yorkie Rosé, the last of which I find to be a perfect summer quencher—austere, dry, and delicately flavored. It goes well with anything you wish to serve, as long as it’s not too spicy.
Its newest red wine is called The Stray and was introduced in 2015. It is dominated by Cab Franc and Petit Verdot, with a dollop of Malbec. It’s a dry wine with a solid acidic backbone, mild tannins, and tasty red fruit. The 2015 has sold out, but the 2016 is now on offer. It’s worth laying down.
The tasting room is ample, well-organized, and offers a very good space for parties. A large veranda invites people to sit out-of-doors and enjoy the fresh air and the pleasant view. Because too many visitors seem not to understand that a small operation like Robibero’s depends on the sale of all manner of beverages including wine, a local craft beer, and bottled water, signs are prominently displayed telling visitors not to bring in their own drinks of whatever kind. But this is a problem all small wineries face.
Robibero Family Winery & Vineyards and its wines have arrived and the results are impressive. It is certainly worth a visit and a taste or two or three, or buy a case.
Interview with Ryan Selby & Cristop Brown 1 May 2015
updated 27 January 2019
Robibero Winery, 714 Albany Post Road, New Paltz, NY 12561
Owners: Harry , Carole and Tiffany Robibero
Winemaker: Kristop Brown
Manager: Jonathan Lander
Acreage: 42 in land, 3 planted
Varieties planted: Cabernet Franc, Vidal Blanc
Grape Sources: Estate, North Fork Long Island, Seneca Lake
Production: 3,800 Cases
“At Paumanok we practice viticulture that allows us to achieve our goal of growing the ripest, healthiest grapes our vineyards can produce while managing the vineyards in a responsible, sustainable way. In general, we follow the program and principles of New York State’s Sustainable Viticulture Program set forth here: VineBalance, by Cornell Cooperative Extension with whom Paumanok has had a productive relationship since my parents planted our first vines in 1983. We believe that the most important factor in making great wine is starting with the healthiest, ripest fruit possible. Growing grapes in order to achieve this goal and growing them sustainably are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they are one and the same.”
–Statement from an essay by Kareem Massoud, “Sustainable Viticulture at Paumanok”
Established in 1983, the 103-acre estate (with 72 acres currently planted to vine) is entirely owned and managed by Ursula and Charles Massoud, and their three sons, Salim, Kareem, and Nabeel . The main red varieties are Merlot & Cabernet Sauvignon; the main white ones are Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. As for clones, a field already planted with Cabernet Sauvignon was replanted with clone 412, which produces very tiny grapes, which provide more flavor and tannins (it was developed by ENTAV/INRA of France, to which a royalty of $.20-.25 per plant is paid). However, there are no experimental plots as such here, for, as pointed out by Kareem, everything planted in the vineyard could be said to be experimental.
The dense planting of the vineyards (at 1,100 vines per acre) they say produces more concentrated fruit and therefore higher quality wines. Their wines are only made from estate-grown grapes and production is limited to just under 9,000 cases.
The first vineyard was planted across the street from the winery in 1982 (42 acres) but was not acquired until the late 1980s; the first Paumanok vines were planted in 1983, and the winery opened in 1991 with the release of the first estate-bottled wines; 12-15 acres were planted in a new field in 2005. They had to apply one to two tons of lime (calcium carbonate) per acre for the first twenty years on their original plots to bring soil acidity into balance so that it is now stabilized to the higher pH that is more amenable for vinifera varieties.
A more recent addition to Paumanok vineyards is a plot of 25 acres that was purchased from the Riverhead School Board in June of 2014, which will be planted to Chenin Blanc, the signature grape of the property. The property had originally been purchased by the school district for a school that was never built. The proceeds from the sale add to the coffers of the school district and represent an important resource for Paumanok, which will plant the first five acres to Chenin Blanc in 2015.
Certainly the newest and biggest addition occurred in August 2018, when Paumanok acquired Palmer Vineyards on Sound Avenue. This has added another 40 acres of vineyards to Paumanok’s holdings. It is a good fit with regards to the varieties planted at Palmer. Perhaps most appealing is the Albariño, which has been a great success at Palmer, so much so that other wineries are also planting the variety. Indeed, Paumanok has ordered an acre’s worth of this variety that is to be planted next year. The plan is that the new Paumanok planting will eventually be incorporated with the Albariño at Palmer to make even more wine of that variety. Meanwhile, the relatively small planting of Riesling at Palmer will be used to augment the larger Riesling planting at Paumanok.
The juice from the Palmer vineyards will be fermented at that winery but will be finished at Paumanok’s facility. Kareem will be responsible for all the winemaking for both properties.
Kareem, the eldest son, has been the winemaker in partnership with his father, Charles, for the last sixteen years. He also works very closely with his brother Nabeel, who manages the vineyard. Salim, the second son, is the factotum of the family business. For the Massouds, “sustainable” means “healthy,” for “the riper and healthier the berries the better the wine made with the least intervention.”
In the essay he provided me for this article, Kareem writes that “My perennial barometer of whether what we are doing is sustainable is the biodiversity in our vineyard: lady bugs, praying mantis, dragon flies, earth worms, etc., are present in our vineyard in abundance. As you probably know, some farms and vineyards actually introduce populations of some of these beneficial insects as biological controls. So the fact that we have them without having to introduce them says to me that we must be doing something right. We maintain a permanent cover of grasses and wild clovers and other vegetation [between the rows] and under the vine which create a habitat for all the biodiversity cited above.” In other words, at Paumanok they have naturally achieved the symbiotic diversity that is essential to sustainable viticulture.
Though Paumanok practices sustainable viticulture, Kareem thinks that organic farming, at least as understood by the general public, is a myth, insofar as organic farming allows the use of both copper and sulfur; nevertheless, some organic producers will claim that they are not “spraying chemicals” (but what are copper or sulfur if not chemicals?). Such farmers are therefore using the term “organic more as a marketing tool” than acknowledging the actuality of what organic farming entails. It is, in other words, a matter of the use , or misuse, of language. To him, it is more important to be “selecting more benign synthetic pesticides relative to more toxic organic (not an oxymoron) controls. The best example of a toxic organic control is copper. Copper does a great job at controlling downy mildew, but it is a heavy metal which is something we would rather not spray as it will destroy our soils as it accumulates in the soil over time. The sulfur used in [both conventional and organic] farming is made as a byproduct of petroleum production. There are numerous synthetic pesticides which are far more benign that we may opt to use instead.” Indeed, for Paumanok, organic is incidental to the outcome at the vineyard; however, he remains open-minded about aspects of biodynamics, as he thinks the compost tea preparations may be of value, but he remains skeptical of the ‘hocus-pocus’ associated with it, such as following astrological signs or stirring the compost teas in two different directions (the ‘biodynamic’ part of biodynamics). On the other hand, if the mystical aspects of biodynamics could be scientifically proven to be efficacious, he’d use it if it meant growing better fruit.
As Kareem points out, “at Paumanok, we manage our vineyard as sustainably as possible. . . . we do not use any more inputs (crop protectants, micro nutrients and fertilizers) than necessary to grow the ripest fruit possible.” For example, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is driven by self-seeded ground cover, mostly rye grass and sorghum. The cover is allowed to grow into the vine rows and is kept under control by a special vineyard mower that is towed by a tractor. This machine, the Fischer GL4K, is described on the manufacturer’s Web site as “the world’s first hinged mid row and undervine slasher, offering total chemical free weed control solutions for growers with delved, ‘V’ shaped or uneven grounds.” It does, however, have some drawbacks, one of which is that it is capable of damaging or even cutting off the vine from its roots, as can be seen in the photograph to the right. Kareem explains that the vineyard crew is still learning how to use the machine without causing damage to the vines. The point is that it should allow control of weed growth in the vineyard without the need to use herbicides at all. (There is a video of the machine in action on Paumanok’s Facebook page.)
Further IPM control is managed by:
. . . employing] various IPM (Integrated Pest Management) tactics to reduce our reliance on pesticides. For example, we perform the following activities on the entire vineyard: manual-shoot positioning with catch wires and clips to hold the shoots up straight, suckering, shoot-thinning, fruit-thinning or “green-harvesting”, hedging and leaf removal in the fruit zone. All of these practices increase the vines’ natural ability to resist disease (such as powdery mildew or downy mildew) by allowing UV rays from sunlight to burn off the inoculum [material that introduces disease to a previously healthy plant] and generally make conditions less favorable for mildew and other pathogens by creating a microclimate within the vine that minimizes moisture and allows it to dry quickly after a rain event by allowing better ventilation. In any vineyard, but particularly on Long Island [emphasis mine], these activities are essential to give the vine its best chance of naturally fending off pests such as powdery mildew which would take hold much more easily and rapidly – and require more spraying – had we not done these activities. We carry out these practices as diligently, meticulously and thoroughly as possible. What does that mean? For example, when we drop fruit, i.e., green-harvest, we don’t do it just once but repeatedly until harvest. Some vines may have been visited four, five, six or more times (for green-harvesting alone) to ensure that only the cleanest, most desirable fruit remains hanging on the vine upon harvest.
In addition, “Several of the pesticides we use would qualify for an organic program, however, there are some grape pests for which we feel there is no satisfactory organic control [my emphasis] that we know of at this time, such as black rot, phomopsis and botrytis. Given that grapevines must be sprayed (if you know of a grower that never sprays their vines, please let me know), our belief from day one has been to use the most effective, least toxic material available regardless of whether that product is labeled for organic or biodynamic use or not.” Paumanok has therefore invested in state-of-the-art spraying technology. Kareem says that “we use a recycling tunnel sprayer to spray our vineyard. This sprayer greatly reduces drift, and, as the name implies, recycles much of what would have otherwise been lost as drift. This results in a reduced environmental impact and improved profitability, two key pillars of sustainability.”
With respect to the Cornell University Agricultural Extension VineBalance program, Paumanok is very involved; it has the book and follows it. Indeed, Ursula Massoud is on the Cornell Cooperative Extension Advisory Committee for viticulture. VineBalance is working towards a certification program for New York grape growers, but there are politics involved that inhibit its advancement, which has to do with growers and producers of juice grapes by corporations like Welch’s. They do not want third-party certification versus the wine-grape growers who do want it. So the certification program is still in development. Another way in which Paumanok shows its commitment to sustainability is by the installation of the first solar panels at any vineyard. As Kareem points out, the family lives on the property and drinks water from their own well, so they have one more reason to be responsible custodians of the lands they farm. Theirs is a “terroirist” stewardship that respects the land and its produce.
In the vineyard they make sure that at harvest the vines are all clean before the machines go through. (Their machinery uses synthetic food-grade hydraulic fluid (costing $20-25/gallon) in order to minimize the amount of industrial fluid that can find its way into the environment. Nevertheless, they prefer hand-picking, but to ensure that boxes of picked grapes never touch the ground, an empty one is used underneath the box with grapes to keep the fruit clean. The goal always is to pick clean as well as healthy grapes.
Kareem has one last thought:
As Paumanok continues to experiment in the vineyard and improve on our [30+] years of viticultural experience on Long Island, we will pursue whatever methodology allows us to achieve our goal of growing the healthiest, ripest grapes possible regardless of whether that method is known as organic, practicing-organic, biodynamic, IPM, sustainable, etc. There is only one dogma to which we will adhere:
GREAT WINE IS MADE WITH THE HEALTHIEST, RIPEST GRAPES OBTAINABLE.
Consequently, given all the above, Paumanok joined the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers group, becoming the twentieth member as of November 2015.
And the results show in the wine that Kareem, as winemaker, produces at Paumanok. For me the proof is in one of the finest Sauvignon Blanc wines made in this country that I’ve tasted, and an excellent Chenin Blanc that is unique in Long Island. Paumanok also sells: steel-fermented Chardonnay, barrel-fermented Chardonnay, two Chenin Blancs, Cabernet Franc, three different Merlots, two Cabernet Sauvignons, a late-harvest Riesling, a late-harvest Sauvignon Blanc, two Rosés, and several blends, all made by what Kareem calls “minimalist” wine making (he dislikes the term “natural wine making,” which implies something that it really is not).
Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue also earned some impressive numbers, with four scores of 93 and three scores of 92.
“In the world of wine, Robert Parker has been recognized as possibly the world’s most influential wine critic,” said Paumanok winemaker Kareem Massoud. “We think of [wine ratings] as a necessary evil. Like it or not, people are going to evaluate your wine and give your wine a score. In spite of all of the limitations of relying on a number, it still feels good to end up with a highly rated wine.”
Massoud said Mark Squires of WA visited the winery in March of 2015 and later requested a second set of samples of the wines he tasted, a common practice for wine critics.
“Even the best critics will get palate fatigue,” Massoud explained.
One of the Paumanok standouts for Squires was its 93-point 2007 Merlot Tuthill’s Lane.
“Here, [Paumanok] makes a wonderful Merlot,” Squires wrote. “Full-bodied and caressing on the palate, this shows very fine depth, but it retains its elegance all the while.”
All in all, 23 of Kareem’s wines earned a score of 90 or more. That is more than any other winery on the Island and a remarkable achievement.
Most recently, Paumanok was named NY Winery of the Year 2015 by the NY Wine and Food Classic held in August at Watkins Glen in the Finger Lakes. This is the second time that the winery has been so honored. Its 2014 Medium-Sweet Riesling was declared best white wine in the competition. See Edible East End’s article.
Based on an interview with Kareem and Nabeel Massoud on 3 May 2011 with additions from “Sustainable Viticulture at Paumanok Vineyards,” an essay by Kareem; last updated September 15, 2018
Paumanok GPS Coordinates
North Fork of Long Island
1074 Main Road (Route 25)
P.O. Box 741
Aquebogue, NY 11931